Trying to keep track of plots, subplots, characters and themes in a novel you’re writing can be difficult. Throw in a sweeping historical context, characters that span generations and/or an epic scope, and that task can be impossible without some serious organization. How do you track and interweave all the threads of a successful historical novelthe dates, history and research; the action plot line; the character development and the thematic significancewithout the whole becoming a tangled mess? The approach I take is to create a visual representation of my story: a historical timeline. Useful in the writing of any novel, this technique works especially well for sorting out all the elements of historical fiction.
You can build your historical timeline on a big slab of butcher paper (I use one about 6 feet long). Keep the paper up on the wall beside your computer screen so it’s visible at all times. When inspiration strikes, slap a Post-it on the timeline rather than filing the idea away in a cabinet.
Think of the timeline as the loom that holds your story ideas, scene fragments, character development, snippets of dialogue, research and details in roughly the order you envision the story will unfold. Don’t worry if you start with lots of holes and gaps in your timeline. These will be filled as you come to know your story and characters better.
If you’ve already written a draft or two, the timeline can help you with your rewrites. You can use it to determine whether scenes and transitions, characters’ emotional changes and your use of detail are contributing all they should to the novel’s development.
Column 1: DATES/HISTORICAL PLOT
The first column, labeled “Dates/Historical Plot,” represents the frame of your story. Start with the date your story begins. (Incidentally, it’s helpful to keep the notations under each column distinct by choosing a different color of pen or pencil for each.) Then, add any real-life events and political issues that occurred during that time period. Even if your story won’t directly involve true historical happenings, you can add more depth to it by including at least one major and one minor event, plus a trivial event. This will provide you (and your reader) with a better perspective on your setting. Historical events, especially the big ones, can provide useful information with which to thicken the plot.
For example, the novel I’m currently writing begins in February 1968. It meets the definition of a historical novel because this story could take place at no other time in history, and real-life characters and events play a pivotal role in the plot. The year 1968 was a time of cataclysmic upheaval in the United States, a time when the great divide of class and culture no longer kept people separated, however different they might be. For the purpose of my historical timeline, I abbreviated that to “the great divide” and wrote it under the date. Following that is a more specific historical event: the first Farm Workers Benefit held at Fillmore West in San Francisco, featuring the band Santana. This is simply labeled “UFW” on my timeline.
Column 2: SUMMARY
Since historical fiction is generally longer and broader in scope than most contemporary fiction, the use of summary becomes critical. Short summaries of what’s happening at each stage of your novel let you cover days, months, years or even decades quickly, so in each scene, you can focus on the moments that are most important to your plot.
For example, my novel opens with a description of the setting, an automobile factory in early 1968, and establishes Billy Wayman Wolden’s voice as the narrator. The only thing that shows up on my timeline under the “Summary” column for this passage is the notation: “car factory.” The specifics for this section of the book will show up in subsequent columns.
Column 3: SCENE/ACTION PLOT
A scene deals with a relatively short period of time, but it’s written in detail. All conflict, confrontations and turning pointsall the high points of your storymust be played out in scene on the page, moment by moment.
Find the first scene in your story. It should be easy to spot, because all scenes are built on dialogue and action. Sum up the action in the scene as succinctly as possible and write that under Column 3. Since a scene isn’t truly a scene unless it has some sort of conflict, tension or suspense (real or imagined), try to include the pivotal conflict in your description.
The first scene in my story shows Billy Wayman Wolden, reluctant union agitator, as he learns that management has denied the grievance of his mentor, who’s the oldest worker in the plant. I reduce the tension to its essence for the sake of the historical timeline: “Speak out and lose his job or keep quiet and lose respect?” I write that phrase in the “Scene” column a line or two down from the related summary notation in Column 2.<
Column 4: CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
Although readers of historical fiction enjoy learn-ing about another time and place, they also want to get caught up in what happens to the characters. Months after having read a story, a reader often can’t recall specific scenesyet that same reader is likely to remember the growth of the main character.
Under the “Character Development” column (and you’ll probably have several subdivisions under this column), record your main character’s emotional level in the beginning scene of the story. This is also the column where you can indicate any important character background information you want to keep in mind as you write your story.
I write all of Billy’s information in blue. His back story of growing up poor has left him with a visceral fear of poverty that influences the decision he must make in Scene 1. I write “fear of poverty” in blue in Column 4, on the same line as the related scene in Column 3.
However, Billy’s isn’t the only viewpoint in this story. April Stewart, disenchanted fashion model, has a “Character Development” column of her own (this is why I use something as large as a piece of butcher paper) and the color red.
Column 5: THEMATIC DETAILS
The theme is the “why”your reason for writing the story, and what you want your readers to take away. In the “Thematic Details” column, start by listing the plot details in the first scene that contribute to the theme and overall meaning of your story, as well as any sights and sounds, smells and tastes, texture and details of your story’s historical setting. List language details, too, such as slang and vocabulary that’s true to the time.
In my story, Billy views the automobile factory as a living organism that chews up and spits out the workers. Every time the factory is mentioned, the theme of David and Goliath is reinforced. Every detail within the belly of the beast “shows” the inherent inhumane conditions of the factory system in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and whispers to the reader what sort of book this is, what’s important to the story and what’s not.
In this case, the first thematic details arrive in the initial summary, so I note them in the details column on the same line as the summary: the scream of the morning whistle, hanging air guns and metal crossbars, dingy overalls and the tired faces of 6,000 men.
FILLING IT ALL IN
Continue to fill in your timeline one date at a time, summary by summary and scene by scene until you arrive at the last date, historical event, summary, scene, character arc and final detail of your story.
Now you’re ready for one of your countless rewrites or, if necessary, for an actual revisioning of your project. First, however, search the timeline for any gaps or holes you can tighten, any leaps you made in the characters’ progress or any trouble spots that need to be smoothed out, working step by step throughout the course of the story. Make notations on the timeline to remind you to cut anything that’s not contributing to the whole and to flesh out anything you skimmed over the first time around.
As I was studying my story’s historical timeline before drafting the latest rewrite, one of the summary notations popped out at me. At the time I first conceived the project, that particular confrontation between Billy and his mentor seemed too difficult to write, so I quickly summarized it. However, once I’d written several drafts, I knew the characters intimately enough to know I had to walk right into my fear, feel the discomfort and then dig even deeper. As always, a gem of an idea was lying there just waiting to be uncovered, and I was able to write the scene with ease.
Fill out your historical timeline as many times as you need to until a richly detailed and complex tap-estry emerges. Once this complex fabric is woven with words and images, you just might find yourself holding a blockbuster historical novel.