Best practices for tracking characters, locations and timeline etc. in a novel?

Are there best practices to use Obsidian.md to track characters, locations and timeline when writing a novel?

It would be marvelous to have facilities, e.g., for finding which characters are present at a certain time in a certain location, or to get a timeline list of events occurring at one or more locations. All of which would be updated automatically based on information entered into Obsidian, such as specific tags.

As I am pretty sure that I am not the first one thinking about this use-case, I’d be grateful for any pointers.

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Hello Gnorr; I don’t think there is any united body that has come together to share what best practices are. Instead for writers there is in my experience a hodgepodge of solutions centered around a writer’s individual needs. Then writers share what they used that best helped them and we can take what we need and throw away what we don’t.

Basic Techniques

On the most basic and powerful level most writers are simply utilizing an:

  • ==organization structure== or framework of their choice (popular choice being IMF and PARA)
  • combined with ==linking notes==
  • ==tags== (which are used for statistic trackers)
  • ==templating== for making Scenes and data inputting easy,
  • and ==plugins== or ==custom-code**==.**

Org. Structure / Linking / Tags

If they are using Obsidian to plot events then they might have a folder for plots with each plot event, and/or a single file containing plots as an ‘index’ with those plot events linked.

If they are using it to replace Scrivener, Ulysses Writing App, or some other distraction free writing tool. Then the process is similar. Except instead of plot events, they’re tracking each scene in it’s own file, linked to previous scenes. Scenes are then organized based on the Organization structure that the writer chose.

They also may utilize Obsidian as a Story Bible or Knowledgebase for their knowledge, and this follows the same structure of what the majority appear to be using it for, just for writers, it’s filled with all writing topics.

This same technique can be easily retrofitted for your time and location tracking request. You just need to decide your organization structure. For example, create an index containing a timeline of events, and then add events to that timeline as links, and then add your tags. Do the same with place and location. Then create your scenes and drop these tags or backlinks into your folder.

Templating

Use ==‘templating’== to create quick scene templates which structure your writing scene, so that at the bottom there is a header that will include time, place, location settings at the bottom, and so on.

Plugins

Writers may use ==plugins== like Kanban or better word count to track statistics and help organize or storyboard. Many people suggest plugins like Kanban, Mind Maps, and other awesome tools; but they either have a learning curve, require I adjust my note taking structure (just another new thing to learn), or weren’t being updated or communicative enough when resolving problems. Sometimes the plugins were glitchy. Sometimes the plugins worked fine but they were limited or required too much typing in contrast to just linking to a mind map from my dedicated mind mapper.

Based on what you’ve told me the things you want to do can easily be done with just linking / templating / tagging and proper organization structures.

Advanced Techniques

The power of Obsidian is that it can shapeshift to fit your needs. The downside of Obsidian is that the more nuanced your needs are the more skill or time you will need to code it to fit you, or reliance on plug-ins with inconsistent support and an added security risk.

Other than looking through plug-ins to figure out what you need (and hoping those plug-ins are supported and remain supported and making a github account to contact those users if something bad happens) – your next best option is to code what you need. I’m currently excited to explore the power of Mermaids to replace my writing diagrams and family trees, and there is a mindmapping app in Obsidian that I personally find limited coming from Freeminds and Xminds.

I’m finding using tables to be a hassle outside of Evernote and Word; but I’m also familiar with writing long sprawling tables with HTML which Obsidian can handle (arguably much better than markdown which is super limited). For managing ‘tables’ I find creating templates with the tables I want and then filling them in is easier for me to deal with than trying to write tables from scratch each time.

Custom Snippets

I’m finding that for me to get Obsidian to do what I want it to do as a writing tool, I have to tinker with code and learn or refactor pre-existing plugins which is a time sink, but worth it once set-up. If you have even a bit of coding ability or willingness to tinker to get what you want, then you can set it up to do what you want the way you want it.

Check out Snippets (How to Achieve Snippets), (Snippets). You activate snippets like plug-ins except in the appearance section. You can also install themes that have features you want, the take out only the bits you want and add it as a snippet (you can also find them prewritten, I just haven’t done that yet). I’m working on my own crap at the moment to streamline things that I need as a writer, that is apparently really niche. Tinkering isn’t hard for simple shit, but it gets more complicated, the more complex what you want to do becomes, and there is a learning curve.

If you get really comfortable tinkering you could probably write game and story engines for your novel and have them run in Obsidian . Sorry I got carried away.

Learning Obsidian’s Strengths and Limitations

I’m still learning what Obsidian can and can’t do for me based on my needs – Learning it’s limitations in each realm of knowledge that I have is still trial and error for me, but what it can do is powerful and a lot. I think you too will need to do the same, which can only be done by building your stories or plots in Obsidian and hitting walls and going through the process of finding work-a-rounds for them (deciding if it’s a hassle or not).

Obsidian is like the swiss army knife of writing tools. But sometimes you just need a damn hammer !

Summary

Pick your Organization structure => link your notes => create a tagging system => add tags => throw in some snippets and/or plugins => watch magick happen.

Some potential community plugins you might find useful for managing your story:

  • Better Word Count
  • Obsidian Charts
  • Paste URL into selection
  • Tracker
  • Calendar*

Potential core plugins you might find useful are things like:

  • Word count
  • Tag Pane
  • etc. (I don’t know what Obsidian’s default is, I just went and turned on core plugins I wanted that weren’t active)

Hopefully that write-up helped you and wasn’t useless “I know this already” stuff, but genuinely writer to writer, this has been my own discovery.

Resources (off the top of my head)

-((Look into using Obsidian to track statistics, and that might also give you more useful info.))

Workflow for Writers - Obsidian thread made by Mediapathic contains a .zip called Obsidian Workflows, and Workflow 06 Writing Fiction with Obsidian, discusses one technique that is at least used by Mediapathic.

Fantasy Fiction Writing Using Obsidian- 1 hour video about how these writers use Obsidian. Which is basically a 1 hour video saying organize your notes, link and tag, and here is the plugin used by author.

IMF Organization structure-

Reddit “How do you organize your notes”-

YT: How to organize your notes-

YT: Comparing writing tools to Obsidian-

Sweetsetup How they use Obsidian for Writers-

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This is an excellent and very generous summary @Xnyxzyxk – thank you for posting. Definitely bookmarking your post and extracting it for inclusion in my tips vault.

Thanks RoyRogers, I’m really glad it helped. TBH I didn’t think anyone would find my post of value, so I left out a lot of things that I wish now I had added.

I just wanted to ‘edit’ my post to add some details and some extra things that I didn’t add but wanted to at the risk of appearing excessive (couldn’t find the edit button so I made a new post). Here are the below edits and extra thing I wanted to add:

Edit #1 - Folder =>Indexes

I meant to write: you can create your scenes and drop these tags or backlinks into your your index file of choice (such as plot index, scene index, timeline index, etc.). I label my Indexes for easier search functions, and place them in a folder related to that index, but that’s one way out of the many I’ve seen!

Edit #2 - Summary => Template

I forgot to add templating into the summary, and wanted to share some links that I wanted to add but didn’t:

How to use Templates in Obsidian (DRY) - this one was the one that helped me the most when I first learned templating, because it taught me how to do templates.

Templating resources- Some templates from github.

And many more in the community!

Edit # 3 - Just Examples

I’m still exploring templates and categorizing my tags and statistic methods, but a basic template set-up might look something like:

# {{title}} //example "Scene 1" > Scene 2 > Scene 3, etc.

## Chapter X 


Your Story Here


---
#### Tags / Stats
#time #place #charactersInScene #act1 #climax #etc.

#### PreviousScene and nextScene
[previousScene] [nextScene]

#### Index
[linkToIndex]

####anyOtherCategories, etc.

Example folder structure (random):
Book 1 > Act 1 > Scene 1.md
Characters > Book 1 > CharacterName.md (template)
Worlds > etc.
Timelines > Timeline Index.md (etc)
Book Index.md

Tags Tip

Try to keep your tags reigned in and strictly curated / consistent. They can get messy. I rely on links and backlinks but my tags are colour coded/highlighted using CSS Snippets I snagged from a theme and then customized to fit my needs.

Rearrange your default Panels and explore Workspaces

Another Tip: Rearrange the default Panels / Workspaces
As of late I haven’t heard many people speak about this (but then I’m also new and only been around for 3-4 days), but you can rearrange Obsidian panels, tabs and pin things in every imaginable combination possible and then save them as workspaces. You can even pull tabs out of the panes and merge them altogether or separate them into their own panes.

Structure your panels, so it shapes to what you need.
I’m so used to the inflexibility of traditional notetaking apps, so, the moment I discovered I could move things around and save user states /workspaces in Obsidian… was the moment I actually switched to Obsidian as a tool.

Example workspace/ panel set-up:

  • “Writing To do list” pinned to the right side, but it could easily be a “Plot Tracker”, a “Time Tracker” or a link to those things, or a combination.
  • In the middle is my writing document, and then on the left side can split into two sections.
    • At the top is Open Graph View (visual nodes) and
    • at the bottom (beneath it) are organization panes, (you can drag the tag panes, outlines, and other things of interest into that left bottom pane, so you can easily click between file structure, tags, and outlines).

Another workspace:

  • Live Preview on Left Side
  • Read Mode on Right Side
    So you can see your story’s print mode at the same time as your live preview (they don’t scroll at the same time though)

More Resources

workspaces and Pane layouts in Obsidian) -

automating the workspace’ - it shows how complex or simple it can be.

YT Obsidian Workspaces-

More tips for Tag vs. Page management- Obsidian forum where they discuss how they use tags vs. links and ways to manage tags.

Obsidian Daily States- (I wonder if you can retrofit it to pull up your time / location stats, I’ll have to play with that myself later)

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  • I’ve been evaluating this very topic as I may step away from Scrivener at some point. It will take a fair amount of tinkering and scripting and hacky things. We’re all different in our needs for this activity.
  • Am thinking a note for each scene, character, and location. At the top of each use yaml metadata for scene date and other data.
  • Use dataview and some of the charting plugins for visuals.
  • I’ll need a method to roll scenes up into sections and chapters at some point.
  • There is a longform writing plugin which I have not yet looked into.
  • I know at least one obsidianite that writes long form in one note and utilizes inline fields for such tracking. In his case, he has the ability to keep the entire plot in his head. This mere mortal needs to chunk it up visually.
  • What I have not delved into is how to extract finished longform out of Obsidian but I am confident it can be done.
  • I do sometimes ponder “although I can do this in a pkm, should I?” There is a rightsizing aspect to how we use these tools. But it so cool to try.
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Obsidian can also be great for keeping all the behind the scenes inspiration and references from pre-writing at your fingertips without getting in the way. Almost like folding away the levels of a list hierarchy, by creating progressively more specific notes in chain and buffering them away, the top level can stay tidy and nimble.

In my experience this didn’t happen by plan but rather necessity. Idea and inspiration overload forced the clumping and summarizing of content. This process was repeated to clump and further simplify that summary. The beauty is that these networks don’t have to respect levels as this process is repeated. So, a note might have just a very descriptive name and a few links within it. And these notes might be the same way. Fortunately, this content is very near and dear in mind so it doesn’t have to be over explained in the top ranks. Although I am talking more about the earlier less definitive stages of more loose visual writing, I believe it is important to see how little organization you can get away with to avoid cornering or circling yourself.

Compartmentalizing is great. I sure wish Live Preview was around when I started out with Obsidian. It is taking me a while to re-realize and really accept what is now possible transclusionwise. Who am I kidding? I loved experiencing and watching the features come about version by version the same way I love watching my story build around, within and through myself, regardless of how difficult it can be to overcome bad habits.

Thanks for this great Topic and the excellent Posts in response!

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Linked panes should scroll at the same time.

Angel

The NaNoWriMo thread on the forums has a bunch more discussion, but IMO, plugins are really the juice that led me to abandon Scrivener for Obsidian.

A few notes I’ve not seen mentioned - the Dataview plugin is your friend. Learn it. Once you do, you can populate scene notes, location notes, literally any note with lots of metadata. Want to know which characters are in which scenes? Dataview can help. Want to know which scenes discuss the Sword of Sundering? You can make that happen with Dataview. Which characters hail from the Gloomwood? You guessed it, Dataview!

Besides Dataview, there are some fantastic writer-focused plugins. Chief among them, for me, are the Word Sprint plugin and the Longform plugin. Check them both out in the Community plugins page.

A final plugin that isn’t quite ready for the Community page (It is under code review, I believe) but does have a Github is Novel Word Count - this is a QoL plugin that makes tracking word or even page progress super easy.

I will post more information later when I’m not at work. Hope this helps, Obsidian is fantastic for novel writers!

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Great, many thanks all for the discussions. That is a lot of stuff to follow up on :slight_smile:

Since my last post I temporarily ceased using Scrivener to experience the full writing process in Obsidian.

For me, the value is in the research, thinking, and re-casting it all into notes for the topic at hand. The initial capture of the research and my first thoughts and linking establishes a new cloud, if you will, in the vault. This process is to too rigid in Scrivener; inflexible if you will.

In my world, the next step is when I use that initial cloud to create a related essay or abstract. I create a note titled the same as the final missive. I usually create an outline at this stage to give myself an initial plan of attack; this always changes, but is useful to kick start the process.

I then build each item in the outline by adding new content and linking to existing linked and tagged data in the vault. This spew is a first draft. It creates a series of back links to existing vault data that is really nice.

This draft leaves a trail of how the existing vault data is now linked to a one off article or abstract that I’m requested to provide to the client. The client returns copy with suggestions for the final missive. Obsidian shines to this point.

In creating the final missive, I found Obsidian to be too overwhelming. The reason is distraction. My busy mind wants to dive off into tantalizing rabbit trails that usually have no relationship to the missive at hand. Scrivener shines at this point for revising and final output. I suspect over time this aspect will mature in Obsidian.

So, for the near future, I’ll settle into using Obsidian for research and drafting, but leave revising and final output in Scrivener.

Pleasant caveat - the value of information in the vault increases in both depth and breadth with each new missive request. The original research notes are never changed; their note names and initial links persist, as is. But the back linking provides additional insight that can used later for entirely different, but related reasons.