Using Excel to Write

I use Excel to write fiction.

I don’t mean that I write fiction in Excel–it’s a spreadsheet program–not a writing program. But I use it to keep track of the details in my various projects so I can maintain internal consistency and organize my notes.

The practice evolved with my novel, To Give a Rose.

That novel is about a community of australopithecines–apish creatures who lived in societies of a few dozen individuals. I call them “foot-apes” in my book. Early on, I realized that a community that small would have no strangers in it. My characters would all know each other intimately, and then meant I couldn’t have any undefined bit-characters. There might be characters who had very little “screen time,” as it were, and little bearing on the plot, but my main characters would know who they were–to be believable, I had to know them, too.

I was looking at developing a lot of characters.

The other problem I faced was that the demographics of a foot-ape community would be very different from anything I’m used to. We know from fossil evidence that the average life expectation of A. afarensis was just 23 years old. That doesn’t mean they died of old age at 23, it means most of them didn’t live to grow old. Based on both wild chimpanzee communities and human communities without access to modern medicine, we can be sure infant mortality was very high, and balanced by a high birth-rate. What would a community like that look like?

I needed some way of creating a realistic demographic profile for a community that would definitely not match my intuitive sense of normal.

I solved both problems by creating a graph, initially on paper, that listed every member of the community in five-year increments from its founding until its dissolution seventy-some years later. On the first line, I marked each founding member of the group–each individual was coded with a letter and either a masculine or feminine symbol, plus an age. On the next line I copied all the codes down, minus one who had died, advanced all the ages five years, and added several babies–the babies had the same letters as their mothers, plus a number indicating birth order. I repeated the process, adding babies and new immigrants and subtracting the dead and the emigrants, for fourteen lines.

I followed some simple rules, based on the life histories of chimpanzees and humans and on the fossil record of real foot-apes. For example, each year I’d give a new baby to 80% of the adult females who didn’t have nursing age children already. I’d also kill off 33% of those babies before their third birthday. Although I made a few adjustments in favor of the plot, for the most part the graph was governed by arithmetic–it was a very simple version, therefore, of the simulations run on computers.

From that point on, not only did I have a demographically realistic community, I also had a ready source of new characters. Although in the beginning the graph listed only numbers and letters and ages, any time I needed a new character, all I had to do was to grab a code off the graph and give it a name–the graph meant it would already have all its major milestones all worked out. Did the new character play with the main character as a child? Were they related? Did they have shared tragedies or triumphs? It was all on the graph already. Any new details I came up with could then be added to the graph for safe-keeping.

Over time, as the graph grew more complex, I upgraded it, first to a set of index cards and then to the database feature of Microsoft Office. Working on the computer made the whole thing easier to read, easier to organize, and easier to check for errors and inconsistencies.

I later made a second database for all the plants and animals that shared foot-ape habitat, according to my research. Since I had decided foot-apes use multiple habitat types, and would encounter different species in different areas of their home, it helped to be able to call up, with just a couple of mouse clicks, the animals and plants that would be in any given scene.

Eventually, I had to get a new computer and I discovered that the old database program is no more. Reluctantly, I switched to Excel, a spreadsheet program with most of the same functionality as the old database.

By that time I had finished the first draft of Rose and no longer needed its spreadsheets very often, but I had other projects that also required keeping track of vast amounts of detail.

For example, the School with No Name, a long-running serialized novel I post to a blog, is also set in a small, tight-knit community and also plays out over many years (although the characters are human). I use a spreadsheet to keep track of all the students in the community–again, I start by filling out the spreadsheet according to simple rules and then I create characters based on the simulation after the fact. In the case, the issue is less that everybody knows everybody (they don’t, except on a very superficial level) and more than I want to make sure the school community actually has the demographic characteristics the narrator says it does–how many people are in each major and that sort of thing. I can also use the Sort command to look at, say, everyone in the graduating class in a given year who belongs to the same dorm as the narrator. Then he can say “wow, half my dorm is graduating this year!” Or, whatever else.

I also have a spreadsheet listing course schedules and another one listing the careers of all the faculty and staff–if I want to see how old Charlie was when Joy was hired, I can simply look that up.

But spreadsheets can do something that databases and paper graphs cannot–they can do arithmetic for me. This feature has proven very important in my latest project, a book set in the aftermath of a global pandemic.

Again, I created a simulation, but this one charts not the development of a community but the progression of a pandemic over time–given simple rules about infection rates, mortality rates, and so forth, how long does it take for so many people to be either sick, dead, or caring for the ill that the social and economic infrastructure collapses?

Epidemiologists actually use simulations to study pandemics, but they don’t use Excel to do it–and they don’t use arithmetic. They use calculus. That level of modeling is far beyond my expertise and it’s probably beyond my laptop as well. But my simple version can hopefully give me at least some understanding of how the scenario I have constructed would play out. Using a simulation rather than my unaided imagination also allows me to discus my vision for the situation with others because I can share the spreadsheet in a way I cannot share the inside of my mind.

So, I’m at the point where all of my various fiction projects has at least one associated spreadsheet–and most have several. I use Excel far more often, and with far more success, than I do for any other kind of project. I don’t mean to advertise for Microsoft (whose products I use largely out of convenience), only to say that sometimes tools become unexpectedly important for tasks they were never designed for.

I’d say that, for writing, Excel is now my second-most important creative tool, right behind the program I actually write in.



About Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.
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