Doing Time ~ by Deb Raney

DEBORAH RANEY’s first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title and launched her writing career after 20 happy years as a stay-at-home mom. Her books have won numerous awards including the RITA, National Readers Choice Award, HOLT Medallion, the Carol Award, and have twice been Christy Award finalists. Deb’s 23rd novel released from Howard/Simon & Schuster this month. She and her husband, Ken Raney, live in Kansas and love traveling together to teach at conferences, and to visit four children and four small grandchildren who all live much too far away. Visit Deb on the Web at
Doing Time
A writer friend mentioned recently that she was having trouble keeping track of the timeline for her novel. I’ve struggled with that, too, and it got me thinking about all the different ways I’ve tracked time in my novels.
Nineteen years ago when I wrote my first novel––a family saga spanning ten years––I taped eight sheets of paper together, drew horizontal lines in various colors to represent each character, and made hashmarks along the line for significant events in each character’s life. That sounds so clever and wise until I tell you that I only created this timeline after an editor discovered, just before the book went to press, that I had some characters in college for most of the ten years––and they were still working on their bachelor’s degrees. Oops. I quickly cobbled together the timeline and sorted things out in the nick of time.
In my next book, all the action took place in one year’s time, so my timeline for that was a simple list down the lines of a legal pad. Easy.
I’ve never been good with anything number-related, but another writing friend’s husband had put together an Excel spreadsheet that calculated all kinds of data about a novel, including timeline, page count, percentage left to write, and I-don’t-remember-what-else. I used it for several books, then somehow hit a button that messed up the algorithm that calculated the numerics (I just made that algorithm thing up, but I pushed something wrong and that was the end of that).
My next book had a mystery thread running through it and I needed to do a bit more plotting than my usual seat-of-the-pants method to set up some red herrings, so I tried the index card method. Blue cards for my hero, pink for my heroine, and each card containing the date the scene took place and a sentence about the action. It actually worked pretty well, but like any plotting method I’ve ever tried, it took all the fun out of writing for me because I hate knowing the ending before I get there––whether reading or writing.
So with my next book––my tried and true women’s fiction––I tried simply labeling each chapter and scene with a date. My intention was that those notations would be for my eyes only and I would delete them before the book was published, but I found those datelines caused me to “cheat” and not write decent set-ups for each new scene. I ended up having to go back through the entire book and weave in timeline cues for the reader. I love rewrite and editing, but that was not fun and I was terrified the book would be full of continuity glitches.
Christmas of that year we received several freebie calendars from local businesses. Since I keep all my calendar events on my computer and iPhone and only use one paper calendar, I didn’t need any of the giveaway calendars, but as I was getting ready to toss them in the trash, I noticed that one of them had nice big sqares for each day. A light went on and I knew I’d discovered my perfect timeline tool.
For the last dozen or so books, I’ve kept my timeline on a discarded calendar. I never tell the reader the actual year of the calendar I’m referencing, but using a calendar this way has helped me avoid the pitfall of having a character go to church on Sunday morning and three days later gripe about how much he hates Monday mornings. (Yes, that’s happened––but thanks to my sharp-eyed editors I don’t think a timeline gaffe like that ever made it into a published book.)
Since I don’t plot ahead, after I write a scene, I simply jot on the correct day’s square something like: 5 p.m. –– Mitch and Shelley argue at the post office. Seeing those squares lined up Sunday-Saturday helps me organize my characters’ lives the way I organize my own.
I did use the dateline-at-the-beginning-of-scene method in my newest series––with the dates in the actual book––and I think it worked well since those novels each had a thread of suspense, but I had to remind myself not to forget to use “markers” for the reader for time of day, day of week, season of year, weather, etc.
I’ve used the Scrivener software for several years now, and love the idea board, notecards, research options, and other features of the program, but I haven’t really found it helpful for keeping timelines. My go-to method for keeping track of time continues to be the paper calendar method and I eagerly look forward to those hometown giveaway calendars every year.
How about you? Have you found a creative way to keep track of your novel’s timeline?
Here are a few links you might find useful in creating the timeline that works best for you:
Using Microsoft Excel:
Using Microsoft Word:
Creating Your Own Calendar:
Using Three-act Story Structure:
Scrivener Software Purchase:
The Face of the Earth
What if she never came home . . . ?

When Mitchell Brannon’s beloved wife sets off for home after a conference, he has no idea that his life is about to change forever. Mitch returns from work early that evening, surprised that Jill’s car isn’t in the garage. But her voice on the answering machine makes him smile. “Hey, babe, I’m just now checking out of the hotel, but I’ll stop and pick up something for dinner. Love you.” Hours later, Jill still hasn’t returned, and Mitch’s irritation turns to dread.
When the police come up empty, Mitch enlists the help of their next-door neighbor, Jill’s best friend, Shelley, to help search. As hours turn into days and days into weeks, Mitch and Shelley’s friendship grows ever closer—and decidedly more complicated. Every lead seems to be a dead end, and Mitch wonders how he can honor the vows he made to a woman who has seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth.