Tag Archive | backstory

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.

Setting, Resonance and Backstory

I’ve written before about setting and how it influences both the characters and the plot. But it also has a lot to do with resonance and helps to give roots to a character’s history, or backstory. In a conversation with fellow writers last weekend, I realised that the books which have resonated most with me all have settings to which I long to return, even if only in my mind. Wonderful places to dream of include the land of Narnia, the wild and windy cliffs of Du Maurier’s Cornwall and the magical castle of Hogwarts.

In a previous blog-post I wrote about why Romeo and Juliet works for me in its romantic, historical Italian setting, but not when set on the West Side of New York City in its rewritten version, West Side Story.

If I ever fly to New York, my first place of call will not be the area where West Side Story takes place, but rather Hobie’s antiques shop in The Goldfinch, or even the art gallery where that now famous painting was supposed to have been hanging when the bomb went off. Of course, that’s also because I have a thing for both antiques shops and art galleries, which is probably what drew me to that novel in the first place.

But since I can’t afford to go to New York, let’s return for the moment to the setting of Romeo and Juliet. If I hadn’t once upon a time journeyed to Verona in Italy to see the supposed house and balcony of Juliet, I would in all likelihood not have stopped for lunch on the road between Verona and Venice. This means that I would never have discovered the enchanting castle of Soave where I spent an afternoon marvelling at medieval weapons and chainmail shirts, a fresco of Dante on an obscure wall, and the panoramic view from the fire-step just below its high battlements. In short, if I had not harboured those romantic notions about Juliet’s house, I would have deprived myself of three of the most pivotal settings later used in my novel, Benicio’s Bequest.

Before I ever travelled to Australia, I had heard about Melbourne’s famous Lygon Street with its cafes and restaurants spilling across the pavements.

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I had already decided that I wanted part of my next novel to be set in such a place, but first I had to see it for myself. Early notions of a cellar-like basement bar for my novel’s opening faded when I saw Lygon Street for the first time, and instead I set my fictional bar down a lane that led to a courtyard with a clock tower, beyond which was a hidden maze of alleys, private houses, and backyards of more double-storey buildings facing onto other streets behind and alongside.

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My new world was born. From those images I built my character’s nest in an apartment above the bar that he inherited from his father, up a little lane behind an Italian restaurant run by his friend Gino.

The house that my sister and brother-in-law were renting during that first visit to Melbourne also became the model for another setting, as did the ugly grey house shared by my niece and two housemates. By the time I returned to Melbourne for my second visit, both of these dwellings had other occupants and the members of my family had moved on to more permanent accommodation, but those houses are still firmly embedded in that novel.

What is it that draws us to a place and makes us want to recreate it in a fictional space in our minds? I don’t know, but the pull to those places is strong or we wouldn’t be tempted to use them. I often see myself as what I call a potential-holic. I am drawn to the potential I see in people or in places, just as I am drawn to the potential stories that I could create around situations that I imagine in numerous “What if” scenarios. I think it’s a leftover trait from childhood. Just as I once imagined a bogeyman under the bed or some scary creature of the night lurking in a semi-visible dressing-gown hanging on the back of my bedroom door, I see the world as alive with endless possibilities of hitherto untold stories.

My theatre technician friends laugh at me when I imagine the backstories behind certain things in the plays or musicals that I watch night after night as I operate lights or stage manage them. An entire history was imagined about the childhood of the dreadful Hannigan siblings in the musical Annie last year, and I can’t even remember now what it was based on. Likewise, the previous year saw me dreaming up stories about the odd assortment of criminals who arrive in the boarding house of a seemingly frail old lady who manages to outwit and outlive them all in The Ladykillers.

These are not stories that anybody in the audience would know or even think about. In fact, they may bear no resemblance to the original author’s own ideas, but for me – just as the actors do their own research and come up with their characters’ motivations – I like to find my own justification for everything that they do. It’s not only good practice for my writing, but it can be enormous fun too. When you’re lucky enough to work in a creative environment, something rubs off on you and it would be foolish not to take advantage of it. And I suppose you could say that that’s my backstory.