Thursday, April 23, 2015

Write Away: T is for Timeline

I considered doing TV cops and TV cop shows for this letter, but I didn’t really have much to say except what I’ve said in earlier posts. Law enforcement officials and judicial officials don’t much like what passes for crime fiction on TV. VERY few shows make the cut for accuracy. A CSI person said “Dexter” got it mostly right. One prison counselor told me that “Oz” was largely accurate for an experimental prison model. A former police officer friend has said his wife hates to watch TV shows with him because he jumps up and yells at the screen when they portray aspects of his career inaccurately.

I’ll say it one more time: DO NOT get your crime scene/court scene/arrest scene and other scenes from television. It’s entertainment, folks, not training vids. Make friends with police officers. Go on ride-alongs your police department sponsors. Ask attorneys for information. People are very generous, in my experience, and they want you to get it right.

What I did decide to cover today (see how sneaky I am!), is timelines. Many a writer of mysteries or other genres has run afoul of the timeline. In that regard, the mystery writer resembles real life detectives.

Timelines are a big piece of nailing down who had opportunity to commit the crime. In real life and in fiction, the timeline must be consistent with the other clues. The best scenario is if the timeline corroborates other facts gathered.

But in real life, the timeline doesn’t move. Okay, it might get fuzzy because of some missing pieces of data. But what happened when is set by the events.

In fiction, however, authors move stuff all around all the time. We tweak here, we move paragraphs or even whole chapters there. You see what I mean.

After a few revisions like that the inattentive author could have the perpetrator buying the weapon after the murder occurred. Not so good.

During my planning, I construct a big picture timeline for each of the potential suspects and other major characters. That gives me a structure to fill in as I plan each scene more deeply.

I have not found an easy way to keep track of who is where when. The hard way I use is a scene-by-scene list of each major character and suspect (whether in that scene or not) and where they are during that time period. I put the day and the time at the beginning of each scene list to keep track against my original timeline. (Which is always subject to revision itself)

I use taped-together paper because I can stretch it out over the floor. The computer doesn’t allow me to see the timeline all at once. By color-coding on paper who is where doing what when, I have a hope of keeping the timeline straight.

But you know, of course, that the best way to catch your errors in timing is to read through the completed manuscript with the timeline as the focus. Will Gina’s alibi that she was at work hold up? When did the clerk at the pawn shop record the purchase of the hunting knife? When did the bus driver stop at Elm and Oak that day?

Build your timeline as a way to reveal your clues and red herrings. You know where the pinch points are. Take that list of clues, false and otherwise, and distribute them along the timeline. Those clues should be the seeds from which your scenes grow.

Authors have total control over their timelines. Detectives in real life could get envious of how easy your detective has it.

Frieda takes steps to control her new reality in “The List”.
            This is about you, isn’t it?” she smiled thinly. “You’re having a little mid-life crisis, late admittedly, but the principle is the same. For God’s sake,” she barked a laugh, “you’d think I, of all people, would have recognized the signs.”
            Frieda felt better now that she was in control again. Aunt Fran would help Mort work through this. She leaned back, templing her fingers beneath a thrice-lifted chin.
            “Darling, there’s no need to be so drastic. Of course I understand your need to kick up your heels, thumb your nose at the world, and, let’s see, what other anatomical part can I find a trite expression for?” Frieda simpered at him as she continued.
            “What you’re feeling is normal for a man your age! Why, Heavens, even I have had some of those same urges. You just need to ask yourself, as that hack advice columnist in the other paper would say, would you be better off without me?”


  1. I watch reruns of Law and Order and CSI. So, my primary knowledge of forensics come from these two shows.
    @dino0726 from 
    FictionZeal - Impartial, Straighforward Fiction Book Reviews

  2. Yeah, the CSI Effect is affecting juries. My attorney son says you have to address it straight on with caveats like, "We don't have fiber analysis. It would have taken way longer than it does on TV to get it, but what we do have is ...." He says juries (witnesses, suspects) too often believe that TV is how it is. If you were writing a scene requiring forensic knowledge, you would seek it out. At Left Coast Crime this March I attended a session at the FBI Regional Computer Forensics Crime Lab. Wow! That was an incredible experience--pages and pages of notes!

  3. J here, stopping by from the #atozchallenge 2015!
    Great post. I'm following you on GFC. Congratulations on making it past the first half.

    Timelines could not be more important. Great job.

    1. Thanks for coming by, J Lenni! I've been having great fun with this challenge. It's so hard to believe it's almost done for another year. I am already working on ideas for next year's theme. LOL