Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Time Factor

By Chester Campbell

Time is money, time is ripe, time flies, time hangs heavy—our lexicon is filled with references to time. How does time figure in the writing of a mystery novel, other than the obvious fact that it takes a long time to write one?

Some family sagas cover several generations over many years. A tightly-plotted thriller make take place in one day, or a matter of hours. The important thing about time is to use it wisely. Let the story take place over whatever period of time is necessary, but don’t stretch it out just to fill pages.

It is also important to use time realistically. I just finished reading The Da Vinci Code. I had seen comments over the years about how the time frame didn’t add up. I didn’t go back and try to tally how many hours the story covered, but the characters did a lot of moving all around Paris and environs in a matter of hours, then flew to England, toured various parts of London, then drove to Scotland. I don’t recall them doing any sleeping and little if any eating during all that time.

The nonstop action is what made the book such a hit (plus all the religious controversy), but the use of time was a bit bewildering. I usually jot down a chronological list of what happens from day to day so I can keep the time line in order. Dan Brown must have worked with a spring-wound clock that was winding down.

The calendar is essentially a timing device, filled with 24-hour blocks. Another time factor that can have an important effect on your book is the season. My Greg McKenzie mysteries take place roughly four months apart, so each occurs in a different season. Number 5 is back to winter. This changing of the seasons provides an opportunity to picture the scene differently in each story.

My new book, as yet unfinished, takes place around Christmas with nippy winds and freezing temperatures. The previous story was set during the steamy days of August. Quite a contrast in describing the scene.

Whether you’re dealing with the clock or the calendar, time can have a major impact on your story. As with all the other elements of writing a mystery, the major caution is to keep it realistic. Don’t try to cram too much into one day or stretch it out like a long siesta on the beach beneath a broiling sun. You’ll get burned with either choice.


Sheila Deeth said...

I remember Dr Who episodes that I watched as a kid. I wondered when they slept (or went to the bathroom) but my brother explained that stories always leave out the boring stuff.

Chester Campbell said...

True, Sheila, particularly as far as the bathroom goes. But people don't ordinarily go 36 hours without a little nap. If they do, they're borderline effective in decision-making and that sort of thing. When they go on and on at breakneck speed with no problem, it's unrealistic.