If in your story, or more likely your novel, the passing of time is important, it may be a help to create a timeline – a list of dates, and if necessary, days of the week – on which you can mark important events. If you don’t days and weeks can slip by uncounted, seasons can change, and suddenly you realise you’re in the height of Summer or the depths of Winter, and a rewrite of various sections becomes necessary.
In my first novel ‘The Great Gifts’ I created Myldora, a world with its own calendar. It had five seasons, ten months and eight-day weeks with their own special names; and in order to keep track of them while I was following my protagonist from the age of four through to twenty-five, a timeline became absolutely vital. In fact I put a brief summary of the Myldoran year into the book to help the reader keep track as they read.
My current work-in-progress, ‘Ashren and the Magician’ only takes place over one year from early Spring to the Midwinter Festival, but a timeline has become all the more important since I have a deadline – Ashren’s Installation as Lord of the Forest Domain – and I can’t allow myself to overrun that. In fact I’ve just moved everything back a month because I need to give him and Wintren more time before they come together on that day.
If characters are moving independently around your world, or even city, the timeline can be used to keep track of the different events which are taking place at the same time but in different places. Otherwise you may not be able to bring them together when you need to. Here is one section of the list I’m using for ‘Ashren and the Magician’:
27th June Kern/Sharill sees Marton & talks with Wintren in Moon Tower
27th June – 1st July Sharill works with Wintren.
2nd July Kern reveals himself to Marton. King arrives at Greyfall in evening
3rd July First meeting of King, Wintren & Sharill/Kern. Kern passes King’s message to Puan.
4th July Shawrana is rescued. Cared for by Rowana.
5th July King’s talk with Wintren, King leaves, meets Puan, Puan takes Shawrana to Tower.
6th July Wintren takes on Marton as an aide.
8th July King arrives home. Talks with Valaren, his heir.
10th July Sharill falls ‘ill’
11th July Puan helps Shawrana with advice. Wintren is taken ‘ill’
12th July King sees Lady Heatherin.
In this novel I have several flashback or ‘story’ chapters which take the reader back as much as forty or more years. I also have characters whose ages in relation to each other are important, so it has been important to keep track of their ages and even adjust them a couple of times to make the different generations of the Greenbough dynasty fit properly. In order to facilitate this I have a list of characters and their relative ages. Here are a few of the main characters and how their lives intertwine:
Shadowren Greyfall – Married Heatherin at age 35 died aged 59
Heatherin Greyfall – Married Shadowren at age 28. Moves to Court at age 49 Dies age 93
Wintren Greyfall – Born three years after parents’ marriage when they were 38 & 31. Inherited Greyfall at 21
Treowyne – Ruling King – Same age as Wintren. Inherits the Kingdom when he is 22. (a yr after Wintren inherits Greyfall) Marries at 26, Valaren born when he is 28.
Fernren Greenbough – Ten years older than Wintren, marries Darena at age 29
Darena Greenbough – Same age as Wintren, marries Fernren at age 19
I haven’t written anything as condensed as a mystery or whodunnit, but I imagine for this you might find it a help to keep an hour-by-hour list in order to keep track of victims, suspects and detectives. So often times of journeys and alibis are vital to the unravelling of the story, and precision is the only way to make it work.
All this might look like a lot of work, but I find it quite enjoyable to fathom it all out, and it’s certainly a great deal less frustrating and annoying than trying to write this kind of novel without it, and then having to spend days or even weeks attempting to untangle a terrible muddle.
Of course there are many stories and novels where a timeline or characters ages can be left more vague, but be prepared to put in the work of creating one if your memory isn’t as sharp as you might like, and you suddenly realise you’re getting confused.
Finally, don’t let this put you off writing something of this kind, the work taken to get it right only makes the satisfaction of the final result the greater. Good luck!
PS In ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Tolkien found he’d got the phases of the moon wrong and had to adjust them, the narrative and the dialogue in order to keep things straight. Even the greatest of us need this kind of help from time to time!