Gone are the days when writers had to spend hours in the library researching how to care for their character’s pet python, or on the phone exploring the price of a plane ticket, or at the bookcase in the next room flicking through classic novels to find the perfect quote.
Everything’s at our fingertips – and not just for researching our stories, but for editing and publishing our books as well. Here I’m focusing on some of my most-used tools and websites, and they’re all free. Some do have paid services that expand the options available, and for others you will need to make an account (often, signing in via Facebook or Google is possible).
I’ve mentioned a couple of these tools before, and added lots of new ones.
The Google suite of online programs mimic Microsoft Office with less elaborate functionality, but they have everything you’ll probably need. Your work is saved every few seconds, so you won’t have to worry about either intermittent computer crashes or a fullblown hard drive meltdown. You can access your documents anywhere – I like to edit on my phone while I’m waiting for the school pick-up. And you can mark documents for offline access, too.
Start with Google Drive – log in using your Google/Gmail account (or create one). This is where you access Docs and Sheets (explained below), but you can also use Drive as general storage space for photos and other files. The interface is easy to use but works slightly differently from Windows file mangement. Drive gives you 17GB free storage space.
Google Docs is similar to Microsoft Word. Create a new file from Drive or upload your existing Word files to keep working on them in Google Docs. You’ll find all the usual tools like spell and grammar check, tables and styles. I add styled main and subheadings for every scene, which then appear down the left and serve as an outline for my document. You can share files and add comments.
There are minor functionality differences from Word, such as how you add and delete table rows and columns. The only downside I’ve found to using Docs is you can’t “turn on invisibles” – which may or may not matter to you.
You can download your file in various formats including docx, pdf, and epub.
Google Sheets – this is similar Microsoft Excel. I use Sheets to keep track of timelines and plots, as well as sales information and other stats. Here’s one of the tabs in just one of my many Sheets documents, where I track the overall plot of each book, as well as 30 years of events that happened before book 1 starts (such as which grade the boys were in, any incidents from childhood they mention, and tracking Caleb’s career progress in the Coast Guard). As you can see from the tabs at the bottom, I even keep track of “girlfriends” because there are so many…
Again, there are minor functionality differences from Excel, but it doesn’t take long to get used to.
With Adobe Spark you can create perfectly sized social media posts by adding images, text, filters, icons, and other effects. You can create, for example, a square Instagram image, and then quickly change it to the correct size for posting the same thing on Twitter or Facebook or Pinterest. There’s a huge library of royalty-free photos to browse through, or upload your own.
One way I use Spark is to make the images for my blog posts (like this one) which I also pin to my Pinterest board. Also available as an app.
Some social media limits the number of links you can put in your bio (if any). Linktree solves this problem. It’s essentially a display of buttons that you customize with whatever links you like – to your Instagram and Twitter pages, your website, your blog, etc. Then you only need to put one unchanging link in the bio of all your social media. It’s a simple matter to update the buttons in order to include, for example, your latest blog post.
Here’s what the buttons look like when someone clicks on my link (https://linktr.ee/saracreasy) There are a few color themes to choose from.
Photomania adds filters to your photos. Choose from dozens of filters including photography, vintage, sketch, painting, cartoon, pop art, and more. Upload a photo and click a button – very easy if you’re looking for basic but appealing effects. The downloaded image will have a watermark and will be reduced in size if you upload a hi-res image, so you can’t use this site to make book covers (it reduces everything to 900px).
The great thing about filters is that it can make photos from multiple sources look similar, in order to create a matching “set”, for example if you want to make your Instagram feed look consistent.
Pixabay is a huge royalty-free image site. You will need to sign in if you want to download the images at high resolution. Filter your search to show only photos, illustrations, or vector graphics. For images on transparent backgrounds, include “png” or “transparent” in the search.
Social Security Administration
I use these Social Security lists to find age-appropriate names for my characters. You don’t want to name your 17th-century heroine Cheryl when the name wasn’t used until the 20th century, and wasn’t popular until the 1940s. And it’s been uncommnon since the 1990s, so if your modern teenager is called Cheryl it may not ring true unless you explain she was named after her grandmother.
The site gives the top 200 names for babies born in each decade in the USA since the 1880s. These names will be predominantly European of course. For names from other cultures, try baby naming sites or Google “Brazilian soccer team” or “Indian politicians” for plausible names from other cultures and countries. Looking at random listings like this is also a good way to get family names, so you don’t always end up with Nguyen, Cooper, and Martinez.
Wunderground gives you the weather almost anywhere in the world on a specific day – temperature, rain and snow, wind – but more importantly perhaps, you can get a feel for the average weather conditions in places you’ve never lived, if you want your characters to live or visit there during a certain month. Search for the location, click the History tab, and then select the date (the day, week, or month). You can toggle between degrees F or C (which I do all the time, because my characters speak in Farenheit but those numbers have almost no meaning to me).
DIY Book Covers
DIY Book Covers has a 3D book image generator to create digital representations of your flat cover image as 3D books or tablets or phones. Upload your book cover and with a couple of clicks you can create images like this:
Download as a png file so the image is on a transparent background, and you can Photoshop it into any background you like. Great for marketing!
Shoplook is just a bit of fun for writers. I’m not a fashionista and I find it hard to imagine outfits. From the homepage click INSPIRE then CREATE OUTFIT. Type keywords like boho or striped, and drag and drop items of clothing and jewelry onto the canvas, where you can rearrange and resize them. Here’s a little something I put together for Wynter.
If you’re into personality typing your characters, 16Personalities is a good place to start. It uses a system similar to (but not the same as) Myers-Briggs personality typing. What I like about this site is the fun, clear presentation and the quick assessment test. Take the test as if your character were taking it, and then read about her personality – her strengths and weaknesses, what she needs in a romantic relationship or friendship, what sort of parent she would be, her most satisfying careers, and her workplace habits.
Here’s Caleb’s result. Read more about how I use personality typing for my characters in this series of posts.