The current work in progress is nearing completion, and a recent revision identified a problem.
Oh, sure, the older I get, the quicker it goes, but that’s only a problem with the writing, not with the work itself. I think that nowhere is time’s ability to be mutable more obvious than in a work of fiction. A writer can devote pages and pages of prose to describing something that occurs in a second, or can leap across years, decades, even millennia in a single sentence.
You may be familiar with the concept that time is relative to the observer. (And, can I just add that I love the train and bicycle thought experiment that Einstein used, to help the good folk who hang around a few standard deviations closer to the mean, to conceptualise what the hell he was on about.) As a reader you’ve no doubt experienced that time in fiction is relative to the reader. How many books have you read where the passage of real time becomes irrelevant as the book takes over your brain. It doesn’t matter that you are spending real time hours reading – your reading brain is spending months walking the war-torn streets of St Petersburg, or years growing up outcast on a remote, frost-riven promontory, or decades following the fortunes of a grazing family.
But, and I should have made that bigger, because it is a big but, it has to make internal sense.
A writer can mess with time, just as we can mess with the laws of physics and causality and anything else, but it has to be internally consistent.
I checked my timeline, because, while it doesn’t really matter whether the two-headed pig-kitten was born on a Tuesday or a Thursday, it does matter if one of my characters whispers, while the rest of the congregation is singing ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ that Sunday, ‘I was washing my socks three days ago, when that monstrous abomination was birthed’. Do I want that character to look like a fool who can’t count to three, or to imply that here we have a very unreliable narrator, with a laudanum habit that has seriously impaired their already hazy grasp of the days of the week? If the answer is no, I need to pin the event down in a timeline.
Also, for dialogue to seem natural, characters need to be able to refer to time in all sorts of ways.
‘How long have you been in these parts?’ might be answered with ‘ten days’, ‘since Tuesday last week’, ‘I arrived on the sixteenth’, ‘it was the day after St Swithin’s day that I first set foot in this God-forsaken hellhole’, or ‘I think you’ll find, that’s none of your business.’
They all have to be correct. The penultimate example is particularly tricky:
If I say that Lord Frobisher’s impetigo prevented him from attending the Hellfire Club’s St Agnes’ Eve Bake Sale, and six weeks later he’s worried it will keep him from dancing a quadrille with Miss Smaagstrom at Lord Barr’s Burns’ Night Ball, then I’m in trouble. Not only should I Google impetigo, but I’ve mauled my timeline. It doesn’t matter that it sounds fine, it’s not. St Agnes’ Eve is January 20 and Burns’ Night is January 25, and there’s no way I can make that look like six weeks between them. Time might be flexible in fiction, but it should never be stupid.
So, I’ve tightened up my timeline, moved the village market day to Wednesday, and realised I need to check the Anglican service for the third week after Trinity Sunday, not the second. I know, right? It’s taken a fair bit of real time, and it was time that I wasn’t really writing, but losing six days has done wonders for the flow of events, and maintaining rising tension, so I feel it was time well spent.
(NB: no bicephalous pig-kittens were harmed in the writing of this post.)