This is the third of four articles on how story and narrative work together in biography.
Anyone who wants to write a biography that's more than just an encyclopedia article or a laundry list of the main events of the subject's life has to decide early on what story to tell and how the arc of the narrative will advance it.
Elsewhere on this website, I discuss what what a story is in biography and the importance of the "red thread" for selecting what to include in the narrative. In this post, I'll describe what I consider the most important tool for identifying the story and keeping it on track as your interpretation of it becomes refined by new information and insights. I know many biographers who have some version of what I suggest here, so if you do and you'd like to contribute your own suggestions, I know they would help other readers. Post your comment below.
1. When is it time for a timeline?
Let's assume that you've settled on your subject and done the necessary preliminary footwork; you may even have completed some of the key research or interviewing. If you're planning to try to secure a publishing contract at this point you may also have written a publishing proposal, or be about to write one. (Not everyone needs to or should, but that's a topic for another day).
Or you may simply be eager to start exploring the results of your initial research in writing. If so, congratulations: that feeling is almost certainly a sign that you're ready to. Before doing that, however, you should probably construct an interactive, or annotated, timeline. If you already have something of the kind, great. If not, this is the moment to start in on it.
As you probably gathered, the kind of timeline I'm thinking of is more than just a simple Wikipedia-style listing of important events (see "laundry list," above). Rather, it's a chronological document to help you go on managing the mountain of information, research notes, and insights that inevitably accumulates when one spends years snooping around in somebody's life.
The beauty of this kind of timeline is that it gives you an overview of everything you have, so that you can almost watch the story unfold before your eyes. At the same time, an interactive timeline allows you to see what evidence you have, keep track of important insights, and add more as time goes on.
I go into the general idea in Managing Your Research: A "Deep Chrono" Timeline Can Help, which is about what biographers have in common with the Central Intelligence Agency. You can call it whatever you like: interactive timeline, deep chrono, annotated index, dossier. Whatever you call it, if James Jesus Angleton thought it was useful for counterintelligence surveillance, you better believe it's useful for biographers, who—no offense—do something similar, though with a slightly different purpose.
What kind of timeline you draw up is an individual matter, and how to construct it is really up to you. You're not aiming to win a timeline prize—if the CIA gives one out, they aren't talking about it—or even a neatness prize. (You should see what my timeline document looks like.) You do, however, need to establish rules for what to enter and how to set up your entries. Aim for an orderly flexibility, one that provides a complete chronological overview of what you're discovering about your subject and simultaneously allows you to incorporate more information without creating confusion or disrupting the flow of the timeline.
You can use someone else's timeline as a model, or even use it directly as a template. If you do this, however, be careful to include only what you know is accurate information, not the original author's opinions or inferences (or mistakes). Keep in mind, too, that someone else's timeline may be covering the subject from another point of view or have an agenda that tilts it in a different direction than yours. In that case, be prepared to fill in gaps in the future.
Use whatever software or format you feel comfortable with. If you're good at devising tables, table away. I use the old-fashioned paragraph-by-paragraph method, and Microsoft Word works well enough for me. (If you want something fancier, I hear Scrivener is excellent for many different purposes. See post on Writer-Friendly Software.)
2. Laundry List before Judgments
This is the laundry-list stage of creating a timeline, so limit yourself to hard information only. Like the CIA, you aren't interested at this point in judging, arriving at conclusions, or figuring out what anyone thinks of the information you have, including you. Your sole job is to make a chronological list of events by using all the hard evidence you have available; at this point, if you start introducting the element of interpretation, you may confuse interpretation with fact later on.
Begin by writing down everything you've discovered so far, arranging facts and events in a chronological order that's as precise as you can make it. Example: If two events occurred within a week of each other in April, list them in exact chronological order: late April should come before mid-April, not the other way around. If one event (or comment, or letter, or episode-in-the-life etc.) occurred six months before a related event, list them in that order and everything that happened in between, whether relevant to that event or not, and also in exact chronological order.
By the same token, if you know that Remark A was made in the morning and Remark B was made right after lunch, list them that way. You may not think the order matters, but you never know—one day a month from now, when you've done more research, it may turn out to matter greatly.
If you know the exact time or hour something happened ("4:30 PM"), include that information. If you don't know which event or remark took place first, give it your best shot—noting in parentheses that it'a a guess, and the date of the guess. That way, if you go back to the information to revise it, you'll remember it was a guess. And by seeing when you entered it, you'll be able to tell whether it's consistent with new or current information. (Repeat this mantra again, five times: Date everything!)
Finally, you'll want to devise a way to remind yourself of the source of the information, such as a brief notation in brackets: e.g., "[Smith/56; Jones/242]" This is particularly important if, as you make the entry, a little voice in your head is saying, "Oh, you don't need to remember where you got that; everyone knows that." Trust me, a couple of years from now you may not remember at all. So tell the little voice to shut up, and keep on typing.
3. Not Against Interpretation
Once you have the evidence down in as complete a fashion as you can manage at this point, you can also, if you wish, begin introducing your own or others' interpretations, as appropriate. Depending on the purpose you want the timeline to serve, you may not want to. For example, you might intend the timeline to be purely an overview or a rollout of dates and the other factual evidence of the arc of the life and its attendant events and accomplishments. In that case, you may want to leave out extraneous comments, opinions that can't be verified, and your own interpretations.
On the other hand, if you also want the timeline to keep track of commentary on the life and work, including your own—as may be the case, for instance, with a literary biography—you can certainly introduce an element of interpretation or opinion. If you do, be sure to find ways to make it easy to distinguish "interpretation" or "inference" from established fact. For example, you might format secondary comments in another color than basic black, and your own interpretations in yet a different color.
You should also visually distinguish the statements of people you interview from "fact" entries, especially if the statements still need corroborating (if you've already corroborated them, you may be able to treat them as fact entries rather than opinion entries).
Of course, it goes without saying that you'll put these entries in quotation marks and indicate the sources, but you may also want to color-code them differently from other entries, or use a different font—whatever is practical. That way, as you're reading through your ever-expanding timeline to get an overview of the story or detect patterns in your subject's behavior over a long period, you'll be able to see at once what evidence exists, and what kind.
In my opinion, it's always a good idea to set off opinion entries in a separate paragraph. Like this one. ☺ I also "tag" my own opinions by starting those paragraphs with "NB:" and the date ("NB 1/15:") at the beginning.
Once again, whatever you do, always date and source a timeline entry, including opinions and interpretive comments, whether or not the comment or opinion is another's or your own.
A final word on interactive timelines. As the timeline grows, the evidence of the story you see in the material—the elephant in the marble—will start to unfold before your eyes. That's pretty exciting, and if the timeline is in narrative (paragraph) format, it can be tempting, as you make entries, to expand on them until that part of the timeline becomes an actual narrative. However, the timeline's function isn't to serve as a premature draft, and you should resist the temptation to turn it into that. Instead, have a document ready—"Messboard," "Notes," "Story Journal"—to which you can shift those happy moments of storytelling inspiration and use them to begin the actual writing.
In a future post I'll describe a few informal techniques I've found useful (and fun) in the early stages of stalking the elephant.