An Easy (Easier) Way to Build a Series Bible

Indexing our Fiction

The “One and Done Technique”

The “Hansel and Gretel Magic Breadcrumbs Technique”

by Steve Hooley


Today we are discussing indexing our fiction. That is something that is not often done, so you are probably asking why would anyone want to do that.

Recently, Sue and JSB posted on the importance of a having a series bible if you are writing a series. If you’re like me, you agreed that we need to have one, but you groaned at the thought of all the work involved in creating one.

So, today, we’re going to look at a technique that should make the process of building a series bible quicker and easier.

We will call it the “One and Done Technique.” Or you can call it the “Hansel and Gretel Magic Breadcrumbs Technique.”

And now, you’re probably wondering why there is a picture of a target at the top of the post. The answer: I’m going to lay out a plan that you will think is either hair-brain crazy or worth improving and considering. So, you can shoot it full of holes and sink it (thus the target), or you can help improve the idea into something that works for you.

Why Indexing?

In nonfiction the index links the reader back to the desired subject by the use of page numbers in a physical book or by hyperlinks in an eBook. For our series bible “indexing” we’re going to use an outline of our series bible as the index, and use a code (our “magic breadcrumb”) to link (find) a word, line, or paragraph in our manuscripts via the Find search tool.

It would be nice to hyperlink the two locations (outline and text info), but I don’t think that could be done between two separate Word documents. And, in some cases, we want the code to link to more than one text location. So, in today’s discussion we will use the Find tool.

Hansel and Gretel used breadcrumbs, hoping it would help them find their way back out of the forest. Of course, that didn’t turn out too well. Our magic breadcrumbs are going to contain a code (and a bird repellant) to get us back out of our series bible outline, and to a specific item or fact in the text of our manuscript.

The Process

  1. We will set up our series bible with an outline of all the subjects/facts we want it to contain. And this is where reviewing Sue’s and JSB’s posts will be very helpful.
  2. Each item in the outline will be given an alpha-numeric code that will be case specific.
  3. Next, we print out a copy of the outline and codes.
  4. And then we read through our searchable copy of our manuscript ONCE. With printed outline in hand, we look for any place in our manuscript where there is a fact we want in our series bible. We refer to our outline, and insert the proper code (magic breadcrumb) in front of the fact or data. If we find something we want in our series bible (but is not in the outline or has not been given a code), we add it to the outline and give it a code at that time. Remember, the idea is to go through the manuscript only once.

Once and Done

When we’ve made it through our searchable manuscript once, the hard work is done. We didn’t have to search through our manuscript multiple times for multiple facts. We read it and tagged it once. We wipe our hands together and smile.

Now we have two choices: We can use the codes to pull the answers for a separate document (our series bible), or we can consider our outline and codes to be our series bible and be done. Guess which choice I plan to make.

How do you search for the code in your manuscript?

You use your Find tool. And be certain to check the boxes for “complete word” and “case sensitive,” so that you will get only the code you are looking for. And, note that you may have linked multiple locations in your searchable manuscript to that code.

In Word: The Find tool is on the far right of the top ribbon or tool bar. Click the down arrow, then “advanced find.” At the bottom of the box that opens, click “More.” Then check the boxes “match case” and “find whole words only.” You are then ready to insert your code into the box at the top and find your data in your manuscript.

In Pages (Mac): Under Edit, click Find. Click the down arrow beside the “settings” symbol (which is to the left of the find box). Then check “Whole Words” and “Match Case.” Then fill in your code in the find box, and you’re on your way. By the way, Pages can open Word documents, if you do your editing on Word on a PC, and you write on a Mac laptop (where you want your series bible to be handy.)

In Scrivener: If you’re using Scrivener on a Mac, the process is much the same. You find “Find” under the Edit tab. Click on the “Find…” in the drop-down menu. Underneath the Find and Replace boxes, unclick “ignore case.” Click on the menu choices in the box above “ignore case.” Click on “Whole word.” And you’re ready to search.

If you’re using Scrivener on a PC, ask someone familiar with both. I have an old version of Scrivener on an old laptop with Windows 7. I’m afraid my advice wouldn’t be up to date.

Below is the beginning of an outline and codes (for an example)

CH – characters

     a – main character

     b – secondary characters

     c – allies

     d – antagonists

     e – shape shifters

     f – misc. characters

     g – pets and animals

          1 – name

          2 – description

          3 – age

          4 – birthday/anniversary

          5 – special power/role

          6 – favorite food, etc.

          7 – character arc

So, in the above, the code for a shape shifters’ description would be CHe2.

You can choose to make your outline as detailed or general as you wish. You can choose to join all your manuscripts together into one manuscript, or keep them separate. Make sure to not create a code that is specific for one book if you are searching manuscripts separately as separate documents (so the same code will work for any of your books). If you join all books into one document, you will need to consider whether you want a code to be specific for one book in the series or for all books.

Here’s where those of you who’ve created a series bible can help the rest of us. How did you organize your series bible? Or, did you create an outline of your series bible, and how is that organized?


This process seems so simple, I would not be surprised to learn that someone has already described this approach. I searched the internet and could not find it.

When I searched “Indexing Fiction,” I found Stephen Ullstrom’s blog site and an article he had written on Indexing Fiction: Thoughts and Suggestions.

Ullstrom is an expert on indexing. In his article, he states that indexing fiction is rarely done, but not a new concept. He suggests three areas where it might be useful: creating a joke index in a humous book, creating an index for historical novels that are being studied with a focus on customs, beliefs, objects, and other historical details, and finally, in an extensive series (such as sci fi or fantasy) where it is difficult for the reader to keep track of all the characters, world building, fictional cultures, and geography.

Ullstrom did not mention use of an index system for building a series bible. I contacted him and asked for any thoughts he had on the subject, and invited him to join us today to help direct the discussion. He has commitments today, but may stop by. If you’re reading this, Stephen, welcome to The Kill Zone, a great place to hang out when you add fiction to your writing projects.

For those of you planning a nonfiction project, Ullstrom offers a free 7-day email course on how to index.

Okay, time for discussion:

  1. Do you think this idea is worth pursuing? Or should it sink?
  2. What modifications can you think of to make it better?
  3. Would a “streamlined” approach like this make you more inclined to create that series bible you have been avoiding?

42 thoughts on “An Easy (Easier) Way to Build a Series Bible

  1. Good morning, Steve. I am in awe of what you have presented. I don’t write series, but if I did, I would use this. It seems like there would be a bit of a learning curve initially but would save a lot of work over the arc of the project.

    Note to those who have joined us today…Steve probably conceived and created this in an afternoon. I’m serious.

    Have a terrific weekend, Steve!

    • Good morning, Joe. You’re too kind. Actually, I forgot to credit some other people who listened to my crazy idea. I hesitate to mention their names, in case this idea is a flop. I will mention Ben Lucas. He had some good ideas that could make the whole scheme better. Hopefully he’ll have some thoughts to add today. A couple other people, I better not mention their names until we see if this idea actually survives the onslaught today.

      Thanks for your comments (and confidence). Have a great weekend!

  2. Steve, you present a thought-provoking idea. I love to hear different people’s approaches on tackling things related to writing books. At the moment (subject to change at any time due to the fickle nature of my mind) I don’t think I would use this approach–but it has NOTHING to do with the workability of the approach and everything to do with the fact that one of my greatest struggles is practical/OCD w/details vs. creative flow. For me personally, trying this approach would be a further step outside creative flow. At the moment, I’m just in the “keep a spreadsheet & list key things” phase. But I do still need to refine my process, and this may be just the ticket on down the road.

    When you mentioned non-fiction indexing, I got a gleam in my eye because I had at one time thought that would be really cool to do, but never had time to pursue training for it. And now with technology, I wasn’t sure if people doing indexing was still a thing. But I think it would be awesome to have a niche indexing American history books.

    I’m curious as I’m thinking through what you described in your process. One of the things everyone struggles with is keeping series bibles up to date as things are revised. Do you find that works about the same for this method vs. another? I’m just curious about your thoughts/commenters thoughts on this issue.

    Thank you for giving me a new possibility to think about. I appreciate it. That’s why I love TKZ.

    • Thanks for your comments, BK. Great thoughts.

      Regarding your question about keeping a series bible up to date: I’m just starting this process, and still working on my outline. That’s one of the reasons I posted this idea now, so I could learn from everyone else’s ideas for creating the outline. I would be interested in how you arranged/organized that spreadsheet you use. (And you could leave your “outline” in a spreadsheet format and simply add a code for future books to make it easier to gather the data – one read through.)

      As to keeping the series bible up to date. Hopefully, an extensive outline would decrease the need to go back later and tag new information from older books in the series, but no system is perfect. And if someone wanted to change the organization of their outline (and change the code), the old code would take them directly to the text location, where the code could be changed. As for updating the series bible with each new book: That’s where it would be helpful to have an outline and codes that are generic enough to work on any of the books in the series.

      As for nonfiction editing, check out Stephen Ullstrom’s website and his free 7 day email course on indexing.

      Have a great weekend!

      • Thanks. I did sign up for the 7 day free course. I’m eager to see what he has to share.

  3. “This process seems so simple.”

    As simple as “E=mc [squared].” (don’t know how to format the “2”).

    Steve, the process may be simple but the mind that created it is complex and brilliant! It certainly sounds workable.

    • Thanks, Debbie. You are always so positive. Since we’ve had a couple positive comments on the idea, I’ll mention that you are one of the people to whom I presented this idea, early on. Your polite reservation about the idea, led me to try to simplify and clarify the idea (as well as search for an expert like Stephen Ullstrom). Thanks for making me try to improve the muddy initial concept!

      Thanks for always encouraging! Have a great weekend!

    • Here, Debbie, are a few exponent 2’s:
      Use them judiciously, and be sure to let me know if you need more, haha! (There’s an ASCII input code, but my Ubuntu system won’t accept it.) On DOS machines, it was [ALT]num pad 253, IIRR. (The Unicode keys are U + 00B, but I don’t use those).

      For more on ASCII entry for all characters:

  4. Wow, Steve. You should turn this into an app. Not sure how to do that, but I bet you do. 🙂
    To answer your question, I format my series bible like this:


    •Favorite lines, blah, blah, blah…

      Book 1: injuries
      Book 2: injuries
      Book 3: injuries
      Book 4: injuries, etc. etc.

    Next character I do the same thing. Injuries include emotional scars. I put minor characters and killers after the main players. And I color-code each book. So, if something happens in Book 1, I know it with one glance.


    Book 1: A sentence or two about the main plot


    A sentence or two about the subplot for each book.
    And on and on it goes. Hopefully, my HTML codes will work. Ha!

    • Thanks, Sue. And thanks for sharing your outline. I plan to study that.

      As to an app for the process, it seems to me that the process is so simple that a writer needs only set up an outline, then work in a document format (like Word, Pages, Scrivener) that would be handy to use, while writing, to find the information.

      But, given that new apps are the “solution” to everything, someone will probably try to sell an app for this approach. Everyone who follows TKZ will already know to save their money.

      Have a great weekend!

  5. This is a smart and organized approach. I see the utility but I I’m not disciplined enough to create and maintain such an index.
    I admire/envy those who are more straightened away and skilled.
    Thank you!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Tom. And thanks for your thoughts.

      I know that you are a very disciplined and organized individual, given that you are a retired ER physician (and worked with “protocols”). Maybe I should have called this a “protocol” instead of an approach. This protocol could be your “protocol for collection of past history.”

      Just kidding. Retirement is for enjoyment, not for following a bunch of protocols.

      I hope things are going well! Have a great weekend!

  6. Wow, Steve, certainly an interesting and detailed approach. I’m trying to picture how to use it…say I’m writing Book 4 and wanted to see how I described a character back in Book 1. In my series bible I have a TOC where I can locate the book and the character at a glance, then go right to the description in my bible. I could open Book 1 and search for the character name, too. On my Mac, I can also use spotlight search. How would I find this info under your system?

    Another question: are you saying you actually type in the “code” at text in the document? Word also has hidden codes for setting up TOC and Index. I wonder if that might be a promising area to explore.

    Thanks for the brain teaser this morning. I need more coffee.

    • Good morning, Jim. Thanks for your thoughts and questions. I knew you would do a thorough job of cross examining the witness. And you already have him squirming.

      From what you said in your first paragraph, it sounds like you have already indexed your series bible, and are using a system similar to this one. My approach is to have the index (or outline) in hand, and only need to go through the manuscript once, placing the code (typing it in front of the text) to provide a link from the (series bible outline) via the Find search tool.

      Use of Word’s hidden code and setting up an index is a great idea. Do you know if it is possible to have the index link back to more than one location in the text? (ex. description of a character occurs in multiple locations in the text) To do this, the series bible index would need to be part of the same document as the manuscript. And the writer would need to merge all the manuscripts into that same manuscript. I like this idea if the index can link back to more than one location in the text, or allow multiple codes (like page numbers) for linking back to several locations in the text.

      Thanks for the tough questions. I’d love to see a post where you describe your process in detail. I’ll drink several cups of coffee that morning.

      Have a great weekend!

      • Steve, the answer is yes. Word indexing is set up to be a real index, with multiple page cites if need be. So you could go through Book 1 and index it; then do the same with Book 2 and merge the books in to one master doc. You then compile a new index and boom, there you are.

        I need to give this more thought.

        • Thanks, Jim. Word and indexing are next on my “to learn” list. I think your approach is a winner. You get to name it. When you get all the details worked out, I would certainly love to read about it!

  7. Thanks, Steve. As an alternative (not “better,” only different) you can also create a “reverse outline” as you write the novel. (This is especially useful for those who do not outline prior to writing.)

    At the top of my RO is a list of characters, which I add as they appear, along with their physical characteristics. Below that is a list of significant places (towns, buildings, intersections, etc.) also added as they appear. Below that, the actual RO is a list of chapter numbers, alongside each of which is a very brief synopsis of the chapter, characters who appeared, etc. (Each entry on my RO is no more than two or three sentences.)

    The RO serves the same purpose for a novel as the series bible serves for the series: It is especially handy when the writer is trying to remember a character’s eye color, etc. Glancing at the RO is much easier than searching back through the manuscript. Should the novel become a series, simply combine the ROs for all books to create a series bible.

    • Thanks, Harvey. Great idea! I think I’ve seen you describe reverse outlining previously. And it’s a great idea, especially for those of us who find it difficult to get motivated writing additions to a series bible after we’ve finished the manuscript. Writing the current chapter elements immediately after writing the chapter would certainly be the best time to remember the details and significance of what is in the chapter. I would agree that this would even be easier than searching with the Find tool.

      Do you use your RO (while you’re writing) as a printed document, or as a document file?

      Thanks for sharing your technique. I wish I would have started that at the beginning of my series.

      Great idea! Have a great weekend!

      • Due to a physical problem, it’s difficult for me to write by hand, so I personally create my RO on a Notepad (txt) document. I’ve never printed one out, but I keep the file open on the screen in a different location while I’m writing so I can refer to it quickly if necessary. I do know other professional fiction writers who use the same technique but put the RO on a yellow legal pad or other paper, which they have lying on the desk next to them as they write.

        • Thanks for describing your technique, Harvey. I keep notes/outline/ reminders on google docs open behind my Scrivener screen. I think I’m going to try using that as a place (separate document) for creating my RO.

          Your RO technique got a lot of positive reviews today. I’m thinking it would be great to use, even if I pull things together at the end into a more formal series bible.

          Thanks for sharing your technique!

  8. Fascinating post, Steve! You’ve laid out a very interesting, organized approach. I don’t have a series bible–this gives me a lot of food for thought. I know writers who have set up their own Wikis on the web that do something similar.

    Of course, with fantasy novels like yours, this can record all your world notes.

    Thanks for sharing this! You’ve given us all a lot of food for thought. Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Thanks, Dale. I’m getting a lot of ideas today. I already have five books written in my series. I wish I would have started something at the beginning. I like Harvey’s idea (above) for creating a document chapter by chapter, while writing the document. No time like the present. But, for those five books already out there, I’m going to try the One and Done approach.

      Maybe Sue’s idea for an app isn’t such a bad idea. Tag/code the information as you write, toss it into the hopper (the app), and Wala! The app creates the series bible. Ah, nothing worth doing is easy.

      Have a great weekend!

  9. The concept is ingenious, though there are other approaches. Well done, Steve.

    I almost hate to bring it up, but there are programs called PIMs, Personal Information Managers. One of the best is (was) Lotus Agenda, which I wrote a third party manual for, published by Windham Press, IIRR. Among many other things, if you set up a category, say ‘scars,’ the program would automatically index every occurrence of that word. It has, I’m told, been replaced by Weenie-DOS’s Outlook, which may represent gross over-kill. I’m not sure it would beat Steve’s method, or James’s, or Harvey’s approach. For hard-core experimenters, I believe Windows OS copies of Lotus Agenda can still be obtained.

    • Thanks, JG. Lotus Agenda sounds interesting, but I’m definitely not a hard-core experimenter. I struggle, as it is, with simple tools I already have. I need to learn more about indexing with Word, and experimenting with reverse outlining.

      Thanks for your very informative comments, as always.

      Have a great weekend!

  10. Very interesting concept, Steve. You might be right on target with this. I’m going to print this off and give it a few more reads to see if I can work this into a new series I’m starting. Thanks for the post – good stuff!

  11. Search tools to create an index are useful after the manuscript is done or you need one for a series but not so much when you are writing it. The bible for me is as much about having information before and while you are writing as having it when you are done. I do maps of homes, lists of possible names for characters if specific types of names are needed, ridiculously bad illustrations of possible things in the novel–antique magic illusions as an example, etc. The maps and the illustrations are one reason why my bible is mainly on paper, plus my big picture creative process works best when I have a pen in hand.

    • Thanks for you ideas, Marilynn. It sounds like you do a lot of research and planning before you start writing. For me, that’s one of the most enjoyable parts of writing. I call it brainstorming. My wife calls it my crazy stage.

      And I would agree with you, that the large-picture creative stage works best with pen and paper. I usually have a thick folder of scribbling by the time I start typing.

      Have a great weekend, and keep drawing!

  12. Using an index is an interesting approach. I’m less convinced that a code sheet is the way to go. Word, at least, has a built-in index feature that’s pretty simple to learn. I’d have these concerns about inserting code:

    What happens if you need to revise and republish in either print or electronic format? All the codes have to be deleted before running the work through a conversion tool. I haven’t actually tried this, but I don’t think that the built-in index feature causes any issues, and you can just delete the index after conversion if it does get built.

    The code quickly gets complex, and it isn’t human readable. Your example has a long list of stuff converted to code, and it’s only about characters. There’s also settings and events to consider. You can end up with a code list that’s quite long and confusing. If you use the index feature, all the ‘code’ is in the form of human-readable index words, and things can be listed with multiple connections. For example, you can have a listing for when a character is in a certain setting (listed by the character), and you can have a cross-listing under the setting for that (and other) characters who may appear there.

    If you decide to use the built-in index, it would be possible to create it as you write. I’ve seen many comments mention that writers like to edit the previous day’s work before writing forward. That would be a great time to stick in index entries and eliminate a separate indexing pass later. It would also provide a quick reference for those of us who write slowly and can’t remember by the last chapter whether we said the main character’s eyes were brown or blue in an earlier chapter. :O

    • Wow! Thanks KS, for your thoughts and the very useful information. After your comments and Jim’s, I’m definitely going to study the use of Word and indexing. I write in Scrivener, so I need to do some thinking about the whole process. I like the idea of doing the indexing while one writes, or making a reverse outline, like Harvey described. I just googled Scrivener and indexing. Scrivener apparently can create a table of contents, but I didn’t see the ability to create an index. One could compile and export each chapter from Scrivener (to Word) after it is finished.

      So much to consider. Thanks for bringing up all these issues.

      Have a great weekend!

  13. Good evening, Steve. I’m late to the party as usual on a Saturday night.

    I love your indexing idea. For a mystery author, what could be better than codes?

    I only have three books so far in my series, so things are a little simpler for me. One area I have to be careful of is names. (I was using an incorrect name for one of my recurring characters in my third book, but luckily I caught it before it was published.)

    I now have a series bible that has all the character names and a few other important items about each book. I’d like to learn more about your approach, though, as my series grows.

    • Good evening, Kay. We kept the lights on for you. Or, as Joe has said, the party is never over.

      Names can trip up any of us. My secondary characters have nicknames they usually go by. I have often slipped back to using the proper name, and been reminded of my mistake by a beta reader.

      As to the approach we discussed today, there were some good suggestions for improvements. I’m betting on some changes over the next few weeks, or even a hybrid method utilizing Harvey’s idea of collecting the important data while the chapter is being written, and then utilizing Word’s indexing tools, like JSB suggested. I don’t know. I want to experiment to see which is quicker and easier.

      You’re the IT person, I bet you’ll come up with some ideas. We didn’t discuss it today, but I wonder if the series bible was a document on an HTML site, ?Google docs?, could we find a way to use hyperlinks.

      I enjoy putting out an idea and letting people find a way to make it better. Writers are very creative people.

      Have a great weekend!

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