Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When Is It? How to Control Your Timeline by Morgan Mandel

Real time has a way of escaping. Summer flashes by so quickly before you know it its time to get the Christmas list going.

Don't let this happen to you when you write. You need to keep your readers grounded. You can't let time of day, day of the week, month or season escape, or your readers will get confused, or even angry.You can cheat on the year, if you want to keep it generic, but you need to be consistent. For instance, you can't describe a 70's happening when you want the book to occur in present time, unless you're doing a flashback.

Forever Young
Blessing or Curse
While editing Forever Young-Blessing or Curse, I found spots where I'd meandered from the timeline, saying in one place three months had passed, then later I'd unintentionally jumped back to one of those past months.

It gets tricky to keep track of a timeline, but it's essential to do so. The best and easiest way to do this is by keeping track as you go along, but of course I chose the hard way. I wrote what I wanted and then had to face the consequences when I edited. I had to go back through the chapters and figure out exactly when each event took place and make corrections. For that, I started taking notes, but found that too tedious. I then proceeded to write events on a printed calendar, but couldn't fit them in, not to mention that after typing for so many years, my handwriting is hard for even me to read.

Inspiration struck and I did what I should have done at the beginning. I told Microsoft Word to find me a calendar, and it offered me a nice selection. I chose one with lines and columns on one side, holidays underneath, and on the other side the actual calendar for the year, with all the months, days and dates. With this calendar I can type in what I want and even change the column headings if I so desire. Mine say Events, Date, Time and Day. So far it's working pretty well.

I'm happy with my new way of keeping track of the timeline. Now I can be sure my readers and I both know the answer to the When Is It question.

What's your way? Or, maybe you'd like to try mine.

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Roseanne Dowell said...

That sounds like a great idea. I've had that problem with a couple of my books. Most of them move smoothly from one scene and day to another, but a couple I had to be careful and even then my editor (thank goodness) found a few places where I made a mistake. I usually keep notes, (after the fact and fix in editing) but I like your idea better. Of course when you're a panster, it's hard to know what's going to happen next or when you want to flashback. Thanks for the tips.

Kate said...

hey it even works for historicals!

Paula Martin said...

I've used old (real) calendars to mark out when the main 'scenes' of the story take place. I don't throw them away at the end of the year, because I know they'll come in useful at some point!

Debra St. John said...

Oooh, that tricky time line.

I realized (unfortunately MONTHS after it was published) that my first novel had a major timeline issue. Not good.

But, lesson learned, I now scrutinize my time line very carefully as I write.

Kathy Otten said...

I write historicals, so I go to and print off a few. They also have the phases of the moon which keep everything from happening on moonlit nights. I make my own enlarged version of the days I need and hang it on the wall. Then I write the events as they happen in pencil so I can erase as I make changes.
It looks like we all have variations of the same system.

Kate Dolan said...

Great suggestion! I usually ignore the timeline issues and wait until late in revision to deal with it, which is a mistake. I should get the calendar out before I get past the second chapter!

P.I. Barrington said...

I usually start at the top of the page after title/name and just go linear from there. My current WIP is written OUT OF SEQUENCE and I'm ready to shoot myself over the confusion of what happens when. I will NEVER write out of linear timeline again. Starting from the beginning and going straight through the timeline prevents any time problems for me. If I'm using flashbacks I write those separately and either know ahead of time where they go or I put them in where it is logical. That's the only way it works for me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post and the comments. I needed this at exactly this time. --BrendaW.

Jaime said...

Great topic - and timely, too. I will definitely be needing a timeline for my next project, where my main character has only two weeks in a different country.

Previously, I have always gone the calendar route.

Anonymous said...

I take notes.

Deb Larson said...

I take notes with headings so I can easily slip in a time/date, etc. I also liked looking back in the hisorical calendars online - especially to see about the moon phases or severe weather for the area. Nothing worse than remarking it's a mild spring and there was a major flood in reality.
Great post!
DL Larson

V.R. Leavitt said...

Excellent post. VERY true about timelines. Gotta keep 'em straight!

Rob Walker said...

Every book I have ever written has had timeline mind just does not go there easily; I rely sooooooooo heavily on my editors catching time problems, and I WARN them it will be a problem. The idea posited here is a great one indeed. I definitely need to practice what you are preaching....

Rob Walker