The timeline in a long-running series

Posted on March 10, 2014 (Subscribe to Blog)

When I was a young 'un, I read mystery and adventure books by a popular author from England by the name of Enid Blyton (see my fan site, which I created about ten years ago when I started collecting the old original hardbacks). Americans will be more familiar with the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, The Three Investigators, and so on. But one thing all these books have in common is that the main characters remained perpetually young.

I understand the reasoning behind it. Take the Famous Five series. Enid Blyton originally meant to write six books in this series, but they were so popular that her publisher persuaded her to keep going. Between 1941 and 1963 she wrote 21 Famous Five books. In the beginning, the four characters were aged 10-12. Since each adventure took place during school term breaks (Easter, summer holidays, Christmas, etc), it made sense to age the characters accordingly, and by the time they got to Book #9, they were 14-16.

But the series kept going, and the children were starting to outgrow the intended age group, so the author "stuck" them at that age for another twelve books. As I said in an article about the subject, "This is probably a good thing, because the idea of Julian at 23 years old in the last book and STILL without a driver's license or girlfriend... well, it's just not right." (Oddly, a secondary character described as age 9 late in the series returned two books later at age 11, proving that some sort of aging was still going on while the main characters were frozen in time.)

When you consider the Hardy Boys, there were 58 novels in the "original canon" or 190 if you include the more modern stories. Obviously it makes more sense to completely suspend their aging! If you have them grow older even by one year, it brings the rest of the chronology into question. Sometimes it's best not to go there.

Harry Potter ages naturally through his seven books because each book is a term at Hogwarts. That works nicely, and is perfect when a series has a definite end in sight. But many series don't.

As for me... Right from the start, I intended the Island of Fog series to occur within a fairly short space of time. I didn't want the characters getting old on me. The first book starts in the fall (evidenced by some crispy brown autumn leaves), and I chose a date of October 16th even though the actual date is never mentioned. It's more for my own purposes than anything. Here's a quick rundown of the chronology. Some of this might surprise you...

  • #1 Island of Fog (7 days, Oct 16 – Oct 22)
  • #2 Labyrinth of Fire (6 days, Oct 23 – Oct 28)
  • gap of 2 days
  • #3 Mountain of Whispers (3 days, Oct 31 – Nov 2)
  • gap of 1 day
  • #4 Lake of Spirits (1 day, Nov 4)
  • gap of 10 days
  • #4 Lake of Spirits (cont'd) (4 days, Nov 14 – Nov 17)
  • #5 Roads of Madness (5 days, Nov 17 cont'd – Nov 21)
  • gap of 2 days
  • #6 Chamber of Ghosts (1 day, Nov 24 – Nov 25)
  • gap of two weeks
  • #6 Chamber of Ghosts (4 days, Dec 8 – Dec 11)
  • gap of one lunar month
  • #7 Valley of Monsters (10 days, Jan 7 – Jan 16)

I think the surprise here is that Mountain of Whispers is only three days. But when you look at the story, much of the action is in "real time" with little rest, while other books skip from day to day. As Peter Jackson said about The Hobbit, the author Tolkien briefly describes in one paragraph a huge battle in the mountains, whereas a movie adaptation would need twenty minutes to show it. Time can't be measured by the number of pages a scene takes up.

So, all in all, the Fog series has taken exactly three calendar months so far, from October 16th to January 16th. The next book, Prison of Despair, skips to March 9th (an arbitrary date) where winter is behind them and spring is around the corner. Books 8 and 9 will take place over 5-10 days or so, which means overall we're looking at about five months from start to finish.

Does this surprise you? Some readers assume there are large chunks of time between each book and wonder why the characters don't age. I suppose this is natural when you read a book and wait 8 months for the next one. Yet many others have picked up on the relatively short chronology overall. One thing I want to mention in Prison of Despair is that the children are coming up on age 13. As you know, their parents were all experimented on around the same time when Miss Simone's Shapeshifter Program started, thus the friends were born nine months later, and their birthdays are very close. It's not a big issue, but I think it would be neat to mention.

What I didn't mention at all was Christmas, which would have occurred between Books #6 and #7. It's hard to imagine what sort of Christmas they would have had, though. I'm sure their parents would have kept the tradition going back on the island, and probably in Miss Simone's world as well, but the rest of the village...? I doubt it would have been very Christmassy, which is ironic because this world has plenty of naughty elves as well as a number of flying four-legged animals that might pass as reindeer. Maybe there's a short story here somewhere!

To finish off, my entire point is that I'm the sort of person who feels a need to carefully log the actual passing of time instead of turning a blind eye to it. This is why the series happens over months and not years. Yes, it's a lot for the children to go through, but hey, one story leads right into the next. This is the story of Hal and his friends and the tidal wave of aggravation they and Miss Simone have brought into the world of the poor villagers. There will be a reckoning at the end of the series. In Prison of Despair, the village council is already pretty upset at Miss Simone, complaining about all that's happened as a direct result of her meddling in the Shapeshifter Program.

They have a point.

Comment by NIGEL ROWE on Monday, March 10, 2014...

Ageing children (or adults, for that matter) depends on the number of books in a series. Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine books feature a series that features a group of children who form a secret society in wartime Shropshire. The last book in the series is set in the 1970s, and the children have aged around two years in thirty-five years! I do find this stretching it a bit, but a fabulous series all the same.

Comment by BRIAN B. on Monday, March 10, 2014...

I imagine your walls covered in whiteboards with arrows and lines and "Do Not Touch" notices stuck up with yellowing sticky tape. One thing that is remarkable to me is the fantastic lives one could live if free from the shackles of an overpopulated reality.

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Monday, March 10, 2014...

Brian, I've always wanted to do a cop/FBI-style board with string and post-its. :-) And yes, New Earth (as I call it now) is sort of an ideal world — stone cottages with thatched roofs, no pollution, free and clean energy, a simple lifestyle but with modern conveniences like running hot water and instant lighting... and of course fantastic creatures!

And Nigel, that's what I mean: If you're going to age the characters even a little bit, then you kind of need to follow through with the rest of the series. Also, if you meet a villain in Book #2 and then meet that same villain again in Book #78 (one of those "ah, we meet again" moments) then it's probably stretching credulity whatever age the characters are!

Comment by ROGER ESCHBACHER on Monday, March 10, 2014...

That is surprising. I would've guessed a couple of years at the very least.

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Monday, March 10, 2014...

I suspect that's more to do with the gap between reading the books than anything else, Roger. Books 1-3 are a single, ongoing story. There's conceivably a gap between Books 3 and 4, but then Books 4-7 pretty much continue through without stopping.

But maybe time should be stretched out just for the sake of it, because readers seem to make that leap anyway?

Comment by HAKEEM on Monday, March 10, 2014...

I've always liked that Hal and the gang didn't age, but I didn't realise that there was any gaps in the time line at all. All that stuff about it being winter just kind of flue over my head. And I came across the same problem in my own writing, but the problem solved itself when I remembered that the series time line is just the span of a school year (starting at summer break) and that half the characters can't actually age. So that leaves way for the 200 year ago I plan on leaving between the first and second series.
By the way (if you don't mind me using your blog as advertisement) check out my stores on wattpad my username is griffen22776

Comment by ANONYMOUS on Friday, March 14, 2014...

When's the release of the new books??

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Saturday, March 15, 2014...

Probably July for Book 8 and August for Book 9.

Comment by ROGER ESCHBACHER on Tuesday, March 18, 2014...

I suspect you're right, Keith. I'm not sure you need to noticeably stretch out the time. Once I read your explanation, the timeline made total sense.

Perhaps from a reader's perspective, clocking the passage of time in your series doesn't make a difference one way or the other?

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Tuesday, March 18, 2014...

I don't think it makes a difference to most readers, Roger, but a few have wondered about it. Mainly, I make sure the timeline is clear for my own purposes lest I do something silly. Some sharp-eyed readers will complain otherwise, as I would too! The thing about world-building and so on is to make sure you're a 100% clear on what you're suggesting even if you only mention 20% of it in the book. The trick is to speak with authority. So if Hal says, "Crumbs, three months ago we weren't even shapeshifters!" then I need to mean it. :-)

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