Tinderbox Forum

How to visualize a village?

I can see the advantage of dropping thoughts into Tinderbox, but I am wondering what would be the best way of tacking the task in the title?
Briefly, I am planning/researching a series of novels which will span a period of something close to 100 years (although there won’t be THAT many novels!!). All will be set in the same medieval village which has a castle nearby (it does really exist). Although I have many notes in Devonthink, I can’t ‘see’ the complexity of the village, and that’s where I need some help.
There will be many characters, inter-related over time (some disappearing and reappearing), marrying, having children, as well as performing various functions or having differing status (reeve, serf, villein, shepherd, blacksmith, miller etc) and belonging to various groupings (tithings) or being part of the castle family and servants, not to mention church officials.
I am aware that I shouldn’t try to impose too much structure to begin with, but I am having problems understanding how best to use Tbx to help me in seeing the complexities and inter-relationships which are a natural part of any village.
If you have suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them, but I’m not that familiar with the intricacies of it all, so some hand-holding might be required or at least some careful pointing out as to where to click or what to look for would be appreciated.
I hope I’ve given enough detail to allow some responses, but if I’ve left something out which you feel would be useful, I’ll do my best to comply.
Many thanks

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You can use a drawn/sketched map as a picture adornment, bearing in mind that Tinderbox is not a drawing app. IOW, if you want a map that looks like a map you might want to construct it elsewhere and then import it.

However, the interrelations your describe are only tangentially attached to the map. The elucidation comes from the metadata you create. I would start by making notes about locations, characters to start with. To do that, I’d first make a prototype for both those categories but not worry about customising them at outset beyond perhaps setting a different colour ($Color) for each. Why little so customisation? Because it’s better to add it when you know why you need it, as opposed to presuming a need. But with a prototype in place the changes are inherited by notes using the prototype.

So a character note may store their name, age (or a date to calculate age), their status (serf, villein, etc.), their family/clan, close family (spouse/parents/children), their trade, plus any MacGuffins, plot lines, and so on.

A building might list who works there, the type of building, scenes/plot in which they are used. Distance (time!) to other key buildings, line of sight (if relevant), etc…

Don’t try to add everything at once. Add what you need as you need it. Rather than repeat data you have in DEVONthink it may be simply just to add a devonthink:// link to that information.

If you like visual links you might want to use separate containers (i.e. maps) for characters and places so things don’t get over complicated. Don’t forget that attributes can act as proxy links. For instance, a building note could have Set-type attribute which all the characters who will appear in the building at some point.

Unless you like to write from a very detailed reference set, it may be that you use the overall ‘map’ to to record key strands and record other details as you write them.

Anyway, there are a few ideas. Others here will have additional, different and likely more polished ideas.

Some interesting thoughts here. Thanks. I hadn’t really thought how I would store character details, but you’ve given me a starting point. Plus I like the idea of using buildings as a container (don’t know if that’s the right word, but I know what I mean).
I’m going to be using an Ordnance Survey map (enlarged) for the actual map, so that’s not an issue.
One thing comes to mind, and that is how easy/hard would it be to show links between characters, if I have their family in one character’s note, and would also have each of those (relevant) family members having their own notes. Is it simple to show such links in some fashion?
I had been thinking about having each trade as a separate …thing (again not sure of the terminology), but your idea of having trades in the character’s note is much better. I assume I can then easily pull all the blacksmiths out and look at when each one was alive and who the family members were.
This is a good start for me. Thanks.

It depends how literal the term ‘show’ is. If you must see links between notes either:

  • All linked notes must be on the same map (i.e. in the same outline container)
  • Use Hyperbolic view

Otherwise, you can use things like Attribute Browser view the relationships in tabulated for. For instance if the scope of the AB view is all characters and you view a $FamilyName attribute, the categories shown in the list will be the discrete values (i.e. family names) in that attribute; under each category will be listed all notes that have that value in $FamilyName. The link isn’t in the form of a visual line but the association is just as clear. This might seem a counter-intuitive step, but consider how complex your visual ‘map’ becomes if every relationship is a link-line.

Another view to consider is Timeline. The Timeline can be used to portray characters and links between them.

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Hadn’t realized what the Attribute Browser could do, so thanks for that suggestion. That looks like it could work for me.

The timeline idea is also interesting. I’ll have to play around with that to gain a better idea of what it can do.
In Devonthink I have a mass of research concerning social, economic, cultural data. I could, perhaps, enter events which impinged on the village, such as local wars, the weather, plague dates, and other such stuff, and use the timeline to see that as a backdrop for the villagers.
However, I’m not sure as to the best way to enter the data for that. One note for each event, or containers for certain types of events (weather, politics etc) or one note for each year (except that creates problems for things which span across years)???
Basically, for those old enough to recall this, I suppose the nearest analogy for what I’m doing is a sort of Peyton Place for the Middle Ages in one village on the Anglo-Welsh border. The people are (mainly) fictional but the events aren’t.

Good, and you’ve also now seen timeline. Although map view is the default view in a new document, there are a number of other useful views. I guess I’d typify them thus:

  • Map. A visual thinking space, though commonly misread as a drawing space. The open ended map allows for associative sorting: i.e. is this thing like that or closer to some other thing. Visual link (lines) are used a lot in a map space but as they intuitive imply structure can work counter to surfacing less obvious relationships. Separately, there is a use where a visual grid is helpful, e.g. when planning teaching schedules. All items on a map are siblings in the Outline (q.v.).
  • Outline. Regardless of what views you use, the outline is how the data is stored, so useful if working out whether notes are in the same map. Once a document scales (000s rather than 0s of items) it is probably the most useful view as judicious use of containers avoids everything being in the same container (map!). Outline also support a column view giving a spreadsheet-like columns (it is not a spreadsheet!) offering a quite dense data display. Note, using lots of columns on a large display does push the app quite hard, so use the columns feature where needed rather than as a lazy default.
  • Chart. Is a tree-like render of the outline. Personally, I’m not sure of its best use. I know some like it so hopefully they will chip it with a comment as to where it is better than other views.
  • Timeline. Very useful if you use dates. A limitation of any timeline is ‘lumpy’ data (i.e. items bunched on the time axis). It is still very useful when looking at a chin of events, especially if customised to show only the relevant part/items of the overall document.
  • Treemap. This is like an outline drawn as a 2D map so all children are drawn within the space of their parent container. By default the space layout is for each child to use 1/Nth of the space for the N children. But, it can be set to assign space to the value of some other attribute, offering a a way to look at numerical values across the document or, for a hoisted view, part of it.
  • Attribute Browser. This allows tabulation of notes with discrete values for a given target attribute; i.e. if $SomeAttribute has values of ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’, the view shows a header for each value and under it rows for each note using that value. AB view offers a lots of customisation and also support Outline-like column view as well. It can be very good when reviewing research data, especially when doing qualitative coding of data (are there too many/few values, are the right values applied, etc.).
  • Hyperbolic. A new and still evolving view. This shows the document via its explicit links (basic and text links). It can be filtered to a single link type. notes not linked are omitted and it works at document scope thus working across the whole outline and avoiding the single-container scope of map view - although hyperbolic view controls the layout of items (i.e. it is not a drawing space).

All view offer significant customisation and control of scope (i.e. which notes are within the view). Some views favour a visual approach, others reward rich metadata (i.e. attribute values). If you only use one view, it is worth trying to others out. Avoid the trap of asking “how exactly do I use this?”. Instead, consider “what sort of data structure makes best use of this view”. conversely, no one has to use all views, but do be aware of what is there that you might be overlooking. In that vein, witness the fact that though I long-term user, I’ve hardly used Chart view though others do.

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Like always, “it depends”. My personal approach is that it is easier to combine notes then to decompose a note into multiple notes. IOW, if I was doing this I would not have a note for a year, but rather individual notes (with date attributes) for the events within that year. You can use agents, Attribute Browser, etc. to grab all the events in a year or any other time frame.

I generally avoid notes that summarize groups of other notes because agents, containers, AB, and other features are better for that. Just my personal approach.

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All good points made and which are helping me to clarify my approach. I appreciate being told about the various views. A great reference! Also the idea of grabbing events and collating notes is something I had overlooked (forest and trees syndrome).
This has certainly helped me begin to see how I can approach the problem. Basically get only the essentials for each note and then add later as necessary if the various views do not allow me to see what I’m after.
I think I’m going to have get my head around agents, as they seem to have a great deal of power in arranging/analysing data.

You can think of agents as sophisticated smart searches that can also modify notes. I think your approach of getting the basics down first is a good idea.

It’s frequently written in this forum that Tinderbox excels at “emergent structure” – meaning that your document grows and morphs as you collect and understand the content better. So it’s all about experimentation and productive play.

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One quick note on a very minor Tinderbox task.

Writing my school story Those Trojan Girls, I found that I frequently had to move people around a small, imaginary campus. I didn’t particularly want to describe the campus, but getting the action properly embedded in space required some spatial details: people walk down to the front gates or past the playing fields. Using Map View to sketch a very crude, schematic diagram of where everything was turned out to be very helpful. When I needed to add some detail or insert a new building, that was easy, too. A paper sketch would have been less malleable.

Another big win was a container dedicated to a cast list, organized by role. So, there was a container of students, a container of faculty and staff, a container of city and police officials. Each note would contain established characteristics. This saved lots of time and trouble; I could quickly check Cassandra’s hair color or Amy’s parents’ names. These were mere haphazard notes that grew gradually over time: for example, I didn’t bother to think about parents I didn’t need for the story. But having things written down helps.

Yes, I think I’ll probably break things down (at first) into three categories: villagers, those in the castle and outsiders. That way I can (hopefully) avoid putting a villager inside a castle instead of in a field!
As for the map, I’m uncertain yet as to the final form. The village itself won’t change much at all but the inhabitants will. So I am leaning presently to the idea of a paper map on the wall with the houses marked in and labeled (A,B,C or 1,2,3 probably) and can then use those labels to identify who was living where and when in Tbx.
The more I think about this the more possibilities I see. For instance, I could include various real crimes and fines and associate them with individuals as well.
Ideally, the end result would be for me to have a much more organic idea of the village in my head as the result of these notes, to which I can refer and also sort and select for specific details.
Another thought…how easy/hard is it to combine notes or details from notes if I find that doing so would facilitate my progress?

If you want to combine text, then copy/past works but is slow. A agent can combine text for you, or a stamp.

But if you have different attributes in two notes it can get tricky.

I think it’s best to not plan on combining notes – at least not too many of them.

Good to know. I’ll definitely need to check out agents and, now, stamps

You’ve heard from the experts, now for someone who isn’t …

A couple of personal observations:

  1. I like to keep my notes fairly short. The military used to say that a letter should have only one subject, and that is how I tend to operate when it comes to notes. Bear in mind that when you have a lot of notes on a map (or something similar) you will be looking at them, not reading them. An idea that is buried in the middle of 250 words may be difficult to find, even when you have found the note it is in. I find it is easier to “see” information from ten short notes than it is from one long one that covers the same material.
  2. James Fallows commented that, for him, Tinderbox was more about associations than hierarchies. I’ve found this one of the most valuable insights on these forums.

An extra observation – if you are dealing with times and dates, it is probably easier to define your own attributes than use the built-in time/date. User-defined attributes are extremely useful. When dealing with history I’ve defined year, month, and day/date separately and individually, so that I can use whichever bit I like, when I like. In addition to which you can define any period you might like (spring, summer, autumn, winter) and even harvest time, Michaelmas, quarter days, rent days – you name it. You might even want Angelus, vespers, and so forth. Not to mention saint’s days or festivals. All that is possible. (Aside - when I was working on 18th century Italy, I was intrigued to discover that their method of telling the time was quite different from ours – they didn’t go from midnight to midnight – they went from the hour of the evening prayer to the next one.)

I almost wish I was working in history again – but I’ve got too much to do …


An excellent thought about user-defined dates! I can certainly see a use for those, allowing me to be able to work with those more easily. Thank you for that.

Just playing around with your suggestion and wanted to ask for clarification. You say you defined year, month and day/date separately, but how exactly? Did you create an attribute for year, another for month, and another for day, or one for each year, month, and day? For me, that would be a huge list of attributes given the span of time I’m covering, but I can see advantages in sorting.

One attribute for year (a numerical value), another for month (idem) and so on. Because some of the dates I had were “incomplete”, the built-in date-time attribute was not very convenient. I might have “June 1752” and no day, for example. Some dates were also “fuzzy”, so I also created an attribute that I called “modifier” or some such, which had words like “before, after, circa” and so forth. That allowed me to have expressions like “before 1752”. I could probably have handled that better, but it wasn’t important at the time. Bear in mind that you can concatenate any of the elements to create your own date format if you want. Tinderbox has a lot of flexibility in that sort of thing.

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Obviously I’m being stupid but… I am trying to use the Attribute Browser but can’t figure it out.
Ive got several characters as notes. In the text I’ve added some brief details about appearance: eye color, hair color and so on (this is all just for learning purposes).
If I enter “blonde” as as search term, it lists all five, but only one has blonde hair.
I then added “hair” as an attribute and added the detail “blonde” to the same character and tried again. Still nothing.
I was expecting to see just the single character listed, but all five are stubbornly remaining in place. I’ve read the help and tried to follow the instructions, but this apparently simple procedure has me stumped. I know I can add various columns to the display, but nothing alters the result.
Could someone please put me out of my misery? (And I haven’t even started to learn about agents yet!!)