One of the trickiest things to keep track of when writing a novel can be the passage of time, especially if you have two or more concurrent plotlines. Tolkien was apparently very good at this; I read somewhere that if you compare his published timeline to the text, you’ll find that not only does it all match up but that things like the phases of the moon are correct. Now, most of us writers are never going to have fans rabid enough to go into this level of detail, but I work on the principle that if I get it wrong, someone might just notice and lose their faith in my control over the story.
Of course you can plan your novel’s timeline on paper, and with Night’s Masque I’ve done some of that, particularly in the early stages, but software can make the task a bit easier and the results a lot neater. The best program I’ve found for Mac OSX, and the only one (as far as I know) written with fantasy and SF writers in mind, is Aeon Timeline from Scribblecode. I’ve been using this program since an early beta was posted on the Scrivener forums, but version 1 is now complete and available to buy (there’s a 30-day free trial as well).
On first startup the program looks rather intimidating, and I have to say that the video tutorial on the website isn’t much help – there’s no sound, and it runs too fast to really take in. However the user manual is fairly comprehensive and the program isn’t that complex once you get your head around it.
The core concepts are Events, Entities and Arcs. Events are pretty self-explanatory; they can be anything with a time duration, from the birth of a character to a war lasting many years. Entities are things that span multiple events; the default entity type is a person, but entities can also be places, objects, organisations, and so on.
Events and entities thus potentially intersect, and the program calculates the entity’s age at the intersection point. Note that you have to manually assign these intersection points; after all, not all events will affect all entities, and vice versa.
For example, my hero Mal Catlyn fought in the siege of Bergen-op-Zoom in 1588, so I added an intersection point for that (click on the screenshot to enlarge it, and look for the blue line across the middle of the screen). The program then worked out that he would have been 20 at the time. Ages are automatically recalculated if you move the starting point of an entity or the date of an event. You can also hide the ages if they’re not relevant to your usage or are cluttering up the display.
Sets of events can be further divided up into arcs for clarity. I use three arcs in this overall timeline: one to track the history of the Tudor dynasty (my main alternate history element), one for other historical events that impinge upon the characters’ lives, and one for the characters themselves and events within the books.
One of the most useful features from an SFF writer’s perspective is the ability to define custom calendars. For Night’s Masque I use a tweaked version of the standard calendar, because England was still using the old Julian calendar in the sixteenth century; if I were to use the modern Gregorian one, the days of the week wouldn’t be right for the dates. However you’re not limited to minor changes like this. You can create an entirely fictional calendar for a fantasy world or an alien planet, with as many hours in the day and days in the year as you please, and of course with custom names.
When you’ve completed your timeline, you can export it in a number of formats, including an HTML table (great for putting on your website!) and also synchronise the file with Scrivener. I haven’t tried out this latter feature yet, as I’m mainly using Aeon for a higher level view of my story world, but I can see how it might be useful.
Aeon Timeline has lots of other cool features that I’m just finding my way around, like the ability to label events (similar to the Label field in Scrivener) and then filter by that label; hide selected entities and arcs (which I did when creating my screenshot, to avoid spoilers); and lock events so that they can’t be accidentally altered. As this is the first full version, I expect new features to be added with time, but even in its current state it’s perfectly useable.
In conclusion, this is a hugely useful program for any writer planning a complex novel, and I strongly recommend you give it a try!