Just reviewing notes from a workshop with novelist Jane Hamilton presented by Chautauqua Poets and Writers and the English and Writing Program at Southern Oregon University.
This one sentence is scrawled across the top of my page: “I wish I had a timeline.”
Hamilton was talking about the things she wished she’d learned before she began her writing career. “The timeline orders your mind,” she said. “It illumines what you know.” She drew a long chalk line on the board and made a mark for 1960, the date the birth control pill became available. “It changed the world,” she said with her characteristic humor and invited us to add our own dates:
“The French Revolution.”
“Assassination of Martin Luther King.”
She didn’t need to explain more as she added mark after mark to the line. Anyone who has wrestled with the angel called The Novel understood what she meant.
It’s not enough that novelists hear voices in their heads–those voices want their stories told. They have names, birth dates, and histories, and a novelist must know everything about a character. If characters lived through the 1960’s, the Birth Control Revolution is just one of the cultural phenomena they would have encountered. Did your character burn her bra or did she buy another girdle? Where was he on the day that President Kennedy was killed? Did he burn his draft card or go to Viet Nam?
To further complicate matters, your character has a father who was born in 1921. Did his family lose money when the stock market collapsed? Did he fight in World War II? Where? What battles? Was he injured? Captured? Is that what drove him to drinking? Made him withdrawn?
You get the idea–these questions can’t be asked without a timeline.
The quality of your timeline both permits and restricts access to your characters’ lives. And that process can seem infinite to a novelist exploring the convoluted human condition. A good timeline is the only way through the maze.