# Using Zettelkasten for Creative Writing

edited February 2019 in Writing

I've finally been reading Sönke Ahrens' "How To Take Smart Notes" (I am not that far in, but I tentatively recommend it). It is very explicitly oriented around academic and nonfiction writing, which is understandable, as that is the context in which ZK clearly shines.

It's gotten me thinking, though; ZK is very useful to me in thinking about ideas, and for writing the nonfiction that I do write, but I'm wondering how best I can leverage it for my fiction writing. I have a few files that are just seeds around which a story may accrue, but I haven't been consistent about that. Back when I was trying to use ZK for Everything, I put both notes and individual chapters of a novel in progress in there. I have been largely displeased with the times they come up in search, they are usually noise, but occasionally useful. Perhaps they would be more useful if I put all of my fiction in there? Or would that just be more noise, as that is very much the inverse of "atomic" ideas?

(I should note that I am currently in a sort of meta-phase of trying to clean up my Zetteln from the time I put Everything in there, in an attempt to make the ZK more functional in general. But that is probably another topic.)

I'm wondering if anyone has any thoughts on this topic.

EDIT: I'd like to specifically tag @kohled in this, as they have mentioned being a filmmaker. How, sir/madam/other, do you use ZK in that medium, if I may ask?

• I use the ZKM for fiction writing. All the background search is basically identical with non-fictional writing. The difference is: Sometimes, it is just not true. (Or -- in philosophical terms -- has an imaginary truth maker instead of one in the real world)

I have many fractional ideas for my fictional writing projects. So I write them down, archive them and add them to the acording structure note. Sometimes, I even mix fictional and non-fictional:

• A non-fictional text is aided with a small fictional anecdote.
• A fictional text becomes more real when it is enriched with real facts and thoughts.
• etc.

Additionally, I have one note for every fictional text idea (most of them books) and a structure note to govern them.

But whole chapters are not in my archive.

I am a Zettler

• @mediapathic said:
I'm wondering if anyone has any thoughts on this topic.

EDIT: I'd like to specifically tag @kohled in this, as they have mentioned being a filmmaker. How, sir/madam/other, do you use ZK in that medium, if I may ask?

Hey @mediapathic. I have way more questions than answers regarding the application of a ZK to the creative - specifically fiction making - process, but I'm cool to share my current practice.

I don't keep specific story development ideas in my primary ZK. There's just so much more noise than signal that is inherent to my process, I don't want to clutter up the root note archive with stuff that's gonna end up in the 'discard' pile. I build wikis (Devonthink) and link them with a project (Scrivener). I make a big pile of stuff, web links, images, character ideas, dramatic events, peripeteia and anagnorisis ideas, sift through the pile to spark ideas, build the story, get working. I'm not concerned with keeping these project specific ideas around for the long haul.

In the ZK, I primarily draft notes reacting to some 'text' - that 'text' can be most anything - actual text or images or sound, an interaction I witnessed on the street. It can be a reaction to a movie - what moved me and why, how a story, visual, or aural idea did or didn't work. The text could be Soderbergh's 'Che', the Philip Glass symphony I just listened to at Town Hall, notes from reading Rudolf Arnheim's 'Film as Art'. Another example: As I continue studying Bruce Block's 'The Visual Story', I'll examine some concept of visual grammar - say Bergman's use of saturated hue in 'Cries and Whispers'. I re-watch the film, link stills from the film with stills from my own image library, go out and photograph in the city, hunt for images that express the concept. Tag and link, etc. Simply engaging with this process cultivates the foment from which story, screenplay, image sequences, and so forth get built. Once the creative process is cranking, I kind of drop everything else and just try to get out of the way and let it do its thing.

All that said, I'm super interested creating an 'emergent structure' non-linear narrative. Building an imaginary micro-verse born from a zettelkasten substructure. I'm currently experimenting with what this process might look like in practice but I'm grasping around in the dark right now. All part of the fun I suppose.

Anyway, hope this proves useful to your process and I look forward to hearing your ideas.

• I'm only a poor aspiring writer. More of an aspiring poor writer. Skills are still developing. But an idea I'm exploring is to create a "third brain". A separate archive that isn't intermingled with my "second brain", the main archive.

1. no signal pollution in main zettelkasten
2. all links and search are relevant in both archives
3. all fictional writing projects could intermingle
4. one archive restrained by facts, one free, free, free!

1. difficult to have the serendipitous interjunctions described by @sfast above
2. two archive with the switching overhead

This brings up a question, how might a note in one archive be linked to or referred to in a note in a different archive? Maybe this is sacrilegious to even ask.

Will Simpson
I'm a zettelnant.
Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
kestrelcreek.com

• edited February 2019

@Will said:
This brings up a question, how might a note in one archive be linked to or referred to in a note in a different archive? Maybe this is sacrilegious to even ask.

So many great things have come from sac-religion.

I was actually reflecting on a similar question a few hours past. Nice hive mind happening here.

A possible solution: Index my 'Zettelkasten' folder - currently connected to The Archive and iA Writer - in Devonthink. Use internal links in Devonthink to integrate with notes in the Zettelkasten folder. This is useful for me because a lot of the material that I use for brainstorming a story is not material that would go in the ZK - e.g. various media, web links, et al. I'm also perfectly cool with those links not being durable over the long haul. Projects rarely last more than a few years. When I'm done, I'm truly done. No need to revisit that stuff. Better to keep moving on the next project.

This version of the idea would be a 'third brain' that exists on a per project basis. As I'm ramping up going into another first draft in the next month or so, I'll experiment presently. Curious as to what turns up.

• @sfast said:
I use the ZKM for fiction writing. All the background search is basically identical with non-fictional writing. The difference is: Sometimes, it is just not true. (Or -- in philosophical terms -- has an imaginary truth maker instead of one in the real world)

I have many fractional ideas for my fictional writing projects. So I write them down, archive them and add them to the acording structure note. Sometimes, I even mix fictional and non-fictional:

• A non-fictional text is aided with a small fictional anecdote.
• A fictional text becomes more real when it is enriched with real facts and thoughts.
• etc.

Additionally, I have one note for every fictional text idea (most of them books) and a structure note to govern them.

But whole chapters are not in my archive.

This sounds very cool. Going to experiment with this.

• Yet another disadvantage of using a second archive is the complications of different keyboard maestro playing fields. Can be overcome but not without some unwanted mental overhead.

Will Simpson
I'm a zettelnant.
Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
kestrelcreek.com

• @kohled said:

I don't keep specific story development ideas in my primary ZK. There's just so much more noise than signal that is inherent to my process, I don't want to clutter up the root note archive with stuff that's gonna end up in the 'discard' pile. I build wikis (Devonthink) and link them with a project (Scrivener). I make a big pile of stuff, web links, images, character ideas, dramatic events, peripeteia and anagnorisis ideas, sift through the pile to spark ideas, build the story, get working. I'm not concerned with keeping these project specific ideas around for the long haul.

I am doing approximately the equivalent of this in org-mode, so this makes sense to me.

In the ZK, I primarily draft notes reacting to some 'text' - that 'text' can be most anything - actual text or images or sound, an interaction I witnessed on the street. It can be a reaction to a movie - what moved me and why, how a story, visual, or aural idea did or didn't work. The text could be Soderbergh's 'Che', the Philip Glass symphony I just listened to at Town Hall,

(I'm jealous)

notes from reading Rudolf Arnheim's 'Film as Art'. Another example: As I continue studying Bruce Block's 'The Visual Story', I'll examine some concept of visual grammar - say Bergman's use of saturated hue in 'Cries and Whispers'. I re-watch the film, link stills from the film with stills from my own image library, go out and photograph in the city, hunt for images that express the concept. Tag and link, etc. Simply engaging with this process cultivates the foment from which story, screenplay, image sequences, and so forth get built. Once the creative process is cranking, I kind of drop everything else and just try to get out of the way and let it do its thing.

So it sounds to me like what you keep in your ZK is information about structure, form, and technique, both how they manifest in other works and your responses to them, rather than the actual content of the works you are producing. Is this accurate?

If so, that seems to be what I mostly am using ZK for in my own creative work. I have notes in there about Propp, the Lester Dent Pulp Method, the Snowflake Method, etc. I think I should probably transcribe the notes from a writing workshop I attended and put them in there as well. So, mostly notes about form rather than content.

I wonder what the relative advantages to putting content in as well are? I can see immediately using my #seed notes for brainstorming, but that's not really about the connectivity that defines a ZK.

All that said, I'm super interested creating an 'emergent structure' non-linear narrative. Building an imaginary micro-verse born from a zettelkasten substructure. I'm currently experimenting with what this process might look like in practice but I'm grasping around in the dark right now. All part of the fun I suppose.

Huh. Something here about what something like Twine or Inkle looks like if there's a possibility of the one-to-many linkage inherent in a ZK instead of the one-to-one narrative structure in most hypertext. Interesting.

Anyway, hope this proves useful to your process and I look forward to hearing your ideas.

Absolutely. Thanks!

• I've just started with Zettelkasten to help retain some material I've been studying; but I've also written novels, and I found this thread because I was curious about how to use Zettelkasten for fiction writing.

I think of my Zettelkasten as where I record what's true about the world—a fairly all encompassing idea, but one that leaves out fiction. (Though it includes thoughts about kinds of fiction, and techniques of fiction writing, and how fiction works, and can be illuminated by quotes and examples from fiction.)

Seems to me that I almost want a Zettelkasten for each fictional world I create, in which I'm recording what's true about that world. It would be both a source of ideas and a record of past decisions, and so an aid to keeping later books consistent with earlier ones; and it would be easier to avoid using the same terms in different worlds.

In the past I've tried keeping that kind of information in Scrivener folders, but that ends up with the Categories vs. Tags problem.

• @Philaquino I'm not sure what problems you've heard about the use of tags but I think this is a perfect place to use them. I use them to separate each of my writing projects. With a saved search or structure notes I can gather notes and drafts of a specific writing project but the material still resides in my Zettelkasten and can be interconnected, refactored, and reused. I am primarily a non-fiction writer and haiku poet and if I venture in fiction - science or otherwise - I'd just tag each note as fiction ( #fiction #rodeo_clown #essay ) or maybe use a special character in the title like 202006191522 ƒ World of the Rodeo Clown.

Will Simpson
I'm a zettelnant.
Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
kestrelcreek.com

• @Philaquino said:
I've just started with Zettelkasten to help retain some material I've been studying; but I've also written novels, and I found this thread because I was curious about how to use Zettelkasten for fiction writing.

I think of my Zettelkasten as where I record what's true about the world—a fairly all encompassing idea, but one that leaves out fiction. (Though it includes thoughts about kinds of fiction, and techniques of fiction writing, and how fiction works, and can be illuminated by quotes and examples from fiction.)

Seems to me that I almost want a Zettelkasten for each fictional world I create, in which I'm recording what's true about that world. It would be both a source of ideas and a record of past decisions, and so an aid to keeping later books consistent with earlier ones; and it would be easier to avoid using the same terms in different worlds.

In the past I've tried keeping that kind of information in Scrivener folders, but that ends up with the Categories vs. Tags problem.

I have several fictional worlds in my Zettelkasten. And personal stuff. And quite some diverse non-fictional material. Everything co-exists fine.

I am a Zettler

• @Will said:
@Philaquino I'm not sure what problems you've heard about the use of tags but I think this is a perfect place to use them. I use them to separate each of my writing projects. With a saved search or structure notes I can gather notes and drafts of a specific writing project but the material still resides in my Zettelkasten and can be interconnected, refactored, and reused. I am primarily a non-fiction writer and haiku poet and if I venture in fiction - science or otherwise - I'd just tag each note as fiction ( #fiction #rodeo_clown #essay ) or maybe use a special character in the title like 202006191522 ƒ World of the Rodeo Clown.

What I meant was that in Scrivener I tend to impose an outline on the material (Categories) rather than letting it emerge (tags and links). I was referring to an introductory post here on this site about “Categories and Tags.”

• @sfast, good to know. I’m still quite new at this.

• edited June 2020

@sfast I am extremely curious about your process for fiction writing. (Pro SF&F writer here.) I would love to keep everything in one place and leverage the maximum power of the Zettelkasten method in my own workflows, but I was under the impression that mixing real and fictional stuff would be a sure recipe for trouble.

If I may take an example I used in another thread –
Let's say I write space operas. I would then devise loads of sci-fi stuff, such as, say, a faster-than-light fictional engine, based on some real physics. I can link the real physics to my interpretations and the way I extrapolated to make my FTL engine. That works. Now suppose I write several space operas each with their own FTL rules – how do you make sure you don't mix the different worlds and ours? With tags? With clear identifiers in the zettels saying in bold "FICTIONAL WORLD X, DO NOT USE IN REAL CONDITIONS" in case you stumble upon them via search?

Does your Zettelkasten replace a wiki pertaining to your fictional worlds or does it live alongside it?

"A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

• @KillerWhale I cannot give you a comprehensive overview on my process and/or workflow. I don't have any. But I can give you some bullet points.

1. I treat every non-fiction text as a text regardless on its length. Here are the rare occasions of single sentences per Zettel.
2. I regularly practice reframing one sentence. I write fiction in waves of density. Sometimes, a paragraph super dense. Then this comes into play. Example: A character reveals something meaningful about himself. I have a type of character in various texts that function as voices of truths. That is: They describe something very precise, direct and stripped of any meaning. The other characters show each a layer of meaning wrapped around that.
3. Sometimes, I write a scene or any other fragment. Then it gets stored and connected. Example: I wrote a dialog of a local Zombie Apocalypse in which two philosophical systems are emboddied by the characters. I link to the actual positions I describe in other Zettel.
4. I have plot-outlines similar to non-fictional outlines.
5. I have a big department on story telling (e.g. The monomyth) and meaning. This acts like some framing and I link to them with something like (This scene functions as XY in the story model Z)
6. I have a very big collection of mythologems that I use as tools to design plots, characters etc. Example: I analysed Kali and Mahakali to extract the symbolism and use the parts to heighten some characters in a fantasy epos to a more archetypical level.

As you can see: Nothing clear cut yet.

I am a Zettler

• Thank you very much @sfast for detailing those use cases, that's very interesting. Have you brought those elements to finalised works of fiction, where the Zettels eventually translate to stories?

As I'm studying the Zettelkasten to integrate it with fiction writing, I'm faced with several dimensions of truth, as you point out higher in that thread.

First, there's the real world. Two facets here:
- Real facts and theories, such as ideas that can spark stories; there's no problem integrating that into the Zettelkasten. Examples: your philosophical systems used in your Apocalypse dialog; facts about rocket propulsion if you write science-fiction; glass-making and horse handling for a historical or fantasy writer and so on.
- The craft of story and writing, such your mythological analysis, the monomyth (boy, I take so much issue with that theory, but that's a discussion for another time 😁), your own discoveries about your own process, etc.
No problem putting all of that in a Zettelkasten. It's exactly what it was designed for.

However, as we leave the real world for fiction, I see two orthogonal continuums of "truth" or maybe clarity (which is a truth you haven't fully discovered). (That's where I have landed so far in those concepts after 10 years of writing fiction full time, but others might have a totally different take)

• There's the distance with reality. If you write contemporary romance, the distance is very close (basically the only fictitious element is going to be your characters). If you write technothrillers or historical novels, you're a little more remote (because you extrapolate on the real world). Science-fiction is going to be even further. Fantasy even more so. You are still in some way grounded in reality, but, as you aptly put out in the thread, the "truth" of the fictitious world is not that of ours, even though there's overlap.
• There's your own clarity. Ideas come as shadows in a mist; you tease them, work them, until they reveal what they mean (see other post about the degrees of clarity in creative writing). The final call on what is is never going to be made until you have signed on the proofs.

Academia (for which the Zettelkasten was initially designed) has that continuum of clarity. You refine your ideas, your hypotheses, so there's no reason why the same degrees of uncertainty / truth could be applied. However, it's for the other dimension (distance with reality) that, so far, I see no satisfying solution yet in the Zettelkasten, even though I have some ideas.

In a nutshell, the question could be phrased as how could have Tolkien used a Zettelkasten? His world is secondary and grounded in myth, has a rich history, but it deviates from ours. And I believe the great danger here is to "muddle" your Zettelkasten with "alternate truths" (from an alternate universe).

If I'm looking for information on forging swords in my Zettelkasten and come up information on a famous blacksmith, how can I be sure it's a real one or an elvish one? There would be the source to help differentiate, but I think this approach is prone to danger. I think integrating fiction in a Zettelkasten needs a way to differentiate real fact (which can serve a basis for an unlimited number of fictional works) and a fictitious fact (which will serve for one, at most a handful of fictional works, because it's inelegant to tread always the same ground over and over).

I see several solutions to that problem

• Use separate Zettelkästen for each fictitious project. That implies massive overhead while having only one Zettelkasten already means some care.
• Use the Zettelkasten for real-world fact + story analysis, ditch the idea of a Zettelkasten for fictional worlds and build for instance a wiki instead, around a workflow that best suits your mind (to accommodate for the levels of clarity of your ideas), but link it to the Zettelkasten when relevant. As I've been studying all this, that was my initial approach.
• Put everything into the same Zettelkasten to take advantage of the conversational aspect of it and leverage cross-linking to the max. I like that, but I believe that absolutely needs a way to identify what is fictional and what is not. Tags, possibly double-hashes (like ##fictitious or ##middle-earth ) might do the trick.

Any thoughts?

"A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

• If I'm looking for information on forging swords in my Zettelkasten and come up information on a famous blacksmith, how can I be sure it's a real one or an elvish one?

If you think of this famous blacksmith right now, how can you be sure it is a real one or an elvish one?

I am a Zettler

• @sfast It surely is real in its own reality. but since I operate on this one, I have to take care to know the degree of likelihood of what I’m writing so as to know where and how I’m playing with the reader’s (suspension of dis)belief.

Right now, memory would serve, or notes would be segregated in silos. Which is why I believe indications for the reality of a Zettel are needed...

You don’t do this at all?

"A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

• No. I just write and rely on my sanity.

I am a Zettler

• You're lucky to have one.

Seriously, I think the issue is very real when you write outside of our world (SF&F). Well, I will expriment. And report back. If some lovecraftian deity hasn't rendered me insane.

"A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

• In theory, you might have a point and if that is really a problem for you that is popping up regularly, you need a solution. But in practice: I use my Zettelkasten for the combination of my fiction and non-fiction for over 10 years now and never had a single issue of understanding the difference between fiction and non-fiction.

I am a Zettler

• @sfast That's very reassuring to know – thanks a lot for sharing.
It's possibly related to my specific case: I write SF&F and work on several parallel worlds at the same time in neighbouring genres. Which is a relatively extreme end of the fiction spectrum, possibly needing specific tools.

I'll let you guys know how this goes.

"A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

• @KillerWhale Also a pro SF&F writer here. Your question comes down, I think, to distinguishing between fiction and reality, which in our profession is inherently more difficult on any number of levels. I am reminded of an observation by one of the masters (I think it may have been Delany, though possibly Le Guin) that SFF writers have to be more cautious with metaphor, because in our business it may not be clear that a fantastic thing is a metaphor.

My ZK is just a mishmash of my fiction and my research. I'm currently using Obsidian most of the time, which supports multiple directories, which helps for organization to some degree. But the novel I'm working on right now is alt-history, so having them blended together actually helps with an... evocative approach, and when I care about facts, I look more cautiously. I suppose if you're doing something more Hard Science it's more of an issue.

So, no actual useful advice there, mostly just commiseration and encouragement. Also, please give me the promotional, who are you in the world and how do I find you? I only have the one story published pro at the moment, but I'm working on it.

• @mediapathic Thanks for your message (and interest in my work ) Yes, that's exactly that: one has to be careful with metaphors (I knew of the saying, didn't know where it originated from, makes me want to look deeper into it and put it in my Zettelkasten, thanks for the pointer!)

Very interesting to see that you too are putting research and fiction inside your system. As I've been reading the forums and seeing so many people do that, I think I will do that as well (I'm also dabbling with Obsidian at the moment, which I really like), but possibly with a special tag to describe what reality the Zettel is about (and, if it's juste fictitious, a simple tag "fiction" will suffice). I definitely see the benefit of mixing everything together to allow the contents to "talk" to one another. That's one thing I believe PARA does not work for. Let's keep comparing views !

And congratulations for your story! Added right away to my reading list! As for myself, I'm afraid I'm French so I don't have a lot of stuff translated (two stories in English, one in Polish), but I've been writing full-time in France for ten years and doing editorial and translation before that. Currently sitting on 35 stories professionally published and over 10 books (mostly series). I've been especially building a secondary world for 20 years, hence possibly my anguish about getting things mixed up

"A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it." - Ernest Hemingway

Mac / iOS user, Zettelkasten built upon DEVONthink, GTD system upon OmniFocus.
Writing done using Drafts as an inbox, Scrivener and Ulysses for production.

• edited August 2020

I've come back to this thread over the months to track developments as the question of how to best interconnect my slipbox and professional work endures. Thank you @mediapathic and everyone else for provoking some constructive reflection for me.

@mediapathic said:
I am reminded of an observation by one of the masters (I think it may have been Delany, though possibly Le Guin) that SFF writers have to be more cautious with metaphor, because in our business it may not be clear that a fantastic thing is a metaphor.

I've read the Earthsea Trilogy every few years since I was 17. And it's time to reboot on Dhalgren. Despite efforts to the contrary, most storylines I come up with are somehow related to Earthsea arche-typography.

@mediapathic said:
My ZK is just a mishmash of my fiction and my research. I'm currently using Obsidian most of the time, which supports multiple directories, which helps for organization to some degree. But the novel I'm working on right now is alt-history, so having them blended together actually helps with an... evocative approach, and when I care about facts, I look more cautiously.

When I tried blending the slipbox with professional work-- I got pretty jammed up. There's a cognitive sheering that happens when Intellectual Property gets involved.

For many reasons, I avoid talking about specific work on public forums. However, I occasionally do some light breaking of this precept so I have a little skin in the game. Perhaps it will be useful.

So, speaking very generally, a while ago, I was hired to adapt a sci fi book written by a bestselling author. I don't know the specifics of the original writer's deal, but I do know the production company owns the IP. I know because this fact had huge impact on how I wrote the pilot and show bible.

If something I generate on my own uses too much distinct, specific IP from one project to another -- even when the ideas are entirely my own -- bad things happen. Trust me on this

A short novel I'm drafting presently is owned entirely by me. If fortune smiles and it gets optioned, I hope to keep the IP as long as I can. But if an offer is strong enough, I'll take it and go write something else. No matter what, if things go well, I lose the IP eventually. Unless I reach GRRM status, which at this point seems [cough] unlikely. Even then, I highly doubt he had final sign off on the last season of GoT. At least I hope not.

To summarize, if the many ideas spanning many projects involving many collaborators, if all the brainstorm session notes, story outlines, character arcs, etc etc etc are intermingled with, for example, my impressions regarding textual translation of revelatory sound design principles from The Conversation or Mackendrick's adroit elucidation of Step Outlines and I'm then forced to parse out who owns what say ten years from now-- It's going to be a very long night. A night that lasts days.

Or I'll just put on my big boy pants and get over it. Toss it all together in a huge glorious mess of a pile. Embrace the chaos too which I will one day return.

Time will tell.

@mediapathic I only have the one story published pro at the moment, but I'm working on it.

Congratulations! Getting published at any level is no small feat. Totally look forward to checking it out.