Keeping a timeline for your book: why and how

timeline starts with "once upon a time" on typewriterWhat is a timeline? Why should you create one?

Actually, there’s no should about it. You might find it useful. You might not.

I do find it useful while I’m writing, but then I’m a pantser. If you’re a plotter or planner, you might not need it. And even if you’re a pantser, you might find it too much faff.

So, in this blog, I’m going to explain what a timeline is and the benefits I get from using one. Of course, you wouldn’t have to follow my approach. There are all sorts of permutations on a writing timeline. Once you know what’s what, you can make up your own mind, can’t you?

diverging paths, which to choose?

Image by PixxlTeufel from Pixabay

Timeline: an example

A timeline is simply a way of recording what’s happening in your book as you create it: plot, characters, timing, motivations, emotions. The lot. There are all sorts of ways of doing a timeline for your book.

This is the first couple of pages of a sample timeline/calendar for my Regency timeslip, Lady in Lace, as it would have been when I’d finished writing the first three chapters. Note that I try to complete the timeline as I go along, ideally at the end of each day’s wordage. The timeline is most useful, I find, if I keep it as a working document while I write. (I do it as a Word doc but it’s probably easier to use a spreadsheet. I know other authors who do it that way.)

pages 1-2 of timeline-calendar for Lady in Lace by Joanna Maitland

Click to enlarge the image above if you want to read what’s in it.

This extract shows all the various columns I use, though I don’t always use all of them for every book. For example, the real timeline for Lady in Lace didn’t have a column for Point of View, because the whole story was told from the POV of the heroine, Emma. But I’ve shown it above to remind you that you might want to use a POV column.

To save you squinting, the columns above are:

    1. Chapter number (not strictly necessary if you also use the numbering in column 2)
    2. Scene in chapter (for colour coding, see below)
    3. Who: characters who appear in the scene
    4. POV: the point of view character for the scene
    5. Location, Action, Factual Hooks: where is it? what’s happening? (for hooks, see below)
    6. Emotional/thought Processes and Hooks: what are characters thinking/feeling? what do they know?
    7. Time of Day
    8. Day of Week
    9. Date

Young Women Is Reading On The Coral BeachDo you need detail like dates, days, times?

If you’re writing a holiday romance set on a sun-soaked tropical island, you may not need the day of the week or the date. But if you’re writing, say, a romance set in the 1950s, you’ll need to be aware of things like early-closing days for shops, pub opening hours, bank holidays and the like.

In the Regency period, where a lot of my books are set, I need to remember the dates of shooting and hunting seasons, when Parliament was sitting and so on. I also need to be very aware of Sundays and religious holidays like Easter, because people tended not to do much then: they went to church, they didn’t travel, they didn’t hold balls etc. I refer to a Perpetual Calendar to find out which days of the week correspond to dates, and also for the date of Easter.

Noting the dates may also help avoid some of the classic mistakes like the five-month or fifteen-month pregnancy. And yes, it has been known to happen 😉

C O L O U R CODING: for Balance

In case you can’t read it, the Legend at the top of the example is:

legend for colour coding of Lady in Lace Timeline

Lady in Lace is a Regency timeslip. My heroine, Emma, is a museum curator in the modern world (2017, when I wrote the book). In those first three chapters, when she’s in the Regency world, she doesn’t know who she is, or when she’s been transported back to. Later, she discovers enough to work out both of those things. The dates I’ve highlighted in magenta are things she finds out after the first three chapters.

Lady in Lace, Regency Timeslip, by Joanna MaitlandI wanted to be sure I kept the right balance between modern Emma and Emma in the Regency world. So I colour-coded the scene numbers in column two. That way, I could see at a glance if I had too much of one of them.

I also highlighted the absolutely key plot points (in green) so that I could see easily how the plot was advancing. The three in the example above are:

          • Emma meets phantom lover in her own time
          • Timeslip #1: Emma meets phantom lover for real
          • Mystery of who her timeslip husband is

The first two are obvious. And it was important to keep count of the number of timeslips in the story because I found myself mixing up what Emma had learned in each one. The third plot point was fun to write. Modern Emma is divorced and doesn’t wear a wedding ring. But in the Regency, she is wearing one, so she assumes she’s married. But she’s just had mindblowing sex with her soulmate. Is he her husband? Or is she committing adultery? Now, there’s a dilemma for any heroine, don’t you think?
Possibly a bit tricky to wake your sleeping bedmate and ask, “Excuse me, are you my husband or just my lover?”

C O L O U R CODING: for characterscolour-coded POV column in timeline

I used colour-coding in a different way in a book where I had SIX protagonists. I needed to be sure I kept the right weighting between scenes told from the 6 Points of View. And I needed to keep all six on stage enough that the reader didn’t forget about them. Did character #1 get too much time in the limelight? Was character #5 missing in action?

In that case, I colour-coded the POV column as you can see from a sample extract, right, which shows columns 3 and 4. I also colour-coded the names of the 6 protagonists wherever they appeared in the Action column (col 5, not shown here) because that told me, at a glance, how much stage time each protagonist was getting.

Note that the Who and POV columns work most easily if all your characters’ names start with a different letter. For tips about naming characters, including that one, see my earlier blog here.

I don’t do this type of colour-coding in a book unless I have lots of protagonists. In a romance with only two POV characters (hero and heroine), I wouldn’t bother. But it did help me to keep track of my sextet of heroes and heroines.

C O L O U R CODING: for Hooks

I always use colour coding for hooks (what readers call loose ends). I use yellow (because it stands out so well on screen) for hooks that I know I have to resolve later in the text. Once they are sorted, I go back in the timeline and change the colour, usually to cyan.

roses tinted weird colours wrong

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Why bother? Because readers get really miffed if the book doesn’t tie up all the loose ends. I read a mystery recently where a murder was committed inside a locked room. The victim was drowned but her clothing was dry. Various other murders followed. At the end of the book, the murderer was identified but it didn’t tell me how the drowning murder was done. Was I miffed? You bet I was. Thoroughly pissed off, to be honest.

So, in my Lady in Lace example, I’ve noted a hook about why the shredded lace gown smells of lavender (scene 1.1, col 6). That will be resolved, but much, much later. By contrast, the lover biting Emma’s finger (scene 2.1, col 5) was a yellow hook when I wrote chapter 2; but then it’s resolved (cyan) in chapter 3 when Emma sees the bruise back in the modern world (scene 3.1, col 6). Most hooks take longer than a single chapter to resolve and I think it’s important to make sure I haven’t left any of them dangling. Hence the bright yellow.

How much detail does a timeline need?

How long is the proverbial piece of string?

It depends on you, the author. I put in quite a lot of detail. Others may use much less (like my key plot points) and keep their timeline document much shorter than mine. Do whatever suits your way of writing. Or ditch the whole idea.

oops! on key on keyboardThe one thing I would suggest you do, though, is to keep a careful check on your unresolved and resolved hooks. Because it will help to avoid negative reviews from readers.

Readers are so very clever, aren’t they? We authors think we’ve tied everything up and then some pesky reader—we do love you really, readers, honest, and authors are readers, too—points out that we’ve missed something that should have been obvious (like murder by drowning in a locked room… Grrr).

I’m sure some of you will have different ways of keeping track of your wip and avoiding those dangling ends. Do please share because, although my way suits me, your way may appeal more to others. And sharing is what this website is all about, isn’t it?

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland

Joanna with timeline done

8 thoughts on “Keeping a timeline for your book: why and how

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Wow, that is really detailed. I usually do a timeline after first draft, but in my last wip I had to do one early because I was getting confused about who knew what when and who said which and how much my sleuth knew. It proved useful to write it down but I’m afraid I didn’t keep it up as I went along! But afterwards it’s essential to write one up to make sure I get everything straight, including Sundays and holidays as you say.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Interesting, Liz. I find it useful to do it as I go along because that way I pick up the loose ends as I go. And I do agree that it’s easy to get confused on the who knows what and when. I found I was doing that with my various timeslip events in Lady in Lace so I had to make the timeline even more precise. Personally, I think it’s easier to do it as I go than to do it once the book is finished but if that suits you, fine.

  2. Liz Fielding

    Thanks so much for such a detailed look at keeping a timeline log, Joanna. I did keep one when I wrote one of a quartet of books with three other authors and our timelines overlapped – sadly with one broken arm and a broken wrist between us, we didn’t keep to our editor’s timeline! I definitely need the discipline of this with the book I’m currently writing. And having read a few Rebus novels while recuperating from the hip, I’ve discovered that Ian Rankin keeps things straight with “Day 1”, “Day 2” etc to group chapters together.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think I probably go overboard on the content of my columns for facts and emotions, but it now comes naturally so it’s easier to keep doing it. It does help when you’re writing a plot with a lot of twists, like a thriller or a detective or a mystery story. I can see that Rankin’s way would work though some would say it’s cheating a bit. Surely the reader should know what day it is by what’s written on the page? He’s not the only one that does it, though.

  3. Jill Mansell

    Amazing detail – I love this but it scares me! I do fill in a timeline with Post-its as I go along, but am tempted to try your method. I have too many characters to keep track of easily! X

    1. Joanna Post author

      I don’t think you need as much detail as I use, Jill. But if you’ve got loads of characters, especially if they all have a POV, you might find my colour-coding trick helpful.

  4. Sarah

    You are sooo organised, Joanna! I use a Word document and fill it in as I go along, but it is not so detailed and a lot more untidy! I also add a word about clothing for some of the longer scenes – to stop my Georgian heroine going to the ball in a rose satin gown and coming home in a green one (it has happened!)

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thank you, Sarah. However, I have to say that mine are not always tidy. I made sure the one I showed in the blog was, though. Loved you point about the changing dresses. Made me laugh. A bit on the lines of the 15 month pregnancy.

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