7 Tools I Use to Organize My Stories

Efriend Sacha Black interviewed author Jillian Davis and asked about the tools she used to build her story. Sacha wasn’t asking whether she used a computer or pen-and-paper, rather what literary tools-such as character profiles and timelines. I found myself nodding my head over every one Jillian mentioned.

But I wonder how many people use the sort of tools I do. When you Google pictures of writers, you often get something like this:


…or this:


I’m more this:


Let me share my writer’s tools and tell me if you do the same:


I pre-draft in a spreadsheet. It’s about a dozen columns and hundreds of rows. I often rearrange the rows as a plot point changes and add rows to enhance detail. When I’m done with this pre-draft, I convert the spreadsheet to text and start the editing process.

Here’s what it looks like:

pre-draft a novel

Character profiles

I fill out an extensive questionnaire on each character. I want to get to know the traits, motivations, interests that each of their friends or family would know about them. Invariably, it proves inadequate as the story unfolds and I end up looking at events through their eyes to answer the question, “What would my character really do in this situation?”

Here’s an example:

character profiles


I build this in Excel/Google Sheets so I can make it as detailed as possible. When I’m trying to find a character’s activity, I Ctrl+F (see my yellow highlights for ‘Zeke’) to find their name! Truth,it’s most beneficial when I’m setting it up as it clarifies actions and points out temporal problems. Once it’s established, it almost becomes cumbersome to use.

story time line

Support Materials

This is information I’ve collected while researching for my story. Sometimes, it’s the entire bit; other times, just a link. For my current story, it’s so long, I had to add a Table of Contents with internal links to the sections so I could find what I was looking for. A simple Ctrl+F search returned too long a list.

Here’s what it looks like for To Hunt a Sub:


Google Earth map

This was to track my character around the world as the story progressed. Often, I needed detail like:

  • How long did it take to get from Point A to Point B (I measured with Google Earth’s ruler
  • What’s around Point C (I zoomed in on Google Earth)
  • Where was a geographic location that fits the needs of the story (for example, I was looking for a North Korean sub base–found it, thankfully in a spot that worked for my story)
  • Needed the latitude and longitude of a location (Google Earth grid lines provide that

Here’s a screenshot of the Korea geographic activity in my story, mapped in Google Earth:

Google Earth for writing


So I can visualize what’s going on. Here are some I’ve used:


I keep all the cuts from my story in case I change my mind. That happens more than I’ll admit to. For To Hunt a Sub, it’s 11 pages, size 10 font:

novel cuts

How about you? How do you plan and write your story?

More on writing a novel:

Plotting with a Spreadsheet

How to Write a Novel

7 Reasons For and Three Against Critique Groups

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. 


52 thoughts on “7 Tools I Use to Organize My Stories

  1. Pingback: 7 Tools I Use to Organize My Stories | Assorted of Interest and Interesting

  2. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    Everyone has their own technique.It’s helpful to see what works for others. It’s possible something they’re doing might help you also. I’m still working on the outline for my class assignment. Since I have the whole story in my head, an outline should be easy. Then why am I stuck on it?


  3. Jacqui, I am more than impressed with your organizational abilities. I did a lot of outlining with my first novel, but now I’m finding I prefer pantsing for the sequel. What I wonder though, is if I should have stuck with the former plan. Hmmm, time will tell!


  4. Wow I am amazed at the work you do Jacqui. I am taking the Holly Lysle course on editing a novel I can understand why we need to do all this now and have learned some great tips. I also wrote a contract and posted it near my laptop. My contract with my reader, Holly has a great list of points to remind me what I have promised my them, it helps to look at it when I am editing.


      • She has an interesting coding system for when you put your draft through triage. We are not allowed to touch the manuscript through most of the course. I love it but I can’t compare it to anything because it is the first editing course I have ever done Jacqui.


  5. All those details! I would be a basket case if I worked like you do. The feeling of being overwhelmed would do me in. Obviously, I don’t use spreadsheets. I make summaries and questionnaires.


  6. Fascinating 🙂

    I do much the same, but with the help of a writer’s program (Liquid Story Binder, in my case). Some authors I know have question these programs are of any use, soem told me they couldn’t use them.
    Well, i suppose this is different for each one of us, and of course, it depends a lot on how you use the tool, but for me it’s invaluable. I have all my info in one place, organised in a easy-to-use fashion. And yeah, years ago I probably would have not use one of these either, but now that I’m working on a trilogy and I have tons of material to organise, LSB has been a time saver for me. And above all an invaluable organisational tool.


    • I used to do that, but the outline got too detailed. I tried color coding plot points I needed to follow up, but it got too colorful. I find myself forgetting things if I don’t get them down on paper!


  7. Wow. Just wow! I bow to your organisational skills 😀 I’m not much of a planner, so don’t do much of the pre-stuff. I do the character profiles, but I still have stuff pinned to my notice board, scribbled on my whiteboard. I’m trying to use the PC – for writing as well as organising. I’ll find my balance sooner or later!


  8. Oh My ..the mind boggles..mine anyway…I just write…I was starting to think maybe I should be writing some thoughts down but this…I am in awe..will I ever ..be as organised or plan like this who knows ..not me…It’s a great article but scary ..for me… 🙂


  9. Wonderful organizational system. I do much the same, only I use Scrivener. I like how it’s all in one place there, even my research files and links. I also love the screenshot option so I can take a ‘picture’ of my scene and then rewrite it without having to worry I’ve typed over the earlier version. The snapshot saves it in a side panel for me so I can refer back to it if necessary.


    • It IS unique, though probably works for very few. The important part is I’ve tried other methods and always come back to this. I bet most people (with the exception of D.Wallace above) would find it cumbersome and unworkable. And I probably would fail using their method. Sigh.


  10. Oh my! I’m such an amateur! Stories often come in dreams, in the meditative state that comes with painting walls, or out of a conversation on a news item. (or an combination of the above) I hand write it up quickly in a journal book. In the back of that same book I describe the ‘props’ needed for the story–often the characters artwork, sometimes the layout for significant locations, or even backstory on the characters. Then I wait for November (NaNoWriMo) and I write like hell for a month–doing internet research as needed along the way. By the end of November, whether I’ve reached the 50,000 word goal or not, I have enough of a story down and care enough for the characters that I will finish, later, at a saner, more leisurely pace.(with internet research and chapter outlines dashed off, identifying chapter objectives and “things to prove” along the way.


    • The way you find your stories and plots is how I imagined I would, before I started writing. You have a good process–with a beginning, middle, and ending. Mine never ends. I just keep editing.


      • Editing is a necessary evil. Nothing is ready, the first time through. In fact, the known fact of editing frees me up to write, pell mell, knowing I’ll catch the junk later. I go through it a few times more after the draft and then hand it to my editor. I am blessed with an editor who changes my words without ever undermining my meaning. Editing for the sake of it (or being stuck in it) looks like an anxiety disorder to me–the fear of releasing the story to the unforgiving hordes. Admittedly, in the middle of editing, it feels never-ending. It may be that the stand-alone act of editing is a form of mental illness–the crazy pond into which we all must take a dip, but don’t want to do laps there.


  11. Wow, Jacqui! This was validating to read. When I tell people that I outline and build timelines in spreadsheets, they think I’m crazy. It seems so antithetical to the creative process. I do all your steps except Google Maps. Since I write fantasy, I don’t need to accurately locate places on Earth. However, I do make a detailed map with a map-making program in order to get a good sense of topography and distances. I answer my character profile questions in Word, but then keep a spreadsheet summary for quick reference (I forget which hand is missing a finger). Finally, I keep an active spreadsheet for general details – words I make up, magical powers, names of horses, ships, taverns – all the little details that I need to refer back to. I enjoyed the post – Thanks.


  12. Well, I’m amazed and impressed at the work behind your writing, and the grasp of various tools and platforms it implies. I can see I’m badly out of the loop here. My system is either to wake up in the middle of the night and go “Ah yes” or walk along the tow path in the morning and mutter something very similar before getting down to tapping at the keyboard. I’m sure this is not the only method, and the sales figures on my books suggest it may not be the most effective one, but given my lack of technical expertise, it is probably all I’m up to at the moment 🙂


  13. This is excellent. I work much like you but with about one tenth of the organisation you bring to it. Like you, I use spreadsheets. What I’m not good at is converting them into a word document. I also find that the few screenshots I have used have poor resolution, but that may be down to me. For research I use Evernote to store relevant webpages.


    • It’s a tad tricky. You copy the cells; paste into a Word doc. They become a Word table. Then select the table and go to Layout>Convert to text.

      Now all I do is clean up the result.

      I like Evernote, too, though I find a simple Word doc easier because it’s more accessible. I think that’s because I haven’t used Evernote enough for that purpose.


  14. Very helpful advice here, Jacqui! I struggle with the tools, so these suggestions are appreciated. Regarding the plotting sheet, do you manage to complete this prior to starting your first draft, or do you keep updating it as you go along?


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