Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Staying Oriented in Time and Space

Harold Lloyd, clock, cliff-hanger

Everyone works differently, but it really seems to help me to visualize what I’m writing as if I were watching a movie. That helps me know where my characters are in space (in the living room, the bodega, the office) with all the site details that potentially shed light on their situation and is even more helpful in tracking time.

Although where characters are in space seems relatively straightforward, you occasionally find a book where characters must have some undisclosed teleportation super-power. How else did they start out in one place and suddenly end up in another?

I’m a fan of Chris Roerden’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery, and she has several chapters dealing with time and place. Her advice about choosing a setting—fewer bars and restaurants where the only thing that happens is an exchange of information—is especially valuable. Keeping track of time is trickier. Advice in her chapter titled “Crazy Time” has saved me on numerous occasions. It’s made me conscious of the benefit of small, but subtle, reality checks about time-of-day (light, sun, sounds).

As always, where these issues are managed well, they’re unnoticeable, but where they aren’t, you can learn by negative example. A book I read recently described the trees with their spring buds, then a chapter or two later—perhaps a week or so later in story time—the characters were complaining about a winter snowstorm. I flipped back a chapter or two, wondering whether my recollection of the spring blossoms was a misunderstanding, but it was not.

A pet peeve of someone in my writing group is ignoring the phases of the moon. Full moon sparkling on broken glass one night (thank you, Anton), and a dark, moonless night the next. If you’re putting the moon in one of your stories, check here to find out what it was doing on any particular date.

If I had to guess, I’d bet time and space errors crop up most often during revisions. It’s like changing the name of a character, the original name is almost impossible to expunge totally. It keeps sneaking back onto the page. If the writer wrote a draft set in winter, but decided to skip all those scarves and galoshes and changed the timing to spring, one winter reference stayed frozen in place.

I try to prevent such dislocations and discontinuities by just keeping track, in the computer or on paper, not in my head. Though I’m a pantser, this much organization is essential. I maintain a table with columns for chapter number, topic, date (e.g., Thursday, June 2), and word count. Couldn’t be simpler. The table saved my bacon when my editor asked me to compress Architect of Courage. I added a column for “New Date” and avoided mountains of bothersome recalculation.

Originally, the novel started on June 2 and ended August 16; the revision started the same date and ended July 22. I squeezed three-and-a-half weeks out of what had been eleven weeks of storytime, and I would never have been able to proofread all the glancing mentions of day and date otherwise.

Starting July 23, I hope my character Archer Landis takes a serious vacation. I put him through a lot in those weeks!

6 thoughts on “Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Staying Oriented in Time and Space

  1. Excellent blog and writing advice, Vicki, especially the moon calendar site. I’ll make sure to put that to use. Thanks.

  2. Spring buds one day, snow the next? Must have been set.in New Jersey. Now–off to find the definition of a pantser!

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