Creating Timelines for Your Story

Yes, yes.  I remember Ms. Hashman’s third grade class where we stuck butcher block paper all around the room in an effort to create a timeline of all human events.  I was totally lost.  Time is a difficult concept for little people.  Heck, given the amount of missed appointments, late meetings, and speeches that drag on forever, seems like time is a difficult concept for everyone.  So why bother tracking it?  And why, especially, track time in a piece of fiction?

Great question.  To me, time is the anchor or plausibility check for my work.  It keeps my characters in appropriate frames of mind and levels of maturity for the story I’m working on.

For example, in “Faith on the Rocks,” Daisy is in  her early fifties, complete with menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and insecurities.  As she goes through more books, I don’t want her stuck in that yuck time of life forever.  Can you imagine?  How cruel!

Kitty, on the other hand, is living in her mid-twenties with “Faith.” I want her growing up more and becoming a wiser, successful woman (maybe even a published author).  That can’t happen without the passage of time and the life lessons learned as a result.

Now, I understand there are several good timeline software packages out in the world, but I’ve always enjoyed the Keep It Smart and Simple principle (notice the nod to Valentines Day here – K.I.S.S.).  I need two ways to record time, but have only recently been building the second one.

TIMELINE ONE: EMPTY BLOCK CALENDAR

Original calendar notes of events for "Faith on the Rocks"

Original calendar of events for “Faith on the Rocks”

This is a great way to map your story so that it isn’t too long or cumbersome to get done.  Learned about this in an RMFW Gold Conference session a few years ago, with author Peggy Waide.  This timeline can be either a calendar or a map of events in your story.  I use a 7 x 5 chart printed landscape on an 8.5″ x 11″ paper.  I saved this map as a blank in my writing notes because when it comes time to mapping my story, I like to work by hand.  I print the calendar a couple of times if necessary, then jot in plot notes.  This way, I can tell at a glance whether the story works or not.

This came in particularly handy when an editor said my story started in September, but we were suddenly nearing Halloween in another part.  I sent her the “calendar”of events, and she was satisfied.  We tweaked a line or two and the novel is good to go.

Ms. Waide’s historical romances take place over longer periods than a month so she uses the blocks to help jog her into plot twists.  End of a “week”? Make something “up the stakes” in your story!  Very cool thought process.  If you ever get a chance to hear Ms. Waide talk, be sure to take it.  She is so full of energy and the spirit of fun, you’ll be sure to learn a lot and have a great time.  But now, back to timelines.

TIMELINE TWO: THE EXCEL SPREADSHEET METHOD

In the final review of my book and beginning of “Sliced Vegetarian,” questions kept popping into my head about what was going on in Daisy’s life, but outside the story area.  I wondered how old Gabe was, and Sam Waters, Daisy’s dog park friend.  The biggest questions came around Ginny’s age and when exactly she and Daisy were together at Independence High.  And when did that Colby Stanton incident occur? Hmm.

Notes weren’t particularly helpful, and thinking things through in my own post-menopausal brain weren’t successful.  I turned to a trusty old friend from my marketing days–Excel.

Now don’t go screaming from the room!  Excel is a really cool tool, and for creative writing it needn’t be complicated or scary.  Here’s what I’ve started:

  1. Set up and save the spreadsheet workbook.  Just hit the save and name your work. Easy-peasy.
  2. I added columns for Year, Event, Notes, and Daisy Books where this is referenced.
  3. Other than the year, I knew I would want to wrap text inside the columns, so I selected the columns by clicking on the letter at the top, then found the Format-> Cells menu item and a pop-up menu showed an Alignment page option.  I clicked on that.
  4. In the lower options box on the Alignment page there’s a little check box for “Wrap Text.”  I clicked that, then returned to my spreadsheet.
  5. In the Year column I put in as my first number, Daisy’s birth year — 1959.  This sort of fit with my story, so that became Daisy’s official birth year.  And, because I think Daisy is so full of jokes and silliness, I gave her a birthday of April 1.  Can you see how suddenly it is so much easier to tell what’s going on in her life?  I have a tangible birthdate–even if Donald Trump would have me if he requested her birth certificate. Heh, heh.
  6. Did you know that once you’ve put a number in an Excel cell, you can click and drag on the lower right corner and advancing numbers will flow right under your mouse?  Pretty cool. Daisy aged in a snap.  I even played with making her 100 years old, before I got down to business.
  7. Next I dragged out the column widths on my sheet to a comfortable size for me. Nothing specific, I just eyeballed what a column width with text should be, and left it at that.
  8. Lastly, I went through my “Faith on the Rocks” outlines and notes and put in important “back story” items.  If something was mentioned in this first book, pop! It got a line on my spreadsheet.

You can play with colors and highlights if you have a complex string of novels, and use the Move or Copy function (right-click on the sheet tab) to create timelines for other characters.  What a fun way to “write” without long, time-consuming, notes!

Hope this helps.  How do you track time, either in life or in your stories?

Story Bible 4 – Character Sketching

Why are character sketches so important to writers?  How do you go about writing them?  What do you put in a sketch or take out of one?  Who sees these things anyway?

To me, characters (people or animals with personalities) are the heart and soul of any story.  They help us see our own lives with the struggles they endure, their triumphs and their thought processes.  And a beautiful thought is that literally any character can become a protagonist–all it takes is for a writer to care enough to put that person in the protagonist role.

When you’re writing your story bible, you’ll probably focus on your protagonist and antagonist first.  These are the two main forces in your story.  Sometimes an antagonist can be nothing more than a force of nature like a storm (as in The Perfect Storm), or an animal (as in Jaws). Sometimes that antagonist is an evil person like Cruella De Ville from 101 Dalmatians. (If you want to see a fun list of “baddies” check out The Telegraph’s 50 greatest villains in literature post–right there are a bunch of thumbnail sketches of the characters we love to hate).

The protagonist is easier.  We love to imagine being “the good guy” in any gripping book or movie.  But a good protagonist has faults as well as strengths.  It is our job as the reader to examine both, as we determine how we want to live our lives differently after being exposed to the latest protagonist we see.

The thing is, it’s as important to spend pre-writing time getting to know your two main forces as it is to have an idea of what your story is all about.  Without the depth that comes from knowing how your hero or villain will react to situations, your characters can become flat, dull and one-dimensional.  This, more than anything, is a formula for a story that no one wants to read.

In her book, “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel,” Hallie Ephron has 40 to 50 pages devoted to learning about both your major and your minor characters.  Even though she asks you as a writer to go into more depth than may be 100% necessary, her charts are well worth checking out.  I learned a tremendous amount about knowing my own characters from this work.

And that circles me back to “what is a character sketch?”  To me, a character sketch is a small piece of writing that encapsulates the essence of a person, animal or force in a story you’re writing.  Sometimes it is a list of answers to questions you ask, as in Hallie Ephron’s workbook, but more often, it is the recording of a character at a particular point in time.

When you go to a party with someone you know, often you’ll come away and talk about the people you’ve met.  When you do, you don’t talk about “that six-foot-four white male who wore a dark suit.”  You’ll probably say something more like “that tall guy with the lisp who was smashed and talked incessantly about his roofing company.”  The last phrase is a lot more showing of character, and is indeed a micro-character sketch.  As an author, you could write down that one phrase and be on your way to developing a great character sketch.

These little exercises bring life to the characters you want to meet up with for the 250 -700 pages of a novel. If you only know what someone looks like (that six-foot-four white male who wore a dark suit), there’s no way to keep him interesting for that length of writing.  Try harder.  Get to know your characters, write small scenes that test their “humanness” on the page, and collect those sketches in your story bible.

Then you never know, a character sketch may be the perfect addition to a scene in your novel, a synopsis of your work or a part of a press release on your latest publication.

Character sketches–easy? No way.  Important? Beyond a doubt.

Today’s writing prompt: Select a minor character from your current novel, and write a short story about him, her or it.  Give them a purpose or goal beyond what you’ve employed them for. Put this in a 250-500 word document, and save it in your story bible.  You may need it one day–it may even become a totally separate short story.

Write well.  May the muses be with you.

Story Bible 3 – Playing With Maps

I remember in elementary school how maps were a fascinating project.  We made maps of our neighborhood, maps of our school, secret pirate maps and so much more.  In sandboxes we’d carve roads and develop whole stories (which usually involved wars with siblings whose towns we wanted to destroy).  In short, maps were a jump-start to our imaginations and great friends.

Map and office supplies for Daisy Arthur Mysteries

Mapping is a great addition to your story bible.

As part of the Story Bible process, a lot of writers will develop maps to keep their fictional cities straight.  But what about those of us who work with real places?  We want to talk about things people may want to go see, but how do we fit settings that may be fictional into our real towns?

For me, this is a fun game.  I went to my local government building and they were kind enough to give me a map of the city.  The great thing about maps is that they list all the names of the roads in alphabetical order, so if you need to make up a new road name, you can make sure you’re not accidentally directing people to someplace you don’t want them to go, simply by making sure your name isn’t on the list. How cool is that?

Next I went to my local Staples and pick up a pack of dot stickers and correcting tapes.  I love buying office supplies, so it was a treat to be able to buy these things that I can write off on taxes as a “business expense.”  Then I get to play with them. Cool, cool, cool!

The last step is the one I’m working on now.  I color-coded my dots – yellow for characters’ homes, red for murder spots and green for major settings in my Daisy books.  Now I just number the spots and keep a list in my story bible so I can do small calculations like how long does it take to get from Daisy’s house to Gabe’s, or what would Daisy see if she were going to drive from the library to the grocery store?

The best thing about these maps is that you can be finished with a first pass or keep adding dots, renaming roads and be working on writing without having to be sitting in front of your computer screen to do so.

So go now and make a map for your story.  Maybe it will be a whole town, maybe it will be a map of your protagonist’s house or apartment.  Thing is, this IS working on your story, so have a little guilt-free fun.

Now it’s your turn.  What will you map-out today?