Tracking Time in Your Novel

By Laura Drake

It seems I’m always confessing in my blogs. I’m not sure I want to know what that says about me, but I know wherever my mother is, she’s proud that she had some influence. But that is, as they say, ‘a different meeting.’

I suck at tracking time in my novels. You know — how much time passes between scenes, and the time span from the beginning to the end.  A year? A decade?

I just finished a huge revision for my ‘biker-chick’ book, Her Road Home, due out in August. I got busted by my editor. I kind of hoped she wouldn’t notice. She did.  Here are a few actual editorial comments:

  • How much time has passed since the last scene?
  • What month is it?
  • I’m a little unsure of how much later this scene takes place . . .

Good questions. My answer? “Damned if I know. “  I’m a Pantser.  I just wander along, and somehow, one day, I get to the end.

I do know that the  inciting incident, the motorcycle wreck, happened in February, and the closing scene, a Christmas party, happens in early December. I’m always clear about the beginning and end – it’s the middle that gets fuzzy.

The really embarrassing part is that I’m anally organized (no, not that I organize – oh never mind, you know what I mean.) My library is in alphabetical order, as are my albums (yes, I still have them.) I can lay my hands on anything I own in the dark — if Alpha Dog hasn’t moved it. I have a white marker board full of to-do lists, and my calendar is color-coded, for cripes sake!

But for whatever reason, my mind doesn’t want to track time in my novel.

I needed tools.

The first I found is cool. It’s an Excel Template (yeah, like you’re surprised.) It’s easy to use, and gives a great overall view. You can snag it free, here.

Here’s the one I made up for my PBR book, The Sweet Spot, due out in May:

Timeline

Click on image to enlarge.

It worked great as a starting point – a macro view. It allowed me to see my obvious holes, and locate gross ambiguity.

But not everything will fit. My biggest problem was in the scene-to-scene details. So I needed a micro tool. Excel to the rescue (again.) As you may know, I use Excel to track my scenes, chapter page count, word count, and much more. If you missed that post, it’s here.

So I just added a page to that Excel Sheet.

But I found that I needed two micro views:

  • One for before the book began, so I could keep the backstory timeline for the two main characters, and reconcile their ages when the book began.
  • One for the book itself; scene by scene time management.

Here’s a portion of the one I did for the biker-chick book, Her Road Home:

HRH time chart

Click on image to enlarge

I sent it in with the revisions, so my editor could visualize the entire book at once.

PROBLEM SOLVED! And the accountant in me loved creating it.

Now I just have to be sure to use it on the novel I just started – it’ll save a lot of time and confusion later!

Do you have a time tracking problem?

I’m always looking for new tools – how do you track time in your novel?

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54 Responses to Tracking Time in Your Novel

  1. Chihuahua Zero says:

    It’s a good thing that the story I’m working on is framed within a tight span of time (one semester), so I’m pretty much forced to account for when each event happens so I don’t have too many days in November or something.

  2. Liz Flaherty says:

    I have the same problem. Matter of fact, I just had to do some changing, or we were going to have a way-too-viable five-month pregnancy. I love your time-lines, but am not sure I’m willing to open Excel to create one! Great post.

  3. I’m so low-tech, Laura, I use a paper calendar, but you’ve given me a tool to think about.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Oh, interesting, Lorrie – do you write critical points on the calendar to refer to later? I hadn’t thought of that, but as long as the novel spanned less than a year, that would work.

  4. Perfect timing on this post, Laura, since I’m just starting a new project! Like Lorrie, I use a paper calendar. But of course, I never start a project tracking things out which would make life so much easier. Think I can do it this time? :-)

  5. Lara says:

    Laura, this is outstanding! As another with an accounting degree/background and a math teacher foreground, I totally see the usefulness of it. And I’m downloading the template as soon as I get home.

    The first part of the book, up until the second crisis point in Act II, takes place in about 6 weeks, up through the pagan holiday of Beltane. After that, I’m kinda fuzzy. No, make that very foggy. As in pea-soup London.

    Thanks for showing me a way home!

  6. marsharwest says:

    Hey, Laura. Because of my theatre background, I’m used to starting at an end point (when the production begins) and backing up through all the steps that have to take place before you get there. Before you can hold auditions, you have to order scripts for instance. I can’t live without my calendars. (I’ve save most of the paper ones.) Took me a year to transform to just using my iPhone, though we have real ones hanging around the house. :)
    Generally, I write the date (sometimes even the time) at the beginning of the chapter and between scene breaks. Got some feedback from a couple of contest judges that were negative about that, so the next book I wrote without doing that. Big mistake! I finished and put it away for a time before reading straight through. Well, it was all messed up, took major rewrites. I got out the old trusty paper calendar and figured out what would work. Won’t ever write another without putting those dates in–even if after I take them out and layer in some time info with words. As a reader, I notice those kinds of things. Many may not, but that goes back to my training. Interesting post.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Marsha, I like the idea of having it in the Manuscript itself – it would keep me focused on it. But all that would have to be deleted before I submitted it…and then there’s the pesky backstory timing….

  7. I’m not only from an accounting background, I’m a database geek. Code a database-driven website, even once, and you confirm, with prejudice, that timelines and order are critical.

    And yet, my mysteries each seem to take place in about a week. The current work in progress was originally 3 days, but I realized I needed a B story to solve the A story, and that required adding another day, and shuffling this, that, and the other thing.

    Even short timelines require some tracking. I’ve recently discovered an ancient technology called “writing” which uses a “pen” to make markings on “paper.” Once I figured out details like writing legibly (this from a guy who used to to drafting lettering on architectural blueprints; apparently, I’ve overcome neatness) it was work, but all my characters arrived at the final scene simultaneously. (Imagine my embarrassment if my heroine hadn’t burst from the room on time, because it was Wednesday, and she was at the deli getting a sandwich for lunch.)

  8. Carrie says:

    I have a couple of novels where this could be very helpful. Thanks for the Excel template :)

  9. A. M. Sligar says:

    Hey, thanks for the Excel tip. Beats the heck out of all the little notes wiht scribbled revisions I’ve been useing.

  10. Joan says:

    Fantastic timing since me and two writing buddies have just been discussing this & re-doing our timelines. Thanks for the help and links!

  11. Sharlarae says:

    Since I write historicals I’m always researching calendar months from the past. I print out those calendars, the monthly ones with space to write scene info. I could use Excel but when I started writing I didn’t how. I also use Word tables and outlines. I put the date of each scene as part of the headers. Laura’s idea would take less time, I admit though so I’ll give it a try. What with Internet media, finding a home for the book and the writing and researching, anything that takes less time is definitely a plus.

  12. Hopefully this will be the solution to what I’m looking for. I’ve had to retrace my timeline so many times in my current WIP I’m dizzy with all the dates. Even if it’s part of the solution, it will be a great help – thanks.

  13. Great post. I use a calendar and make a timeline. Though for some reason, I never start there. Mapping it all out comes when I run into a problem. Great idea using excel.

  14. Yeah…. I’m like you Laura, I anally track everything except what I write. I have a spreadsheet for our TV shows on DVR, but not my novel. LOL. My biggest time tracking issue isn’t usually time between scenes, I’m ok with that. Mine is getting the years right. My characters are always in their 40′s, and usually flashing on things from decades passed by, so I have to backtrack their lives to their teen years, marriages, divorces, when they have their kids according to how old the kids are now… I’ve been busted on the math, and the teaser section of book 2 that is in the back of book 1 has the error in it. Says thirteen years for something, when later the copyeditors caught it and told me it was really eleven. :)

    • Laura Drake says:

      Thank God for copyeditors – isn’t it embarrassing, the things they find?
      I’ll go back and change a character’s name, or a street name, and miss one. They catch it every time.

      If yours are mostly year problems with backstory, Sharla, the timeline may be all you need. Good luck!

  15. Joan says:

    Laura–thanks again for all of this. I looked at your Nov. entry on more fully using Excel, and there you offered to send a copy of your spreadsheet to those who were newbies to spreadsheets. I am one & if you’re still offering, I would love to have so I can jump in. Thanks!

  16. Jenny Hansen says:

    I have a horrible time with scene transitions but I haven’t really been slapped upside the head with the timeline thing yet.

    In a short story or a scene, I just have to logically get from one story point to the other. But figuring out the actual timeline in novel-length fiction might give me shudders. So far, Scrivener works – I can rearrange easily when they’re out of order.

  17. Kail says:

    Oh my Gosh! I’m still laughing at this: Good questions. My answer? “Damned if I know. “

    I love that response, I feel exactly the same way and I also have the exact problem. Best Blog ever. Thanks for sharing!!!

    Kail Harbick, Big Brother season 8

    • Laura Drake says:

      Kail – I’m intrigued by your byline. I don’t watch TV – do you write for them? Act on it? Enquiring minds want to know!

      • Kail says:

        Big Brother is a reality show (CBS) that I was a houseguest on season 8. Since, I have no published books, sadly, to use for a byline, I throw in my reality stint of five weeks on the show. HaHa *wink*
        I hope to replace this byline with a book soon. :)
        Kail

  18. Nana Prah says:

    I have the opposite problem Laura. I am anal retentive when it comes to time. I want to record every day as it passes, which takes a little away from the story, so I have to moderate myself. I am wondering if you tend to be on time for meetings and events. The tools you suggested seem great. Thanks.

    • Laura Drake says:

      Nana, busted. I am late to a meeting if I’m not 5 minutes early. That’s why being a pantser, and not tracking time is SO odd for me.

      I have a theory – that writing is the one place in my life that I’m not constrained by my day-to-day neurosis.

      Or, maybe I just choose others! :)

  19. Laura, here I am … late and happy to have taken the time to catch up with you today. I go back and forth with the two sides of my personality fighting a never-ending battle. One of us wants to be anal and compulsively organized. The other one wants to smack her in the head. Gives me lots of headaches for sure :) If I could only listen to myself, I might have learned that when I don’t pay attention and shuffle chapters the girl often gives birth to the baby before she gets pregnant !!

  20. late to the party as usual but I learned my most useful timeline crutch from working in films. Storyboard. I have a huge lucite one divided into a calendar type thing, that can be days, weeks or months depending of the story. I put the scenes on little post-its and stick them on the appropriate square until it doesn’t work then I shuffle them around until they do. Usually they work because I begin to see the storyboard in my head. Now sometimes I don’t even have to use the actual board. I work too spread out for one computer screen. I use that for the actual writing.

  21. ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

    I am kind of … not an Excel fan, but I do see the usefulness of this, for sure. For my first novel I tracked time by typing the new month. Initially I thought those would be chapter breaks or something. They definitely did not end up being that, but having the time frame much more obvious in my manuscript helped me because I don’t write linearly; I jump all over the place to whatever scene moves me at the moment, making it easy to forget the time. So I appreciate this post, because I wouldn’t have remembered that had I not seen this! Helpful… because I just realized that I didn’t really know when it was in the scene I most recently wrote. I think I need to put in my time markers now…

  22. Laurie says:

    Thank you for this! I have difficulty showing the passage of time in my book. I’m a pantser, too.

  23. Great post, as always, Laura! I use a “story notebook” where I keep all my notes, ideas, research, timelines, character descriptions, etc. This is an actual spiral bound notebook because when I’m first brainstorming/plot developing I think better by using pen and paper. Then I use note cards to put my scenes together. Once I have a scene order I can go with, I figure out the timeline and label it on the card. I LOVE spreadsheets and have used them religiously – for other things. But I can’t seem to make them work for me with novels. When it comes to plotting/time keeping, I need something tactile I guess. But I’m going to print out your examples and give it another go….copy/pasting would certainly save on paper & index cards! :)

    • Laura Drake says:

      Darcy, In all your spare time, you should look into Scrivener. I haven’t had time, but I think it’s a digital replacement for everything you do.

      But I have to admit, they’re going to have to pry my index cards from my cold, dead fingers….

  24. C. K. Crouch says:

    I’m a panster mostly but I do sometimes run into time issues. I was working with a friend and she asked me about the time line and I told her what i had in my head. I have to watch it or I get lost. I wrote a great scene and realized the opening of it was off time wise. I might give the template a try. I use Excel to track words written, words needed and how I fared for the day. I am on a loop where i have to keep track of the day. The goal is 100 words x 100 days well once I got going I had to have some way to track how many days in a row and what day it was. Excel was perfect for that. I think the timline template might work, except I never think in scenes. I just write it and go this should be a good chapter break. I downloaded yWriter for free. It has places to put your scenes, the time all of that but it confuses me because I don’t thin that way. I’m the queen of disorganization and I’ll be there but probably a little late. :-)

    • Laura Drake says:

      C.K., I heard about 100 words, 100 days at a local RWA meeting – sounds like an awesome ‘butt in chair’ tool! So are you on track so far this year? I’m cheering for you!

  25. This article, along with the accompanying comments, gave me such great ideas! I can see using a paper calendar to keep things straight and to jot down notes when I’m away from the computer. Then I can see using that information to create a more solid outline. I’m very excited to jump back into my WIP and see if this helps me get my characters where they need to go in a timely fashion. Thanks for the excellent tips! (And thanks to your readers, too, for their equally excellent feedback!)

  26. C. K. Crouch says:

    Reblogged this on C. K. Crouch and commented:
    This was interesting and I wondered if anyone else had this problem.

  27. Brilliant as always – God bless Excel!

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  29. Julie Glover says:

    BLESS YOU! This is just what I needed. I downloaded that template right away!

  30. Tizzy Potts says:

    This is fantastic advice and I’ll definitely download the spreadsheet. Thank you.

  31. Samantha Torres says:

    I work on a Mac and have yet to learn how to use their Excel equivalent, Numbers (I don’t know how to use Excel either, but that’s another matter…). I use Scrivener for my organizing but I hadn’t figured out a way to keep track of my timeline. In my current WIP I am having a hard time keeping it straight so I might try out a paper calendar. I don’t know why that hadn’t occurred to me before! I love your timeline and if you ever come across a version for Macs please do share!

  32. Kaye Munroe says:

    I couldn’t get it to open, even after downloading it twice. I don’t use Excel, even though it’s part of the program package on my computer. Too bad it’s not available in programs like Word or LibreOffice.

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