In this never-ending how-to, I was going to move directly from making lists to building an action outline. As I gathered my thoughts (frolicking like sheep on a hillside), I realized how really, really, really important one of the lists is: It’s your chronology, of course.
Literally everything flows from it, no matter how you tell your story. (I’m not lobbying for a chronological telling; I’m just emphasizing how important your chronology is.)
When I was writing HIDDEN WAR: A Memoir of America’s Secret Crusade in Laos, I buried myself in stuff — seven boxes of stuff. It paralyzed me. I think this is why several earlier efforts to write about my adventures in Laos failed. Too much stuff. I didn’t know how to start.
Journalism, especially working on big projects — I once spent two years investigating corruption in Indiana’s Department of Corrections — taught me the value of starting at the beginning. That means creating a chronology of events.
What happened first? What happened second? What’s happening now?
So I started the memoir at the beginning, the day I arrived in Saigon, alone, totally unattached to the American war effort in Viet-Nam. September 24, 1970. I was a few months past my 20th birthday.
But that’s not where my chronology began.
My first entry recorded an event that happened 21 years earlier. It reads: “Oct. 2, 1949 — Mao Zedong proclaims PRC. [Source, page number]”
For the record, that’s before I was born. And, it was also not the very first thing I wrote in the chronology. But in the completed 86-page, single-spaced document, it appears first because along the way it became clear I needed to know when the “crusade” I was writing about began. In my mind, it began the day the People’s Republic of China was born.
That’s how you build your chronology. Backward, forward, any which way it needs to go. You add and add and add to it. I was adding to it even as I wrote chapters. It kept everything in order. It was the one place I could go back to and expect to find, if not the answer I sought, clues to where I might find what I needed.
I extracted shorter chronologies from the master, monster chron as I was writing chapters. This is a draft of a chapter chronology I used to write about what I learned about reporting.
What do you put into your chronology? Absolutely everything that you think might be important.
- Journal entries. (I think maybe I have to write something about dealing with journals and diaries.)
- Correspondence excerpts.
- Source material (books, documents, drafts, memos to yourself) summaries or extracts.
- Newspaper and magazine clippings.
- Recollections inserted roughly where they would go if they had been from a letter or a journal.
- Questions about what was happening or why there are no data for a period.
- Pictures, drawings, artwork.
Do you use all of this stuff?
Not in the sense that you include everything in your manuscript, but you do consult it. Just putting material into the chronology can help jog a foggy memory.
How long does it take? Almost forever.
But it also saves an eternity of searching for material, trying to remember if Event A came before, after or at the same time as Event B. And it can provide insight as you look back and realize that a minor occurrence at the time actually had a much larger impact than you expected.
I repeat: Everything flows from the chronology. It forces you to remember events and order them in sequence. When you write, you can jumble them any way you like. But build the chronology first.