The timelines of fiction

It’s been a hectic week. I went into Sault Ste Marie on Sunday and chatted by Skype with some friends who gave me much-needed feedback on The Swan Harp. It’s still a huge job, but it’s now beginning to look manageable again.

Probably the single most useful suggestion was to make a timeline for my main character, listing her age, what’s going on the in the story and her development as a character. At the moment it’s not clear – even to me – exactly how old she is when certain things happen. This is partly a function of the fact that my current draft is a “Frankenstein draft” – stitched together and only partly rewritten. There are still pieces to cut, and much more to put in.

Another good insight is that the first draft of the story was actually more like something written by a fabulist; it had a fairy-tale quality. The current draft is more like an adventure with magic in it. I think I’m happier with the adventure-with-magic for a novel; it’s much harder to write a book-length fairy-tale-type story and keep the quality consistent throughout. This isn’t to say I wouldn’t like to try that, because I would. I love fairy tales, and I’ve written a few that I think were successful, but they’re all short.

This story has changed a lot since my initial idea for it, about twenty years ago. It began as a different way of seeing “The Bonny Swans”, Loreena McKennitt’s song about an older sister who drowns her younger sister because they both love the same man. I thought – what if the younger sister actually stole the older’s beau? What if the younger sister was a sorceress, and her “house and land” was her books and magical tools on her own property? “There is what you need to take the spell off him if you can!” It was fairly straightforward, mostly drawn from the plot of the song, and I didn’t think I needed even an outline.

I also thought this would be a long short story, perhaps 20,000 words. But then I had to build a world, and before I knew it, I was on my way to short-novel length. Then I added the political subplot, shortened the timeframe of the story and created backstory, and things began to get tangled. I thought I was knitting a garter-stitch scarf, and suddenly I’ve got a Fair Isle sweater going, and no pattern.

The timeline will be my pattern. It’s a sensible development of the story outline, and I really think it’ll help me keep a grip on what Kiar (my main character) is doing and how she’s maturing.

Of course, if I’ve learned one lesson from this (what, only one, Elizabeth?) it’s that a story can get big and complicated faster than you thought. Next thing I write, I’ll set up a timeline at the beginning.

Another small piece of news: my flash fiction “His Mother’s House” has made the honourable mention list in the latest Vocabula “Well=Written Writing” contest. It’ll be up at Vocabula on September 18th.

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