Writing Tips: Keeping Track of Time

11 Mar

How many times have you been following a television show, and there is a full moon every episode? Or their clothes don’t change? Or the weather stays the same all year long, unless snow, rain, or sunshine is used for symbolic enhancement?

It’s unrealistic, and it drives me crazy. It may be a personal pet peeve of mine, but I doubt it. Even Florida doesn’t have sunshine every day, but writers seem to set weather and time aside, especially when they’re more focused on the storyline. At first, I completely agree. Write. Don’t worry about small details. However, I really think revision is necessary for situations like this. Time needs to be tracked. 

When I do revisions, I actually label each chapter with what day it is, what time it is, and how long the chapter lasts. Then I move onto the next chapter and then the next. At the end, I count how many days have passed, and I make sure my characters’ speech correlate to it. I wouldn’t want my protagonist to say, “You haven’t left me alone for weeks!” when it’s only been four days.

My best piece of advise? After writing every chapter, track how much time passes and make sure EVERYTHING correlates: time, seasons, moon cycles, etc. 

When I was writing November Snow, this was initially really easy, but for one reason–each chapter was labeled by a date. The only thing I had to do was print a November, 2089 calendar and follow it. It would’ve been difficult to mess up. But, when it comes to the other novels I’ve written, I had to pay attention much more, because chapters weren’t labeled. Time passed differently, and I had to pay attention to everything: days, seasons, moon cycles, etc. Some say the moon cycle is extreme, but, really? You can’t have a full moon every chapter. I’ve seen this happen one hundred times, and, as a reader, I notice, so I strive to pay attention to these things, extreme or not.


This is an example of how I kept track of November Snow. Each chapter is on there, blue represented the viewpoint of Daniel, while pink was Serena. The yellow star is the full moon.

Not only should you keep track of time passing in the present moment of your novel, but you need to track your characters’ past. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written something, went back, and realized I contradicted myself on when one character did something. For instance, I might say Protagonist 1 met Side Character 1 at birth, but ten chapters later I say they met as teens. Even though we, as writers, like to believe we memorize everything we say (because it is so real to us) we don’t have perfect memories. As humans, we don’t even remember everything about our own lives, let alone hundreds of stories and characters we’ve created.

This is an example of what I create to keep track of a childhood. Daniel's list shows year, age, and interactions with other characters are bolded.

This is an example of what I create to keep track of a childhood. Daniel’s list shows year, age, and interactions with other characters are bolded.

I normally create tables, and they save my life during revision, especially if I take a few weeks off between writing and revision to clear my head. I really recommend trying this. It will help you solidify your world, and you will feel more confident about your creations, because you will KNOW–for a fact–that everything fits together perfectly.


Check out my cover photo on my Facebook Author Page by clicking here. Don't forget that you have the opportunity to display your name and website here by joining the book cover contest before March 18th!

Check out my cover photo on my Facebook Author Page by clicking here. Don’t forget that you have the opportunity to display your name and website by joining the book cover contest before March 18th!

47 Responses to “Writing Tips: Keeping Track of Time”

  1. storytellerdavis March 11, 2013 at 12:09 am #

    With fantasy, spanning long distances and then having histories, this is so difficult. I like your system, though! Thanks for sharing and grats on B&N.

    • Shannon Thompson March 13, 2013 at 9:28 am #

      It is difficult! I thought about using another novel of mine as an example with a longer plot with more history, but I thought keeping it simple for this post would be more clear. Thank you for the grats.

  2. mlnewman87 March 11, 2013 at 12:10 am #

    Great advice! 🙂

  3. jolaidlaw March 11, 2013 at 4:46 am #

    Great post Shannon. I also keep a word document going on the side so every time my character references something outwith my story’s world – like a song, or a mobile phone – I make a note. Then every now and then I go through the document double-checking everything is as it should be. For example, I once gave a character a mobile phone in the early 80’s – cells were around in the UK at that point but they weren’t exactly common or cheap, so I had to find a compelling reason that my character (a young woman without much money) would have one.

    Probably no-one else would notice if I hadn’t, but it’s important to get these things right.

    • Shannon Thompson March 13, 2013 at 9:29 am #

      That’s a great point–all the technology and such. Many don’t consider these little details (or they leave the reader to decide why.) Great comment,

  4. elizjamison March 11, 2013 at 5:37 am #

    Love this advice! Great Post. Creative writing is so much harder, and takes so much more discipline and planning, than most people might think.

    • Shannon Thompson March 13, 2013 at 9:30 am #

      Very true! I often get asked, “How do you keep it all straight?” and I always reply, “A lot of notes, revising, and thinking.”

  5. katemsparkes March 11, 2013 at 5:51 am #

    I so agree! I find this difficult when things change in revision, too. I’ve made adjustments to characters’ ages, which means major events/eras in their lives shift or shorten, and I’ve added scenes that change the timing on what comes after. It’s tough to remember to change everything if you don’t have notes and a master timeline.

    Creating a world with a history is a hassle, too. :/

    • Shannon Thompson March 13, 2013 at 9:31 am #

      I’m planning a future post about creating a world 😀 So look out for that. It’ll be fun to discuss it with you.

      • katemsparkes March 13, 2013 at 9:32 am #

        Oh, excellent! I look forward to reading your thoughts on that- it’s a lovely adventure, but so complicated!

  6. C H Griffin March 11, 2013 at 6:18 am #

    On my last revision for my novel, I thought I’d better write a timeline for all my characters (when they were born, when they met, when big events happened), and I discovered that parts of my backstory were impossible. I’m so glad I did it. I never realized how off I had been. Would have been very confusing.

  7. Nanny_cool March 11, 2013 at 6:32 am #

    Great advice and got me thinking x

  8. readingtothestarsandback March 11, 2013 at 6:48 am #

    This is great advice! If i ever get round to revising one of my many novels, I will refer back to this!


  9. slepsnor March 11, 2013 at 6:56 am #

    Fantasy definitely makes this harder, especially when you have to factor in birthdays during ‘time passes’ sections. I’ve started noting how much time passes between books and I check passage of time during edits, but I admit to not being 100% successful. Night time gets even harder for me because I have 4 moons to work with.

  10. fictionfanakaff March 11, 2013 at 8:24 am #

    As a reader, rather than a writer, I so agree with what you say! Just the other day I was reading a book where the heroine asked the hero how he had found out about something. He replies that he has been told by a third character. Meantime, I’m yelling silently ‘No you weren’t! The heroine told you herself two days ago! You had a conversation about it!’

    It breaks the flow and throws the reader right out of the story.

  11. rbdavis5 March 11, 2013 at 8:50 am #

    I am as picky a writer as I am a reader, and I HATE when writters mess up the details and try to slip them past me, my favorite show “walking dead” did it 2 weeks ago (the main charicter Rick fired 3 shots from his gun then had to reload, WTH, Revolvers have 6 rounds, and if he has ammo to reload, he has ammo to top off in the first place.

    Details are what make the world, and what break the story when you ignore them.

  12. Anna Scott Graham March 11, 2013 at 8:58 am #

    Wonderful tip. I really like that table aspect.

    Thanks for following my book blogs! 🙂

  13. Dennis Langley March 11, 2013 at 11:28 am #

    I typically write scenes out of order so, this is on of the first things I look at when I start my revisions. Great post.

  14. Linda Joyce March 11, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    This is where spread sheets come in handy, too. I just reblogged a post about how to Writerly Use Excel.

    A white board is sooo helpful..


    Linda Joyce

  15. The Animation Commendation March 11, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

    This is an extremely important point in my opinion, thanks! Have you read “The Night Circus”? If so, what do you think of it from a writing-standpoint?

    • Shannon Thompson March 11, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

      I haven’t. I’m sorry. (I think I read one [it’s a series, right?] a long time ago, but I can’t remember it enough to comment.)

      • The Animation Commendation March 11, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

        No, it’s only one book and released in 2011, I think!

      • Shannon Thompson March 11, 2013 at 2:56 pm #

        o0o! I will check it out. Is there something interesting about the timeline?

      • The Animation Commendation March 11, 2013 at 2:56 pm #

        Different chapters kind of go back and forth between various years.

      • Shannon Thompson March 11, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

        That sounds interesting 😀
        I will let you know if I pick it up next time I make it to the book store.

  16. Prudence Shank March 11, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    This is so true. I did my first NaNoWriMo this year and failed miserably because I didn’t plan. I’m bookmarking this!

  17. yhosby March 11, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    Hey Shannon,
    I like your suggestions. I’m going to start keeping a chart on a calendar, making sure the seasons match up with what the characters are wearing, etc. I’ll admit that I need to work on describing more setting elements (that’s why I love revisions).

    And you’re right about television shows only portraying one season all year long. I watch ”Pretty Little Liars”–setting is Pennsylvania, but it’s never been anything besides fall. Yeah right, where’s the snow?

    Keep smiling,

  18. Andrew J. Stillman March 11, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    Awesome advice!! It’s definitely something I never put too much thought into, but now that you say it you’re right — it is kind of annoying when time and character interactions and full moon cycles, etc… are all jumbled because we, as writers, don’t take the time to think of those little details during the revision process. I just got that program Scrivener, so this idea will be really beneficial for me to add in my little side notes as I flip through the chapters on my clipboard so I can keep a good track of time as well! Thank you!!

  19. mandyevebarnett March 11, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

    I had the same problem with my speculative fiction, Life in Slake Patch…it had to cover a whole year…so I kept track of seasonal elements as best I could. Your system is easier – thanks for sharing.

  20. jameskresnik March 11, 2013 at 6:24 pm #

    Great article!

    I like to think I’m very good at keeping track of environmental conditions, visual space and placement of characters, which is one less thing to worry about.

    My current baby (returnnovel.wordpress.com) has a glossary/bible with short character biographies and that worked well at the beginning. Unfortunately, the story has caught a bad case of character proliferation, and updating the bible is becoming a massive chore.

    Where I *really* fall down is keeping track of characters during a revision. Once again, the search function has become my best, and possibly only friend. Once again, thanks for the advice and encouragement.

  21. pennyfrances March 11, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more Shannon. Whatever world is being created it has to have consistency otherwise you lose the reader’s trust. My novels are written in ‘real time’, ie set in particular years and months within those years. I keep one big timeline chart starting from when the oldest character is born and expanding into days of the month during the timescale of the novel. I then map relevant real events (political, world events etc) and individual character life events, as well as the events of the novel timescale. However, I have learnt to allow a bit of poetic licence and don’t necessarily give the exact date of each novel event, get the weather right for the season, but not necessarily exactly as it was to the day. But it’s still important to map how many days have passed between each event and the chart helps enormously with this. I haven’t paid much attention to moons, however, and will now think about mapping them too.

  22. Therese March 11, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

    Excellent post; the moral of the story being Pay Attention To The Details 🙂

  23. Nicole Bross March 11, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

    I use Google Calendars to do basically the same thing and it really helps keep me organized and track things like which day is a weekend (and therefore characters won’t be working or in class), and how long ago some event happened, so when a person says “six weeks ago I…” she really means it. It lets me add time of day, location and other people present too. I can see how it would be even more useful when tracking events for more than one character if your point of view shifts back and forth!

  24. mike olley March 12, 2013 at 9:01 am #

    Keeping track of time in a story is essential, especially when you start mucking around with time itself. When you go non-linear the calendar becomes 3-dimensional. Great fun.

  25. MoreThanACat March 12, 2013 at 9:30 am #

    It’s nice to know I’m not the only one obsessed with time. My central characters are time travelling from 1909 – 1913, and you’re right, it gets messy if the days get away from me. I love your system and shall adopt it when doing the revisions. Cheers 🙂

  26. Mike Grant March 12, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    Perfect “timing” Shannon…I just sat down and spent an hour re-writing my timeline for my sequel. I was working on a piece to slip into a Wednesday (book date) but upon reading it back I realized that one of the characters touched an incident that didn’t happen until Friday. I guess it’s like the old saying that “man invented time so everything wouldn’t happen at once”.

  27. parkscandice March 12, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

    I love this post! It always bugs me when I see inconsistencies in a story, though I am sure it is so difficult to keep track of everything, especially in fantasy books. I am always really impressed when authors write something that deals with time travel are able to keep up with this type of information! It has to be difficult!

  28. Hunter Shea March 12, 2013 at 6:45 pm #

    Reblogged this on Children's Author Kevin Sheehan and commented:
    I’ve found during my many editing sessions that my inability to keep continuity with time in my work is a major issue. It’s especially hard for longer works or manuscripts where you take several breaks from and just plumb forget the time of day when you pick it up again.

    Shannon A. Thompson has provided some great tips for avoiding these pitfalls. Writers take note!

  29. Jeffrey Howe March 13, 2013 at 8:45 am #

    Like Linda Joyce, I favor spreadsheets. The degree of manipulation you can perform in lining up scenes and chapters with days and years and characters is greater.

    Novel writing software such as YWriter (and Scrivener, I’m sure) lets you track elapsed time per scene down to the minute, if you’re doing something closer to “24.”

  30. Jade M. Phillips March 14, 2013 at 12:13 am #

    Reblogged this on jademphillips and commented:
    Check out this neat post about time tracking your novel curtosy of Shannon Thompson, author of NOVEMBER SNOW. Just love this!

  31. braith an' lithe March 15, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

    So true and so important! I just read a novel and every time I think of it the first thing that springs to mind is that the little girl had tadpoles, in November, in Scotland… That sort of thing so spoils a story for me that I planned it incredibly carefully for the manuscript I just wrote – including sunrise, sunset, weather, dates/days with a 2013 calendar, characters ages/families/appearances… it was surprising to me, as a first time novelist, that this aspect was harder and more time consuming than plot/ideas/flow of writing.
    Great post. You’ve crammed in so much writing experience for your years.

  32. mrsgillies March 15, 2013 at 10:49 pm #

    That is some really great advice!

  33. Rebecca Sloan March 28, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

    I have actually created timelines and family trees to keep track of things but love your advice of keeping track of it chapter by chapter. Such a common sense idea but not one which most people think of when they’re busy trying to develop mood and write dialog. Thanks for the great tip.

  34. emmalmoore April 9, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

    These are good tips. I see how the are life savers. Thanks for visiting Life’s Little Surprises. Blessings.


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