Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Speaking of Writing Software…

It's true that I'm a computer geek so some of the new Microsoft programming environments are just dead sexy, and sure, only a small percentage of writers use a Microsoft operating system on their computer, much less have upgraded to VistA, or have any interest what-so-ever in anything to do with Microsoft technologies, but I get an RSS feed (another techie-geek thing) from this guy: Tim Sneath who has been talking about Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), Silverlight, and some of the new web stuff and he mentioned this bunch of guys at Vertigo who created this supercool application that I found to be useful for writers. At the moment, it's free.

It's even useful for non-writers.

It's called Family.Show and it's a fantastic graphical genealogy program. I've been fumbling around with it and it is one of those serendipitous things that right at the moment when I was editing some of my manuscripts for submission (Yay! The Wild Rose Press asked for a partial!) I found exactly the program I needed for free. You see one thing I've been doing as a writer is creating a community of characters for my Regency novels. Many of the characters are related and what with one thing or another, I've been losing track of birth dates, physical traits, etc. I've used everything from MS Word documents to spreadsheets to a character database and it was just too difficult because I couldn't keep all the relationships straight. So I had been thinking of using a genealogy program to do it and voila! I get an RSS feed from Tim Sneath on exactly the same day when I realized I needed a genealogy program and guess what? The fabulous guys at Vertigo released this super-easy freebie program to show how WPF works (you can even download the source code—I mean how cool is that? — okay, I warned you that I'm a computer geek).

Here is what I really like about this, as opposed to all the other programs out there on the market. Besides the fact that it is free, of course.

You have little humanoid characters with lines and dates showing the relationships of the people (characters) you input, PLUS you can add pictures! PLUS you can add text (they call it "the person's story") where you can describe things like physical traits, etc. I've been adding at least the following:

  • Eye color, hair color, distinguishing marks
  • Personality type, dominate traits, bad habits, and general motivation: what makes this person do what they do
  • Major issues
  • Speech habits, pet phrases, etc.
This is just so cool because so many genealogical programs just don't have these free-form text areas and ways to include pictures. It is just so perfect for a writer developing their "stable of characters".
Here are pictures of what I have for Oriana Archer, the character in the manuscript just requested by The Wild Rose Press.
As you can see, I visualized Oriana sort of like the actress Gene Tierney with the really sexy overbite.

If you click on the [Photos & Stories] button, you can add all the information about that character you could ever possibly want (as I show in the next image).
You see—here's the thing. I've used a lot of other software, including writing software which lets you drone on about characters all you want. Some of it even lets you add pictures or whatever.
But what was always missing was the graphic representation of the relationships and that's where genealogy software comes in handy. I'm not saying you have to use this software—even if it is tres chic. What I am saying is that sometimes, when you're developing your characters, the family relationships are important and finding a way to track those relationships can be a challenge.
One note: I'm not sure how long this stuff will stay free, which is why in addition to saving all my characters genealogy in Family.Show "format", I'm also saving it in the standard GEDCOM format which is used by a lot of genealogy programs. That way, if it ever comes down to the wire and I have to buy a real program, I can hopefully import all of my information.
There is one other point I wanted to make about all of this. I really like creating an entire world in my manuscripts—which in my case is a world set during the Regency period in the early years of the 19th century. But this is also done by Science Fiction writers, e.g. Frank Herbert's DUNE series, Andre Norton's Witch World books, and romance writers like Jennifer Crusie in some of her contemporary romances. Kristina Cook's Regency Historicals also have related characters.
The point is that readers seem to enjoy stepping into this world created by the author and peopled with characters who really do have relationships and family trees. It becomes a real world and readers respond to that. If they like the characters, they enjoy reading about the character's brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, cousins, aunts and uncles. It makes it more interesting and gives the characters more depth, but it also means keeping better track of traits, especially personality traits, so that you don't take a feisty optimist and turn her into a shy pessimist in subsequent novels.
That's where it's really handy to have some way, be it index cards or some cool new program, to keep track.
Anyway, enough for tonight. Enjoy and may all your wishes come true!


Anonymous said...

Cool post, Amy - thanks for sharing.

I commit to you that this application will remain free; it's not time-bombed and if anything we'll come out with enhanced versions. Obviously we weren't thinking of book authors as the primary audience for this application, but I get a huge kick out of knowing that it's been useful for you!

Take care,

Tim Sneath

Amy said...

Oh my GOSH! I can't believe you responded -- I am so unworthy!

And I'm so glad to learn that the little Family.Show applet will remain free. It is just an amazing application and really shows the power of some of these new technologies. And of course, since writers tend to be pathetically poor (or maybe that's just terminally cheap) finding such useful things can really help. Particularly when it's just one of those "nice to have, but not critical" components that let you work more efficiently.
Oh, my - I'm still shocked and I totally LOVE my RSS feed from you, Tim.
I don't care what anyone says about you guys there at Microsoft--you're okay by me. ;-)
Oh, and I'm waving madly at the folks at the Charlotte campus -- Hey from a fellow NC-er!

(Oh, I don't suppose Microsoft would care for an indepth and potentially amusing article about the admincount attribute and the impact it can have on a large organization of over 250,000 users who have largely ignored good administrative practices and are now trying to straighten up and fly right, and are pretty much keeping me busy trying to clean up permissions after everyone has done the most egregious things...Sheesh. Some days it is just not WORTH being an Enterprise Admin--no matter how sexy the title is. I think I may be one of maybe 5 people in the entire U.S. who actually have a handle on what the admincount attribute is, how it gets triggered, and what happens as a result when you have bad admin practices. And did you know it can affect computer objects, too? Of course I only know that because like I said, I deal with a lot of marginally [in]competant admins.)

Wow - okay writers - ignore that last bit -- totally unrelated to writing, but I had to get it off my scrawny chest. It's been sort of bugging me lately.

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