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Someone asked me for a genealogy chart to put in the novel she plans to write. She gave me very few details. I assume the details she didn't give me are not important to the plot.

However, a couple of the details she did give are hard for me to fit into the historical context without it seeming weird. Others seem to require two people to be married and widowed and remarried before they are 25 (possible, but going to raise eyebrows).

My suspicion is that she just hadn't thought that deeply about it.

My thought is that all the dates and places of birth, marriage, and death should be planned in advance to be plausible, so that they can be consulted to prevent saying something in the narrative that makes no sense. (Like a character who had to have died in 1880 homesteading in Oklahoma—which didn't happen before 1889.) Especially if you have them on a chart that might enable the reader to recognize impossibilities.

I am not a fiction writer, so I don't know where to look for professional or semi-professional advice on avoiding implausible events in such a story. Suggestions?

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  • There is a stack-exchange for genealogy: genealogy.stackexchange.com But that would probably be for specific genealogy questions. The easy approach might be to take an existing genealogical record, and change dates, places and names so it's consistent but also sufficiently distinct.
    – towr
    Jul 31 at 14:59
  • I already have the fictional dates, places and names in "webtrees" and have generated some charts for her to look at. I'm asking about advice on how the writer would ensure consistency among chart, prose, and history. –
    – WGroleau
    Jul 31 at 19:15
  • Ah, I misunderstood the question. It might help to edit the question to make it a little clearer what exactly the question is. (Maybe that would also satisfy the downvoter's objection to the question, but it's hard to say when they don't comment.)
    – towr
    Jul 31 at 20:07
  • You need to discuss this with the person who has asked you to produce the chart. They should be able to clarify. It's better to do that than "assume" and find you've assumed incorrectly. (I don't see what other kind of answer you expect if you're dealing with historical impossibilities. If your question is actually "How do I tell this person they have made mistakes", you should say that explicitly.)
    – Stuart F
    Aug 1 at 14:10
  • How can I discusss with them where they should look for advice? If I knew that, I wouldn't have asked here.
    – WGroleau
    Aug 1 at 14:44

3 Answers 3

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all the dates and places of birth, marriage, and death should be planned in advance to be plausible, so that they can be consulted to prevent saying something in the narrative that makes no sense. ... Especially if you have them on a chart that might enable the reader to recognize impossibilities.

I had to laugh.

There is no magic wand that prevents a plot hole.

If you feel she's made a mistake, just point out the mistake. She will fix it, or tell you the reason she wants it that way.

(a small frame challenge)

Although this is not your question (which has been edited), I think there's a component missing about how to give feedback to the author. You've decided (for the sake of the question) the author just didn't do the plotting homework. My frame challenge is there might be author-intent in that 'bad' timeline, and the genealogy chart is their attempt to clear that up.

Plausable…, yeah

A 25yo widow marrying a 25yo widower becomes more plausible in an era where mothers died in childbirth, general life expectancy was in the low-50s, and society validates only legal unions that result in fertility (pressure to remarry) – also a lack of modern medicine, contraception, women's rights to retain their deceased husband's property/business, etc.

These factors are plausible to me in historic or a religious context, an insular ethnic or immigrant community, or 'boss towns' where laborers are exploited in dangerous jobs (mining, early aviation, girder walkers, soldiers, mafia). As a reader, I wouldn't need it explained – any look at a real genealogy chart will have a shocking number of deceased children and remarriages.

Imposition

Maybe the real issue is the author's request has extended beyond your generous nature – it seems they expected you to provide worldbuilding and history for their novel. Maybe she didn't realize there was a problem you are forced to solve. A conversation might clear the air.

However, I assume you know the author and your assessment is correct: she just didn't do her homework. That doesn't give you the right to be condescending or insulting. Skip to the end if you value this person at all.

Tools for avoiding chronology problems

Index cards

I feel sorry for authors in the post-wordprocessor era who've never sprawled a entire package of index cards across the floor in an attempt to organize their plot timeline.

Scrivener has an index card view where the 'cards' can be re-arranged on screen. It can be converted to display multiple parallel timelines – each card is in order but confined to 'tracks' allowing to plot (for instance) the POV of each individual character within the chronology of the full story.

Having used both, index cards on the floor is better. Computer screens are limited by pixels, at some point of complexity information will not be legible and you're left with an abstract, graphic flowchart that is not a story. Index cards have no space or resolution limit, and mapping the plot in the real world may help 'fix' problems through spacial memory.

Character cheat sheets

Another writing tool is to compile a cheatsheet about each character, including their age and general history. A good exercise asks what the character was doing 5 hours earlier, 5 days earlier, and 5 years earlier – the idea is that characters are always transitioning. They existed before the story interrupted their lives.

No guarantee to prevent plot holes, but it should force the author to at least consider the unmentioned family influences and life events. Needless to say, this background does not end up in the novel. It's an exercise for richer, grounded characters.

Manageable writing projects

There probably isn't an author alive who didn't imagine their first story as an epic so important as to warrant an entire series; the problem is they don't yet have the skill to manage a single story. The 'epic' isn't even a proper outline, just a lot of un-connected ideas, and the characters are mere placeholders to string events together.

This is mimicking the worst aspects of corporate-media, where hollywood producers milk every drop from their cash cow before bored consumers move on to the next un-spent trend.

No author should imagine themselves as a 'factory' churning out pulp for 3¢ a word. Quality should be valued over quantity – especially by the author, but we live in a disposable, consumer society. We are constantly told more is better.

Project management is a skill that only comes with practice, so projects must be small and manageable. A new author is not a movie studio. Epics that span generations are bound to be more plot-hole prone than a 'simple' story that is smaller and focused.

Worldbuilding GOOD; Lore BAD

Stories are about character and conflict, period.

Worldbuilding enhances character and conflict, it is 'there' as de facto evidence of the current situation. We don't need to be told there is economic disparity in the galaxy when we see the protagonist lives on a garbage planet. Worldbuilding makes this context self-evident. Worldbuilding is also how the protagonist sees the world. They are in it, surrounded by it. There is no 'other world' outside of their own immediate experiences, so that larger context is embedded in the details and the environment.

Lore is what happens when franchises go on too long using writer-for-hire scripts, with subplots and side-characters introduced and dropped so often that fans need a wiki to recall the details.

Where in-story lore undermines a narrative is when it's just a pretext for deus ex machina: an ancient macguffin that solves the puzzle, a prophesy that... happens, an ancestor whose grudge spans generations.... Too often lore works like 'just so' stories, it's there to explain how something got that way even though no one asked.

Pretentious?

It feels like this genealogy chart is an attempt to faux-document some in-story lore, like it is a film macguffin or game inventory item that should unlock… something – some knowledge, but what?

I'm struggling to think how the reader benefits from a chart that is 5% cannon info and 95% nonsense made up by someone who is not the author. What is the purpose?

Readers will never care about an obscure clue handed to them in some random document. It feels like an amateur attempt at meta-storytelling.

But so what, that's just my opinion.

This author has every right to try something meta – maybe the whole novel is filled with visual documents and disinformation. How would I benefit by stamping out creative choices? It does not harm me and is intended to be interesting.

It's ok to be supportive. It's her book..., right?

Reconsider before you end this friendship forever

I don't see how you can realistically 'fix' this one plot hole by handing her a list of writing exercises – you can drag a horse to the watering hole, but will they take your unsolicited creative writing advice?

If I make a small math error, I do not need to be told I must go back to school and read every textbook – that would earn someone a punch in the face.

A plausible (at worst) plot hole does not, sorry, require an author submit to a condescending list of writer's guides so as never to offend you again – you have even consulting the internet for suggestions to punish this offensive woman, that's how entitled you feel to justice.

What did she do to you? There HAS to be more than just a vague timeline-issue for you to want to hand her a list of writing exercises so she will never make such an inexcusable mistake again. That's either vindictive, condescending, or retaliatory.

I suggest you repost this on the Reddit group AITA with a few more details about your history with the author, just to be sure. Seriously, don't do this if you value your friendship with her at all. No judgement, creative partners can get on our nerves, but consider stepping away rather than doing what it appears you want to do.

You may be completely right, she didn't do her homework, but what you've said of this "plot hole" – if it even is one – does not warrant this over-reaction.

Read the room. We are writers saying this isn't even a plot hole.

She would be correct to end the friendship if you choose to insult her this way – especially after you promised to make the genealogy page. It sounds like you are deliberately finding fault so you don't need to fulfill your obligation.

If you can't be supportive (it's a skill, it takes practice and effort) just make the chart as agreed without being condescending then politely remove yourself from the project, and try not to make insincere gestures next time.

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  • Looks like you've provided some good information, for which I'm thankful. But you're reading far too much into my concern. Making a chart is easy for me as an amateur genealogist. I'm just trying to be helpful to someone new to writing.
    – WGroleau
    Aug 1 at 20:34
  • 2
    @WGroleau Just be careful to observe the first rule of helping people: make sure they want help. (Ironically, this is unsolicited advice from my side, so I may fall foul of my own caution; if so, my apologies. :)
    – towr
    Aug 2 at 6:40
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Improbable events happen. Less rarely than probable events, but they do happen if they are scientifically possible.

For example, a relative of mine joined the summer encampment at West Point aged 16, and was officially entered on his 17th birthday, the minimum age. When a war broke his West Point Class was graduated and commissioned early, when he was 20 years and about 3 weeks old (and not the youngest one ever, either). He served in two world wars and lived to be 100 years old.

This relative died 168 years after his paternal grandfather was born, and that grandfather died 168 years after his paternal grandfather died. Those are long intervals, but hardly the record.

For example King Idris of Libya (1890-1983) died 196 years after his paternal grandfather Muhammed ibn Ali as-Senussi (1787-1859) was born. Harrison Ruffin Tyler (b. 1928) is still alive, 232 years after his paternal grandfather President John Tyler (1790-1862) was born. Harrison Tyler had first cousins and uncles who fought in the US Civil War (1861-1865), and I think an uncle in the Mexicaon War (1846-48).

Emperor Fredrick ii (1194-1250) died 155 years after his grandfather King Roger II (1095-1154) of Sicily was born. His maternal grandfather. Roger II died about 174 years after his paternal grandfther, Tancred of Hauteville (c. 980-1041) was born. So Emperor frederick II died about 270 years after oneof his great geat grandfathers was born. The 4 generation gaps between Frederick II and Tancred average about 53.5 years by birth and 52.25 years by death.

King of Poland and Grand Duke of LIthuania Sigismund II Augustus (1520-1572) died 145 years after his grandfther Casimir IV (1427-1492) was born. Casimer IV died about 200 years after his grandfather Grand Duke Algirdas of Lithuania (c. 1292-1377) was born, and Algirdas died about 102 years after his father Gediminas (c. 1275-1341) was born. The 5 generation gaps between Sigismund II and Gediminas average about 49 years by birth and 46.2 years by death.

In the Qajar Dynasty of KIngs of Kings of Iran, Fath Ali Shah (1772-1834) died 96 years before his great great great great grandson deposed king of kings Soltan Ahmed Shah (1898-1930) died. So the six generation gaps between them average only 16 years by death date and 21 years by birth date. Ahmed Shah was old enough when he died to leave surviving sons, even though it has been claimed that it is biologically impossible for someone who died only 100 years after their great great great great grandfather - their ancestor in six generation gaps - to be old enough to have surviving sons.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qajar_family_tree

In the Northern Wei dynasty of China, Emperor Mingyuan (392-423) died 92 years before his great great great great grandson Emperor Xuanwu (483-515). That makes an average generation gap 15.133 years by birth and 15.333 years by death.

In the Northern Wei dynasty of China, Emperor Mingyuan's father Emperor Daowu (371-409) died 106 years before his great great great great great grandson Emperor Xuanwu (483-515). That makes an average generation gap 16 years by birth and 15.142 years by death.

Emperor Emperor Xuanwu (483-515) had a surviving son Emperor Xiaoming (510-528), even though it has been claimed that it is biologically impossible for someone who died only 100 years after their great great great great grandfather - their ancestor in 6 generation gaps - to be old enough to have surviving sons.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_tree_of_Chinese_monarchs_(middle)#Northern_Wei,_Eastern_Wei,_Western_Wei

In the Tang Dynasty of China, the Emperors Wuzong (814-846), Wenzong (809-840), and Jingzong (809-827), died 84, 78, and 65 years after their ancestor in 7 generation gaps, their great great great great great gandfather Empeor Xuanzong (685-762).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_tree_of_Chinese_monarchs_(middle)#Tang_and_Wu_Zhou_dynasties

By birth date the average generation gap was 18.428, 17.714, and 17.714 years respectively, by death date the average generation gap was 12, 11.142, and 9.285, years respectively. In a difference of 7 generation gaps.

All three of those empeors had sons, and Jingzong had at least two sons who survived him but didn't become emperor, even though it has been claimed that it is biologically impossible for someone who died only 100 years after their great great great great grandfather - their ancestor in 6 generation gaps - to be old enough to have surviving sons.

You might be interested in the answers to this question: [https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/63221/who-is-the-youngest-monarch-to-have-issue/66835#668354

Here is a link to a list of youngest birth fathers:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_youngest_birth_fathers

Note that it doesn't include many hisotrical examples of young royal fathers that I mentioned in my answers to the question [https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/63221/who-is-the-youngest-monarch-to-have-issue/66835#668354

Here is a link to a list of youngest birth mothers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_youngest_birth_mothers

Here is a link to a list of oldest birth fathers:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_oldest_fathers

Here is alink to a list of oldest mothers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pregnancy_over_age_50#Cases_of_pregnancy_over_age_50

In historical times it was hardly impossible or rare for someone to marry, become a widow or widower, and remarry by the age of 25.

Catharine of Aragon (16 December 1485-7 January 1536) married Henry VIII on 11 June 1509, aged 23 years, 5 months, and 26 days; she was the widow of Arthur, Prince of Wales, who died on 2 April 1502 when Catharine was aged 16 years, 3 months, and 17 days.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catherine_of_Aragon

Henry VIII's sixth queen, Catharine Parr (c.512-5 September 1548) married Sir Edmund Burgh in 1529 aged about 17. He died in 1533 when she was about 21. Catharine married John Neville,3rd Baron Latimer,in the summer of 1534, about the time of her 22nd birthday.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catherine_Parr#First_marriage_(1529%E2%80%931533)

Bess of Hardwick (c. 1537-1608) married four times, beoming a widow aged about 17 in December 1544. She married for the second time Sir William Cavendish on 20 August 1547, aged about 20.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bess_of_Hardwick#First_marriage

Agnes of France (1171?-1220?) became a widow for the first or second time when her first or second husband was killed 12 September 1185, the year she might have turned 14.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnes_of_France,_Byzantine_Empress

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  • All very interesting, but does't answer the question. I edited, since it seems folks are seeing a different question somehow.
    – WGroleau
    Aug 1 at 14:47
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In short, you should definitely mention the inconsistencies you've found. It could just be miscommunication.

Drafting, Outlining, Problem Solving

The process of writing a novel usually falls under one of two main categories:

  1. Writing from a synopsis with planning ahead of writing the first draft
  2. Writing without a synopsis or a more detailed plan, by the seats of your pants

Both variants then proceed to fix everything that doesn't work in the editing of the first draft (many rounds of editing, I should probably say...) Neither method will produce a publishable first draft.

In your case, it seems the author is doing planning ahead of writing the first draft so she seems to be working along category 1. And input on inconsistencies is usually helpful.

But even if the author is going along category 2, a little planning ahead can do wonders for those types of authors as well.

The situation gives me some thoughts:

  • If the kind of problem you're describing is unknown to the author it might be helpful to have a heads-up and having that info while planning the novel will likely help avoid angst and suffering during the drafting/editing
  • It seems dramatic that they get married, widowed, and then get married again... and before 25... and drama is great in fiction... this might be planned! Check-in with the author...

You don't have to convince the author to do anything, just mention it from your genealogy point of view and if she tells you she wants to fix it later, then, as you can see, that's also a way to do it.

Inconsistencies

How do you find inconsistencies?

Well, you've used genealogy software (Webtrees). I'm unfamiliar, but the one I use from time to time (Gramps) has views where you can focus on people or events. Looking at the marriages, and deaths proposed in the plan and their chronology could be a help for further discussion.

I might also go at the problem with a timeline software (Aeon Timeline, or just a date sorted Excel sheet). That could also visualize the problem.

But, as mentioned above, tons of problems will be found and fixed after the first draft is written, in editing.

And still, some inconsistencies will survive past the initial planning, even past editing, and I know of at least one author who has an 8-day week in one of her novels, and no one even noticed.

Some details aren't necessarily that important. After all, unless this is non-fictional the whole idea isn't to be realistic, it's to be more, funnier, scarier, larger, cooler, etc, than the life the reader already knows and plans to escape for a moment in their reading.

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