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.