A couple of weeks ago I got an e-mail from a reader in response to my post on historical periodization that cried out for for further thought. He raised the question of timelines, saying he found it useful to look at “what was happening elsewhere when this was happening to me and mine”.
Personally, I love timelines–and I buy books of historical timelines whenever I get a chance.* I’ve actually worn out two copies of Bernard Grun’s remarkable Timetables of History, thereby justifying buying up-dated editions. One of my other favorites is Who Was When by Miriam Allen de Ford and Joan Jackson–I’m keeping my eye out for a second hand copy of the third edition at a reasonable price.
But no matter how good a printed timeline is, there is nothing quite like building your own timeline for a specific project. In addition to the events directly related to my project, I’ve learned to include a “universal history” line for events happening outside my story. It’s amazing how often that line gives me an unexpected insight.
I started building timelines when I was writing my senior comprehensive paper in college because I was having trouble keeping track of how events from different parts of the British empire fit together.** I found a new use for timelines when I started writing fiction and discovered that I have a tendency to squeeze extra days into the week.*** You can always tell when I’m in the middle of a project that has a complicated chronology, because I’ll have a timeline taped somewhere to my office wall. Back in the days when cut and paste was not a metaphor, I drew them by hand on sheets of legal pad turned sideways. Then I used Excel, which was more legible but clunky because spreadsheets and timelines are not really the same. These days I’m using Aeon timeline software, which is pretty amazing.
Anyone else out there a timeline fan or creator? Recommendations welcome.
* What can I say? Reference books are a weakness. I also snap up historical atlases and virtually anything at a second-had book store called “a dictionary of some subject I’m vaguely interested in or think I might be interested in, or that I ought to be interested in or that looks cool”.
**If someone has published a good (or even a bad) timeline of European imperialism, please let me know.
***If I could just figure out how to do that in real life….