Wednesday, March 23, 2016

All in Good Time: Using a Calendar to Map Your Story

I have electronic planners but there is something about holding a little book in my hands and thumbing through the pages of a year unfolding that I find satisfying. But if you think organizing my time is what this post is about, think again.

I have several old unused calendars I saved through the years. As an early childhood educator I used them to teach math lessons and play games with first graders. As a professor I offered the pictures as an icebreaker activity. As a presenter I’ve used those same pictures as story starters for writer workshops.

Now I use old calendars to project a reasonable sequence for each novel. Using a calendar helps me think through the story from beginning to end.

Using a real calendar helps me attend to details I may have missed otherwise. For example in my latest work my main character decides to return to the activity of square dancing. The lessons start in January. Without the calendar I already know she is likely to deal with snow or ice in January and February. However, when I look at the calendar I remember the Super Bowl is coming up the first Sunday in February. Here is a brief excerpt. It takes place the last Sunday in January. My character has invited her son and his family over for Sunday dinner.

“Mom, you make the best gravy in the world.” Ethan spooned an extra portion of the brown gravy over his mashed potatoes, effectively changing the subject.
“It’s true. My gravy is always lumpy.” Cheryl never appeared threatened in any way when Ethan raved over his mother’s cooking.
Not like me. Dottie studied the face of her daughter-in-law. I always felt as if I was in competition with John’s mother. “My gravy was lumpy, too, Cheryl until one day when my mother-in-law shared a little secret. It’s all about the temperature. Most people put the flour in the hot milk and water and broth and it cooks it up like miniature dumplings. You need to mix it first and the bring the temperature up.”
 “Dumplings! I haven’t had your chicken and dumplings since…well…I can’t remember, Mom.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what. You two come next Sunday and I’ll make you chicken and dumplings for lunch.” It’s so good to cook for people again.
“Thanks, Mom, but we can’t. Next Sunday’s the Super Bowl and we’re going to a party and all at Cheryl’s brother’s house.”
“Yeah, and I have to take dip or something. I don’t know what to make.” Cheryl spooned a bite of mashed potatoes into Drew’s mouth.
“I forgot about the Super bowl.” Dottie prayed her disappointment didn’t show. The Super Bowl’s in the evening. They could come for the lunch. Let it go. “Well, sometime soon, then.”
Cheryl finished cutting Jack’s meat up instructing him he needed to clean his plate before he could get down and play. Like a script. I remember saying that very thing to Ethan.
The boys toyed with their food. Cheryl turned to her husband. “Ethan, I could use a little support here.” Dottie watched as her son challenged the boys to each take bite of potatoes.
“You know what, Mom Blevins? You could come with us to the Super Bowl party. I know my brother wouldn’t mind.”
Dottie hesitated. What was that look her son shot his wife? “Actually, I have a Super Bowl party that day myself. I nearly forgot.”
“You’re going to a Super Bowl party?” Ethan’s tone pierced Dottie’s fragile heart. She bit the inside of her cheek.
“Why not? I’m not exactly over the hill no matter what you think, son.”
Cheryl smiled. “Where’s the party?”
“It’s at the barn. A square dance.”

It works. Square dancers are notorious for finding any occasion to get together. I could have waited until the “Valentine” dance. I’m sure they’ll have one then, too, but my character is a widow and I think she might feel a bit uncomfortable with all the lovey-dovey Valentine stuff.

The calendar helps me think about the weather, events, and sequence of my story in a meaningful way.

For my newest endeavor, I grabbed a twenty-eight month planner (January 2010-April 2012) I had in storage. The story will fit within that time frame. I am starting to write down what I think will define the main events of my novel and those elements I think will serve as turning points for my characters. Of course I am writing it all down in pencil.

I pulled out a few sticky notes for the major scenes I want to include. That way I can move them around in my calendar if I need to do so.

And yes, 2016 calendars and planners are now on sale in the “drastically reduced” bin at local stores. Of course, if you are watchful in December and January your insurance agent, realtor, church, and local funeral home often have freebies available for the taking.

Using a calendar is a visual way to outline a story. For me, it works.  If you are a novelist or would like to be one, I hope you will give the calendar method a try. Let me know what you think.

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