Edgar Governo is a historian of a very pure and particular sort: he collects fictional timelines. As he explains, he’s also interested in history proper; but “Gleaning knowledge from a past that never existed—or a future, for that matter—is simply so much more sublime. That is what this site is all about.”
He has extensive descriptive links to 79 timelines for television shows, 25 for movies, 83 for books, 23 for games, and 63 for comics. There are all the timelines you could have predicted would exist: Sherlock Holmes, J.R.R. Tolkien, Patrick O’Brian, Robert Jordan, Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Files, Babylon 5, Buffy, etc. It’s equally inevitable that fans have compiled over two dozen timelines for DC’s multiply replaited continuity, including Earth-2, -2.5, -3, -4, -5, -12, -17, -18, -238, -1278, -A, -C, -K, -S, and -X. (There are far fewer attempts to sort out the Marvel universe. I think Marvel fans have simply given up.)
There are some odd gaps—apparently no one’s compiled timelines for The Sopranos, the three Godfather movies, or Pulp Fiction—and some odder non-gaps. I wouldn’t have expected there’d be two timelines for Friday the 13th (one of which Governo calls “surprisingly rational”), or an extensive discussion of the pre-show back history of Bonanza, or one covering the four “Minervan Experiment” novels by James P. Hogan. Nor, for that matter, that there’d be a timeline for the Muffy Birnbaum stories.
I think what we’re seeing is the operation of a particular turn of mind, like the ones that make you a copyeditor or a bibliographer. I think some readers automatically keep track of the implicit and explicit chronology. The reason I think it’s a turn of mind (as opposed to a meme, habit, or fannish enthusiasm) is that they can’t shut it off, even when it’s obvious that a narrative’s chronology is being driven by the needs of a sloppily contrived ongoing plot, rather than any underlying plan or logic. I’m fairly certain that in a couple of cases, the fans who’ve put the timeline together have given the subject far more thought than the author ever did.
I’m also struck by the aspect of timeline compilation as a reconstruction of the author’s working notes. When I’m teaching expository theory to young writers, I always tell them yes, you should figure out your world’s geography, history, economy, climate, material culture, religion, and quaint social customs; and then you should leave 98% of it out of the story. If you do, the 2% you mention will feel solid and accurate to your readers, but it won’t overtax their patience by making them remember details they don’t yet care about. Fiction should not make you feel like you’re studying for the test.
I assure you, it’s excellent advice. But what do we have here? Fans of the work trying to recreate all that information the author justly left out!
There’s the paradox of it: A lively, fast-moving story can so engage the audience’s imagination that they’ll go to all the work of reconstructing the background notes; but if that same information had been left lying around underfoot on the surface of the page, slowing and encumbering the narrative, the readers wouldn’t have cared enough about the story to go on reading. (via Morfablog)