Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Creating a Historical Timeline for your Novel

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

Last week I got stuck on my rewrite of King's Folly. I realized there was too much history that I didn't know. I found inconsistencies when I talked about when a certain character had been in the war, when his wife had died, and how old he was as a teenager.

I knew the problem. I needed a historical timeline for my book. So I made one. Today, I'm going to start by giving you this excerpt from Storyworld First on creating a timeline, then I'll add in at the bottom how I went about creating one in a hurry for King's Folly.

From Storyworld First:


When I started my first fantasy novel, I didn’t know how to go about creating a history. I wanted to make it simple, so I wrote a timeline of my land. Really, it’s a timeline of only one group of people, starting when they arrived in the land and ending at the time when my book began.

I started with the year zero, when the first king came to the land on a ship, and I went up to the year 585, when my main character would turn sixteen. I used Microsoft Word and typed a number and a hyphen for every ten years in a long, long line. Then I added to my timeline which kings ruled when, important births and deaths, wars, exploration and discoveries, when certain cities or landmarks were built—anything I thought might be worth remembering.

All this gave my land character. For example, I knew why the people from Cherem hated the people from Magos. They’d been battling for years. If a Cheremite and a Magosian were to meet in my book, it might get ugly.

And ugly is good because ugly means conflict.


I highly recommend writing out a history of your land. Go back as far as you want. For inspiration, Google the history of our world. Look at the different eras and see how we’ve advanced over the years.

I wrote a historical narrative for the land of Er’Rets from my Blood of Kings trilogy and little blurbs on each city. I did this for my own knowledge so that I could better understand the world my characters lived in. You can read A History of Er’Rets in the Extras section of this book. Keep in mind, I wrote it for me, so it’s not perfect. And if you click on the link under the map after the history, it will take you to an online version of the map where you can click on different cities and read about them. This was all pre-writing I did while building my storyworld. None of this went in my book as is. It was for me to know so that I could better understand the world my characters lived in. I hope this serves as an illustration of what you could do and inspires some ideas for your own worldbuilding.

Don’t spend forever on this! A little goes a long way, and you can always stop writing and create more history if needed. Remember, you’re writing a novel, not a history textbook. Only take this as far as you need to. Then stop and get back to writing.


When you have different cultures, you have different ways of looking at things. How do other cultures remember the historical events differently? There’s often more than one reason for a war. See if you can find ways to put conflict into your world’s history.


That’s right. Fight the urge to cut and paste whatever cool histories you may have written. Instead, tell your character’s story. The history will come out if and when it needs to. Here are a few of the places I used my history in my Blood of Kings books:

•Achan learns early on that he’s of Kinsman descent.
•Achan and Vrell meet giants, Poroo people, and wolves, all of which I created when I wrote my historical narrative.
•When Achan reaches the memorial tree in Allowntown, he thinks about the murder of the king and queen and the curse of darkness on the land, both of which are on my timeline.
•Throughout the book the reader is given different bits and pieces of the story of how the prince came to live with Lord Nathak.
•Characters talk about the Great War, which happened a long time ago.

I didn’t use a lot of the history in the actual books, but without having written it, I wouldn’t have had a foundation from which to create.

End of excerpt.

Now, since I was crunched for time on King's Folly, here's what I did.

•I wrote down key dates mentioned in my story.
•I created a timeline starting with the oldest year mentioned in the book and ending with the current year of my story.
•I went in and added deaths of kings, coronations, marriages, and birthdates of royalty and other important characters.
•I shifted around the birthdays and such to make sure that the ages worked out right and that people I said "grew up together" were actually children at the same time.
•I looked up a timeline of England's kings to give me inspiration as to length of rule, deaths, and successions, etc.
•I also looked up a timeline for the War of the Roses, which gave me some ideas as to what people might be fighting about.
•I filled in dates for my recent war, an important treaty, and some prophecies. All the dates mentioned in my book.

And that was it. That was all I really needed. I didn't write out a long history of the world. This is sort of a cheat sheet to refer to as I edit, to help me get my dates right and my facts straight. It's truly an invaluable tool that will save me a lot of stress and mistakes.

Have you ever written a timeline for a book? Do you find them helpful? Any tips or questions?


  1. I have an idea for a fantasy novel that I'm really excited about, so I'm sure this will be so useful when I sit down to plan out the world. I think my character planning process is very similar to your history planning process. I write down a ton of stuff about the character, but it's mostly for me to figure out the character just for myself. I don't try to fit that information into the story; it just seeps in naturally because I know enough about the character.

    1. That's a good way to get to know them, Ana.

  2. I should probably devote more time to history when I world build ... but I frequently get distracted. Or I decide that the history is more exciting than the book I'm writing and write that instead.

    For instance, with my Bookania Quests, the world has a repeating history. There are several stories (fairy tales) that play themselves out over and over, some, like Cinderella, frequently, others, like "Casperl and the Princess" are slower. I have a good grasp on their modern history (what's happened in the last hundred years) and if I want to refer to something older, I have something planned for 300 years before, but beyond that, it can be hazy.

    With my Rizkaland Legends, it's different. I've been plotting this world a lot longer, and it follows more of a Narnia pattern. I have seven books set at seven key points in Rizkan history, with a dozen or so "legends" (ie, historical events) to fill in the gaps. I need to figure out more of these events, though.

    But for most of the rest of my worlds, I'm only dealing with one or two stories period, so I haven't taken the time to mess with the history. I should ... but I find the physics of world building so much more fun!

    1. Sounds like you have lots to work with! I love that you've spent time on legends.

  3. I finished reading Storyworld First about a week ago; it was very helpful. :) I didn't make a timeline for my current WIP, because it doesn't take place my fantasy world, but Book 2 I'll definitely be making a timeline of events. Though a timeline would be helpful for my world-traveling characters, to make sure it really is morning in London when it was night in Washington, D.C. The world-hopping really makes my head spin. :P Well, that's what editing is for!

    1. Ha ha. Exactly what editing is for, Linea. I do that too.

  4. I've done it before, very small scale.

  5. I'm working on a modern day romance story that takes place on earth. Which is kinda sad that I can't do any of this cool stuff. I've been wanting to start something fantasy, something that I can use my imagination to create, but I always begin a fantasy novel and it's not enough to flesh out into a full fledged story. I just drop it because there isn't anything else to write. Can you write a post on that?

    1. Can you be more specific, Emma? Do you mean a post on how to flesh out a smaller idea into a bigger story?

  6. I've never written a timeline, but I may end up writing several of them soon. Thanks for the helpful post!

  7. This is great! I've had to go back and work on timelines before, and it really did help. I have a hard time with continuity and I don't work on it as much as I should.

  8. Perfect timing. I hit a wall yesterday and I can't move forward until I sort out the history. I have to decide how many generations have passed between the first king and my MC. It's a fairly young country that's become influential quickly. So I at least don't have a ton of history, but the novel sort revolves around the history and so it's really important to have it all written out.

  9. I don't really have a timeline, but bits and pieces of history come to mind when I am writing, or away from my computer.

  10. I don't have a timeline for my WIP yet, but more and more I've realized that I really need one. Working out the characters ages and events in history will really help me to figure out the world of my story better. This is a really helpful post for figuring out how to do a timeline! I've never done one before, and this makes me excited to try it out!

    1. You can do it, Megan! And you'll find your own tricks that make it work even better for you.

  11. I cheated and made my story world history mirror our world history. Meaning my story world has its own age of exploration, world wars, and might soon have an age of space exploration. I'm hoping I can get away with it.

  12. You've reminded me that I really need to figure out a bit of history, so thank you. Figuring out the history usually frustrates me and it rarely factors in. In my current novel the MC finds the subjects of a story she loves because she can't think of any other way to help her home. The story she knows has been made easy to read (it isn't a popular story, but retold to her) and the people she finds are vague about the past. There isn't much mention of exact dates, but it might help me out. Thanks!

  13. This is so helpful, thank you for this. <3

    xx Nicole Rose

  14. I love 'Storyworld First.' It's very helpful. As for timelines... I've never done one before, but my novel could really use one. XD

  15. I'm preparing to rewrite my fantasy novel, and I've been realizing that I should probably put some more time into figuring out the world. I'm pretty sure a timeline is going to be an absolute must, since some of my characters are around ten thousand years old, and refer to events way back in history. Plus, there are going to be a lot of mysteries from back then that finally come to light.

  16. I really need a timeline. It'll make things *so* easier. This post really helped. And I have got to add Storyworld First to my wish list. Thanks!

  17. Hey, I've been reading GTW for quite a while, probably over a year. Honestly, one of the reasons why I decided to start a writing blog (although I'm just setting mine up) because of GTW!

    Anyway, even though my WIP isn't in the fantasy genre, I think I can apply this to my writing the backstory/history of the town! Thank you!

    -Andrea Marie

  18. This was just the perfect timing for this post! I've been stuck in the middle of my story for a while now because I've been making tiny little changes of my plot during the writing progress and finally reached a point where all of this didn't fit together any more. Writing the backstory/timeline of my country helped me to get to know it better and also provided some (quite simple, honestly) clues for my plotting problem. Thank you Jill!

  19. I have recently started creating timelines for my novels, but I use them mainly to keep track of what is happening when DURING the novel. It can get very difficult to keep track of things especially when working with two point of views for the first time.
    I'm afraid I've been a bit lazy when it comes to creating history - I just make backstory up as I write. :)