So a few months ago I got all excited and filled an entire wall of my apartment with multicolored sticky notes. It was beautiful and oh so satisfying to step back and see all of the planning I had just done. The problem was that there was no way I could make that process sustainable. It required too much paper, too much wall space, and too much time.

Sticky note wall

As I usually do, I wrote to my good friend, author of The Stars Were Right and Old Broken Road, K.M. Alexander to show off my masterwork. As he usually does, he gave me a great suggestion for a better tool. We both use Scrivener  as our primary word processor and the company who makes it also makes a helpful little gem called Scapple. It’s essentially a digital sticky note wall but with so many more great features.

Scapple Example

Sorry about obscuring the notes but I can’t go and give away my secrets now can I?

Anyway, this is just a small example of what you can do with Scapple. I’ve got the main characters on the left and I use lines to track their appearances throughout the scenes. The dark rectangles represent chapters and the stickies inside detail the general actions of each character that shows up in that chapter. I’ve also got some things going on with arrows but they are hard to see in the picture so we’ll just ignore that part.

I’m still somewhat new to the program so there is a lot I have yet to learn. Also, if you aren’t a fan of my green background, don’t worry, the default is white and you can either choose solid colors or use photos as a backdrop.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the program as its website does a great job describing its many functions.

Scapple is available from good people at Literature and Latte. It’s affordable and you can download a free 30-day trial. In this case, each day you open the program counts as one of your thirty days so conceivably you can stretch the free trial out for much more than just a month.

 

I’m not working for Literature and Latte nor am I endorsed by them. This isn’t meant to be a commercial. Their products just kick ass and have made my writing life much easier so I thought I’d spread the word. Give it a try. Or don’t.

So, you’re deep into planning your nine book epic space fantasy focusing on twelve equally important families from different planets. What’s that you say? There are divorces and adoptions, and bastards? Oh My!

How are you going to keep all that straight? How much graph paper will you burn through trying to lay out this tangled web of genetics?

The answer could be “a lot” or “none.” I swear. Here, check this thing out.

I get jazzed about ancestry both in my books and real life. It’s like a scavenger/treasure/easter egg hunt all in one. I got deep into a search of my own heritage a few months ago and found a simple, streamlined family tree website called Family Echo. It’s easy to use and does a great job of organizing your info. I’ve managed to trace one of my family lines back to the 1500’s and the program handled the volume of data just fine. It would let me go on forever if I was able to do so.

The best part is, none of the people you add have to be real. Zorkblat born on Bleetnar Prime in 6743 P.C. can fit just as nicely as Bob Jones born in Akron, OH, in 1974 A.D. There are no restrictions to the data you enter and if you sign up (free, no spam) then you can save your progress and edit as you go. Here’s a quick mock-up to give you a taste of some of the features.

 

Family Echo Demo

 

If you’re a planner or more likely an over-planner, then you need to put this baby in your digital tool belt. Check it out, have fun, and you know, if you want to write me in as the grandparent of the mistress of the cousin of the main character, I’d be okay with that.

Okay so you know the situation. Your characters are about to set out on foot for an epic journey. You want your readers to understand just how long and grueling this task will be. You want them to be able to imagine every drop of sweat, every blister, every pee break night camped out under the stars. So you sit down to calculate how backbreaking this journey will be. After five minutes of earnest trying you spend fifteen more minutes becoming red-faced and irrationally angry. Ain’ t so easy is it?

So what do you do? You say something like:

Horatio set off on a journey of many miles. His path was long and winding blah blah blah.

I’m sorry but you gave up. I understand why you gave up but still…

Or maybe you went halfway but forgot about certain rules involving time and space. For example maybe you wrote something like:

Hunky Savestheday put boot to earth, braving fifty miles of blinding snow. All through the night he plodded, exhausted and shivering, and by morning he had arrived. 

Really? Fifty miles… on foot… overnight? Maybe your story is set in a universe with cold fusion rocket boots but chances are you just didn’t do the work. The math is off and it messes with readers’ minds. At least readers like me.

Fear not! Your treacherous path can be decoded rather simply using a little tool developed by a runner.

Gmaps Pedometer Example

Gmaps Pedometer is a website using the Google Maps platform that allows runners to plot their routes along streets, hiking paths, really anywhere feet are allowed. The program automatically conforms to the bends in the road and records the distance as you add to your desired route. It uses a latitude/longitude based algorithm to accurately supply the distance for any path you can dream up. The last step is to divide your distance by the walking/running/biking/horseback riding/… speed of your character’s and *poof * you have an accurate time frame for your character’s arduous trek. A quick web search will give you average figures for walking speed ranging from 2.5 to 4 miles per hour.

And for those of you writing a Steampunk bicycle western (that’s gotta be a thing right?) there is a cycling function that steers your chosen path along only bike-worthy routes.

So now dear reader you have been equipped. Go forth before your characters go forth and make that journey accurate.