Writer’s Tools: Debrief Notes

Yesterday we focused on a way to get into the habit of writing every day–today we’ll look at another important aspect of creative writing: research.

Research is essential to creative writing. One of the first things you’re told as a writer is to “write what you know,” but even then, you should be doing research to back up your work. (And yes, this counts for fiction as well as non-fiction!)
The kind and extent of research you do will of course depend on your own style, and the content of your writing. Someone like George R. R. Martin has done an incredible amount of research to make the Song of Ice and Fire series so realistic; Shirley Jackson probably did less when writing The Lottery. But whatever your focus, it helps to be organized, and that’s where today’s tool comes in.

I came across Debrief Notes while looking for a tool to help with research, and it’s a powerful–yet simple–organizer program. It’s not necessarily meant for creative writers, but it serves that purpose well.
When you open the program, you see three panes with a couple toolbars. On the left there’s a folder tree where you can create

The basic editing panes.

new folders for each research item; directly below that is a list of which notes are in each folder; and to the right is an editing pane for the current note. It’s easy to see how well everything can be gathered in one place, and to get from one note to another quickly and easily–which is, in fact, the central philosophy behind the product.

You’re also able to create different “notebooks” for separate projects. In the upper right hand corner, you’ll see a drop down menu where you can choose your notebook. The one open in the screenshot is called Weird, and this is where I’ll keep notes for all my short stories in the weird fiction subgnere. This allows me to have notes from multiple different stories all in one place, which will help with creating a contiguous universe for my stories. I also have notebooks for various novel projects.

Another useful feature is the Daily Notepad, which opens by default when you open the program. This is a sort of general notepad where you can take notes you’ll organize later–for example, when you’re actively researching something and don’t want to move back and forth between folders in the program, you can take all your notes in this pane sort them when you’re done. The Standard and Professional versions of the program have a useful tool called Debrief, with which you can drag and drop text from the Daily Notepad into various notes for easy compilation.

The daily notepad

The program is available in three versions: Basic (which is available for free), Standard ($29.95) and Professional ($39.95). When you first download the program, you’re given a free 30 day trial, at the end of which you’ll be prompted to either stick with the Basic version or purchase a license key for another version. The difference between versions is in the features; Basic just allows you to make notes, Standard adds features like the aforementioned Debrief and Reference windows (basically allowing you to view multiple notes at once); and Professional includes password protection, reminders and to-dos, and tracking of a Reading List and Library.
The Standard version does add some good value, and I’d say it’s worth the price. The main attraction for the Professional version is the ability to keep track of the various books and periodicals you use for research–which can make it easy to go back and check on a source or quotation. So if you’re doing heavy research–say a historical novel–that would be the way to go. For most projects, though, the Basic version should do fine.

Another plus for this program is that you can get a Portable version, which can be run off a USB key. I can see this as being incredibly helpful, allowing you to take your research with you wherever you go, and to continue your research on any computer. I’ve been able to install the portable version to my Blackberry and run it from there once it’s hooked up to my computer. Because it needs a Windows environment to run, I doubt you could run the program in the native Blackberry OS, butWindows based tables and phones might be able to pull it off.

The one big drawback I see for this software is that it doesn’t appear to be supported any longer. Each time I start it up, I get a pop-up window that warns me that I’m using an older version, and that I should update it. Sadly, I have the most recent version of the program, and it’s from 2009. I don’t see any updates forthcoming, and this could also mean no support.
Fortunately, the program is simple and elegant–if you don’t mind an older looking UI–so it doesn’t really need to be updated. I could foresee an issue if the program crashes and you need tech support, but it’s a light program and I haven’t had any issues with it so far.

Keeping all your notes in one place is imperative for a writer who wants to do any amount of research. Scrivener, which we’ll get to later this week, has similar features, but I believe that Debreif does it better. Even if you’re just going with the basic package and $0 price tag, you’ll get a lot of use out of this program. Try it here, and let me know what you think!

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