The confidence of knowing your fictional universe

For about a year now, I’ve been struggling to revise a novella of mine. It has an interested publisher, and that publisher sent me some fantastic notes for kinks to work out in the story, but as I began tugging on burls in the knots I’d tangled, I realized how much more story there was to tell. And because I’m not smart, I’ve also written myself into the mess of trying to connect all my fiction to all my other fiction — to try, at least with my realistic fiction, to let every character live in the same literary universe, to connect all my work through references to places or events — and this particular story is smack in the middle of a vast complex of fiction, all set in the Texas Hill Country I grew up in, with dozens of overlapping characters and events. Which meant that anything I revised or added to this book (and it is quickly becoming a small novel more than a novella) would have to jibe with everything else I’ve written about this place and these people, much of it published. So I needed some way to sort and arrange all the stories, all the people and places and events, in a way that I could see and manipulate everything at once.

I’ve written before about plotting my novels and working in timelines, but in the past, I’ve taped pages to long hallways or mounted notecards to magnetic boards or drew in crayon on butcher paper. Each method helped me sort the events and characters, but no one technique ever seemed to work in quite the ways I wanted. Or, rather, I always felt like I wanted to do all of it at once: The notecards never held enough information, so I wanted to arrange the passages and pages I’d already written in among the notecards; but the pages were never as moveable as the notecards, which made rearranging difficult. And I kept wanting to draw lines of connections — character relationships, event echoes, location references, overlapping timelines — but crayon can’t travel between pages and the few times I tried tacking colored yarn to all my notes, I wound up with an indecipherable mess that I could never rearrange. (How do all those detectives investigating serial killers do it on the tv shows?)

Molly Solverson is clearly much smarter than I am. (Seriously. I hope future seasons of Fargo revisit her, because she rocks.)

And then last November I completed NaNoWriMo and, among the prizes and discounts I “won” for finishing a bad draft of a novel, I discovered Aeon Timeline.

No, not this Aeon . . .
. . . THIS Aeon.

While the software is actually quite a bit more complex than the way I’m about to explain it, it basically allows you to create and manipulate timelines on an infinite “bulletin board,” stretching as far or as deep as you need it to. And that alone makes it worthwhile for what I’m trying to do now: not only organize the timeline of the book I’m currently working on but also fitting it into the universal timeline I’m trying to adhere to.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 3.00.27 AM

In the image above, you’re seeing the beginning of the timeline for my novel(la), with events and dates aligned under the master event of the book’s narrative arc. On the righthand side, a window for the highlighted event, showing details like the narrative arc it belongs to and which characters are involved. In other tabs, I can add notes regarding the event and the times and dates during which it occurs, down to the minute.

And for me, this is where Aeon Timeline becomes so useful. As I’m using it right now, I can actually craft multiple timelines in a single file, attaching events to various “story arcs” (or, as I’m using them, whole stories) and then seeing how the events from one story line up with events from another.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 9.52.04 PM
It doesn’t look like much when collapsed, but here are some of the plotted events in fifteen of my stories (more stories, events, and details are forthcoming), plus some general events not tied to any particular story.

This helps me know, for example, that around the same time that my book begins, a character named Ford Randall Kempe (from “Curl Up and Burn“) has just been arrested and convicted of statutory rape, an event my book’s characters would certainly have been aware of and so they comment on it. I’m also aware that their classmates include Mark and Keaton (from “Barefoot in the Guadalupe“), and Keaton also gets a reference. My protagonist, Kid, lives on the same street as a woman named Cecily (from “The Penitent Go to Texas“), though when she lived there, Kid was just a toddler; however, my new book does contain a reference to Jeremy, the street preacher from “Penitent.” And I’ve also discovered in this new revision of my book that one of the nameless background characters here is also the narrator in another story (“All That Is Given Will Return“), which helped me understand much better what that guy was doing in this book.

And so on.

Also, in a separate timeline of researched material, I can keep track of real-life events, like weather anomalies (a freak heatwave in February 1996, a windstorm and heavy rains in May 1997), the weekend of a local German-heritage celebration called Berges Fest, the beginning and end of the school year and the dates of holidays. I can also add notes and import images to event records, and if I tag events, I can filter according to those tags.

The program also allows me to fill out character profiles, complete with birthdays (so the software can automatically track their ages), and it can assign characters to events on the timeline. In this way, I can arrange my various notes not only according to the linear, multilayered timelines but also according to character or story arc, tracking where different characters or stories overlap in my larger universe.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 9.54.57 PM
The overlap of one character making appearances in multiple stories

Aeon isn’t a quick fix — it’s fairly easy to learn but it takes a long time to set up all the details (and I’m still discovering features I haven’t used yet), and at first I thought that, by itself, it wouldn’t accomplish all the things I want it to do. For example, I still want access to all those pages I’ve written — I want to see how the timelines align with the stuff I’ve already committed to the page. And I’d like to be able to arrange these events into some kind of narrative outline, helping me see not only the chronology but also the achronological plot structure. But this is where I discovered the feature that made me go ahead and invest in the program: it synchs with Scrivener!

Granted, I like to tell people that I’m not much for outlines, and I still struggle with feeling too constrained by them. But for longer projects, I find them necessary, and being able to tie my timelines to my outlines — to see both, side by side — proved crucial to this current book project, helping me see my book’s newly revised structure and sort out where — or rather, when — everything was happening.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 11.07.22 PM
And here’s that same outline, synched from Scrivener, open in Aeon.

This way, I get my complicated timeline, my notecards on a bulletin board, my pages of fiction — all of it, in two easily synched programs. And in Aeon, I can attach items from the timeline to the outline, or vice versa, and rearrange the outline as needed.

The main downside to Aeon isn’t even about Aeon — it’s about me and my own weakness for tinkering in the details. A friend’s son once coined the term (or, at least, we’re giving the kid credit for it) “procrasturbation,” and that’s a perfect word for my habit of falling down self-indulgent rabbit-holes of research and plot structure and geography. Aeon makes it far too easy for me to indulge in those habits, especially because it allows me to pretend I’m still writing. As my writer friend Ryan Werner told me the other day on Facebook, “That sounds like a lot of work! Might I suggest just winging it?” He’s right, and I do often “wing it,” especially in my flash fiction but also in scenes as I build these longer narratives.

But sometimes the only way I can wing it is to feel grounded in the reality I’m writing about. It’s like moving to a new town: you can’t just pop out to the store for a case of beer, because you don’t know where the store is or how you can get back. You need to spend some time driving around or sorting out the bus system, becoming familiar with your surroundings, and you should absolutely plan to get yourself lost, to wander down unknown roads and then find your way home again. That’s the best part of being in unfamiliar territory, in fiction as in life. But if what you need right now is a case of beer, and you don’t really have time for getting lost, and you have a smartphone, you use your nav app.

Aeon is the nav app for my fictional world.

I know that no one will ever care enough to work all these details out while they’re reading these stories or books. I am laboring purely for my own amusement. And I remember well — and take seriously — the advice I once heard from Louisiana writer Tim Gautreaux: explaining that he tries to avoid working gimmicks and clever references into his stories and novels, he said (and this is a paraphrase but it’s close enough to quote), “If you’re playing games in your fiction, you aren’t telling stories — you’re just playing games.”

But the truth is, I like the games. Doing this sort of work gives me the same mental pleasure that murder mysteries and detective stories give some people. And I feel reassured, looking at these timelines I work in, this universe I’m creating, that everything fits, everything works. Rather than distract me from the work of my writing, these “games” actually give me the confidence to carry on with my writing, assured that the story is sound and the people are where they are supposed to be, doing the things they’re supposed to be doing.

It’s a confidence we can’t always feel in the real world. So I like building it into my fictional world.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

5 thoughts on “The confidence of knowing your fictional universe

  1. My take? A technical answer will make a technical work, sans poetry. I think you worry too much about the jibing. If you ceased to, if you allowed anomalies between one work and another, would that matter all that much? Make the magic real, the universe parallel, all without saying so, and your readership will suspend disbelief. After all, it’s fiction.

    What is more, in the ‘real’ world some things do not actually make sense. One person may recollect something that another would take an oath never happened. I put scare quotes around ‘real’ because (as a friend of mine keeps reminding me) we do not live in a world of reality but one of phenomena.

    You’re not creating a world that has to be perfect, Sam, you’re making fiction. Fiction has to be wonderful. Leave perfection to… I don’t know… but just leave it.


    PS. I like my cheek – telling a writing teacher how to write!

    1. Oh, I’m very much a fan of what Dan Chaon has called the “frayed edges” of a story. I don’t need to tie everything up in a neat little package — I just like knowing what went into crafting the package. And to my view, in fiction (unlike in life) nothing is ever accidental. If things are spelled out clearly, there’s a reason; if things are left unsaid, there’s also a reason for that. My readers might never know those reasons, but I feel more comfortable when I do. πŸ™‚

    2. I should add — because it was on my mind while drafting this post — that I am also very much a fan of writing advice poet Beth Ann Fennelly gives in her book Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother. In the book, she recounts taking with a mentor about her work and he asked if she’d ever been to Amsterdam (or some such European city — I would need to find my copy of the book). She had. He asked if she took the red taxis or the blue taxis. She explained that she’d been advised to take the blue taxis, which were more expensive but took you directly to your destination. The not-quite-legal red taxis had a cheaper fare but could wind up costing more because they meandered all over the city, down every detour and side street they could, and took twice as long traveling the “scenic route.” The mentor told Beth Ann Fennelly that, when it comes to her poetry, β€œTake the red taxi.”

      I have always liked that advice. I think my best writing is the kind that veers into unfamiliar territory and surprises me.

      I just like knowing I can find my way back if I need to. πŸ™‚

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