During the editing process of my first Casey Holland mystery, The Opposite of Dark, my publisher asked me to submit a timeline of events so that the editor could keep track of the story’s continuity. Although I’d always used outlines, I hadn’t kept a detailed hourly timeline of events. Now, I couldn’t imagine writing without one.
As you can imagine, timing is crucial in thriller/mystery novels. I need to know what’s happening to whom, where, why, and when, sometimes right down to the minute. Think about it. If you’ve set up a traumatic event like a high school shooting, then you’d better make sure that your protagonist isn’t at Sunday church services when it happens.
I use an Excel spreadsheet to nail down my timeline. I’m sure there are useful apps out there to do this now, but I’m used to Excel. It’s simple, flexible, and free. My 6th Casey Holland mystery is 35 chapters long, but to keep the sheet from becoming too wide, I start a new column below chapter one at the halfway point. Everything is on one sheet and easy to see at a glance. Here’s a sample of the first six chapters:
|6:30 PM||2:30 AM||9:00 AM||11:00 PM||11:10 PM||9:00 AM|
|on bus with Wesley-riot||at home after the riot-Lou introduced||at meeting with Stan-talks to Benny & learns more about Lou’s injuries||on the bus with the Friends-Benny attacked||attack scene at Benny’s bus. Glimpse of suspect||staff mtg. at MPT – graffiti on bldg. Just over a week since the riot.|
The opening chapters are straightforward and don’t require many notes, but there’s room to added things if needed. As the book goes on, descriptions grow longer. The names and abbreviated content won’t mean much to you, but notice that the date, weekday and time of day are at the top of each column. Those are the details I’m going to forget during the numerous drafts.
I wait until the second or third draft before creating an Excel sheet because I know that chapters will either be merged or deleted during the first couple of rewrites.
Real-life disruptions can pull us away from writing projects for weeks or even months at a time. Using a timeline will help get you back on track quickly. It’ll also save you time and money if you’re hiring an editor. So, find a way that works for you and go for it. The bit of extra work is well worth the effort.