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.


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.


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?