Using Timelines

Hey, SE Readers. Joan here today. I’m going to begin today’s post with a story. Trust me, I’m going somewhere with this.

Back in the early 1980s, I read a series of books by one of my then-favorite authors. These books chronicled several generations of one family.

The first volume was set in what was then modern times (the late 1970s or early 1980s). I’m not sure if the author planned to write others when she published that one, or if it was an afterthought due to the popularity of the book.

Book two took us back in time to the 1800s, and the third one took place in the early part of the twentieth century (no later than the 1920s). All well and good as far as character ages and the timeline.

Then we come to what is now marketed as the third of the series (the first one published). Somehow, the male lead, who would have likely been born in the 1920s, is only twenty-two in the late 1970s! He should have been that age in the 1940s or at the latest early 1950s. The book didn’t specify the date of the novel, but there were plenty of things mentioned that didn’t exist in the 1950s.

Clearly, the author didn’t think it through, which is what leads me to believe she initially intended the original publication to be a stand-alone novel.

This brings me to the subject of today’s post. Using timelines.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a few OCD characteristics. When writing, I create calendars in Excel and enter the dates of essential events for my current project. I’ve done this with all my novels, and it keeps me from getting confused.

However, when I wrote my first dual timeline story, I soon learned I needed more. Like the series I mentioned, some of the events in my book chronicled several generations. I didn’t want to make blatant errors. There’s always some savvy reader who will pick up on those little details.

You don’t need fancy software or an online program, although there are some available. For my last novel, I made a table in Word. I’ve also created one for the second book of the series. Even though all these characters won’t have a role in the story (except being mentioned), I needed this to make sure the timeline was plausible.

For those everyday important events, here’s a screenshot of an Excel calendar for Cold Dark Night.

Both the calendar and the table proved valuable and kept me from getting confused. If you don’t have Excel, there are several free calendar templates available online. Of late, I’ve been experimenting with Scapple, a software program designed by the creators of Scrivener, to create timelines.

Do you use timelines when crafting your stories? As a reader, have you ever noticed errors with character ages or events? Please share in the comments.

94 thoughts on “Using Timelines

    • I tend to read with a more critical eye these days. (Don’t intend to, it just happens because I also write.) I recently editing a 3000 word short story that I wrote and didn’t do a timeline. Guess what? I had things to fix!

      I’m glad you found the post useful, Olga.


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  2. Boy, does this post resonate with me, Joan. I don’t consider myself an outliner or plotter but I couldn’t write without timelines. I’m usually juggling several in my novels and have been known to create intricate family trees to make sure there are no glitches in lineage or ages. Honestly, all those birth dates and dates of death can easily drive me nuts (I just spent a LOT of time refiguring some I had wrong in my current WIP) but they’re a necessary evil. Every book I write is constructed around intricate timelines. I’m a fan! 😆

    Liked by 1 person

    • I used to think Tolkien, who was brilliant, went overboard when creating lineages and genealogies. Now, I can see the benefit, although I wouldn’t take any of mine as far as he did. And I definitely need timelines. May you and me are more plotters than we thought!


  3. Great point, Joan. Timelines are extremely useful and I do create them. Calendars can be useful, but they aren’t something I use as a tool. You are so right, the readers do catch mistakes made, and they are quick to point them out.

    As an FYI, you can also print out a calendar from outlook. I have done that several times for many different things I need to track for work (could explain my aversion).

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  5. Sadly, I do not keep a record nor am I at all organized. So, I have often made mistakes with timelines, ages etc. In the late nineties I wrote a short novel that, unexpectedly, sold rather well. The characters in the novel have cropped up in other novels and short stories over the years in a loose collection. Always handy to used already formed characters that readers like, you have less to think about. Lol and money is a great motivator.
    None of this would have mattered but I told my publisher that I was going to end these tales and characters in a two novel set that draws them all together in a fierce conflagration. The first of the two novels was easy, bringing the characters together, laying out the past and their needs for the future. Lol- but were you to read my other tales? One of the lead characters is in his early forties and pushing sixty simultaneously. Another was old, she is now younger despite the fact the tale takes place twenty years later. Anyway, you do not wish to know my problems. I should have read this article thirty years ago.
    LOl- or done a Michael Moorcock. The great English writer was one of the first writers to mention the concept of a “Multiverse” in his novels, where there were infinite timelines and dimensions, so the same character could appear with only subtle changes years apart even in different worlds. I am going for that appraoch in the future, or perhaps I already am, somewhere, some when

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  6. I have always taken notes to keep track of age, and events but I like your idea of using a calendar to do this. It would work nicely and have a helpful visual. Great post, Joan!

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  7. Using time lines can be tricky, I am not a novelist, but as Game Master (Someone who controls the game), for 5E D&D and Pathfinder games, I see the value in keeping a calendar. I have also seen inconsistencies in canon, in which a series needs to rely on.

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  8. Fantastic post, Joan. If the timeline continuity is off, I have a hard time being pulled in. Those sorts of things tend to jump out at me. I’ve had to change scenes in stories because a little research showed the timeline wouldn’t support such a thing (A car radio in 1925. They didn’t exist at that point). Even if I’m the only one who knows, it would bug me to no end.

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    • I recently read a book that I enjoyed, except there was a slight historical discrepancy. Most people probably wouldn’t notice, and I wouldn’t have either except I’d researched the same event for my book House of Sorrows. It wasn’t enough to keep me from finishing the book, but these little nuances bother me!

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  9. While I haven’t yet found the need to chronicle time in my work, as my stories tend to cover events within a shorter timeline, I do often draw a map of the story to make sure that there is an organized progression of events from one location to another. Many of my stories have characters following each other or returning to important locales, and mapping their progress is invaluable.

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  10. My husband nailed a giant, whiteboard calendar on the wall across from my desk, (erasable after I finish each book), so I can look at that while I write to try to keep events straight in my books. I love it.

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  11. Great article, Joan!! I’m a huge fan of Excel and love creating tables so this is right up my alley! I’ve made timing notes and such but can definitely see how a calendar or proper timeline table could really be useful! Thank you for sharing some great ideas with us1

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  12. Hi, Joan,

    I tried leaving a comment but it wouldn’t go through. Here it is again:

    Thanks for the tips on using timelines, Joan! When I started my current WIP, I had no idea what a challenge it would be to set my story in two worlds that run on different timelines. In world 2, time moves five times faster than in world 1. To the characters, life moves at a normal pace in each world. The difference is obvious where the two worlds connect through the characters.

    I created a spreadsheet with four columns. In one, each row is one day, and I carried that down through eleven years. That’s over 4000 rows. In the third column, each 5 rows is one day, and that one spans around two years. Using word wrap in the columns next to the dates, I note the scenes in the worlds in which they happen. Seems cumbersome, but it keeps me sane.

    Liked by 1 person

    • WordPress can be obstinate at times. I’m blown away by the complexity of your spreadsheet. Kudos to you. And as you pointed out, we writers must do what we need to do to keep sane! Thanks for stopping by today.


  13. Great post, Joan, and I liked your example of a timeline that didn’t work as well as your examples of the way you track events. I almost always make Excel calendars. They’re especially important if I have overlapping plot lines and actions happening simultaneously in different places. Because my books generally rely on travel by foot, horse, or ship, leaving adequate time for journeying is critical. One funny thing I’ve noticed in some books is that writers forget to change seasons. A calendar is a good reminder of that detail as well.

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  14. Although I’ve always been an outliner, I didn’t always use timelines. Then I had a few people read the first draft of the first novel I finished writing. (Not the first published, but the first completed.) SO MUCH happened in that book, and it took place in about a day and a half. One day must have been over five hundred hours to fit in all that action.

    Lesson learned.

    I now have timelines for everything. (I think you’ve seen my planning spreadsheet for Astral.) I couldn’t do it otherwise. I have no idea how pantsers manage, but I find that impressive. I definitely need to plot everything.

    And isn’t Scapple kind of fun? Anyway, great post, Joan.

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  15. This is such a relevant post, Joan. Timelines are very important, as you pointed out, especially in series that involves some of the same characters. I love your methods for keeping it all straight. I did create an Excel sheet for my White Rune Series, and it was very helpful. I haven’t thought of using a calendar to outline, but that’s a great idea! Thank you for sharing!

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    • I’m a big fan of using Excel for a lot of things. Some people don’t realize it’s not just about numbers. The spreadsheets work well for me when creating character lists, especially for a series. I have a separate sheet for each book

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  16. You just demonstrated why I keep my stories confined to a week or two. I never realized it until now but not only do I write in the present tense but my motivation for doing so is I don’t think multiple timelines are my cup of tea. You do so well with this I just knew you had some science behind it. Thanks for sharing, Joan.

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  17. I wish you’d written this a few years ago, Joan! My novel Acts of Convenience shows successive (unnamed) governments resorting to unpalatable laws to suit their own ends and to balance the books. I used a central character, Cassie, to show the impact on ‘ordinary’ people. The book begins when she’s a young mother in 2017 but ends in 2055, by which time the family has grown to include grandchildren. I was in such a mess trying to keep up with how old everyone was at each stage! I resorted to an Excel sheet in the end but it wasn’t easy. Now I’m hearing words like Trello, Scapple, Aeon plus Scrivener and I realise there are tools out there that could have saved me so much stress! 😀

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    • I currently have a membership to “One Stop for Writers.” (These are the ladies who brought us the Emotion Thesaurus and others.) They have a timeline template, as well as others. There is an annual subscription, but I got a discount last year. Trello and Aeon were new to me, but I’m going to check into them.

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  18. “There’s always some savvy reader who will pick up on those little details.” Including, thankfully, one of my beta readers. Great example, and great points, Joan. I use Trello for the timeline. It’s so easy to move items back and forth in the list when changes are required. As you say, there are lots of tools. We can all find something that works for us, but we shouldn’t ignore this issue.

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  19. I’ve used a timeline for every story I’ve ever written, especially my Diasodz fantasy series because the Diasodz age one year for every ten human years. Without a timeline, there would have been too many errors. Even in my YA novel, HYPE, I needed to make sure the timeline followed the normal progression of events in a school year. Great post, Joan! 🙂

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  20. Excellent summary, Joan! In a time-travel series, I ran into several snags. Later, while creating a mystery that had roots in WW2, I needed to understand the age relationships between three generations. For me, the use of Excel (for me, Numbers) became somewhat of a pain to keep updated. I got Aeon Timeline to integrate with Scrivener, and the two apps solved my problems. However, with all apps that have decent capabilities, there’s a learning curve to climb. Aeon’s graphics are a bonus for checking out the character relationships or the years.

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  23. That’s funny about the character who was a lot younger than he should have been! It’s easy to do, though, when you’re in the throes of writing. I’ve made up timelines, but only when I could see I was getting into trouble. I just drew them up on paper, using a ruler. Writers who don’t plan their plots in detail probably create their timelines after the fact.

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    • I’m a pantser (actually a combination of a pantser and planner), but I once tried writing a novel without using a calendar. The story took place over a three-week period, so I figured no big deal. Guess wha? I had to stop and create a calendar so that I could keep up with things.

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