I've been a bit quiet this week, mostly because I've been working steadily on outlining my new book. I've learned that any time I spend figuring out the details of chronology at the beginning of a writing project saves me many more hours of time down the line. There are people, I hear, who can just start writing. They don't know where the story is going to take them until they've worked with the characters for a while. That approach may work for straight, imaginative fiction, but it won't do if you are trying to work within a factual historical setting. In historical fiction, a "seat-of-the-pants" author runs the risk of including modern opinions in the attitudes of old-fashioned people,, misdating known events, or (horrors of horrors!) having a long-dead character suddenly reappear later in the book. I use timelines to avoid such problems.
In my current work, a timeline became increasingly important when I realized how many sources of information I had, and how great was the potential for them to contradict each other. First, I had some 50,000 words of "seat-of-the -pants" chapter drafts produced during the 2010 NaNoWriMo Challenge. I desperately needed a chronology of the Civil War itself. I was referring to government documents, which frequently post-dated the events they were reporting. I had a massive historical work that recounted the activities of the Port Royal Experiment, well-documented but not always well-dated. Footnotes referring to actions tended to record when the report was made, not when the event occurred. And finally came several volumes of personal letters and diaries, each of which had a slightly different slant. Add to all of that the problem of relatives who had censored the letters and diaries. The potential for disaster was enormous.
Here's how I approached the challenge. I use timeline creator software for MAC called, appropriately, Timeline 3D. It allows all sorts of variations and creative designs. For each event, you can add a title, a date, a photo, and an expiatory sentence or two. Here's how my Civil War Events timeline came out:
To clarify the major problems presented by the heavily-edited Laura Towne materials, I set up a different timeline. This time, I used a different title for each version for the material, so that the censored material would stand out from that of the published versions. It looked like this:
Finally, I created an "Export" version of each file and then pasted the resulting texts into a standard Excel worksheet, one after the other. By then I was looking at some 9 pages of single-spaced entries. (You DON'T want to see that mess!) Running a "Sort A-Z" operation on the file combined the lists and rearranged all the entries into one chronological file. After that, I could sort out the important events from the unimportant details and begin to see a basic outline of the book-to-be. That file looks like this:
There are, of course, many other ways to approach this problem, and lots of other software companies to provide the tools. What really matters is that you take the time to discover what happened, and in what order. Then it becomes easy to identify the arcs of your story -- the dominant goal, the crisis points, and the resolutions. Time(lines) well spent!