Ever have a week with two Fridays? Sounds like fun but if it happens in your novel, your readers won’t be amused. As writers we can be forgiven for being so consumed by our writing that we lose track of what day it is. Unfortunately, if we lose track of time in the story, we might struggle to sort it out after the fact. And if the errors make it past a copy editor—and believe me, they do—you could confuse or annoy your readers.
I’m here to give you some tips for minimizing lapses in time continuity.
Use Real Dates. Sure, you can make up your very own calendar year, but consider the advantages of using a real one.
- You can download or copy one from the internet. No need to remember when the leap year falls or to wonder whether Easter should be late or early—you’ll know!
- Real calendars connect to real events, such as holidays, historical events, moon cycles, movie release days, etc. These real events will add to the verisimilitude of your story and head off gotchas from pesky fact-checking readers. For date-to-date calculation, celestial events, weather, world clocks, etc., try timeanddate.com. To see historical events during a particular timeline, try ourtimeline.com.
- Make room for serendipity. I can’t tell you the number of times using a real calendar has dropped an opportunity into my lap. For instance, my main character traveled to L.A. to visit her mother. If it weren’t for the calendar, I wouldn’t have realized it was Mother’s Day, the perfect occasion for inducing misery.
Pin Your Characters to the Calendar
- Giving characters birthdays (or at least birth months and years) will ensure you always know how old they are. When I have kid characters that feature prominently (my WIP has nine!), I plot out their grades as well as their ages for every year.
- Mark anniversaries and other life-changing events, too. Think of it this way: if you have your married characters fight during the week of their anniversary, it’s a bigger deal than during other times. The anniversary of a death or miscarriage might also be powerful, or add nuance, but you have to know when it is.
Keep Track of Time as You Write
- Depending on the novel’s timeline, the tools you need will differ. A lengthy timeline might benefit from a spreadsheet, while an abbreviated one could be captured on a single page. I dedicate a notebook to each of my novels and put the timelines in there. For me, not having to click away from the document makes checking the timeline a snap. Here’s a simple one for my second novel, Middle of Somewhere, which takes place during a three-week hike on the John Muir Trail. I noted the nightly campsite so I could readily locate the characters in space and time.
My upcoming release, Stories We Never Told, takes place over several months. Here’s one page of the calendar. The next page is densely packed because the action ramps up, but I didn’t want to include spoilers!
- Be redundant. I also note the date and time for each chapter or scene in the manuscript. I use Scrivener so when I share the compiled version I delete the dates, never deleting them in Scrivener. If you use Scrivener, you can use notecards for this, too.
Coping with Multiple Timelines/multiple POVs
- Track each separately, but also have some method for showing how they intersect in the narrative. In Scrivener I would do this with different colored labels for each timeline. (I’d have a version of it in my notebook, too, for quick reference.)
- If you have two or more POVs running separately in the same timeline, it’s important that when the characters meet up three days hasn’t passed for one and two days for another. I’d put temporary time tags absolutely everywhere with this structure—and make sure the reader has sufficient clues to be reassured no one is time traveling (unless they really are).
I’ve shared some of my tricks for keeping time but as with everything in this business, no solution is for everyone. What techniques do you use to track time in your stories? Do you have any resources to share?