by Madeleine E. Robins
Timelines save my life. Over and over and over. Because, like Billy Pilgrim, I frequently become unstuck in time while in mid-story/book. A timeline is sort of like temporal scaffolding. In the same way that, when I’m choreographing a fight scene, I want to know where everyone is so that no one suddenly winds up with his hand coming out of the other guy’s kidney (so embarrassing) I want to make sure that no one is in two places at the same time, or that at the time of WWI my heroine was not four years old and thus ineligible to drive the ambulance where she meets her heroic pacifist true love. Especially when writing mysteries and other types of stories where the when of things can become crucial, a timeline might save your life too.
It doesn’t have to be fancy (though of course it can be if you want it to be. Similarly, if you are the sort who revels in genealogy you can go back six generations in order to establish the timing of long-simmering feuds, but for most of us that’s just a distraction and a delaying tactic. Back to work, you). On one of my early Regencies I tied the plot to a specific real event in history, and thus had to work things backward. For that one, yes, I had charts. What a timeline has to do is help you keep things in order so that when you catch yourself up short on what was when, voila, there you are. And it can work on the macro, daily, or micro basis, depending on what is most useful to you.
Macro: I’m in the middle of a series, so I have a Series Timeline which includes vital events in my protagonist’s life–matched up with some important public events (during the endless war with France in the early 1800s people often dated events by their relationship to events in the war–“That was Trafalgar year” translates as 1805). I also add in the dates, roughly, of any critical events from prior books (since each book is set roughly 6 months after the other, it’s also helpful in keeping track of which season they’re in, and thus what the weather is).
Daily: I keep a loose, running timeline of events in the book, sort of jotted marginalia (except of course that I don’t jot on my computer screen). These timelines tend to be of the really rudimentary sort, just sort of:
- Tuesday: this happened, also that
- Wednesday: those things happened, and that guy did that thing
- Thursday: funeral, also drunk scene
But you can do it the way that serves you best.
Micro: A timeline of a particularly busy day. Even for a non-series book this can be helpful. When I was a very newish sort of writer I realized that I had not given my characters any time off to sleep, nor had the sun risen or set since the beginning of the story. That’s not good. If Tuesday Morning our heroine meets Fred, and Tuesday Early Afternoon Fred is eaten by bears, then on Tuesday at Dinnertime Fred is unlikely to saunter in to the heroine’s dining room asking if he can join her for chowder.
Unless maybe Fred’s a zombie. But that’s a different sort of hack.