Keeping Time

[Originally  published in the magazine Romance Writers Report, September 2010.]

As authors, we need to manage timelines for our characters.  Whether we’re counting the number of days until the Season begins in Regency England or the number of nights that remain before a werewolf-transforming full moon in contemporary America, we authors must know how long our characters have been in action.

Some fiction makes this need explicit – chapters contain headings that are “date-stamped,” indicating the specific time and date of the events described therein.  More often, our characters raise the issue of time, observing to themselves or others that a certain number of hours, days, or weeks has passed since some preceding action.  Timelines frequently factor into the narrative tension of our stories; short timelines often “raise the stakes” for everyone involved.  Moreover, studying timeliness can help authors pace their story.  Timeline analysis can determine when certain characters and subplots have dropped out of the story for too long.

Fortunately, a variety of timeline management tools exists, ranging from traditional print calendars to electronic spreadsheets to social networking software.

Paper, Index Cards, and Whiteboards

Many timeline tools have been around for – literally – centuries.  Some authors simply grab a standard calendar, scribbling in the key dates for their characters.  This straightforward method of timeline management works best for authors of contemporary novels, where specific dates and timed devices (e.g., phases of the moon) are not material to the plot.  The truly detail-driven author who uses real calendars will need to keep a number on hand; taking Leap Year into consideration, our Western calendar repeats every twenty-eight years.  Fortunately, many word processing programs, including Word, include templates for creating calendars.

Websites, such as http://www.timeanddate.com/ permit users to generate accurate calendars, starting with specific dates in specific years.  Footnotes to the calendar indicate various assumptions made during the construction, including whether the calendar is based on the Julian or Gregorian system, whether the first of the year was deemed to be January 1 or some other date by then-local custom, etc.

An extension of the traditional print calendar is the traditional print timeline.  Diana Pharaoh Francis, author of The Hollow Crown, creates a butcher paper display for each of her novels.  She takes over her dining room table, stretching out long sheets of paper, where she writes down every major and minor event in her novel.  Gregory Frost, author of the American Library Association-recommended Shadowbridge duology, uses a slight refinement of that system (while engaging in “green” re-use of outmoded office supplies):  “I’ve [got] a couple of boxes of old continuous feed printer paper that’s pretty much useless stuff – same idea as Diana’s butcher paper – which  by the way is how John Cleese claims to have written Fawlty Towers,  stretching sheets of butcher paper the width of his living room and writing down bits of the show in approximate position…”

These traditional print methods of timeline management can be tweaked to analyze complex plots.  Melinda Snodgrass, author of The Edge of Ruin (and a long-time Hollywood screenwriter) notes:  “I use a white board with different colored pens for the different characters (Hollywood trick).  I also use a corkboard with 3 x 5 cards, and the different colored pens.  You can really tell if a character has dropped out of the bottom of your story when you use the colors.”

Spreadsheets and Text Management Software

Spreadsheets are another popular tool for managing timelines.  While spreadsheets evolved as accounting tools for handling numerous mathematical calculations, they are often used to mimic complicated database management software, tracking multiple “fields” of information in columns or rows.  Spreadsheets can be used to record detail about people, places, and dates.

For example, Jeri Smith-Ready, author of Bring on the Night, created a spreadsheet for one of her young adult novels that enabled her to track timelines, along with recording each characters’ presence in the novel.  Jeri says:  “I make a spreadsheet with the scene numbers listed down the side and the character names across the top.  If a character appears in that scene, I blacken that corresponding cell.  If they’re mentioned but don’t appear, I fill it with gray.  If they appear via phone or e-mail or text, I use additional colors.   Then I can see at a glance when a character hasn’t appeared or even been mentioned in a long time.  I also list the dates of each scene if applicable.”

Other authors define other different columns and rows in their electronic spreadsheets.  For example, Elaine Isaak, author of The Bastard Queen, describes her spreadsheet timeline tool for historical fiction, where her “made-up” characters interact with real historic personages:  “I put the dates in the first column, the significant historical events in the next column, as many personal moments as I can locate for the historical character I need to work with, then the book events, followed by volume and chapter citations.  Having all the timelines side by side has shown me some interesting conjunctions between what I’m creating, what actually happened, and the character whose life I will be hijacking to explain the difference!”

Text management software – computer programs designed specifically to assist writers in manipulating large amounts of text – also often include timeline solutions.  For example, yWriter is free Windows-based software that permits authors to save “chunks” of their novels as easily-moved scenes.  Each scene can be assigned a specific time and date, and the author can define the duration of each scene, in terms of minutes, hours, or days.  yWriter was created by Simon Haynes, an author of comic science fiction novels, who developed the timeline management section to avoid having scenes run on, across multiple days, when the characters did not otherwise note the passage of time (e.g., experiencing sunrises and sunsets.)  yWriter is available at http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter5.html.

On the Web

Yet more options exist for authors who want to leave their timeline tools “in the cloud”, taking advantage of off-site computer programs and storage.  “The cloud” is available from any Internet-connected computer, without regard to platform; it can be very useful for authors who work in a variety of physical places and for authors who collaborate with others.

For example, the familiar search engine, Google, provides a free calendar to every user.  Various settings can be manipulated, including the specific year for the calendar to begin.  In addition, the calendar can be broken down into color-coded sub-calendars.  An enterprising author can assign sub-calendars by character, recording specific actions for each actor in a novel.  Mary Robinette Kowal, author of Shades of Milk and Honey, uses Google calendars to track specific plot-based activities.  She notes: “[T]he thing that’s nice is that I can have multiple colors for different activities and [I] can drill down to a per minute basis or look at it on a month or year basis.”

Another web-based tool is available at http://www.dipity.com.  Dipity is a social networking site built around timelines.  Members of the community carve out timelines, either entering specific timed data (e.g., a character’s narrative arc) or specifying feeds for data from other online sources (e.g., Olympic Games, where medals are announced over multiple days.)  Members can lock down their timelines so that no one can edit the text, or they can leave the timeline open, to build their records in a community.  Timelines can also be made completely private, so that no outsider can view the record.  In addition to providing a slick, graphic-intensive online timeline tool, Dipity could be harnessed by an enterprising author to promote her work through social networking, inviting members of the Dipity community (and related connections on Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to spread the word about unique timelines.

Special Considerations in Worldbuilding

Even the most carefully constructed print or electronic timeline might not solve all of the challenges of storytelling.  For authors writing novels set far in the past, or in non-Western locations, or in far-future societies, traditional calendars and timeline tools might not capture the complexity of the story.  Elizabeth Moon, author of numerous fantasy and science fiction novels, summarizes the problem:  “My most recent work is Oath of Fealty, a fantasy set on only one world, but with some temporal difficulties [including] no clocks (only “sandglasses”), and varying cultures.   Travel [is] (with a few exceptions) by foot or animal power, so news never travels fast.  I use paper and pencil to keep track of who can know what when.”

Timelines – however they are tracked – are vital to storytelling.  Details of passing time can influence characters’ actions and expectations, including their interaction with other characters.  From traditional print to social networking, timeline management tools can strengthen every story.