The Writing Process 2015: Timelines
If you’re new to The Writing Process 2015, these posts are a chance to share my journey through my latest novel, starting right at ground zero.
I keep a calendar as I write. Not one where I can mark off how many pages I’ve written. For me that feels too much like a race to the finish line and writing becomes about output not quality.
No, my calendar is a timeline showing when events occur in the story and in what chapter the events occur. The calendar begins on the first day of my novel and continues through to the last. I happen to keep mine on Microsoft Outlook, because that’s where my personal calendar also lives. I go back to the year the novel takes place when I create the new calendar, so all dates, weekends and holidays, are accurate. On the day a chapter takes place I note chapter number and a few words of description. For instance: Sept.7, 2012: CHs1-2 River: Davis picks up Lottie; Jan burns down house.
Remember that book? No River Too Wide? The first and second chapters take place on the same day. If a chapter takes place over several days or longer, I can note that, too, by making it a multi-day event.
Because No River Too Wide is part of a series, I used the same calendar for all four of the novels. That way if I needed to allude to something that had happened in a previous book, I could zip backwards and see when it had occurred. I was much less likely to make a mistake with the ongoing timeline of all the novels.
I’ve only just begun to write When We Were Sisters. I’ll create a calendar for this book, too, but before I could even begin one, I needed a timeline for each of the three major characters and their pasts.
Picky, picky? Not so. Here’s why.
A timeline of the past is important if:
- Characters lives have intersected before the novel begins.
- Historical events feature in the story, even peripherally.
- Age matters to the story, i.e. if a character is 35 and the author inadvertently has her graduating from high school 12 years ago, an explanation will be needed.
If you’ve been reading along, you’ll remember that I decided to write autobiographies of the three major characters. These biographies are long and involved. When I finished I combed through them, made notes of ages and events and formed a timeline for each one. And guess what. Even though I had been ultra careful, going back and forth between biographies to be sure I coordinated as I wrote, I had still made significant mistakes.
For instance I needed a disaster of some import to occur during the year two of the characters meet. I did research and decided on Hurricane Georges in Haiti. It was perfect for my purposes if not at all perfect for the poor people of Haiti.
Only, by the time I put all the dates in order for each character, figured out their ages at the time according to birthdates, graduations, etc. I realized I was two years off. I really needed a disaster for 2001. You can imagine what leapt to mind. The destruction of the World Trade Center and the mutilation of the Pentagon happened that September. I don’t want to write about either in this novel. So back I went, adjusting dates and doing more research until I found something else that would work.
Would my readers catch the error if I’d just used Hurricane Georges instead? Would they care enough to research the event, do the math, figure out ages and dates and put all this together? Because it’s quite likely that this event and the reason it’s important will only be mentioned in thoughts or conversation in the present, not even shown.
The problem is I would know, and I would care. And beyond that, we have the domino theory. One mistake creates countless others. And countless mistakes mean countless revisions.
My timelines are up on my newly installed bulletin board above my desk as well as in computer files. Next I’ll begin my calendar for the novel in progress.
Yes, it has been picky, picky, but if I’ve done this well, I won’t have to revise because I was careless. I’ve already made my mistakes, cleaned them up and set the book on the right path. It doesn’t feel picky.
It feels like a picky job well done.
I don’t think you are being too picky, Emilie. I don’t always catch timeline mistakes in books, but if there is a significant event that I know about and the timing is off, it drives me nuts. In cases like that, it seems like the author just threw the words down on the page rather than told a story the readers can get lost in. I think you are being a thorough researcher and your readers appreciate your thoughtfulness and dedication to the story.
Thank you, Kim. When I’m nearing the end of all the organization bits I get so frustrated. I want to write, but I also know that working out logistics early on will save me from having to redo. Like you I hate finding obvious errors because they do pull us out of a good read.
Thanks for this wonderful posting! I really love your books! I’ll try your advice by my new novel!
Ann Kristin Vinterberg
I appreciate your thoroughness, Emily. That is the reason all of your books are keepers!!
I agree wholeheartedly with Kim and couldn’t have said it better.
I don’t write fiction (yet), and had no idea you would have to put so much work into timelines, etc. Thanks again for a glimpse of your writing process and I for one, truly appreciate all you do to make your stories come alive!
Wendy, when you do begin writing, don’t get hung up on “shoulds,” because you might never put pen to paper (and boy, is that expression outdated now.) Timelines matter, but most of the time they’re fairly simple to do. This one isn’t simple because the book begins well into the story these three people share. So I need to get all the dates and time spans in the past coordinated. But that’s not always necessary. Start with something you can get a handle on and enjoy the process. That’s what really matters.
I like that – enjoy the process.
I do write non-fiction, but that’s easy as far as time lines go. Haven’t tried fiction as yet, but burning to. My “should” at this stage is to finish one book before starting another. And yet, sometimes you just need to go with the flow.
Anyway, thanks for your advice, once again.
Clearly you know exactly what you’re doing. While I’m enjoying writing down my process here, I don’t ever want to scare any of my readers away from their own desire to write. Each book and author is so different and what’s necessary for one isn’t necessary for the other. I would hate to stop anyone from writing because what I do seems too complicated. That’s definitely not the point of these posts.
Good luck with everything you write, start and finish.
Good heavens! I am not feeling discouraged. Quite the opposite! I admire your work ethic, and the time you devote to getting timeline details down pat. I feel privileged that you are willing to share this part of the writing process with all of us.
In my humble opinion, that’s an author worth her salt (do I sound old-fashioned?) That’s the mark of a writer who genuinely cares about the quality of her own work, about her audience, and about those characters she brings to life – even though they are fictional!
And I really don’t know what I’m doing. My heart says to write what I feel, whether in sequence or not, yet my “should” says to finish what I start (my mother’s voice in my head? Or the voice of being sensible and reasonable?)
Whatever…..this is something I flip-flop with in other areas of my life as well. I will “get it” one of these days.
Namaste – and thanks for being here.
Wendy, I am definitely not worried about you. I was thinking more along the lines of readers who have just the tiniest niggling idea they want to write. I love to encourage, and I don’t want anyone to think they have to follow my process to be successful.
BTW, you will see yourself in this link. Particularly the part about starting and finishing. I certainly did. http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/20-things-remember-you-love-highly-creative-person.html
OMG – I am soooooo glad you sent that link! It really hits home! And has given me a deeper understanding of myself. Now I can stop some of those inner struggles, take a deep breath and just…..be!
And continue writing, of course.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I will pass that link on. I have a few people in mind who would also benefit from reading it.