We’ve all been there. Mid-way through a novel, we draw a blank on a character’s hair color and realize that secondary character has been pregnant a little too long. So, how can we keep it all straight? I’m sharing what I do as we examine how to track timelines and characters. 

As with most writing “advice,” take this as a starting point for your own methods. I will share what I’ve done with four different types of projects. What works for me may drive you crazy. Some of the information I tracked with Any Good Thing may not be necessary for your book. You may prefer Excel over Word or might find index cards a huge nuisance. In other words, here’s what I did; but I want to hear what you end up doing because it will likely be different! 

What I Did 

Fiction Novel 

For Any Good Thing, I had three documents I kept the entire time that saved my tushie. A character guide, a location guide and a timeline. These are all just tables I made in Word because Excel and I don’t get along. 

Characters 

I included their names, the chapters in which they were introduced, physical characteristics, emotional characteristics, jobs, other quirky aspects, their relationship to the main character, etc. This was also where I quickly jotted notes like “change hair color to red before chapter 20” for Rachael because that was a change I decided on mid-way, and that note enabled me to keep moving forward without stopping the momentum to go back and search for hair references. 

Locations 

This included things like cities, layout of city blocks (I also drew multiple doodles in notebooks of this) and building details (e.g. Baptist church was red brick; Presbyterian was white wooden). I also included which chapters were set where. This book takes place across eight to ten cities in three states, plus several spots in Iraq. I knew I needed to be careful to keep them all straight and also wanted to make sure I kept the distance between each clear in my mind. 

Timeline 

SO IMPORTANT! Every scene tied to a particular timeline (whether specifically written out or just a timeframe I, as the author, needed to keep in mind), so I listed them all here. This can include things like pregnancies (gotta remember it takes nine months to get a baby, but no more … we’re not elephants!). 

I went a step further and included actual weather details for the location on that day (it actually added some fun challenges to my story in a few places and forced me to include reality in that way—it would have been cold, so they wouldn’t be in sleeveless attire or there were thunderstorms that day, so the thunder and lightning add to the intensity of this important scene). I use Weather Underground to do this research. 

For this book, I framed my entire timeline around Jack’s time in the Marine Corps. I talked in depth with my brother about how long each promotion would take for him (which played into his opportunities, tasks, getting into Scout Sniper, etc.) I knew when I wanted him to be in Iraq as well, so that all played into it. I was able to work backward and then weave in all the events as I wrote them. 

Short Stories 

For some of my short stories, I actually write my timeline out on index cards and pin them to a science display board. I honestly prefer that because it’s something tangible that I can pick up and move, but trying to do that for a full novel is a whole lotta index cards! One day when I have my own giant library/office (HA!), I’ll have a full blank wall where I can timeline to my heart’s content. 

We all need dreams, right? 

I write details of each scene on cards and then put them in order. I like to use colored cards to keep up with character or setting details, quotes or lines that come to me and research. Another way I use notecards is to jot down questions I have that will require research. That way, I can keep writing and then take the cards and jot down answers once I have time to look them up. 

Narrative Nonfiction 

When I wrote the narrative nonfiction book that was my first full-length project, I used a combination of tables, notebooks, notecards and project boards. Because the subject matter required a great deal of research on medical details and rehabilitation, some of my notecards held bibliographical information; others numbered quotes or notes to correspond with the source from which they came. 

I had a full plastic container full of cards with Ashlee’s timeline as well. I pulled all those details from journals kept by her parents, as well as from her own diaries, accounts from friends and an online journal/log kept while Ashlee recovered. Once I mapped out the timeline into an outline for the book’s chapters, I pulled those notecards and pinned them to a board under the appropriate chapter heading. 

My daughter helped me make them pretty, so that was a fun way to include her! 

Multi-series Fantasy with World-building 

Now, this is a project I’m in the very early stages of developing. You might know I had a fantasy short story published last fall in The Crux Anthology. “Ealiverel Awakened” will be a small part of a much larger series of books surrounding my main character, Elspeth, a faerie shepherdess. You might also know that I write super short stories set in this same world—most about other characters—almost every month, as part of the BlogBattlers prompt challenge. These Tales of the Faerie Shepherds will eventually come together to form another related series of fantasy books. 

As I research creatures and faerie lore for these stories, I’m keeping detailed notes with links to sources and such. As I write, I’m keeping up with the language I’m developing by copying every line (along with its translation) into one document and trying to keep up with my sources for various words. Plus, I have some details about plants and such that are specific to my world. 

I’ve also kept some details on characters, including the origins of their names and their roles in the stories as a whole, their powers and more. This will be a massive project, so I’m sure I’ll be utilizing all the tools I’ve used previously once I dive deeper into the process. For now, I’m just taking monthly dips into the world and doing my best to document the details when I do.

Why I Did It 

Early on I learned that I need to be meticulous with keeping up with my research sources and the details I create about characters, settings, etc. My primary reason for this is, I don’t sit down and work on one project at a time start to finish with no interruptions or without having to work on other projects at the same time. And, let’s face it, my brain’s just not big enough to juggle it all! 

I use Word documents for the tables and notes because I can save them to the cloud and access them wherever I am from either computer I have. I can also print them out so I can edit and mark them up with my favorite red pen as I think through the details of my stories and their characters. 

The notecards really are my favorite thing, though they’re not always the most practical and can be time-consuming to make. When they make sense to use, you better believe I will use them. The best aspect about them for me is the ability to line them up, spread them out and move them all around. 

Now, I will mention that Scrivener has a built-in digital notecard feature, which is super cool! I would like to play around with that more and see if I can make them work, especially for my longer projects. 

How It Worked 

I’ve been pleased with the process I’ve developed for myself, though I’m sure I’ll be tweaking and adjusting it over the years and project-by-project. The biggest thing I’ve learned to watch out for is spending too much time putting the cards together or trying to make it all look “pretty.” Trust me—your process doesn’t need to look good; it needs to be effective, efficient and evolving. The purpose behind this is to help during the revision and editing stages and to help you keep moving (e.g. question cards).

Now that I’ve shared my process, I’d like to know yours! Tell us how you track your story’s timeline and characters. What other details do you like to keep track of as you write? Do you prefer keeping up with these things digitally or with pen in hand? 

It is my desire that every post has something for everyone. Even if I’m writing for other writers, I try to include takeaway value for my faithful readers, too. If you ever have questions or suggestions for me, please drop me a line. I love to hear from you! 

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