Today I read this comment on a list serve, "I'm starting to get confused by my own timeline..." I think we've all felt that when writing a novel. What day is it? How long has it been since this happened? Wait, did I already have him/her do this? I'm guessing outliners are less confused by this than pantsers. But we probably all have a fear of someone pointing out we had two Tuesdays in a row.
Here's what helps me--a timeline for each novel.
I like using the table option in word, but a spreadsheet would work, too. My columns have evolved to include chapter number, where the scene is/scenes are taking place, who is in the scene, when the scene is happening, and a brief summary of the scene. Each novel can have different columns as needed. For example, if weather is important to the story, I'd want a column showing what the weather is doing. I've also used columns to indicate where various subplots are brought up. It helps me keep track of those threads.
In my book ALONE, my timeline shows that chapter one is Wednesday, October 15th. Thursday and Friday are in chapter two. Chapters ten and eleven are the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I used an actual calendar year (although which one is unspecified) to make my dates work out. If you looked at a perpetual calendar, you'd find a year that has October 15th as a Wednesday also has December 5th as a Friday (chapter 16). (This site lets you choose a year and as a bonus, a country so you can see the holidays for that country.)
My timeline in another novel is more compressed: first chapter-afternoon, second-evening, third-darkening to night, fourth-night. Fifth chapter is the next morning. Sometimes I use color coding to indicate a new day. That makes it easy for me to see at a glance how many chapters took place in one day.
In either case, there are days where nothing important happens, so those days don't have a scene or chapter and are only briefly referenced if needed.
One of the things I like about having a timeline is that it serves as a quick index. When did such and such happen? I look at my timeline and see that was chapter twelve. Now I can go to chapter twelve and make sure the clues or details needed to make chapter nineteen work are there.
I can even use a timeline to keep track of some character trait, habit, or behavior. To show a character's interest in art in one novel, I added a column labeled art, and marked which chapters mentioned her hobby in some way.
An alternative to a timeline chart is an actual calendar. Whether it is hour by hour, day by day, or week by week, scene or chapter summaries can be written into a calendar to make tracking the story's timeline easier.
I'd be interested in hearing alternative methods, so if you have one please feel free to share in the comments.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.