Tools for Timelines

Overview of a timeline

Overview of a timeline

I’m using a Linux PC to write on, which has fewer options for dedicated writing tools than Windows or OSX, but there are still a plethora of free applications out there which are very useful.  I’ve yet to find my best way of working with them, but I thought I would share some of them for anybody else who might be starting out with writing under Linux.

The first of these is available for Linux, Windows and OSX and is OpenOffice.  What I’m going to look at is not the word processor part, which is a fully-functional alternative to much more expensive applications, but the spreadsheet application.  I use the spreadsheet program, known as OpenOffice.org Calc, for putting together timelines for major events and key characters in the story.  Click on the below for a more detailed view, but in essence what I do is:

Create columns for Chapter, Day/Date, then one for each main character and possibly for other events which need to fit into the flow, such as historic background events.  I then change the background colours of each character heading to give them a unique colour.

In the left column, under the chapter heading I enter the chapter number and a very brief summary of the key things that I need to happen in that chapter, one line for each thing.  It is easy to add more later by selecting the whole row and inserting additional blank rows.  I then put a solid line under the chapter and move down to fill in the next chapter’s key events.

In the next colum (column B) I’ll put the date, the day or some measure of the passage of time where it is important.  This can be real timesaver if you need to refer back to dates at any time in the future of the story – crime/detective/mystery stories will definitely benefit from this, and it will stop your readers getting confused.  Note that you don’t necessarily need to explicitly mention the time passing in the story, just be aware of it as you write so that you don’t end up contradicting something mentioned earlier in the book.

Under each character you have a cell for each activity they are involved in.  It doesn’t have to be too detailed, but there will be times that you need certain things to happen in the correct order, such as in chase sequences or as a mystery starts to unfold, where you need one character to have done something before another does something else.  It is at this point of completing the timeline that you’ll have to regularly add rows as you realise that the plot for each character will have a place in time in comparison with the others.  When characters have to interact in some way; passing an object from one to another or one doing something that directly and instantly affects the other, then the two events should go on the same row.  To emphasise and keep track of these important events, I colour the background of the cell with the heading colour of the character they are interacting with (see the image below for examples).  This makes it easy to see where groups of characters need to meet across the duration of the story, helping you to realise that you might have to get one of them to the other side of the country for the event to take place.

In other columns to the right of the main characters I place events that define the background to the story, which could be historic events or train arrival times; in my current book it shows the timings of a series of murders in relation to the flow of events.  You could also use these columns for non-character items, such as a knife or a ring or a love letter which you need to keep track of by using the character heading colours to show who holds the item as the events unfold.

Detailed view of the timeline

Detailed view of the timeline

If you’d like more information about writing using Linux, I’ll be doing some more of these over the next few weeks, but I would also recommend you take a look at The Writer’s Technology Companion where there is a useful ongoing series about using Linux for writing.

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