Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Technology and the Writer

It's that time of year when I bring my tools up to current levels. When I started writing, I used a manual typewriter and sheets of carbon to create carbon copies. Then, I got into the computer field and wrote documentation using a COBOL program to format information on punch cards. A year or two later, I got one of the very first personal computers and WordStar. Technically, all I really needed was a way to print out standard text and even very simple programs could do that.

Now, I have a computer with a terabyte of hard drive space, and my needs are even simpler because I no longer need to print out manuscripts. But that didn't stop me from getting the latest software, Microsoft Office 2010, and loading it last night.

And so far, so good. I actually like it. For one thing, nothing crashed and burned when I installed it, which is a new experience for me because most of the time, while I love technology, it hates me. My only beef is that the email application, Outlook, made a new Inbox structure and took my existing Inbox and turned it into a secondary Personal Folder, including my calendar. So I have two calendars. But I didn't have that much in my calendar, so I intend to move things out of the old one and into the new one. It's an annoyance and I might have been more aggravated if I used my calendar more. I also lost my Google calendar sync because it doesn't sync yet with Outlook 2010. But I expect that to eventually happen so I'm not worried.

A few years ago I talked a bit about software specifically for writing/writers, because I found that most of it is sort of a waste of money. I've kept track of all of that and my opinions on the matter have not changed much. The only product for writing that I still use and will continue to use despite its shortcomings is Anthemion Writer's Café/Storyline because it lets me plot out each storyline in a very nice series of "index card" like snippets that I find invaluable. The shortcomings in my mind have to do with the ability to develop and keep track of characters. I "reused" characters from one story to the next, because they are often connected. For example, my Regency romantic mystery I Bid One American includes members of the Archer family. The Archers make another appearance in my newest Regency romantic mystery The Bricklayer's Helper. It's very difficult (actually impossible) to copy characters from one story framework to another. And I don't like the way character information is handled or displayed because you don't see the whole name and you can't easily establish who is related to whom and how.

So while I use Storyline to develop the plot, all the characters are developed as ideas in my PersonalBrain. This software is outstanding and is sort of a free-form way to keep track of ideas. You can link ideas in any way that makes sense to you, and you can include web links, files, etc. I use it for everything now. If I run into an interesting website, I add the link. If I think of some new concept for a book, I add it. All my characters are in there, each linked to all the books they "live in". Promotion stuff—it's in there. Frankly, I don't know how I kept track of anything before.

At one point, I tried to use OneNote to track information, but it was too confining because I still couldn't create the links I needed to view information in different ways, such as which characters are in which books, what they look like, their personalities, and development across series. I also tried using a database to track characters. Then spreadsheets. None of it worked very well. With PersonalBrain ( you can make whatever associations you need. I include things like the houses characters live in, with links to who lives in each house and which stories they appear in, so the character who is a butler in one house is still a butler in that house for the next book. It really helps with continuity.

So, I'm pretty happy with Office 2010, Writer's Café, and PersonalBrain as my trio of writing tools.

Then, to really automate my life, I got a DROID. And a handy little app that lets me walk through the kitchen and scan package bar codes to build my shopping list. If I've already thrown away the product, or need something like fresh veggies with no bar code, I just dictate it. It adds it to the list. And I can even get coupons to save some money when I go shopping. Then, as I shop, I simply click off the items as I pick them off the shelves. Sweet.

Not to mention that my DROID also caters to my hobby: birdwatching. It finally got the iBird app, although I'm still waiting for the professional version (I refuse to pay extra to be locked down and controlled by Apple, so no i-whatever electronics will be found in my house). So I'm pretty happy with technology at the moment.

Now that I have all the tools for work and play, I've got to get back to work and actually do some writing…

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