Days, Months, Years

Had we but world enough and time

I’m 100,000 words into Fiona Griffiths #4 – a novel which will probably run to some 120,000 words all told.

And it’s going well. Not just in word count, but in feel. A decent crime. Some proper murders. A nice, classically constructed and delivered locked room element. A couple of episodes of real violence. Some romantic hooks properly placed and developed. And so forth. But the novel still has a kind of airiness. Like it never quite feels rooted. And that air of gathering tension, of events flowing ever faster to a crescendo, is not quite there yet.

Luckily, I recognise the issue – and it’s a simple one. Books – most of them, not all of them – need to be fairly specific about the setting in time. We know this about place, on the whole, and are careful about putting it in: Protagonist flies to Manhattan, observes tall buildings, enters yellow taxi, eats bagel, has dialogue with local who says “goil” for “girl”. That sort of thing.

With time, it’s easier for us to be vague. We aren’t usually compelled to be specific about an interval or month, and so often prefer to let the damn thing slip. And we let it slip, because it can be damn hard work figuring out a timeline. I’m at work on the timeline now and it involves me reading back through the 100,000 words that are already written and using a calendar to work out the correct spacing for events. Because there’s a lot to juggle (how long do the forensics take? How quickly could character A get back from wherever they are? And isn’t that Monday a damn bank holiday?) the work is quite demanding. It actually – and I don’t normally feel this about writing – feels like work. And because it feels like work, and because few readers will actually raise the absence of time-markers as an issue, it’s easy for us to avoid doing it.

Yet the benefits are legion. It gives a specificity which makes everything feel more real. When there are lulls in the investigation, those lulls seem more worrying, more drawn out. When there’s a rattling pressure of events, that pressure feels more intense because of my ability to scatter the passing milestones. (‘It’s Monday evening, and already …’ or ‘Six days have now passed since …’) Those things seem so little, but they are as crucial as all that yellow cabbery – and do the exact same job.

More than that, it forces us into a scatter of details that we mightn’t otherwise find. When doing a similar timeline exercise for THE STRANGE DEATH OF FIONA GRIFFTHS, I realised that I needed to deal with the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympics. Both of those were events that would have impinged on my character’s awareness and they too gave the novel that specific, rooted quality of place and time that made everything that much more real.

You also realise that although the exercise of timing everything seems – and is – mechanical at one level, it quickly stops being just that. Here’s how Fiona handled the Queen’s Jubilee for example:

Early June.

Summer in the city, except that the city seems trapped in a gloomy cycle of brisk winds and scudding, intermittent rain. At the weekend, the Queen celebrated her Jubilee with a small armada of boats crowding the Thames. But the river was grey and furious, the wind unceasing, the rain constant. I didn’t watch most of the coverage – I was down at the hostel, engaged in laundry chores and table football – but found something impressive about the sheer wetness of the whole episode. That people endured it. That they chose to.

That snippet illustrates everything I’m talking about. You can see, I hope, that it moves Fiona on through the year. That it fixes her in time, the same way as other things in the novel fix her in Cardiff. But there’s nothing mechanical about the process. It gives atmosphere (that rain!) and character (Fiona’s very characteristic comment: “That they endured it. That they chose to.“)

So: no excuses for me. Fiona G #4 needs its time markers. That process will take at least a day, then more tinkering around thereafter. I won’t enjoy it. Most readers won’t notice, or not directly anyway. And yet – I know it – the book will get better.

This entry was posted in How to write a book. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Harry, I wish I’d seen this blog before! In my final edits for The School Gate Survival Guide, the big editorial question was ‘What’s the timeline here?’ and led to me doing exactly as you say, sitting with a calendar and realising that some of the book just didn’t make sense. Too much or too little packed into the wrong amount of time. I am trying not to make that mistake again. Very good advice.

  • Harry

    I wrote that blog before spending the whole day timelining. And even though I expected the bok to get better from the process, I surprised myself by how very much better it got. The tense bits got more tense. The bits where the investigation is proving frustratingly slow seemed more slow, more frustrating.

    And it added other things too. It added a dimension to character, for example. If the natural thing for my protagonist, Fiona, to be thinking was, ‘Damn, it’s been more than two weeks since XYZ …’, I now had a book where I could give her those thoughts – and those thoughts in turn provoked further things. The whole texture of the book improved – and impoved even though almost no one would have diagnosed a Lack Of Temporal Clarity as a problem.

    I’m still working through some of the consequences – oh, and though some parts of the revision seemed like had work, the process has overall been really fun and really rewarding.

    One last comment: you don’t have to do the timeline thing as you write. It may just be too much for your brain to handle: it is (usually) for mine. That’s not because we’re simple, you and me, it’s because there’s a lot going on in a novel and we can only do so much at a time.