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The Many Generations of Gideon Swayne - Timelines and Lineage in Fiction

I used to read books that began with elegant, extravagant endpapers featuring maps, family trees, historical anecdotes, journal entries, or other bits and pieces of the fictional lives of the characters involved. I always enjoyed going over the maps, reading the odd lineage charts and trying as I read along to picture how each person fit into the grand scheme, but as much as I enjoyed it, I also wondered why in the hell the author had gone to so much trouble. I mean, shouldn’t you glean all of this information from reading the manuscript, if it’s written properly?

The answer, of course, is yes. What I’ve learned recently, however, is some hard lessons in just why an author might (and likely in many cases should) go to all of that trouble. It is, in fact, trouble that I personally did not go to prior to beginning my current novel project, “Gideon’s Curse,” the novel I labored over Nanowrimo before last. I have still not finished it, and this lack of planning on my part is - in great part - responsible.

For one thing, I’ve never written a novel that spanned generations of the same family in the way that this one does, or generations in one location. Things that read just fine in the outline (which is reasonably detailed) just didn’t pan out as I’d hoped in the actual first draft of the novel. For instance, if the madness ever grips you to have three generations of fathers and sons named after one another, run far, and run fast. Two Gideon Swayne’s at once has proven more trouble than it is worth, and there are THREE Gideon Swayne’s in the novel – though thankfully no more than two of them have shared chapters and contributed to my headache. Sadly, while I was being clever I also named the daughter and grand-daughter after one another as well, compounding the painful pounding in my pate.

So here is the magic of the family tree in the outlining of a novel. If you intend to cover several generations of the same family, it’s a good idea to know who was what to whom, who loathed, loved, left and lingered, and during which generation. This also leads into the second half of the lesson I am learning, which concerns the passage of years and the associated dates. Balanced against the family tree, the generations have to make some sort of sense, and if you have one generation living very long, and another for only a short time, you have to make sure that the associated decades in history coincide properly with what you’ve created. In reality, you can probably get away with fudging this, but if you have astute readers who trip even one time over a short wall of inconsistency, you are in trouble. Once they discover one problem, they start worrying over all the others. They point out what they’ve discovered and ask questions, and before you know it everyone is aware that you have a generation spanning 115 years and another that only lasts twenty.

I’m not saying that my own situation is that bad – that is an exaggerated example – but the point is that careful planning can seal the weak seams of such a plot and make the writing easier and less of a headache for all involved. For the author, it provides a structure to follow that requires no instant, on the fly ciphering, and for the reader it prevents those insidious “read bumps” that break the train of thought and send you off on a tangent, trying to calculate in your head just how old Aunt Edna ought to have been to have eighteen children if she was married only five years, and did she have quints, or what?

The first important feedback I got on this novel came from the very talented Janet Berliner, who explained to me that she wasn’t able to fix a time in her head – in years – that this novel takes place. At the time it wasn’t something I’d considered, but when I realized that my novel has to stretch back to just after the Civil War, and that it has to stretch forward far enough that Mexican migrant workers are picking cotton in North Carolina, the problems began multiplying quickly (as did the generations). When did tractors appear? When did the black freedmen give up their jobs and work to migrant workers? When did North Carolina become more tolerant and integrated?

I was able to research a lot of the answers to these questions after Janet asked them, and I patched some holes in the novel as I went, but I know already that I have to go back, do the family tree, create a timeline, change some names, and flesh out some details I noted, but did not worry over in the first draft. These things could have been avoided, had I paid attention.

To summarize, since I tend to ramble. If you are writing a novel involving one or more families that spans generations, you need more than just an outline to make life simple. You should try sketching out a rudimentary family tree. You should read a little on the time periods that the novel spans. You don’t need a lot of detail, but if you can toss in the right president, or mention that Bob and Earl down the street had the first color TV in town, you can do wonders to anchor your work in time. It isn’t in how much detail you provide, but in the well-placed and accurate details. Most readers are astute enough to fill in their own version of a given time period, if you are in turn clever enough to let them know just which time period it is…

And so, here is to Gideon Swayne, and Gideon Swayne, and Gideon Swayne, and the two generations of Desdemonas. Here’s to a novel outline that had three generations and stretched (in original outline form) from the Civil War to modern times. (Some old, old cotton farmers, I assure you). Here’s to lessons learned.

I reached my 50, 000 words on the 29th of November of 2006 on this novel. It still sits at 50,054 words. It now stretches from 1868 up into the early 1950s. Tractors had just become staples of the richer plantations, and workers still picked most of the cotton by hand. When I finish this years novel, Hallowed Ground, and get a couple of things off my plate I'm going back to bring those characters some long overdue closure. I'll drop back in time and into their world and see what has become of the good Reverend Swayne and his grandson. In time, I’ll let the world in on it, and when I do…rest assured…the dates will mesh, the names will make sense, and it will be a better book for the trouble…