Doing Time

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by Deborah Raney

Every year I anticipate this season when the brand new calendars go on sale! I always have such fun choosing the calendar that will hang on our fridge keeping track of all the important events of our lives. I get great pleasure from turning to a new page at the beginning of each month-a fresh start, a clean page. And last year’s calendar? Well, that’s what got me thinking about all the different ways I’ve tracked time in my novels.

Eighteen years ago when I wrote my first novel-a family saga spanning ten years-I taped eight sheets of paper together, drew horizontal lines in various colors to represent each character, and made hashmarks along the line for significant events in each character’s life. That sounds so clever and wise until I tell you that I only created this timeline after an editor discovered, just before the book went to press, that I had some characters in college for most of the ten years-and they were still working on their bachelor’s degrees. Oops. I quickly cobbled together the timeline and sorted things out in the nick of time.

In my next book, all the action took place in one year’s time, so my timeline for that was a simple list down the lines of a legal pad. Easy.

I’ve never been good with anything number-related, but another writing friend’s husband had put together an Excel spreadsheet that calculated all kinds of data about a novel, including timeline, page count, percentage left to write, and I-don’t-remember-what-else. I used it for several books, then somehow hit a button that messed up the algorithm that calculated the numerics (I just made that algorithm thing up, but I pushed something wrong and that was the end of that).

My next book had a mystery thread running through it and I needed to do a bit more plotting than my usual seat-of-the-pants method to set up some red herrings, so I tried the index card method. Blue cards for my hero, pink for my heroine, and each card containing the date the scene took place and a sentence about the action. It actually worked pretty well, but like any plotting method I’ve ever tried, it took all the fun out of writing for me because I hate knowing the ending before I get there-whether reading or writing.

So with my next book-my tried and true women’s fiction-I tried simply labeling each chapter and scene with a date. My intention was that those notations would be for my eyes only and I would delete them before the book was published, but I found those datelines caused me to “cheat” and not write decent set-ups for each new scene. I ended up having to go back through the entire book and weave in timeline cues for the reader. I love rewrite and editing, but that was not fun and I was terrified the book would be full of continuity glitches.
Silver Bells
Christmas of that year we received several freebie calendars from local businesses. Since I keep all my calendar events on my computer and iPhone and only use one paper calendar, I didn’t need any of the giveaway calendars, but as I was getting ready to toss them in the trash, I noticed that one of them had nice big squares for each day. A light went on and I knew I’d discovered my perfect timeline tool.

For the last dozen or so books, I’ve kept my timeline on a discarded calendar. I never tell the reader the actual year of the calendar I’m referencing, but using a calendar this way has helped me avoid the pitfall of having a character go to church on Sunday morning and three days later gripe about how much he hates Monday mornings. (Yes, that’s happened-but thanks to my sharp-eyed editors I don’t think a timeline gaffe like that ever made it into a published book.)

Since I don’t plot ahead, after I write a scene, I simply jot on the correct day’s square something like: 5 p.m. – Rob and Michelle argue at the newspaper office. Seeing those squares lined up Sunday-Saturday helps me organize my characters’ lives the way I organize my own.

I did use the dateline-at-the-beginning-of-scene method in my Hanover Falls Novels series-with the dates in the actual book-and I think it worked well since those novels each had a thread of suspense, but I had to remind myself not to forget to use “markers” for the reader for time of day, day of week, season of year, weather, etc.

I’ve used the Scrivener software for several years now, and love the idea board, notecards, research options, and other features of the program, but I haven’t really found it helpful for keeping timelines. My go-to method for keeping track of time continues to be the paper calendar method and I eagerly look forward to those hometown giveaway calendars every year.

How about you? Have you found a creative way to keep track of your novel’s timeline?

Here are a few links you might find useful in creating the timeline that works best for you:

Using Microsoft Excel:

Using Microsoft Word:

Creating Your Own Calendar:

Using Three-act Story Structure:

Scrivener Software Purchase:

LifeTrack App for iPad:
(Haven’t tried this one, but it looks promising!)

Deb Raney OctDEBORAH RANEY’s first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title and launched her writing career. Her 24th novel released from Guideposts this month, and she is currently working on a five-book series for Abingdon Press Fiction. Deb and her husband, Ken Raney, recently traded small-town life in Kansas -the setting of many of Deb’s novels-for life in the (relatively) big city of Wichita. Visit Deb on the Web at

Comments 0

  1. When I took one of your early bird classes at ACFW several years ago, I remember you talking about the timelines you created for each novel. That stayed with me as I created my novels. I love the idea of using calendar pages. Now I’ll save those calendars for upcoming books.

  2. While writing my novel last year, I quickly started to feel a little lost as to what was happening when. I worried I’d get the timing all off. So, I found calendar templates online & printed enough to cover the timeline of the book. Then I filled in the info I needed. Worked great!

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