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I'd like to start working on a novel, and I've been looking into authoring software. I've been impressed with StoryMill on the Mac, but I prefer to support open-source alternatives.

Does anyone know of a decent open-source solution for writing fiction/novels? I've used Latex for writing papers (long ago), but the overhead syntactically is pretty high. I'm looking for something which has the ability to help track characters, locations, plots, etc. Since I work on both Mac and Linux, cross-platform support would also be nice.

Does anyone have any experience with open-source writing software?

EDIT: Here's a list of features I think would be helpful. Since this is my first foray into novel writing (I've done articles and poetry up to this point), I'm not 100% certain what would be best. I am, however, looking for something to help me organize and keep track the following:

  • Characters
    • biographical details
    • physical locations throughout the story
    • interconnections w/other characters
  • Plots and subplots
  • Locations
    • names, geographic locations, descriptions
    • significance (politically, religiously, etc.)
    • history
  • Chapters
    • what happened when in the story
  • Timelines
    • similar to Chapters, but overarching to the entire story

Of course, I'm not sure I'll find a single solution to track everything, but any suggestions are welcome.

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closed as not constructive by Oliver Salzburg May 27 '13 at 16:44

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Usage does not constitute support. Unless you're contributing money or code to the project, what you're really doing is rationalizing your own cheapness. –  Hasaan Chop Nov 20 '09 at 19:24
@NSD, I don't recall using the word "free" anywhere in my question. If a solution serves my needs and I decide to use it, I'll make a contribution. –  bedwyr Nov 20 '09 at 20:00
@NSD that's a rather grumpy comment. The person asking the question may well contribute to Open Source in some way –  ianfuture Nov 20 '09 at 20:01
It might be helpful to know what special requirements a fiction author has vs. anyone else. What special features are especially useful when writing a novel? I have no idea, myself. –  DaveParillo Nov 20 '09 at 20:33

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

This blog post links to a list of 50 free (with some open source) applications for writers. It also explains some of the benefits of yWriter.

Have you considered choosing software that at least exports to open formats, even if it isn't open source?

I haven't used yWriter myself, since I haven't been trying to write a novel, but I found it by searching for NaNoWriMo resources. You might find discussions on that useful as well.

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There's StoryBook here which looks pretty good.

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Thanks -- this looks promising. I run Ubuntu, which isn't directly supported, but I also found instructions for installing it. –  bedwyr Nov 20 '09 at 19:29

You might want to check out leo.

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It seems to me, one of the things a writer needs more than anything else is freedom from distraction. A text editor with as few features as possible and a low cognitive burden - GEdit is as simple as you can get in linux. Gedit supports UTF-8 and allows multiple files to be open in different tabs, which would help manage sections / chapters or whatnot.


AbiWord is more of a 'word processor', much more like ms word, but lightweight & still relatively simple.


FWIW, here's two pages, one from a person who was actually writing their novel in emacs (and why), and a decent writeup comparing vi & emacs, from someone who has clearly used both. As far as novel writing, emacs is a better tool for this job. O'Reilly's Leanring Gnu Emacs uses a fiction example as part of it's introduction to Working with Files & Directories.

Another resource is Emacs for Writers

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FWIW, I write pretty much everything in vim. I'd suggest using what you're comfortable with. –  David Thornley Nov 20 '09 at 20:48
@Dave, you make some great points. I found a program called "WriteRoom" which blacks out the screen and only allows you to see text. It's great at minimizing distraction. I am, however, a beginner and am not sure how well I would be able to keep track of my characters, locations, and plots using a simple text editor. Otherwise, I'd just use emacs ;) It's definitely something to think about though. –  bedwyr Nov 20 '09 at 21:01
There's probably an Emacs mode for writing novels anyway. –  Amos Nov 20 '09 at 21:40
I'm more a Vim fan-boy myself, but if you're a tech-oriented type, then emacs & vim both have tons of ability to organize content, split windows and otherwise navigate between many text files. –  DaveParillo Nov 20 '09 at 21:54
No, just like a source editor needs different tools than an office memo - a novel/screenplay needs different editing. You need to be able to track a storyline or a character, produce timelines of each actor, rearrange events etc. –  Martin Beckett Nov 20 '09 at 22:58

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