Much is written about writing. If you are a fiction writer you could end up spending the equivalent of a working week – every week – garnering useful tips and critical guidance. We are encouraged to focus on the story arc, on fleshing out our characters and ensuring we include exquisite detail to make our story come to life. We learn the importance of plot and theme and setting, and how selecting the right point of view can make the difference between success and failure.
I have just completed a novel, entitled The Tapestry Bag, and I found all this advice immensely valuable. However, I would like to add something else into the mix. Whether you are a ‘plotter’ – setting out your detailed story board before writing a word – or a ‘pantser’ – someone who writes their first draft, by the ‘seat of their pants’ – there is one other element of preparation that I would highly recommend.
Of course, it is important to know the year your story is set in, but a detailed timeline is so much more than that. When I read through an early draft of The Tapestry Bag I could see all the incidences of ‘yesterday’, ‘tomorrow,’ ‘next week’, and so on were progressing the story forward. However, when I worked through the complete manuscript I realised that I’d started my story at a point in the calendar that resulted in my protagonist, Janie, having to go to work in her mobile library van on Christmas Day!
Clearly, something needed to change.
I decided to set out a detailed timeline on an Excel spreadsheet. The internet is a wonderful thing. I was able to download a calendar for 1969, the year my story is set in. I mapped out each chapter, noting the passage of time, making sure that my characters were not at work on a Sunday, and not having their lie-ins when they should have been at work. Reflecting on the timeline also helped me to determine the likely weather pattern, so that Janie and her husband Greg were appropriately dressed for July sunshine, but prepared for autumn when September came around.
As well as the chapter breakdown, I’ve used Excel to keep a track of the year and month each of my main characters were born. This means I can see at a glance how old each of them is when the story starts and ends, but also how old they were when key events occurred – the Second World War, for example.
I am currently working on a sequel to The Tapestry Bag, so having this timeline is crucial. As the new story unfolds my characters prepare not just for winter, but for the end of a decade; a decade that brought significant social change.
Each author will have their own approach to preparation. As well as a detailed timeline, it’s important to know your characters inside out. Completing character templates helps us to think about not just their physical attributes, but their likes and dislikes, their hopes and fears. I have brought each of my characters alive by selecting a photo that sums up the person I perceive them to be. Just do an internet search for ‘middle-aged man 1960s’ for example, and you can browse through likely candidates. The photo may even inspire you to add something into your story that you hadn’t anticipated, perhaps they wear glasses, or have a bald patch, or a straggly beard. These visual prompts help to bring your characters alive as you plot and plan your way through the story.
And now, with my detailed timeline, I can keep a diary of events for my characters. I’m certain that my Excel timeline has already made my writing life easier. It’s another resource in my writer’s toolkit that I can adapt and develop.
Which resources have you found most helpful when writing fiction? Share your favourite tips and techniques by adding a comment below.