On Writing: Using Scrivener To Manage Multiple Threads in Narrative History

This morning when I did my regular pass though my Facebook Page, I paused at the “Scrivener Tip of the Day.

Scrivener is writing software that I use for nearly all my work these days. It’s far to complicated to describe in a few sentences, but you can read about here. For this discussion, just think of it as a combination word processor and file manager with a suite of tools to help organize complicated writing tasks.

One of the appeals of Scrivener is that a novice can figure out the basics in a few minutes and go to work, leaving the advanced features for later.  That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve learned enough about the program to find it very useful, but I still have a lot to learn.  That’s why I always check out the Tip of the Day.

Often the tip is something I already know; often it’s about a feature that I think I’d never use, and sometimes—like today—it provides a solution to a problem that’s been vexing me for weeks.

Today’s tip is by British crime novelist David Hewson, who explains how he uses Scrivener to keep track of the things as he writes a novel based on a Danish murder mystery broadcast by the BBC 4 as a television series, “The Killing.”  I’m sure there are major differences between Hewson’s work on a novel based on a TV series and my narrative history on events that happened in Yellowstone Park more than 130 years ago. But his post describes a problem that parallels one that I’ve been working on: how to keep track of a story that has several distinct threads.

Hewson’s story has three separate threads:

  • A crime story about the pursuit of a killer.
  • A family story about couple struggling to come to grips with a tragedy.
  • A political story about a man’s effort to become mayor of Copenhagen.

My book, which I’m calling Encounters in Yellowstone, has even more threads:

  • The Nez Perce Indians’ story of fleeing their homeland in Washington and Idaho in hopes of making a new life in the buffalo country of the Montana plains.
  • The Army under General O.O. Howard who pursue the Nez Perce across three states.
  • The Radersburg Party of tourists who have one of their members shot and left for dead, two women taken captive, and several fleeing through the wilderness.
  • The Helena Party of tourists who have two of their members killed in blazing gun fights with the Indians.

In addition, Encounters will have several compact stories that are contained in single chapters.  These include stories of other army units that hunted for and fought the Nez Perce, settlers who were attacked and robbed, and scouts who scoured the wilderness looking for the Indians.

Hewson describes how he uses Scrivener’s tools for labeling files, sorting them, and creating collections to keep track of various threads.  (You can see his blog post for the details.)

Once threads have been assembled in collections, they can be viewed separately to check  for such things as completeness, continuity and style.  Two collections can be viewed simultaneously to check for transitions.  If any problems are spotted, they can be edited on the spot.

I’ve posted here before about the problems of keeping things straight while writing a narrative history with a several  threads involving a large number of people.

I said in that post “My job is to analyze the accounts of these people—and of dozens of others—and sift out the truth. Then I’ll try to put the whole thing together in a coherent whole. To do that, I’ll need to look for places where the various viewpoints converge and diverge, overlap and separate, compliment and contradict.”

Hewson has described how to use Scrivener to help solve those problems.  I’m grateful for his advice and look forward to giving it a try.


One thought on “On Writing: Using Scrivener To Manage Multiple Threads in Narrative History

  1. Pingback: On Writing: From Blog to Book with Scrivener | M. Mark Miller

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