Wikis. Awesome.

So I’ve mentioned wikis a few times here, more than enough to establish my love for them, I’m sure. And since Margaret gave me an excuse, (BLAME HER) I’m going to tell you why they are made of awesomesauce

So, what is a wiki?

You’re all probably familiar with wikis. Who hasn’t gone to Wikipedia to win an argument with some obscure bit of knowledge? But online encyclopedia is only one use of a wiki. A wiki is simply a medium for storing and organizing information online through a series of interlinking, categorized, editable web pages. You can use wikis to store pretty much anything you need to, even worldbuilding.

Why Worldbuild on a Wiki? 

Like pretty much ever author ever, I love to worldbuild. When I was in highschool, I filled notebook after notebook with sprawling, amazingly detailed histories of places that didn’t exist, relationship for characters who didn’t have worlds, all kinds of neat stuff. But information written on notebooks is hardly safe. They get damaged, they were hard to search through should I ever actually want to use any of the information I’d written down, and they got lost constantly. In fact, only two survive at this point. Almost as soon as I got serious about writing, I knew I needed something better.

So I moved all my paper rambling to word documents. Here, at least, things wouldn’t get lost barring catastrophic hard drive failure. But while the medium was technically different, the problems were still the same. My worlds were broken up on hundreds of tiny, cryptically named files spread over two computers and a laptop. Things I jotted down when inspiration hit me, then saved and forgot about. I tried dumping everything in one file, but that quickly dissolved into an unmanageable mess of words piled on top of each other.

By the time I’d finished my first novel, I was done with random disorganization. I needed structure, order, and I needed it to be always accessible so stupid things like not having the right file wouldn’t slam the breaks on writing that was hard enough already.

Enter the wiki. Wikis don’t demand order, but they encourage and inspire it because it’s just so easy to be organized. I’ll start on the front page with a few large categories: characters, geography, politics, timeline, and often a category for random cool scenes I think up but don’t know where to put yet, because hey, plot is still a million miles away. Each of these categories becomes a link, an empty link that I can follow and create a new page. Now my one page wiki has six pages, and each of those six pages can spider off. Characters, for example, would have three lists right off the bat: protagonists, antagonists, and others. Each of these names becomes a link that I can click and fill in and, the best part, link to other characters. If I have a brother and sister pair, each of their pages links to the other. Same with a romantically involved couple, or a pair of moral enemies. Wikis show relationships, and for writers, that means relationships between people, organizations, places, political groups, magical schools, everything. By the time I’ve copy-pasted all my random worldbuilding from my files (because I still use word for little things, and by the time I’m ready for a wiki, I’ve often got tons of little documents in desperate need of order), I’ve got a sprawling net of interconnected pages showing the same information, only now it’s all interrelated, allowing me to trace a character’s influence through the wiki. Better still, a wiki will show you where your worldbuilding is thin. If your protagonist has a million links going off her page, but your antagonist (or worse, the love interest) only has two, then you know right there who needs a little love and thought.

Perhaps the best of all is that wikis support those random flashes of intuition. If I wake up in the middle of the night KNOWING how this guy waaaaaaay over there is somehow vital to the climax of the plot, I can fire up my laptop, log in to my wiki, and start making connections. Maybe he’s involved in the shadowy conspiracy? (Link to shadowy conspiracy) Maybe he uses this little known school of magic? (Link to school of magic). And best of all, the links don’t even have to GO anywhere! Maybe you haven’t even invented the little know school of magic, so what? Leave the link blank and fill it in later. But the wiki still shows the connection, and that’s where a wiki truly shines. It lets you connect all those disparate thoughts into an online network of easily accessible, easily editable pages. Plus (since you’re the only one using it), your wiki can be as spoiler-happy, messy, and incomplete as you want. And it doesn’t stop at text. I can add pictures, upload scans of maps, links to outside sources, anything I want. And it’s all there, all the time, accessible from anywhere that has internet, and safer than I could ever make it (the guys who run my commercial server certainly back up more than I do).

If your eyes glazed over during that wall of text, let me sum up: WIKIS: THERE IS NO LOSE!

Ok ok, Rachel, you can stop foaming at the mouth, it’s gross and disturbing. Anyway, all that sounds pretty cool, so how do I get a wiki?

Getting a wiki set up is very simple. There are tons of free ones out there, ranging from the simple to the robust, and almost all are open source. If you’re shopping around, Wikipedia provides a comprehensive list (complete with features, requirements, and links) of currently available wiki programs.

Since freeware wikis are generally made by geeks in their spare time, quality varies wildly. Personally, I like Dokuwiki because it’s easy, light, well documented, well supported, reasonably pretty, and doesn’t require any kind of database support to run. Almost all wikis require a server, because a wiki is a webpage at its heart, but some are made to run locally on your machine, meaning all you need is a computer. Of course, a local wiki wouldn’t be available online, so you’d lose some awesomeness, but it would be completely free, so there’s a bonus. Still, if you’re already paying for webspace, throwing up a wiki won’t cost you anything. The software is free and tiny, and even fully filled in, your wiki file is likely to be one of the smallest on your server. I have fifteen wikis hosted on my silly little cheap domain right now, and all together they take up less room then one of the portfolio downloads for my graphic arts day job.

Once you’ve found your wiki, simply follow the instructions in the readme file and you’re good to go.

If all this convinced you to at least give a wiki a try, especially if you were considering one of those overpriced writer software packages, then my work here is done. Let me know how it works out for you, and happy worldbuilding!

6 Responses to “Wikis. Awesome.”

  1. 1 mentatjack
    March 13, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    The other core technology of many wiki implementations is a version control system, so that every time you go in and update something you can easily revert back if needed. I’ve always had in my mind that a wiki’s strength was in the community collaboration aspect, and the simple combination of web server, version control and file management that enable it all. It’s neat to see someone harnessing that for solo world building.

  2. March 13, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    I’ve been playing around with a Wiki for the 100K universe stuff, but I find that the creation phase is so time consuming that it doesn’t help. Easier to just flip back and look at whatever item I’m trying to remember.

  3. 3 rachelaaron
    March 15, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    I don’t actually use the version control system, because this is my world where I am god, and I can discard my mistakes with no proof they were ever there.

    I think the root of my love of wikis comes from how, at least for me, they provide order to what is by nature a disorganized process. Wikis aren’t linear, and they don’t care if huge spaces are blank. They do show you where your blank spots are, though, and that makes them worth their printed weight in gold for me.

  4. 4 mlronald
    March 17, 2009 at 11:57 am

    This sounds really, really cool and a fun way to keep track of worldbuilding. I’m not sure it’d work for the projects I’ve already started — although taking a few days to enter all the data I already have would provide some great procrastination methods — but I wonder if I should start doing this for nascent projects.

    Where I’ve seen it used before is in a collaborative setting — a Lexicon game,, specifically. The results of that have been really beautiful and unexpected.

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