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Using Microsoft OneNote for your Story Bible

I made a LOT of mistakes in my first few attempts to write a novel, but one of the biggest ones was failing to keep a story bible. I’d seen the concept mentioned on blogs before, but I always just kind of shrugged the idea off. After all, I read books all the time and had never had a problem keeping locations and characters straight - if I was the one inventing them it should be easier than ever, right?

Not so much.

Somewhere between the third time you’ve changed that supporting character’s name and the fifth time you’ve slightly rearranged the geography of your story world it’s pretty damn easy to lose track of things. What color eyes did I give that one character again? What was the name of that faraway city I mentioned once before? It can get messy fast. Having one file that contains all my worldbuilding, character interviews, inspiration images, and research has saved my ass uncounted times.

I’m sure there are a thousand and one ways to keep a story bible - I’ve tried three or four different methods myself. So far, the least effective one was scribbling notes on random post-its, then losing them in my purse. The most effective has been using OneNote.

Why OneNote? There are a few main reasons:

  • Sub-folder Paradise: You don’t work a day job like mine for as long as I have without gaining a healthy respect for a good folder system. OneNote has a lot of flexibility here. I like to make big, root folders for the larger elements (e.g., one for The World, one for The Characters, etc.), and then smaller, individual folders within folders for all the nitty gritty.

  • Searchable: There’s a search feature! Really, this bullet point is just me advocating for storing your information somewhere digitally rather than keeping handwritten notes. If you want to remember what color eyes you gave Mason, just search the doc for “Mason” and “eyes” and you’ll find it.

  • Flexible: You can add text boxes, of course, which is the bulk of what you’ll be doing. Photos are easy to add in as well, which is great for inspiration images. You can also draw freehand, which I find useful for drawing my own shitty maps, which helps me wrap my head around the geography of my world.

  • You Probably Already Have It: If you’re using MS Word for your drafting, you definitely already have it. It also syncs automatically with an internet connection, kind of like Google Drive, so you can open it on your phone or any computer with MS Office, which brings me to…

  • Backups, Backups, Backups: Your computer dies unexpectedly? Bag with your laptop in it gets stolen? As long as you remember your login you can still get all your OneNote files back on another computer. Phew!

  • Aesthetically Pleasing: This one’s 100% personal, because I know literally all the other features I’ve mentioned so far are also available on Google Drive. Personally, I find Google Drive to be a hideous nightmare, visually (though super useful in other ways). OneNote is just a lot prettier and feels more compact and organized.

As an avid Plotter, I usually build out the bulk of my story bible before I ever put pen to paper on my first draft. That doesn’t mean it’s set in stone, though! I have my OneNote document open the entire time I’m drafting or editing, both to reference the information that is already there, and to update or add information as the story elements inevitably evolve and change. If you’re more of a Pantser you might not even create your story bible until after the first draft is done, or you might choose to build it out as you draft. I would argue there isn’t a “wrong” way to keep track of the details in your story… unless you decide not to keep track of them at all.

What’s your favorite tool for keeping your story elements in order? Tweet me @mj_kuhn and let me know!

Also, keep an eye out for my post next week, when I will share my worldbuilding process!

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