software

Jenn Lyons' "The Ruin of Kings", and the Challenges of Worldbuilding

The Ruin of Kings, a debut fantasy novel by Jenn Lyons, will be released next month. A free “extended preview” is available through Amazon, and I plunged into it recently. Immediately I was struck by the richness of the fantasy world Lyons has created.

I’ve posted a number of times about the challenges of worldbuilding. The new world an author introduces a reader to can be fantastic, but it must be credible. And to be credible, a certain degree of detail is needed. How people live, dress, eat, speak. Customs, culture, religion, government. Systems of magic, pantheons of gods, hierarchies of evil. But too quick an immersion into worldbuilding details can overwhelm a reader. Too many names, places, relationships may be introduced too quickly. Confusion on the part of the reader is a danger to be avoided.

But one can hardly expect a reader to absorb all the details and keep them straight if the author doesn’t! So authors develop all kinds of systems for structuring the details and managing them, especially as the details morph and evolve as a story is written. Lyons explains in a recent post on the TOR.com website that she uses a personal wiki. People, places, things, they all have an entry.

As I’ve been working on the sequel to my own debut fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri, I’ve tried to manage the worldbuilding using Evernote, even going so far as to create an Evernote template that looks like a wiki page. Evernote was an obvious choice for me because I am a heavy user of the software. But I’m going to try out the system Lyons uses, and see if it offers benefits.

Putting Your Brain on "TheBrain"

If you’re like me, there is too much in life to keep up with, too many things to remember, too many things I’d like to do. I offload tons of information into Evernote (a future topic). Many people use other software tools to create their own personal knowledge base for holding what they know and what they have learned. When you use a personal knowledge base you explore it, using a graphical user interface, to find pieces of knowledge and see what other knowledge is related, and you curate it, meaning, you add new knowledge, remove outdated knowledge, and make connections between related knowledge.

One available tool for creating, exploring, and curating a personal knowledge base is “TheBrain.” The reigning king of TheBrain users is Jerry Michalski. His knowledge base contains hundreds of thousands of bits of knowledge gleaned over a period of 21 years. (See Jerry’s Brain on the web for a look at his knowledge base as well as useful video tutorials.)

Few people will want or need to build a knowledge map as large as Jerry’s. But getting started is easy. Constructing a knowledge map is as simple as adding little bits of information (nodes) and linking them into a network of relationships. Each node in TheBrain is referred to as a “thought.” Thoughts can have “parent” thoughts, “child” thoughts, and “jump” thoughts (related thoughts not fitting a parent or child classification). The resulting network looks hierarchical but does allow connections to loop back around. The user interface shows the current thought in the middle of the screen, its linked parent thoughts above, its linked child thoughts below, and the jump thoughts to each side.

I first used TheBrain many years ago when I transferred into a new job in my company and found I had much to learn and organize. This included everything from new acronyms to new faces to new concepts. I retired from that company and quit using TheBrain, but I recently came back to TheBrain (version 10) and decided to test its usefulness for my personal needs. Below are some of my observations.

Dynamic vs static knowledge. TheBrain is best for knowledge that doesn’t change. Maintaining a knowledge base is more difficult if the knowledge is dynamic instead of static. For example, keeping track of which employee is in which part of a changing organization would constitute managing dynamic knowledge. It is not easy to rearrange knowledge in TheBrain or to make extensive edits to reflect new understanding.

Visualization. While TheBrain provides a visual interface to the knowledge you put into it, you really have very little control over how things are visualized. At any given time, you can only see a very small part of your network of knowledge. You can not, for example, see the parents of the parent thoughts, or see that a series of connections link several thoughts in a cycle.

There are other tools for visualizing knowledge, including CMapTools and Freeplane, and diagramming tools such as yEd from yWorks and Visio from Microsoft, that give the user significant control over the visualization. A flowchart, a common representation of knowledge where the shape of the icons are related to what’s in the icon, can’t be depicted with a tool like TheBrain. With many of the other tools, as a user you can set up a process for using the shape of a node, the color of a node, or the type of line connecting two nodes as a means of encoding information. Other common representations, like organization charts, are more easily built with tools other than TheBrain. It all depends on what you, as the user, are trying to accomplish.

Types and tags. Just as with many photo organization tools you can tag your photos (family, vacation, Christmas 2018), you can tag nodes in TheBrain. You can also assign a “type” to a node (e.g., book, person, organization, country). You can look at a list of nodes that have a given tag or type. A small tag (like a price tag) on a node indicates it has been tagged, and you can see what that tag signifies by hovering the mouse over the tag symbol.

Types of relationships among the thoughts (nodes). While links between nodes in TheBrain can be given a type, TheBrain is not really suited for depicting things like cause-effect relationships in a knowledge map.

Selecting a tool for a personal knowledge base depends on many things, including what you plan to put into the knowledge base and how you expect to use it. I hope to gather more information on these tools and share that information on this website in the future.

Endorsements!

It occurs to me if rock stars can list the manufacturers of their favorite guitars, drums, guitar strings, etc. in the liner notes of a CD, and NASCAR drivers can post who makes their brakes, their engine parts, their tires, etc., maybe I can gather some endorsements if I list who makes my favorite writing tools!

Author Mark E. Lacy uses:

Pentel Energel pens
generic composition notebooks
Oberon Design composition notebook leather tooled cover

Microsoft Surface Pro 4
ViewSonic monitors
Microsoft Office: Word and Excel
Evernote software
Google search engine
Firefox web browser

My wife would tell me … “don’t hold your breath, honey.”
Yeah, I know, it doesn’t work this way.