Time will affect where or when your characters can act. If they need to travel during the course of the story, they will need ample time to get there. Frodo could not go to Mount Doom in a few days; the Quest of the Ring had to take place over many weeks.
/nerd rant Yes, I know the damn eagles could have flown him there, but that’s not what Gandalf chose to do, for reasons of secrecy and surety. Sauron would have noticed eagles immediately and probably recaptured the Ring; he didn’t notice tiny Frodo and Sam until it was too late. Basically, Gandalf snuck up on Sauron the same way Bilbo snuck up on Smaug. /nerd rant over
The events in Rose’s Hostage happen over the course of a couple of months and wrap up the end of an investigation. They cover several locations: a crime scene, a hideout, several private homes, motels, and a couple of hospitals, to name a few. Secret Book begins during the protagonists’ childhoods and spans decades. There is ample time to visit multiple settings.
But a narrative need not take years to do this. The entirety of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway takes place in a single day. Clarissa Dalloway goes about her party preparations, she revisits past events and places in her mind, and so do other characters–particularly Septimus Smith, in a dichotomy of madness. In London, we visit Bond Street, Regent’s Park, and briefly, Greenwich. Big Ben marks the passage of time throughout the narrative as the day wears on.
Image: Google Street View
Time will inform all your characters’ decisions. Your detective may only have a few hours to find a buried hostage before she suffocates. Her actions will make use of every bit of that time. Or your languid Gilded Age heir may take years to make an important decision, his procrastination allowing the progression of other events to eventually become his ruin.
You will need to account for time between happenings, and it should make sense to your reader. Popular fiction, particularly in television shows, often fudges elapsed time for dramatic effect. For example, real-life crime labs have notoriously large backlogs, but somehow the hero always gets DNA results in just a few hours. In real life, it can take months or even years.
Maybe your protagonists can make use of time or manipulate it to get where they want to go. The Doctor can set his TARDIS for anywhen and anywhere. Of course, she’s a fickle thing and doesn’t always go where she’s sent, but that’s just part of her charm.
Time, as the Doctor knows, is less a linear thing than we surmise. In your story, you can make it behave as you will–you can slow it down, speed it up, or even stop it. It can even offer assistance when you’re writing. Imagine you’ve walked into your setting with time suddenly halted right in the middle of the action. What catches your attention?
In The Dark Tower, our intrepid ka-tet can travel to different versions of Earth, as I mentioned elsewhere, but they find to their chagrin that time isn’t as precise as they assume it is. Nor is time exactly what it should be in Mid-World, either; for instance, Roland has been on his way to the Dark Tower for much, much longer than they think.
Some novels have chapter headings that list the date, time, and place in which a scene occurs. Thriller authors do this a lot. Here’s one from James Rollins’ book Ice Hunt:
(I’m reading this book now in between Dark Tower VI and VII. It’s pretty cool. I’m almost halfway through and I’m starting to get antsy–if I don’t find out soon what’s on Level 4 of Ice Station Grendel, I’m going to scream!)
In Rose’s Hostage, the action takes place over the course of July in the summer of [????], about a month. I did have to put chapter headings in, like Friday, July 25. But I only put the date so you could see roughly where you were. What Rollins did fits a military-themed sci-fi thriller quite well–it would have been overkill for my book.
You can also show the passage of time by incorporating it into your narrative. This is what I like to do. As you move through chapters, mention the weather–it’s raining; it’s cold; now it’s warmer but the flowers haven’t come out yet. Have your characters put on their coats, scarves, and boots or take them off. Play with it a little bit. I’m sure you’ll find what works best for your story.