How Do You Keep Track of Time?

Some great posts by Charles Yallowitz on flashbacks (like this one) got me to thinking about timelines and story. Another thing that got me to thinking was catching a mistake in the timeline of one of my WIPs. Events I thought happened concurrently with the events of another character’s day weren’t lining up. Though I plotted the movements of each character on a calendar, something was missed. I needed to fix that.

Why does this matter? you might be thinking, especially if you don’t write novels. A story’s timeline affects the story events you include. If you claim a story happens in, say, twenty-four hours, but the characters do enough activities to fit a thirty-six-hour timeline, you’ll need to address that gap. Things get even messier if you are tracking the movements of more than one main character, as I was doing.

As a freelance line editor, I have had to check the timelines of many manuscripts. Only occasionally did I receive a typewritten timeline from the author. Someone gave me a handwritten note with dates once. Somewhat helpful, but not overly so, since I had to give the publisher a typed timeline that the copyeditor and proofreader could use—which meant I had to type it. Some authors didn’t have notes, preferring the “it’s all in my head” method. I’m not knocking that if it works for you. But does it work for your editor? One hundred percent of the time in the manuscripts I have edited, I have found timeline mistakes even in the most linear stories. Even if an author hands me written notes, I don’t just take those at face value. I check the notes against the events of the manuscript.

So, this post is kind of a PSA (public service announcement, since those initials stand for many things these days) asking you to please keep a written timeline if you are working on a fiction or nonfiction book with any type of chronology. If you have time to type your manuscript, you have time to keep track of, and type, your chronology.

You’d be surprised at how easily an author can get a sequence of events wrong, even with the use of time markers like “the next day,” especially if the author is coming up with events on the fly (and sometimes adding scenes between existing scenes) but isn’t keeping track of the chronology of said events. Imagine having to tell an author, “Your timeline is three months off” as I have had to do, which definitely meant a major rewrite.

I totally get that writing anything takes precious time. With some impossibly fast deadlines, you don’t have much time. And keeping track of a timeline is one of those drudgery activities that no one really likes to do. It’s like loading a dishwasher or a washing machine. But if you elect to avoid doing it, mistakes—like dirty laundry—can pile up. If your editor has to take the time to fix something you could have fixed early on, it becomes more costly, especially with freelance editors charging by the hour. So please listen to Auntie L. Marie and keep track of your chronology. Your editor (even that editor is just you) will thank you.

Clock from Project management image from

24 thoughts on “How Do You Keep Track of Time?

  1. Great post, L. Marie! I use a calendar to keep track of my timeline. I could never do it in my head! I agree, when scenes are cut and moved around the timeline can become a jumbled mess. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Great, Jill! A calendar is such a good tool. And yes, when scenes are moved around, everything goes out of whack. I moved scenes around, but didn’t account for their movement in my timeline. Though I read the story several times, I didn’t catch the mistake until now. 😖 😫

  2. This is why I tend to be linear in my stories. It’s rare that I’ll show one scene going concurrently with another. Even then, I do it where each section gets a chapter and they eventually meet up. I try not to state clear time restraints too. Characters will say a trip will take an approximate amount of time, but that’s really it. Otherwise, you get the whole ‘1 minute in the scene is 10 minutes of action’ issue that movies can get.

  3. Initially, my current WIP was to be a compilation of blog posts organized by theme. My developmental editor advised me to organize the book chronologically, so that it becomes a sequel to my memoir. I’ll in the throes of re-organization now, a lot of “cut & pasting”!

    The graphic, which I’ve seen before, is intriguing with its concentric circles. Charles, I smiled when you referred to our friend as Auntie L. Marie. And now I’m smiling again! And I will abide by her dictum to keep track of chronology! 😀

    • What a great suggestion from your developmental editor, Marian! Looking forward to seeing the finished book. Yes, please do keep track. It says time in the long-run!!

  4. A calandar with notes in each little days’ block works for me in real life…why not for a ‘novel’ created life? Better than scattered index cards IMHO. Makes sense, Auntie! Hope you’re filled to overflowing with said editing jobs!

  5. Yipes! You wouldn’t want to edit my finished novel that I’m looking to get published. I have some real funky timelines, and I’ve gotten confused while writing it myself. There are three separate characters’ stories. The first one takes place in the 1960s. Second story takes place in the 1950s. The third takes place 8 to 10 years in the future. In the end, they all connect. Not only that, but since one takes place in future years that I’ve dated, I need to get that thing published. Pronto! Looks like I may be going to self-publish soon. Now I’m worried about those dates.

  6. Your reader will thank you too, and your editor! It’s a pet peeve of mine when characters manage to fit the activities of two days into one, or conversely, when they go into a meeting in the morning, exchange five minutes worth of dialogue, and come out to find dusk has fallen!

    • It is hard to see mistakes like that. Some of the issue boils down to time. Unfortiving publishing schedules can sometimes mean hastily written manuscripts. So I am without excuse since my book is still in manuscript form. So I have the leisure to fix it!

  7. So true. I work with a calendar program as I outline my books, and it’s made a huge difference. Before I started doing this, I had some major rewrites on novels. Now, not so much (or not so much for this kind of thing).

  8. I recently edited my story, Yesterday. The timeline was extremely difficult. The story took place in Washington, DC and Port Vila, Vanuatu. Vanuatu is 15 hrs. ahead of Washington. (For example, 8am today in Vanuatu would be 5pm yesterday in Washington.) The actions took place over the better part of a day, and some parts of it had to be simultaneous. I had to finesse some of the actions so that what was logical in one place would also be logical in the other. It was a fun puzzle, but I’d never a novel on two simultaneous timelines.

  9. Thanks for this PSA. When I notice timeline issues (or too many other errors) in books I’m reading, it bugs me. Glad you’re on the lookout for chronology chaos in the cosmos!

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