If you know anything about me, you probably know that I like to use spreadsheets to organize myself, whether it’s story outlines, word count trackers (until recently), or timelines, the spreadsheet is my bread-and-butter organization tool.
So you’d better damn believe I have a spreadsheet laying out the entire millennia-spanning timeline of my fantasy universe, Úr’Dan.
Which brings me to the quintessential world-building tool, in my view: the Historical Timeline.
The Historical Timeline
When I talk about a historical timeline as a world-building tool, I’m not really referring to the timeline as a tool for the reader. It is a tool for you, the writer, to aid in your efforts to give depth to your fantasy universe.
Even if you only have a few key events laid out that underpin your fantasy universe — a recent war, a plague that is sweeping the countryside, or the death of a prominent figure — it is essential that you understand not just how and why these events happened, but when.
And a simple timeline, or an outline of a timeline, can help you organize key events to tell your story accurately. After all, referencing historical events in the course of your story through dialogue or, where appropriate, exposition adds greater depth to your fantasy universe, but only if you can consistently describe when and how something happened.
My Historical Timeline
As I said at the top, I use a spreadsheet to organize a millennia-spanning historical timeline for my entire fantasy universe, called Úr’Dan. This spreadsheet is organized into four columns:
- Year, or whatever reckoning of time is used in your fantasy universe. There are actually four distinct calendars used in Úr’Dan, so my timeline references each.
- Name of the event. How is this event known in your story? Consider whether different groups refer to the same event by different names.
- Peoples involved, referring to which larger ethno-cultural groups in my story were involved in or impacted by a particular event.
- Description, providing just a few sentences summarizing what the event was, and maybe what it’s immediate impact was.
Additionally, I use color-coding to provide a quick visual differentiator between general types of events:
- Events referred to only in myth or legend
- Wars, battles, or other conflicts
- Founding or construction of cities, fortifications, or other significant places
- Birth/Death of prominent figures
- Treaties or alliances
- Other significant events, trends, discoveries. This is a catch-all category that can include things like mass migrations of people, the invention or prevalent use of a particular type of technology, or notable weather events.
Finally, I also include rows for each of my stories, just so it’s obvious where they each fit into my timeline.
All told, I have 91 rows in my timeline so far, spanning about 1,000 years of “history”, plus significant events of myth, such as those covered in my mythology of Úr’Dan. Many of these events are focused on a few ethno-cultural groups or time periods that I’ve already put a lot of thought into, so one of my ongoing goals is to add more events and flesh out the histories of all of the peoples of my fantasy universe.
The more historical events you can talk about from your timeline, the more space you have for potential stories.