The Style Sheets — Part IV: Timeline
by Amy J. Schneider
In this final installment on the style sheets I keep while copyediting fiction, I discuss the timeline. Just as with character and location descriptions, the timeline must be kept consistent with the fictional world of the story, and sometimes also with actual events in the real world. I’ve found that authors often have difficulty maintaining a consistent timeline. Good thing I’ve got their back! Let’s look at one way to keep the timeline on track.
I don’t often see timelines created by others, whether created by the copyeditor of a previous book in a series or provided by the author. When I do, it is often in a straight text format: paragraphs beginning with “Day One” or “Monday, September 3.” Occasionally it’s more of a plot outline, by chapter.
I’m more of a visual thinker when it comes to time and calendars, so I lay out my timeline as a Word table that’s set up like a monthly calendar. It has a header row with the days of the week, and the weeks extend for as long as the story lasts. This makes it much easier for me to spot when, for example, a school day falls on a weekend or we have only two weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Details to Track
So what kinds of details go on the timeline? Any references to time, whether specific or relative. Occasionally the author helps me out by including time indicators as heads in the text: “Friday night” or “March 26.” Great! On the timeline they go. Each item is preceded by the number of the chapter in which it falls (because in electronic editing, pagination may change depending on the user’s settings).
Occasionally the story may hinge on real historical events. Check those dates! Query if there are mentions of the day of the week that do not align with the actual dates. An online perpetual calendar such as the one at timeanddate.com can be helpful. Some calendars also include holidays. Some authors may not care whether their historical events, especially very old ones, align with the actual calendar for that date. But query any discrepancies anyway and let the author decide what to do.
Time references are often vague, and specific times or days of the week are not mentioned. In such cases, I simply note the reference and take my best guess as to where to place it in the table. “A few days later” might be two or three days. You can use other clues, such as whether it’s a weekday (judging by school days or business hours) or references to “later this week” and the like. Occasionally you may need to shift days around to better fit the calendar, and this can often help show you whether the timeline is accurate. If you have days that are not specific (for example, a day that is listed under Tuesday may not be specifically identified as Tuesday in the text), include a note to that effect at the top of the table. The phrasing I usually use is “Days of the week are indeterminate, except as noted.”
I haven’t yet run into a fictional setting where names of days or months are made up, or are divided differently than in the real world (for example, nine-day weeks and twenty-five-day months), but I did recently edit a novel that divided the day into an unusual number of hours in which each hour of the day had a name. Those divisions went on the general style sheet as well as on the timeline, where mentioned.
The following are some examples of specific things to track:
- As mentioned earlier, any reference to time, whether fixed or relative: midmorning; three weeks later; Wednesday
- References to weather, moon phases, sun position, seasons: the setting sun, a crescent moon, it rained all morning, a cool spring evening
- School days, workdays, church services: Make sure the kids aren’t going to school on Sunday. This is where tracking relative mentions of time comes in. If a scene specifically takes place on a Thursday, and then three days later Joanie gets in trouble at school, that should raise a red flag. Similarly, I once queried whether New York City has a morning rush hour on Sundays. And if a person who works a nine-to-five job is in the office along with all of her coworkers on a Saturday afternoon, business as usual, that’s a good time to query as well.
- Critical plot events: Tracking the day on which an important event happens will give you something to refer to later on: “Three weeks after the accident…”
- Character ages, birthdays, and other life events: If Linda was 26 at the beginning of the story, in May, then she can’t be 29 the following spring.
- Watch for “missing” holidays and big events (such as milestone birthdays), if their absence is remarkable. In a military thriller, a character may not be concerned about celebrating his 50th birthday, but in a homey country-themed romance novel, it would be unusual for the Christmas season to pass without comment.
Pay attention to logical inconsistencies relating to the passage of time. In a Civil War novel, I queried the author when a group of soldiers took more than a month to march 100 miles. That’s less than 3 miles a day, which seems unusually slow. In another story, a person left his room at eight p.m.; “the hours passed”; and then it was nine p.m. Either it’s later now, or less time than “hours” has passed. An event that was in the timeline three months ago would likely not be referred to as “the other day.”
I use a short horizontal line within days to indicate scene breaks. This helps if for some reason a scene needs to be moved or if there is a question about when exactly an event happened, if the description is vague.
Sometimes you may be able to fix timeline discrepancies by adjusting vague references (the author might have written “three weeks later” when it’s really two weeks, and making that change does not disrupt other elements) and writing a query to explain the reason for the change and ask the author if the edit is OK. Similarly, sometimes you can simply change “Thursday” to “Friday” and query. But you must be absolutely certain that you are not introducing another error. In other cases, the problem may be just too convoluted for a simple fix. In that case, write a query outlining the problem, make any suggestions that you can, and leave it to the author to fix (or not, if that is the author’s choice).
Occasionally a story has characters moving in parallel timelines. Perhaps they have separated and are journeying in different directions (or are moving toward each other). Recently I edited a novel with parallel timelines (in alternating chapters): the odd-numbered chapters were about a person who was lost, and the even-numbered chapters were about the people who were looking for him. These can get tricky, but I simply do my best to align the days to keep events straight. In one novel, on the day when two timelines were supposed to join together again, they were actually several weeks apart. Query! Here, again, a note at the top of the timeline is needed to indicate that things may be fuzzy.
Similarly, some stories have flashbacks or otherwise jump around. Usually I separate these with a horizontal dividing line across the entire table and perhaps a line or two of explanatory text.
It may take some practice and experience to tune your ear to the sometimes vague and subtle references to time while copyediting a work of fiction. But your authors will thank you for it!
I hope you’ve gleaned some useful information from these articles over the past several months. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have. Beginning in May, Thinking Fiction is being taken over by Carolyn Haley; I’ve worked with Carolyn and I know the topic will be in good hands. Meanwhile, I plan to continue my own discussion of fiction copyediting in my own blog later this year. If you’d like to read more, follow me on social media and watch for upcoming announcements. Finally, I thank Rich Adin for getting me to dip my toe into the blogosphere.
Amy J. Schneider (email@example.com), owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Copyediting.com. Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.
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