Something pretty unique to Fantasy and Science Fiction is the existence of huge scale universes. Canonical listings of information abound these days. It is very easy to research new books in, say, the Star Wars universe what with things like Wookieepedia to help out. But this begs the question.

How did authors and rights-holders keep track of canon, before these sites existed? Did they keep large databases? Was it all by hand on paper? If there were multiple techniques, please list them all in your answer.

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    What, no answer from Tango? :( Jan 18 '12 at 20:10
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    JK Rowling sometimes had to refer to the internet for information on her own characters. How convenient the internet has become.
    – LarsTech
    Jan 18 '12 at 20:39
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    Orson Scott Card would (still does?) release his drafts to selected individuals at the Hatrack bulleting board (his fansite) so they could help catch continuity issues
    – HorusKol
    Jan 18 '12 at 22:18
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    @Thaddeus just stored it all in his head.
    – Möoz
    Apr 21 '15 at 7:57
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    @GEdgar: it probably says a lot about his era and ours that he only had one fan who did that. We basically have an entire website dedicated to it! Jul 9 '15 at 7:22

They hired people to keep track of things. Frequently in the Star Wars EU books I read as a kid the author would thank some of the people in Lucas Licensing's/Lucas Book's continuity group who helped keep things straight. You can read more about the evolution of this group and their work on this Wikipedia page.

Star Trek, another big universe, similarly had people at Paramount who kept track of things. The famous names I recall being the Okudas, who wrote many technical manuals and helped establish the scientific and technological limits of the Star Trek universe. This site mentions a Richard Arnold as working in a similar area of canon maintenance as well. Kellam de Forest also worked as a canon advisor and all-round consultant on Star Trek. Essentially, in an age before Wikis, Star Trek had their own encyclopedias created.

The BBC on the other hand, takes a different tack with regards to Doctor Who. They maintain there's no canon for Doctor Who. They don't keep any sort of track of the continuity of events in the Doctor Who and related shows, and there's no enforcement either of internal consistency. More info can be found here.

Those are the three biggest sci-fi universe dynasties I could think of, which give you a good idea of how others would handle the issue.

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    Rick Arnold's job was to keep novels and such clean and to watch over consistency. He pissed off a lot of people and was a controversial figure. Many felt that he basically pushed his own agenda in what he allowed and didn't allow. He eventually ended up out on his keister somewhere along the way. There are mixed reactions, still, to him and whether he did a good job or just worked on nepotism.
    – Tango
    Jan 18 '12 at 21:56
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    Old answer, I know, but I'd like to see Tolkien added - he's a perfect example of someone who kept up with large continuities by writing it all down on paper. Granted, things changed as he went but that was due to him changing his mind, not forgetting what he had done previously.
    – Omegacron
    Sep 29 '14 at 19:23
  • @Mr.Bultitude From that link, it sounds like he was more of a historical and science consultant, not a Star Trek canon consultant. Great link though, I hadn't heard of them before.
    – user1027
    Apr 20 '15 at 20:35
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    Terry Pratchett's Discworld is another enormous universe. In interviews over the last 20 years, Pratchett acknowledged that Stephen Briggs (author of several editions of the Discworld Companion) provided invaluable assistance in keeping track of the worldbuilding details. Apr 20 '15 at 22:51
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    @gaius Star Wars maintains great continuity compared to other massive universes like Marvel, DC and Doctor Who.
    – Rogue Jedi
    Oct 8 '15 at 10:32

Internally, the producers and writers of a show would form a Series Bible, which contained all the information about the universe, including things like how warp drive works, and what years Samuel Beckett is allowed to Leap into. Externally, fans mostly had to make do with technical manuals, and "making of" books that were occasionally published. Often, those books were the only way a fan could really know how warp drive worked, or where the bathroom is on the Enterprise.

Between the development of the internet and the proliferation of wikis, the fans made fansites, which listed information about the show, episode descriptions, and what behind the scenes info they could find. These sites were all usually maintained by a single person, so if that person got bored, overwhelmed, or disappeared, the fansite would soon die, leaving the internet barren with details on the functions of the TARDIS.

Wikis have the obvious advantage of being a group effort, so the sites are no longer reliant on a single person anymore. Internally, however, shows still use a series bible, though it might be electronic and something like a wiki, instead of a loose-leaf collection of memos from the show creator.

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    An important note: many, if not most, series will insist that their 'series bible' never be referred to with a capital 'b', to prevent idle mentions of it from irritating followers of a certain religion.
    – Jeff
    Jan 18 '12 at 19:33
  • How does this apply to a writer hoping to write a story that takes place in something like the Star Wars expanded universe?
    – DampeS8N
    Jan 18 '12 at 20:39
  • @DampeS8N Assuming it's an official story, they have to go through the process of dealing with the owners of the IP, this usually includes feedback from the people in charge of the series bible as to whether something is allowed. Details vary, depending on the universe, as Keen pointed out in his answer.
    – thedaian
    Jan 18 '12 at 20:56
  • @Jeff - that's because 'Bible' is a proper noun, and according to the dictionary, refers to a specific book. 'bible' is a generic noun that has a different definition. Regardless of who it offends, using it otherwise is grammatically incorrect
    – The Fallen
    Jun 27 '12 at 16:58

Sometimes writers forget things. I once looked at a copy of Isaac Asimov's Prelude to foundation, one of his later novels tying together his different earlier fictional series.

The introduction had a list of his novels in chronological order of their fictional events, and it put The Currents of Space BEFORE, not AFTER, The Stars Like Dust. That is such an obvious mistake that I am sure he would have corrected it as soon as someone asked about it.

So the more methodical writers actually write chronological charts of their future or alternate history, so they don't forget and have a character age 20 in a story when he is actually minus fifteen,and so on. And they make maps of cities and nations and planets, and space maps of interstellar space, and so on. They write biographies of their characters and check them and revise them every now and then to keep them and the stories consistent.

J.R.R. Tolkien was near one extreme of a writer who wanted to keep everything consistent and otherwise right and correct, while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an example of a famous writer near the other extreme who didn't think about consistency much.

And of course a shared universe like a TV series needs to be methodical - more methodical than many shows actually are.

By the third season of the original Star Trek a conscientious would-be writer might have been able to gather a few extra sources of information besides the third season writers guide. There were a few fanzines already, including Star Trek: The Analysis of a Phenomenon in Science Fiction (1968) which included among other things an unusual description of how the transporter worked and the first ever chronology of Star Trek. There were The Making of Star Trek (1968) and "To Make a star Trek" G. Harry Stein, in Analog Feb. 1968. And there was the first version of the Star Trek Concordance.

IN an introduction to a book by L. Sprague de Camp, Isaac Asimov commented on de Camp's intensive research for his historical fiction, including a map of the ancient Acropolis at Athens for a story where his heroes had to escape from it, and so on. But in de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall a man transported back in time to 6th century Rome asks for directions from the Pantheon to the Forum, and arrives at the Forum despite being told to turn left where he should turn right.

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