I've been working on an idea for a low-fantasy epic for several years now, but as of yet I've had zero success at actually spinning the idea into a story worthy of telling. I know it has to do with prostitutes, rat demons and redemption, but that's the big picture. The little picture has plagued me. The sheer volume of information that I've been collecting over these past four years have morphed in scope to become more epic than any yarn I could weave. I've had this problem with stories in the past, stories which have been tossed by the wayside because I couldn't figure out how to tell them effectively. It's like knowing that you want to drive from New York to LA, but you have no idea what roads you want to take, and therefore it's safe to say you'll be stuck in the Big Apple for the rest of your life.
Recently, I dug up my epic in an effort to revive my work on it. I beat my head on it for several days before realizing that what I needed was a mind map that would diagram all of my ideas in one centralized location.
For those who live under rocks, a Mind Map is a graphical representation of various ideas centered around a main idea. The ultimate objective for using a mind map is to hack a statue of David out of a block of intellectual marble.
I've used a variety of tools to create mind maps. Mind maps can get sloppy very quickly, and thus I've found pen and paper (and their white board equivalents) too limiting. I'm constantly erasing as I'm refining the ideas, or crossing out huge blocks of text. Note cards are satisfactory, but they do not suit the purpose of the early stages of idea construction, and the cards eventually hit a ceiling of unwieldiness. Software, therefore seems the best solution. Relatively infinite space, no unwieldy cards, easy editing.
I looked around at several software solutions, and the best I found, by far, is FreeMind. Within seconds of installing it, I had created the basic outline of my epic. By the end of the second night, I had compiled almost all of my notes into the map, and had become rather adept at using the software. I'd even taken the time to generate a nice story structure mind map, containing the 3-act, 5-act, and Monomythic story models and another map regarding my notes on mythology. All three maps are enormous, now, with text, images, links, etc.
The software is very easy to use. Creating a new sibling node in the map is as easy as hitting Enter, and inserting a child is as easy as hitting Insert. The arrow keys move you about in the map. Space bar collapses and expands nodes, allowing you to hide portions of the map that you don't want to see. You can use clouds to help organize ideas into visual clusters. You can hotlink nodes, or have them expand to sub-maps, draw arrows between nodes... It has all sorts of wonderful bells and whistles. For the writer organizing his ideas, the software is invaluable.
The very best thing about FreeMind, however, is that it is free.
It's not perfect, however. In my own mind maps, I will sometimes draw relationship arrows and note the relationship on the arrow itself. I can't find this capability in FreeMind if it exists, but thus far it hasn't hindered me overmuch. There's also some weird node-jumping by the cursor when you swap to a different program and back again, causing you to have to arrow around a bit to get back to the node you were working on.
Overall, I'd highly suggest FreeMind to, well, everyone. It's really helping me find that statue of David that I've been looking for, and I think it can help you, too.
Five Riots, indeed.