Airy Nothing’s Timeline

Lady in Lace, Regency Timeslip, by Joanna MaitlandI used to think that only historical novelists needed to write a timeline for a novel. Someone like me, writing contemporary fiction set pretty close to the real world, didn’t have any use for it. I read Joanna’s excellent (and detailed) account on this blog of the timeline she constructed for her Regency-set Lady in Lace. And thanked my lucky stars that this was so. (It’s a lovely book, by the way.)

Only, of course, she is not just talking about setting her characters into a sequence of historically documented events. She is talking about the timeline of the whole novel, including the stuff she’d made up. Scene by scene Joanna records what her characters do and feel as well as well as facts of place and history.

But I still thought I didn’t need that sort of hassle in a contemporary story.

And boy, was I wrong.

Why I need that timeline

writing energy magic, book, bluebell woodAs regular readers of this blog have probably noticed, I am in the last throes of editing a book that I’ve been working on for a lo-o-ong time. So long, indeed,that I know it inside out.

And you know that thing about the wood from the trees? Well I know every half-realised thought and sigh in that book; each misunderstanding; every look across a crowded room. In short, I know every nub, branch and leaf. I’d just completely lost the wood.

Or, as some might say, the plot.

I realised this when I was trying to work out whether the bluebells would be in bloom for a certain scene. Rather too late, you may feel, I started alotting scenes to days –  and found I had a 7-week March.


Further and Worse Particulars

Image by bookdragon from Pixabay

What’s more, now I came to look at the story with numbers in mind, my heroine’s grandfather would have been about 130 when he died. Whether it was set now or five years ago, I’d misplaced a whole generation in the twentieth century.

A couple of the forebears who emerged from World War 1 have real influence over her ideas and life choices. Right from the earliest draft, they’d always left diaries, which she knew well. So that wasn’t a problem. She’d never actually known either of them in person. But now I was wrestling horribly with “Great Great” whenever they got a mention.

So her favourite ancestor, a rebel artist suffragette who was forbidden the house for being a pacifist, is now called Ever So Great Aunt Violet.

Actually that’s an improvement, I think.

Timeline Revelation and Recovery

daffodils Spring 2019Joanna had recorded her timeline as she went along. In my case, that ship had sailed. I was definitely into a retrospective make-over.

First, I set up calendar (I called  it Thermidor) and simply entered scenes sequentially. I allowed it some daffodils. They have a good long growing season.

Mindful of Joanna’s advice, I did actually put the Point of View character after Scene Number X.

And lo! The heroine dominated the first third of the book. The hero then took over for a bit less than a third. And his viewpoint virtually disappeared in the mad rush to the end. That was salutary. If chastening.

Image by kie-ker from Pixabay

Then I set up a calendar for spring, Any Year’s spring, and simply imposed Thermidor over it, condensing some of the action, postponing other scenes, until I got a timeline that worked and a March with thirty one days.

Postponing was a good idea. It took a couple of key scenes into blossom time, which opened up all sorts of pleasing opportunities, not least time outdoors for the Idyll moment.

It sort of worked but I still wasn’t really comfortable with it.

Timeline and The Now

The problem was that these people are very real to me. I feel that this is happening now, as I write it.

Yet I really hate reading books that are set in the present tense. (There are exceptions but very few and usually because I’ve gritted my teeth and stuck with the book in spite of the tense. Some of the most lauded present-tense authors don’t make the cut for me.) I’m so not to going to inflict it on anyone else.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Duke Theseus says, after watching a play:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name

Of course, for Shakespeare the story unfolded in front of the general audience for three hours or so. When a great moment was over, it slid instantly into the past.

But ever since the eighteenth century invented the novel, the Now has become more slippery. You can skip the violent bits, skim read the stuff that bores you. You can turn the pages back and read the fabulous bits again. The time discipline of live theatre has gone.

I bet if Shakespeare were writing a novel, he would give to airy nothing a timeline as well as the rest of it. For today’s author time has become part of the local habitation. And that means attention to the timeline.

The Resulting Timeline and its Uses

Image by ntnvnc from Pixabay

I used a spreadsheet . This was really because it’s easier to add information if you can slot in whole columns or lines. I wasn’t doing anything sophisticated. It hastwo pages.

  • Page 1 – the calendar of action and decisions in the story’s Now
  • Page 2 – the stuff that came before, by year on the vertical axis, by character on horizontal axis. Ever So Great Aunt Violet has her own column, for instance, even though she only figures in conversation. OK, I admit I’m a little bit in love with Violet, as is my heroine.

On both calendar and history pages I had a few real time events that characters had responded to, highlighted in yellow. On page1 I identified the scene/chapter of each action and decision and colour coded it to show from whose Point of View it was written. Basically this is a two POV book. Hero was a dashing purple, Heroine a vibrant and refreshing green

Image by Susan Cipriano from Pixabay

The history chart made it a great deal easier to keep things like relative ages consistent. The calendar did the same for Easter (when shops are shut in some places and UK trains are impossible), university terms (so I knew when my hero could reasonably expect a space in his diary and for how long) and full moons (oh, that Idyll).

The calendar also made me consider whether the action was realistic in the time it had taken – especially to reach a decision.

Both pages came in handy for other things which were peculiar to this particular book, so not of much interest to other authors.


Well, I wish I’d started to do it earlier. I will in my next book. The at-a-glance consistency check is amazingly reassuring, when you’ve got in too deep and suddenly lose confidence in how old your Tango master is.

What’s more, that column of real time historical events answers exactly the sort of thing readers ask you, when they want to know more about a character.

AND, if I want to write a sequel and/or a novella about one of these characters, a lot of the information is now neatly tabulated and I don’t have to go wading through old drafts. Though I probably will. They’ve really got a hold of me, these people.

Who knows? Maybe even Ever So Great Aunt Violet might be back one day.

Sophie Weston Author






Books Set in Bookshops

Reading Recs

I was talking to my daughter over lunch the other day about the books we’re reading.

She belongs to a book group that reads “serious” fiction and, coming up on their list is Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus. It’s a book much loved by Sophie Weston and I have taken advantage of Amazon’s “download a sample” button to get a feel for the voice, the story.

Reading cozy crime

My daughter and I talked about a crime series that I’ve read (not cozy) Harry Bingham’s Fiona Griffiths series. Annoyingly, it appears to have stopped, leaving a lot of questions unanswered.

She downloaded the first book but she’s not sure. She didn’t quite take to the main character and while I read very fast on kindle, she listens on audio (she has three children and doesn’t have time to sit down with a book) which gives the listener a surprisingly different experience.

I knew the series was set in Wales but she was getting the accents, which can make listening hard work.

Books set in bookshops

Then, because I enjoy cozy crime, she mentioned a book by Helen Cox, called A Body in the Bookshop that she thought I might like and we started talking about how many books are set in and around bookshops.

Amy suggested I try the Pultizer prize winner, The Sentence by Louise Erdrich, which was on her book group list. Time for another sample because there is something inherently appealing about a book set in a bookshop.

I fell in love with Helen Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road a lifetime ago – and Anthony Hopkins in the film, playing the man with whom she had a long and profitable correspondence.

Anne Bancroft fell in the love with the book, too, and her husband, Mel Brookes, bought the film rights so that she could play Helen.

Romances set in bookshops

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Queen Elizabeth: with gasps and laughter

mourners for Queen Elizabeth II outside Buckingham PalaceTomorrow is the Queen’s funeral. There will be a great deal of black and much sombre music. And probably quite a few tears. Not a day for laughter.

But the Queen was a woman who had a mischievous sense of humour, a woman who, in private and sometimes in public, loved a joke.

Remembering the Queen’s sense of fun

So today, in advance of all that sombre black, I suggest we remember her funny side. Mostly, as Sophie said last week, she kept a straight face in case someone was offended. But sometimes, just sometimes, she had a chance to let her puckish sense of fun have full rein.

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Queen Elizabeth II RIP

the Queen, white haired and dressed in yellow jacket and yellow broad brimmed hat decorated with pink roses smiling in the sunshine

Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

Hail and Farewell

Last week the Libertà Hive and several fellow authors were on a writing retreat in the north. It was a great shock, when I came down to raid the fridge for lunch on Thursday, to find four of them, very serious, sitting round the table looking at the  news feed on various laptops. “It’s over,” said one. “The Queen is going.” They had heard the announcement made by the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Grand white staircase at Hotel Royal EvianAt first, I didn’t believe it. I may even have said, “Going where?” But then someone else said, “Of course it’s been coming for a long time.” And I realised what they meant.

It was like that moment on a staircase, when you trip and think you’ve righted yourself, only then to find you’re still falling. All the way to the bottom. (I’ve done it twice.)

The shock was profound. This couldn’t be happening. But it was. Continue reading

Research Overload (or don’t let facts spoil a good story)

I am a storyteller. Does that have to mean research overload?

StorytellingStorytelling is an art as old as time. I make up stories, tell yarns.

I am not an academic, I didn’t go to university and I didn’t study the art of writing at any college.  I remember telling stories in primary school (possibly it began even earlier, I can’t remember) and I learned my art as I went along.  Still do, in fact.

So I am NOT telling you how to write (or how to read). I am talking about stuff that distracts me when I’m reading a novel. Things I try to avoid.

“Write what you know”

We have all heard that old maxim, but whatever genre you write in, you will come across something that needs you to do a little research. At least, that is my experience. Continue reading

Cover help and a Free Book Giveaway

I’m desperately in need of cover help.
Basically, I can’t decide between two different covers for the Christmas book that I’m about to republish. I’ve revised and extended it and I want it to be right. So I’m asking for advice here.

Please tell me which cover you think I should choose. Continue reading

Writing under stress…

Writing (or not) without a kitchen…

I moved into my present flat four years ago. At the time it seemed perfect but, as happens to all of us, I wanted to rip out the kitchen and have something that worked better for me. More storage…

Clearly I could do nothing during lockdown, but in January this year I took myself off to one of those vast out of town warehouses. I picked up a catalogue then, drawing a deep breath – and an even bigger chunk of money from my bank account – sat with Michelle, who took me through the exciting process of buying a new kitchen. (This picture is utter fantasy – I think my entire flat would fit into this!)

Starting from Scratch

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

I was going back to the bare walls, so there was the choice of oven (yes, I chose the one that cleaned itself!) and a space age hob. It was only later that I discovered I was going to need new pans for something that modern and my mother’s beautiful stainless steel pans were gratefully received by my daughter (who has a gas hob that isn’t fussy). There was a much needed new fridge/freezer and I went for a smaller dishwasher and sink so that I could fit in an extra cupboard. (Needless to say, this picture is also a fantasy!)

Then there were the worktops. Hyperventilating at the cost of some of them, I eventually made my decision.

Tiles, lighting…

Now we wait…

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Reader Loves Book

inner Reader“One of the great problems of attracting attention to a new book,” said a much loved novelist friend of mine, “is that Writer Writes Book is a crap headline.” Reader Loves Book, sadly, is not much better.

X Thousand Readers Love Book might do the business. Publishing phenomenon – which could include contested auction, record advance, film deal or all three – would be even better. That’s talking about cold hard cash, not ephemeral stuff like love.

Actually, even the last headline probably wouldn’t intrigue me as much as Reader Hates Book So Much She Throws it in Bin. Because that’s serious feeling there. And yes, I admit I have done it, but only twice and I’m not proud of it. Continue reading

Whisky, Chessmen and Bonnie Prince Charlie

In May this year we booked a holiday. To explore the scenery, landscape and, of course, the history of the Outer Hebrides. It was not intended as a Jacobite tour, but from the very start we kept bumping into Charlie! I knew some of his story, of course, because I researched much of it while writing my Highland Trilogy. Two of the books actually mention Bonnie Prince Charlie.

In the footsteps of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Almost)

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Points of View

I’ve called this blog Points of View because that is what I’ve been thinking about, off and on, since the Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference two weeks ago.

Not just in a relation to writing, either, as you will see.

I admit, however, that I have been struggling for some time with POV issues. I’m in the process of an Absolutely Last Edit of a book that, when I first imagined it, had a first person vibe. It didn’t last and it has much improved as a result. But in some places the “I voice” has left an uncomfortable shadow.

At least, I think that’s the answer. Especially after a really excellent workshop on Psychic Distance from Emma Darwin.

RNA Conference

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