Creating a timeline is a vital stage in outlining your non-fiction book, and it has value also for planning fiction.
Your outline is not etched on steel – it will develop with revisions and additions as you complete your research and work your way through the manuscript – but it is the SatNav to keep you on the right road. Putting effort into this preparatory stage is the best investment you will make in your book. It saves time and avoids errors in all subsequent stages.
The three steps to follow are: compiling a timeline; determining the theme of your book, and deciding on its structure.
A timeline is a list of key dates and events in chronological order. Accurate dates are essential for history, biography and memoir; for travel, routes and locations might be more significant, and for how-to books, a timeline focuses on the sequence of steps or instructions to be followed in a process. Even if time and sequences seem less relevant to your subject, you still need to list topics and issues to be covered and put them in some kind of order: that is what the timeline achieves.
Do some preliminary research and brainstorming – the list should be as full as possible to give you plenty of ideas to work with. Your book will not necessarily be written in exactly this order, but the timeline has several valuable functions:
- It sets down briefly the events relevant to the topic to give you an overall view, making it easier to prioritise what to include and what to omit.
- It enables you to assess whether or not your list is complete and where there might be gaps, and if you think of other things later, it is easy to add them in the right place.
- You have a quick, accurate reference tool as you write – this is the time to double-check details before possible errors become embedded in your text.
- As an option, you can include in the timeline a note of references you need to access, or people to be interviewed. I find this helpful to forward-plan my research, especially for information that might take time to acquire.
- The timeline can form the basis of a simplified chronology for an appendix to your book, if that is necessary.
- It builds the foundation for working out your theme, and then your structure.
A useful tip is to construct your timeline as a table with three columns, listing the events or issues in one, research to be accessed in the second, and notes on progress in the third. It is a working document that will be updated as you progress. But if that sounds too complicated at this stage, a simple list will suffice.
The important thing is to make your timeline as comprehensive as possible. You may not include everything from the list in your book, but this is your foundation. It will inspire as well as guide you, and small details could provide excellent examples or lighter moments in the final text.
Print out the timeline and pin it to the wall, or at least keep it on the desk for easy reference. You will add to it or adjust it as you complete your research and planning.
Notes on the next stage – defining your theme and deciding on what structure to use – are here.
For tips and techniques on the whole process of researching, writing, editing, publishing, and selling your book, see Writing Your Non-fiction Book: the complete guide to becoming an author. (Reviewers tell me there is much of value to fiction writers too).
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