I 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.