Turning the (calendar) page

Wednesdays with Laurie is a series of writing reflections, here on Mutterings, every—yes—Wednesday.  Topics are random, although I expect that cumulatively, they will touch on most of what I have to say about the craft. Today: the time line.

I haven’t seen the film cliché of the flipping pages of a calendar used for a while, although sometimes it feels as if real life is running at that speed.  However, I’ve found when writing a book that it’s all too easy to let those pages shuffle along.  Surely “a few days” is close enough for government—or publishing—work?  And sometimes yes, it doesn’t really matter what day of the week it is or whether it’s been six days or nine since a thing happened.

Other times it really does.  Especially with the thriller format, which tends to have several story lines moving forward at once.

For the Russell books, narrated in the first person, it generally works fine to let any characters who have been off-screen, as it were, simply tell Russell what has been going on (or send her a letter, or what have you.)

To keep track of what has been going on, and to whom, some writers use PostIts, or varicolored 3×5 cards, or some complicated software that helps them keep all the people and times straight.  I usually find that a simple calendar is enough.  I have a blank calendar page that I photocopy, filling in with the events as I go along.  Recently, I’ve started to use a glossy blank oversized “At a Glance” calendar from the stationers, which I write on with dry-erase pens and keep pinned up on the cork board at the foot of my writing area.  Pirate King, for example, begins like this:

The dates and any immutable events such as phases of the moon I put in black ink (which, incidentally, seems to be the only color that doesn’t fade to ghostly traces after six months.)  The other events I tend to use a single color for, in this case red, easily rubbed out if I decide to shift the sequence (and, you’ll want to put this where nobody brushes against it too much.)  If various characters decide to veer off in different directions, they each get their colors.

The God of the Hive, however, despite being a Russell book, was much more of a thriller format.  Here we had Russell, yes, but there were half a dozen other essential characters as well, and having to sit through each of them narrating their stories whenever they caught up with Russell would have been beyond tedious.  So I wrote that book from several points of view.  And wove the story lines together.

The God of the Hive tapestry soon became too complicated for the one-page approach, since each character would be doing several key things on any given day, making for a crowded calendar.  So I reverted to an actual time line, made the old-school way by taping together two sheets of lined paper (I ended up with four) and putting the dates (black ink) along the top and the characters (also in ink) down the left side, with the immutable moon phases and meteor showers in ink along the bottom.  Major characters were given three lines per day, minor ones a single one:

The actions themselves are all in pencil, which may make this scan hard to read but made it simpler to change a sequence of events when I realized that I would need to draw out one story or hurry another.  And with everything staring me in the face, it kept me from messing up the chronology too badly, always a danger for those of us whose outlines amount to a dozen words on the back of a receipt.

The myriad of puncture marks on the top reveals just how often I did take it down, to add and to change.

If I end up doing the time-line system too often, my compulsive self will probably drive me down to my local print shop to have them run off some oversized blank time lines, saving me from a series of taped-together lined sheets pinned to the wall.  Neatness gives one the comforting delusion of control.

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  1. Sara on March 2, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    I find this very much a relief- I was trying to figure out how a writer…well, figures it out. This makes sense to me- but I’m a visual person. Does anyone else work this way?

  2. Kath on March 2, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Thanks for sharing…while I am not a neatnick (as my house could attest) I find that somethings bring out the complusive organizier and being in IT I would have use software 🙂

  3. Cleo on March 2, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this part of your writing process, Laurie! I have been revising a juvenile novel of only around 100 pages, and driving myself nutty trying to keeping straight all the characters, actions, and dialogue, as my plot progressed. I have long since purchased numerous notebooks, calendars, dry- and wet-erase sheets & markers, and various computer software programs to help me. But figuring out how to actually apply them to my needs? I’ve had no success thus far. Your recent post shed a lot of light on methods I could employ. I now look forward to making another attempt at my novel.

  4. vickivanv on March 3, 2011 at 11:05 am

    I just tweeted that last line and pointed Miss Russell to it. I think she will be Amused. 😀 I choose to live in a somewhat messy and non-deluded state, though there is some method to the madness.

  5. Aaron Paul Lazar on March 3, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Hi, Laurie. Ah yes, that illusion of control… it feels good even if it’s not always real.

    I loved seeing your methods for keeping characters and timelines straight. I ended up doing the same thing with long pieces of 11×17 inch paper taped into a virtual mural on my wall when I was rewriting my first book long ago. It was the only thing that worked, because I’d pulled certain scenes and added others, killed off new characters, etc. But it worked! These days my stories are pretty simple, straight line events written from first or third person limited POVs. I write the book, create a mini-outline on an excel spreadsheet as the story progresses (no outlining in advance for me!), and try to keep track of the day/time for each scene so that I don’t inadvertently screw it up. I don’t, however, do phases of the moon, like you. Quite impressive!

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