Saturday, March 10, 2012

Plotting with Calendars

I’m sure that many authors, whether writing historical fiction or another genre, create calendars to help them keep events straight in their stories. When you’re dealing with characters in a historical period who interact with real people of the time, you find out very quickly that you’re going to have to chart out the historical action or you’re going to shipwreck your plot on the shoals of fact.

I wouldn’t be able to write this series without keeping track of exactly when and where real historical events occurred. I create very detailed calendars on which I enter every event that could possibly affect my characters or that might arise in their conversation with others. Often these details don't show up in the story, but I don’t want to set a scene that involves my characters’ personal affairs at a time when some important event happened that they would be aware of or that would impact them in some way. Obviously I also need to make sure they’re at the right place at the right time to participate in historical events I include them in.

Another benefit of using calendars to plot the action of a novel is that they can lead to the development of a scene or even an entire chapter. Calendars allow you to quickly see the connections between events that happen in different places at the same time or within a short period of time. Fascinating little-known events or a sequence of events that I suddenly realize relate to each other in a way not immediately apparent sometimes lead me onto a detour that adds insight and authenticity to the storyline. The unexpected is always lots fun even when it wreaks a bit of havoc with how I expected my story to develop.

When a battle looms, I refer to the relevant calendar a lot. But for complex battles, I’ve found it necessary to build even more detailed timelines, breaking the action down hour by hour, with different columns for different corps or detachments that participated, and noting where my characters were at critical points.

There are software programs available for creating calendars, but I’ve found it easy to create my calendars using the Word table feature. The rows of a table expand or contract to accommodate the amount of text I need to include, and I don’t have to buy special software.

Creating detailed calendars for each month covered in each volume is time consuming, to be sure, but it’s paid off by saving me the time spent fixing scenes that don’t work or are wrongly placed. What I’ve discovered is that a detailed calendar actually helps me build my plot.

If you’re a writer, do you create calendars for the storyline, whether real or fictional? If so, do you have a special program for creating them? How detailed do you make them, and how do you use them as you build your story?

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