My Obsidian Journey Part I

After celebrating Tolkien Reading Day last week with a review of The Hobbit (1968 BBC Radio) and speculating on The Real Reason We Can’t Make Any Sense of 65 the week before, I’ve been having quite a bit of fun wearing my fannish cap these last couple weeks. I can never fully take that cap off, and even as I type up this post, there’s a part of me that’s anxiously anticipating #NationalVelociraptorDay coming up, #WorldBookDay after that, and then #WyrdAndWonder in May.

These activities are all well and good, but they’re just one kind of writing that I do, and in general, perhaps not the most challenging in terms of craft (although the ’65’ post surprised me at how much time it took to write and research).

The challenging parts of writing seem to reserve themselves for my attempts at original fiction. A story question — like “What if dinosaurs helped ancient Egyptians build the pyramids?” — might be the type of question authors love because because the answer is only limited to what they can imagine, but in attempting to answer that question, they will almost certainly come across other questions. What did the ancient Egyptians eat? Why were dogs so important to their culture? (for another story) Where else have we seen that Death personified? Is any of this something I can use?

Answering these questions is challenging enough, but keeping track of the answers adds another level of difficulty. Managing drafts, or attempting new (to me) writing techniques, adds still more trials.

It can all feel quite overwhelming.

Thankfully, these challenges are not unique to me, but seem to be prevalent among authors of every stripe, and as such there is an almost infinite well of possible solutions (finding anything useful that actually works for you is still a further challenge).

Enter Obsidian.

Touted as a “knowledge management” software (ahem note taking app), Obsidian’s whole premise seems to hinge on linking knowledge that you’ve already obtained with whatever it is you’re learning now.

In the words of Steve Jobs, “Creativity Is Just Connecting Things”.

Obsidian uses backlinking to allow you to make these connections, and has a pretty neat graph view which allows you not only to visualize the links, but also look around for more stuff you could link together. As the theory goes, using Obsidian allows you to create new and novel ideas, by making connections between the raw and disparate notes you’ve accumulated.

As Youtuber Aidan Helfant says:

” . . . most of the work comes in collecting and connecting information. When you sit down to write, you should be eighty percent done already . . . your past self does the work for you.” – from his video Lump, Dump & Jump (what a title!)

Like who doesn’t want that?

To be 80% done as soon as I sit down? Sign me up!

How it Started

Despite my current enthusiasm, quite a lot of time passed between when I originally heard about Obsidian (Worldcon 2021), and when I eventually installed it on my computer in November 2022. I think at that time, I had just begun experimenting with Scrivener, and I was not ready to simply jump ship because some new thing had come along no matter how good it sounded.

I’ve now “completed” — I seem to follow the old adage: Stories are never finished, but some are released — several more short stories (using Scrivener), and wiped out pretty spectacularly on a NaNoWriMo novel after 35,000 words. At least three of those short stories and the languishing novel were written in a “shared universe” aka fairytale Russia. Perhaps I still don’t know what I’m doing in Scrivener, but I struggled often when needing to reference points or characters from the previous stories, or facts I’d researched for one story but were actually useful for another.

Needless to say, a floaty graph with a bunch of links illustrated on my screen was starting to look mighty appealing.

How It’s Going

As of March 28th I’ve input 223 notes into my “vault”. About 15 are ideas related to ongoing fiction projects I’m working on. Like 2 are related to fairy tale Russia, and the rest are attached to a handful of premises that popped into my brain since November.

Of that handful only another two even have a whisper of an outline. A third I tried to pants my way through for tomorrow’s newsletter, but it’s stalled pretty heavily due to I’m not a pantser. A (hopefully) funny piece of flash fiction will release though . . .

The rest are about Ancient Egypt.

Ok, that’s a lie although that topic is probably what the majority of my notes are about. I would say there are also large chunks of notes about Writing Craft, Blog posts in various stages of development (including this one!) from a single sentences to complete at 1.5k words . . . an empty folder about 3D printing . . . ?

What Gives?

As I’m learning from the infinite amount of forum/reddit posts, Obsidian is a LOT of things. What I’m learning from my own experience, is that it is NOT a polished writing software like Scrivener, or even Microsoft Word.

Fiction can be written, and linked together in the fashion I’ve been imagining but there are a lot of simple things inherent in these other softwares that simply aren’t inherent to Obsidian (as far as I can tell). Things like SPELL CHECK!!

But hope is not completely lost. With the right plug-in, it seems you can accomplish almost anything you want.

So far the plugins I’ve found immediately useful allow me to:

  • Make Footnotes
  • Highlight a piece of text and then make a comment

Some plugins I’ve found that have potential:

  • Creating Timelines

Plugins that didn’t allow me to do what I wanted but I may still try to find a use for:

  • Kanban board
  • Make Columns

There are literally a gazillions of these plugins, so I’m sure I will be adding more and more as time goes on.

Verdict So Far . . .

In general, my journey with Obsidian has been a bit of a mess. Often in the beginning, it felt like I would sit down to write, starting at -80% complete instead of Helfant’s +80%. There is no doubt that the learning curve is high, and a lot of processes I already had in place with other writing software, I have to build again from scratch, often rethinking the methods entirely.

It can definitely be a bit much.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), I still get glimpses of the promise inherent in Obsidian’s design. Recently I’ve been learning quite a bit about cinematography. I had no intention of using any of the notes I took on lighting techniques or camera angles in a story, but when an idea came for a story, I was instantly able to connect those ideas to a plot formula I’d taken notes on earlier in the year.

Creativity, just by connecting things.

I’ll stick with it for now. Try a few more stories and continue to test out different plug-ins. There seems to be at least a few authors who have already blazed this trail, so perhaps I can learn some tricks from them.

My hunch is that this tool favors the long game. We’ll give it more time and see.

That’s pretty much it for me about Obsidian right now. Is anyone else using this to write fiction? What are your favorite features/plugins? How about your most frustrating issues? Leave your answers in the comments. Would love to learn more from y’all.


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