The Right Tools

Some people obsess over books about writing, some distract themselves with tips lists, or blogs, or irrelevant media. I distract myself from writing by worrying about tools.

I like tools. I have spent a large chunk of my programming career writing tools, whether for me or others to use. And there have been a couple of times in my writing where I have focussed on the tool that I don’t have rather than the writing that I’m not doing.

The first time this happened was when I had an idea for a story called Ships of the Desert. The premise was that of a world where the Mediterranean Sea had not formed: there was a vast desert rather than a sea – the mightiest of deserts, what the Sahara would be with no pesky water in the way. The consequence was that the coastal cultures around the Mediterranean never formed, and the Euro-Afro-Asian land mass was dominated by Viking peoples in the North, and Afro-Asian peoples to the South and East. The eponymous ships were low-friction skiffs used to navigate the trackless wastes of the desert.

This was a promising enough idea, and I had a lot of fun doing research on Scandinavian and Native American* cultures, but I ran into the problem of not knowing how to organise my notes. I hit upon the idea of a database cum hypertext editing tool. I even started writing this tool (called DataFrame), but this was in 1990 or so with no Internet available to me so I never got very far. In fact, I’ve never quite found anything that does what I wanted then, although wikis come close. The upshot was that I ended up with half a text editor and some scraps of novel ideas scattered across a few text files.

Hankering for the tool killed the writing.

I am struggling with a similar hankering now. I want to draw diagrams that I can use to describe relationships between characters, events, locations, and other story components. I want diagrams which expose the relationships but allow me to add metadata attached to the diagram elements: what I want is a UML-like diagramming tool, but for story rather than software.

Now, there is an open source tool called Dia which supports creating custom shapes that can support exactly this kind of metadata. It doesn’t run on my Mac since its version of OS X is too elderly, but that’s just a matter of an upgrade and then I could define the shapes and draw the diagrams and…

But no. Not now.

What I am going to do is write this in a spreadsheet or a database app of some kind, probably just a spreadsheet in the first instance, just to get the ideas down.

Because the story is more important than the tool.

Addendum: Scapple (from the Scrivener folks) looks quite promising for the kind of loose diagramming I want, but not sure it supports the hidden notes part. Worth a try at some point, but again it needs OS X 10.6 to run.

[*] don’t ask.

One Reply to “The Right Tools”

  1. This happened with me, in a different way. I write on the web, and I wanted to write a hypertext story where links would change destination based on where the reader had already been.

    Very doable with PHP, but the coding started to ovewhelm the writing, and I just did it on a blog instead (there are some segments which are in there more than once, to create the multiple path through the story). I had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of all the paths, but that was pretty simple (and I’d have had to do that anyway).

    I talked about the story here:

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