Writing a history book in Scrivener

I’m currently writing a history book, a project that got somewhat out of hand as my work progressed. With massive amount of reference material (mostly scans of old books and papers) and a lot of cross-checking needed within my text, it got un-manageable in the software tool I was using.

The book I’m writing, deals with a specific dog breed and it’s history in Norway. I have no prior experience with projects like this. I have, however, written some scientific papers. I think scientific papers and history books requires some of the same skills: accuracy and references to support your text.

History books on dog breeds are usually extremely dull to read, unless you are a dog freak. Here’s an example on how these books are usually written: “On DATE, dog X mated bitch Y and got dog Z.”. This then goes on, in a linear timeline from start to end.

I’m trying to create a more readable dog history book, by breaking this linear approach somewhat. I try to lump together happenings that I feel belongs together, and adding some “trivia” to the text. From a global view (chapter level), the book is still linear in time.

Summing up, I then have these goals for my book:

  • historically correct
  • good references to support the text
  • make the text more readable by e.g not following a strict linear timeline

Just a few days ago, I came across Scrivener. I tried it out for a few hours, before deciding to purchase it. I spent a couple of days importing my text and all the reference material, added relevant references to the different parts of my text and tagged it up with keywords. As I have only used Scrivener for a few days, I am REALLY not an expert using this great software tool. But by request, here is a brief description on how I use Scrivener right now (it will probably evolve as I get more experienced).

Importing my text into Scrivener was easy, as I pay no attention to formatting until I am ready to publish. I simply used copy/paste in a new file in Scrivener, and then used the “Split with selection as title” function to organise my book sections. For each chapter in my book, I use a Scrivener folder. The import also gave me a great opportunity to evaluate what I had so far, as I dragged/dropped the various sections into the folders and wrote a synopsis for each section.

The next step was to import all my reference material into Scrivener. It is, as previously mentioned, mostly scans of old books and papers. It was already neatly organised in folders on my file system, and I more or less just duplicated the folder structure in the Research section in Scrivener. But again, this gave me an opportunity to evaluate what I had, so I imported all my files one by one (drag/drop from Finder to Scrivener) and wrote a synopsis for each file.

Now came the part that required a lot of work: linking references to my text. I did, of course, have a pretty good idea of the reference material belonging to a specific part of my text. But again, a great opportunity to re-evaluate this (turning something negative into something positive…). Using a horizontal split layout, I browsed through my reference material in the upper split, while keeping my text in the lower split. When I found reference material that I wanted a reference to in the current text, I dragged it from the Binder to the References block in the Inspector. A possible bug here: when dragging from the Binder and across my text to the References block, the file would often open on the lower split section. This only happens occasionally, and I have not yet figured out why this unwanted event occurs.

I have not yet decided on how to indicate reference material to the reader. In scientific papers one usually “tag” all relevant statements in the text to a bibliography entry. I could use the footnote function in Scrivener[1] for this, but then again I find[2] that too many references[3] in the text creates a lot of noise[4]. See what I mean? I think I will just make a general bibliography section at the end of the book, with no references in the text itself.

Final thing I did, was to tag up the text with keywords. That’s still an ongoing project, and I will probably add more keywords as a get a better understanding of the complete history (creating good keywords is an iterative process). For now I use geographical keywords, keywords for specific breeders and keywords for some important dogs. These keywords more or less always occur in the text itself, but adding them as keywords gives me the opportunity to analyse the text in very “pin-pointed” searches, as it is a filtered view of the contents of the text (only the most important words makes it into the keywords). Using keyword searches, I can then analyse my text better. (My “real life” work is within mathematical and statistical modelling, so I love this text analysis part…). I use the keyword hud when assigning keywords, because I want to see all words available. Makes it easier to evaluate whether a new word should make it into the keywords, or whether I have a more general keyword available already. Thu ultimate goal with this keyword strategy is to get a better understanding of the historical events, breeders and dogs that has really been influential to the breed history.

One of my favourite functions in Scrivener is “Edit Scrivenings”. As said previously, I try to break up the traditional linear timeline used in most dog history texts. But from a chapter view the text must still have a more or less natural flow of events. When I have worked on a specific section for a while, I switch back to reading/editing the complete chapter. Seeing the section in its complete context is a must. I usually try to “glue” sections (and chapters) together with some “trivia”.

Finally, here is a screenshot showing Scrivener at work. In the top split there is a scanned typewriter document. You will also see some web links in the references. I usually make static copies of web resources (using “File->Import->Web Page…”), as I do not trust web pages being around forever… But in this case, I also have some external web links (to Wikipedia entries).

Thanks so much for taking the time to explain how you used Scrivener to organize your research. I’m working on a book that involves a lot of historical research too, but haven’t yet used keywords or references much. So this description will help me use Scrivener to its fullest potential.

Hey bitjungle,

I’ve been looking for a better solution to all the note-taking (mostly from old books) that I need to do for my current book project. I’ve tried a pen scanner and just reading the passages I want to clip into a voice recognition program, but it’s all painfully slow. The problem is that I want to take maybe 5 to 10K words, a sentence or three at a time usually, from a bunch of 100K-word books, rather than full pages. Then I need to be able to search them for words and phrases when needed and, if possible, cut and paste the text into my draft. I’ve been assuming that I need to turn this material in MS Word or Scrivener documents to do this, and that my options are all limited and laborious

How useful do you feel a scanner would be for this sort of thing? Are the resulting documents searchable? Is it possible to turn them into text files of one kind or another, presumably with OCR? If so, how accurate is the OCR software out there? And lastly, is there a scanner you can recommend?

I came out tonight looking for a tool for a history project and stumbled upon your note. It is nice to see literary apps used for non-fiction. One of the goals of my project is scalability. The work may be used as a paper, poster presentation, or tour. I’d like to be able to expand it to a book or hypertext work.

Posted this elsewhere but it might also be relevant here:

Time Flyer is a timeline app. Dead simple to set up history timelines.




LL, thank you for that link! I’m always looking for a good timeline.

(I just wish one of them could handle OS / NS dating. :frowning: )

I’m currently writing a historical fiction about a great Armenian family dynasty that built most of the palaces, mosquees and other famous landmarks in my home city. That is, I’m still doing research and so far haven’t started using Scrivener for the writing process itself. But as far as research goes, Scrivener is doing an excellent job. I’ve created different folders, one for the city, one for the time period, one for archictecture, as well as one for the news article I find from the period, etc. As I stumble accros information I just copy and paste it to the relevant folder. Its easy to paste images as well, which is the key to understand a certain period in history I believe. I’ve started adding keyword as well. I’m relatively new to Scrivener and I can hardly say I’ve discovered the entire software, but before Scrivener I used tons of different .doc files and there were no relation between them, which could be very annoying. I’m very excited now on how the writing process will go, and already know that when I need information about a certain dressing or a certain event in that period, I’ll just have to write down the phrase in the search box and all the information will roll down my screen.

Writing historical I thought making a chronology or a timeline of the entire period would be a nice map to follow. For this I’m still using Excel as I’m familiar with this program. I can’t say its half as inspirative as Scrivener, but then I couldn’t find a database structure or a way to make a chronology of eight different people, running side by side in Scrivener. I’ll check out the TimeFlyer… maybe therein lies the solution. :slight_smile:

If you are interested in history and writing this may be of some interest:

abc.net.au/rn/hindsight/stor … 940188.htm

The history vs historical fiction issue has been the subject of much recent debate. Should the lines between history and fiction be drawn with no middle ground? Or are history and fiction enriching, not conflicting, ways of viewing the past?
This is a recording of a forum held at the recent Sydney Writers Festival.

mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/ … 070610.mp3

abc.net.au/cgi-bin/common/pl … 202007&p=1

Hi bitjungle,

I was studying your workflow illustration. Very impressive. I got to thinking that if you could make a template of it - the outline, it would make fantastic addition to the templates library. Obviously, others could then build on it to suit their own needs. (perhaps a version in English as well?)


Lord Lightning, thanks for very useful link. I’m listening to it now, all ears.

I am about to start using scrivener for my thesis dealing with WWI, and was wondering which program you guys use for citations. I have looked into Sente, Bookends, Endnotes, and PaperTools Pro, but am not sure if any of you have experience with these. While I like the search abilities in most of them, what I also want is the ability to make notes on the work, label if it is paraphrase or quote, and if there is a pdf to be able to highlight. I know PaperToolsPro allows very wonderful and guided quoting or paraphrasing, but it does not have the automated citation like the others.


I also was told the new Scrivener beta allowed you to import. Is this just for a bibliography or will I be able to click ‘add footnote’ and then select from my list?

I would go for Bookends. It has a clean uncluttered UI and Jon Ashwell the developer is very responsive. There is also an active user forum.

I’ve only just started using Scrivener so I can’t yet say how well it integrates. I have to say that it probably works best with Mellel and Word, but I have used it with Nisus with no problems.

Hi bitjungle,
maybe your project could benefit from this idea:

As you have already scanned your documents, you could download a trial copy of DevonThink Pro Office, import all the picture files and convert them tho searchable pdfs. Even if you’d decide not to buy DTPO, you would still end up with all your documents being searchable. It can be very convenient to have all the information accessible with spotlight or with DT’s “see also” feature, that might help you to sort through the texts.
Just an idea…

never change a running system!

All the best,