Take Notes. Watch Them Organize Themselves.

I’ve been looking for a good note-taking application for several years now.

I have a science-fiction novel idea in mind. I carry a small notebook in my pocket, and it’s just about filled up with entries on everything from the main character’s thwarted dreams to the ice moons of Saturn.

It’s just that I don’t know where anything is in it, and I’ve forgotten half of the notes already.

I’ve been looking for a program for my home computer, free preferably, that will let me collate all this information and make it easily available and refinable for the purposes of my novel. That’s what computers are for, after all. It also has to connect somehow with all the good information I’ve been squirreling away off the Interweb.

I thought maybe that I would use OneNote, the Microsoft application, but I decided that it’s really designed to be used with all the other MS Office applications, and I don’t need all that on my computer.

I don’t want to use any of the web-resident note taking and collecting opportunities like Zoho Notebook or Uber Note, because I like to back-up my material and know I’ve got everything under my control and not on somebody else’s server. And I’m not much of a collaborator.

At a certain point, the whole notion of a personal or desktop wiki, like Wikipedia for one person, seemed like it might be just what I was looking for, and I seriously considered and played with Wikidpad for a time.

I should be more clear about what I’m looking for in a note-taking apparatus. I’m not really interested in the pure outline way of keeping track of notes. I need something more chaotic and immediately referential than that, so I can leap around and follow new paths of thought. What I’m looking for is actually a note database that will allow me to search and find what I’m looking for, as well as possibly lead to unlikely conjunctions of ideas. And be able to link other material to the notes as well. And I don’t mind if the application operates in a browser as long as my data is with me.

The hyperlinks of a personal wiki, and the tags and indexes, seem well suited for this. It’s just, in the wiki style note-taking applications I tried, it all seemed a little complicated, although probably it’s not. It’s just my threshold of inconvenience is low…. I especially don’t like having to figure out the right tags for everything so I can search for them later.

My note-taking find

But finally, finally, I found the wiki application that suits me and it allows even a lazy person such as myself to build up the kind of database reference that I was imagining. I’ve begun draining into it all the weird and wonderful items I dreamed up and found along the way preserved in my trusty notebook.

It’s a TiddlyWiki derivative developed by a Christian missionary working in Mexico and created for his seminary students. But there’s nothing denominational about the application called NoteStorm.

He uses NoteStorm itself to provide an introduction to the program, and you get the application by downloading the webpage (which is not unique to NoteStorm).  [Note, July 2015: the very latest version seems to be NotestormTW reviewed here and official site here.]

What’s so good about it?

As you enter notes that create topics and subtopics (alright, there is an outline style component), you automatically create a searchable index. But the neatest thing to me is that you don’t have to tag any entries with keywords or CamelCase or that kind of thing. Every word you write is a tag, and links to all the other topics with that same word. Everything is searchable.

It’s like the author, Dave Gifford, says in the tutorial slideshow attached to the introduction: “Take notes… then watch them organize themselves.”

Text can be formatted and attachments made to your entries.

As a useful adjunct to NoteStorm, I’m also using Surfulater as a way of gathering material from the web and storing it offline. Surfulater is great with many features, but it’s not free. Another way of doing much the same thing is Local Website Archive, but without all the bells and whistles in its free version. (In addition, if you use Firefox, which is recommended for NoteStorm, you have access to the Scrapbook add-on, which has a similar function.)

Depending on how complex everything gets, I may keep the internet material separate but organized with Surfulator, or directly attach certain entries to my NoteStorm notes.

There are other wiki-like note taking possibilities out there of course that I discovered looking around.

One more directly based on TiddlyWiki is Lisa Cohen’s TiddlyWikiWrite. She calls it “an experiment in mindmapping for writers” which is also a good description of NoteStorm.

She has written a useful article in two parts about how to use a wiki for writing a novel.

But for me I just find NoteStorm more user-friendly, for some reason.

Another version of this same idea is the also free Zim. It too is a wiki but with perhaps a more friendly interface than the TiddlyWiki style of presentation. It might be alright, but I’m stuck on NoteStorm at the moment.

Who knows, any day now I might actually start writing something!

By the way, for those interested in world building, in the science-fiction or fantasy writing sense, I’ve found this an interesting and probably useful reference: Thirty Days of World Building.


Explore posts in the same categories: Internet, Writing

7 Comments on “Take Notes. Watch Them Organize Themselves.”

  1. Rick Matz Says:

    Excellent stuff! Thanks.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi there Rick,

    Thanks for stopping by…


  3. Sputnki Says:

    Hey Fencer,

    I’ve found that using DropBox in conjunction with my note taking is handy. DropBox is a central web-based storage but it sync’s to a physical location on your hard drive. So every computer I use has the same copy of the same files. It also tracks changes, so if I realise I totally messed up I can haul back the version from yesterday, or last week.

    Also for keeping track of stuff on the web, Zotero (an addin for Firefox) can’t be beat. It is designed for creating a bibiography but is so convenient for fancy bookmarking and organisation that I use it for that as well.

    Thanks also for the pointer to Zim, it looks quite promising and I’ve installed it to check it out.


  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    Good to hear from you. And thanks for the suggestions…

    Drop Box sounds valuable, especially if you have more than one computer. I’ll have to check it out.

    I have tried Zotero, but it didn’t quite click with me. I realized quite late that what I really want with note taking, especially for a big project like a novel, is a note database… Formerly I was thinking that collating web material with notes was the highest priority for me, which Zotero seems to do well in an academic style way.

    But gathering together all my hand-written notes in a network of references turns out to be what I’m keen on now…


  5. Brian Says:

    DropBox is a real good tool with data relay, i think i have to try Zotero. Nice stuff!

  6. Misha Says:

    Who would have thought it… Another writing fenncer… Or is it another fencing writer?

  7. fencer Says:

    Hi Misha,

    Thanks for stopping by… at the moment I’m more of a non-fencer non-writer…

    My trinity of physical endeavours are typically aikido, tai chi and fencing, but the only thing I’m doing much about right now is still practicing aikido.

    Got to back to the other two this winter!

    Took a quick look at your site… sounds like you have some ambitious writing projects on the go.


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