Anatomy of A Novel: Part 5: Timeline

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I do a timeline for every novel I write. I don’t always do it before I start writing, but when I start to get muddled about where in the first week my characters are, I sit down and work my way through the text, pinpointing which day is which, and adjusting my outline to reflect the timeline. Once that’s done, I find it easier to move forward.

And backward. Into my timeline goes all the relevant historical info that I might use to inform the novel’s backstory as well. Because I tend to be something of a stickler for details, I need to know that every part of my story rings true (at least in my little world), and part of this means that I cannot afford to be sloppy about what one character might have told another, out of context, about some historical event. If it’s likely to be mentioned anywhere in the novel, its dates are found and inserted into the relevant year, month or week.

It may sound rather limiting to have a rigid structure like a timeline, but writing within certain parameters can also help with plot tension. Also, each novel I write has a slightly different format, and once my timeline rings true, the writing can flow better. I don’t want to end up 30,000 words down the line with somebody’s father having told a character in great detail about something he witnessed, only to discover that the father hadn’t been born at the time of the incident.

My historical novella From Daisy with Love was set against the First World War, and was partly inspired by my grandmother’s work as a letter-writer during that war. I also had my grandfather’s war diaries of the same time period, which were useful in that they provided a very real timeline, both for the action he witnessed and for the action he complained of missing.

The Daisy timeline started with the birthdates of both my grandparents, was supplemented by personal events – the death of Daisy’s parents, the marriage of her sister – and world events such as the sinking of the Titanic, the discovery of Machu Picchu in Peru, the start of the war and the battle of Delville Wood in which so many South African soldiers died.

Although it seems that linear tales are told in my contemporary novels The Epidaurus Inheritance and Benicio’s Bequest, there was more to this process than simply making sure that each day of the week tied up with the action I had planned for the characters. Certainly the timeline for one of these turned out to be more involved than the aforementioned historical novella because it included even more historical backstory than a world war.

The timeline for The Epidaurus Inheritance eventually ran to seventeen pages – I kid you not! – and was extremely complicated. It started with six pages of notes about the various events in Greek and Turkish history which would be mentioned or touched on in parts of the book. Four pages of detailed timeline followed, covering post-classical Greece from 336 BC when Alexander the Great took over from his father who was assassinated, including Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles in 1801, as well as Schliemann’s various excavations of Troy and Mycenae, and ending with the exile of Greece’s King Constantine in 1967.

Here’s where the interesting stuff starts, but the timeline still hasn’t reached the start of the novel yet: the next three pages take me from the birth of my two main characters in 1973 and 1978, through their individual backstories up to the start of the novel in June 2010, when these two characters finally meet during the play festival at Epidaurus.

Only the last four pages of this timeline show the progression of the actual novel itself: a week by week breakdown of the four weeks of action in the novel, noting what happens on each day during those four weeks leading to the novel’s climax and resolution, and the final aftermath two weeks later.

I know it sounds like an epic in itself, but I did promise you an anatomy of a timeline and this is probably the most detailed one I wrote. In fact, I reused parts of it again while compiling the timeline for my later novel The Trojan Legacy, where I used bits of that timeline which I hadn’t used before.

The Trojan Legacy timeline is only twelve pages long. The first six pages consist of relevant bits condensed down from the first ten pages of the Epidaurus timeline. (I have a fascination for this time period and I will more than likely delve into this mine of information in future novels too.)

The next page is character Frank Lyzbarta’s timeline. Most of this is the story that Bobby tells Regina and the others in his bar in the early pages of the book, but it also includes the information that Bobby discovers later in Frank’s prison diary. The next two pages are Marcus and Ellen’s timeline, from their births in 1930 and 1934 respectively, their backstory up till their meeting in 1962, and onwards from that time for the next few months, which is the total of their story in the book.

The next page covers the bridge between those two characters and the two modern-day characters. The final two pages cover the time from the births of Bobby and Regina in 1981 and 1987, to their meeting at the start of the novel, and their involvement in piecing together the story of their grandparents throughout the novel, as well as the continuation of their own story together.

Over the years I seem to have become more adept at filtering out of those giant timelines the stuff I don’t need. The timeline for Benicio’s Bequest is only five pages and most of it centres on the daily activities of the four week period of the novel’s action, but the first page has several important notes about incidents in Florence before the start of the novel (long before the births of its two main characters). Not all of this was used, but I found it useful to know and keep in mind while I was writing.

In my current work-in-progress Oxford Baggage my timeline is nowhere near complete at three and a half pages, but I can guarantee it will grow more before the novel is finished. It spans three distinct eras: 1955 which is the era in which the main story takes place; the first half of the twentieth century which is glimpsed through flashbacks and references to World War 2, as well as discoveries about the childhood lives of the characters before that war; and the third era concerns important historical happenings that the main characters will uncover about the Tudor and Elizabethan era in England.

Even now, with the first draft of the novel only halfway through at 50 000 words, I am still finding new bits of information that I want to include, and these all involve more research, more fodder for my timeline, and thus endless new possibilities for my novel.

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8 thoughts on “Anatomy of A Novel: Part 5: Timeline

    • If your work is not yet published, it’s not too late! Go through your work-in-progress and pinpoint where on the calendar it all takes place, what season, where the days and nights change, what’s different about the weekends, and then do a Google search for that time frame and see what was current in the world and whether it has any impact on the characters in their situation. What would they have seen in their morning newspapers or on the TV news that might have caused them concern, or made them happy? And so on. It may only take a few tweaks to deepen the reality and add some tension. Good luck!

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  1. Working on a historical novel always struck me as one of the most difficult things to do. I admire you greatly. Yes, timelines are invaluable but keeping facts and years straight and incorporating them within the narrative without sounding pedantic or forced requires real talent.

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    • Thank you for your comment.

      You’re right – it’s so tempting to stuff the text with all sorts of interesting bits. Maybe that’s why I indulge in lengthy timelines, so I can still drool in private over all those facts and goodies that I find fascinating.

      I discovered a whole new tangent to my story while doing NaNoWriMo, and my characters began spouting all sorts of historical info that normal people like them just wouldn’t have known. Hey, I’m a history geek and I had to go and look them all up to be sure!

      Being a time-pressured, wordy first draft, I left those bits in for now, but made plenty of notes on my outline for the second draft, about how to go back and let the history unfold naturally to those characters, so that both they (and the audience) will discover it all bit by tantalizing bit.

      I will hopefully be able to leave out the boring bits; the facts that others find boring, that is…

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      • It’s such a fine line between interesting and tedious. I love reading historical details as they give a better placement to the story but too often (especially if the books are written by academics) they feel forced. Conversely, I also admire biographers, such Antonia Fraser, who can pack so many accurate details within a narrative that reads like fiction.

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        • If you enjoy historical fiction, two of my favourite writers are Elizabeth Loupas and Kate Quinn. Quinn’s 2-book series about the Borgia pope’s mistress was particularly riveting – such an effortless combination of actual historical people and their wonderful fictional counterparts. It’s an art I am determined to master, but it does need a very delicate touch.

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  2. Greetings…I’m super behind on reading blog posts but wanted to say how cool it is you have a timeline to refer back to. Maybe I should try something like that to keep me on track and on time. Good job…your good habits are so inspiring! ~ ღonika, Sam, & Elsa 🐾

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    • Thank you, Monika, Sam and Elsa. I highly recommend having a timeline. Sometimes, when halfway through writing a novel, I get an idea about something that might have happened to the character in their youth, to make them what they are today. Having a timeline means I can pinpoint exactly what age they were, what else was happening in the world, and any other details that might relate or help the story in any way, including incidents that their parents might have experienced at the time which could have impacted on them. Because the timeline is already there, it’s very easy to adapt and slot in a new slice of information without throwing the balance of the whole story.

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