I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Writing timelines

This post is for fiction writers, and especially for those who are not particularly IT-savvy. Obviously, most authors of fiction are familiar with word processing programs like Microsoft Word and OpenOffice Writer, but not with spreadsheets like Microsoft Excel and OpenOffice Calc. It turns out that the programs designed to process tables of numbers are the perfect tool for writing and maintaining the timeline of a novel.

As I said in a previous post, I am writing a historic novel. In that type of long fiction, it is imperative to keep the events involving the characters perfectly synchronised with the historical events that occur in the background. And the best way to do so is to take advantage of the sorting capabilities of spreadsheet programs.

An event is something that occurs. Anything that is relevant to your story. For each event, eventually, you should be able to define the who, what, when, and where, although at the beginning you might not know all of them or, in truth, some of them might actually be irrelevant and you might decide never to define them.

To describe an event in a spreadsheet, you simply write ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, and ‘where’ as heading of four columns. If you prefer, you can also write ‘actor’, ‘description’, ‘date’, and ‘location’, or whatever you fancy. You can also extend it to include an additional heading for a second actor, or a ‘why’ (or ‘comments’) heading to help you remember in which way the event is relevant to your story.

Then, it is just a matter of writing down the events, one in each row, like in the following example:

I chose the code ‘hist’ to mark events of historical importance, and ‘soc’ (for ‘society’) to indicate other historical events relevant to the story.

Notice that:
  • The dates are written as yyyy-mm-dd and are not always complete. Also, the events are not ordered on the basis of their date of occurrence.
  • Different background colours are used for different main actors (column ‘who1’).
The dates are written yyyy-mm-dd because to have the events in proper order we will then only need to do a sorting on the ‘when’ column. To avoid the silly automatic formatting of the spreadsheet programs, I suggest that, before entering any event, you set the ‘when’ column to be of type text, so that no formatting will be done on them.

The different shadings let you identify the main actor of each event at a glance.

If you sort the events as in

the list of events will appear as follows:

If you imagine having some hundred entries, you will agree with me that a spreadsheet is almost essential.

A spreadsheet gives you a lot of flexibility. For example, to change a colour or the main actor’s name, you only need to sort on ‘who1’, and all the entries with the same background colour will be grouped together. If you sort on ‘where’ as first key and ‘when’ as second key, you will have the timeline of events occurring in a particular location.

To be honest, I wouldn’t keep a timeline in any other way. The timeline of the novel I am writing already has 140 entries, and keeps growing. I refer to it quite often.

Some of you might point out that everything I said would also be possible with a word processor. It is true, but table handling in a word processor is a bit awkward, especially because of the page-width limitation. A spreadsheet was designed to handle table and is your best bet, even if you don’t need to make any calculation.

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