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Proper Use of a Timeline for your Novel - and How it Affects Nanowrimo

I will use as my example for this essay my Nanowrimo novel (still unfinished, but well beyond 50,000 words) Gideon’s Curse.  This novel covers a large span of time.  One plot line begins right after the Civil War, and the other follows the same family into the future.  The two parts of the story are actually pretty well separated, proven by the fact that the novella “The Preacher’s Marsh,” pretty much encompasses one time-line and also stands pretty well on its own.  Here’s the thing, though, and this topic was brought to mind by Vice Presidential Candidate Biden’s remarks the other night about how the president went on TV during the Great Depression and calmed everyone down.  Not only did he think Franklin Roosevelt was President in 1929, but he didn’t seem to realize there was no TV…and even if there HAD been TV - the people who needed calming down couldn’t have afforded it.

Anyway.  Gideon’s Curse covers several generations of two families.  Some of the members of those families pass their name down through the generations, muddying the waters even more.  Here then, is where I start to reach the point.

It’s a good idea when outlining your novel to write a simple time line.  Figure out if it takes a week, ten years, or fifty years worth of events, and make tentative marks on that line to indicate characters, events, and maybe even a bit of history, in the case of a novel like Gideon’s Curse.  For one thing, it will help you avoid errors like slipping from one time into the other and having a Baptist minister on the bed of a pickup truck, preaching to recently freed slaves in 1870, when, of course, there were no more pickups than there were televisions during the Great Depression.  Be aware of your setting’s place in history.

When I wrote “The Mote in Andrea’s Eye,” I researched what would be on the radio in the 1940s, and made sure that I kept things as accurate as possible.  I was proud of myself.  In Gideon’s Curse, I failed.  I ended up with families that were either missing a generation, or had too many.  The children who are supposed to belong to a certain man or woman in the story don’t match with the ages and the years…and, of course, I had a pickup truck in 1870.  This could have been avoided (and will be avoided) in the future.

So - make yourself at least a crude timeline, and if you have generational family characters, define the generations and their life-spans.  You’ll thank me later when you are 50,000 words in and do not (as I do) have to go back and do it later to fix a broken book.