Like many authors, writing a novel was always an aspiration. When I finally started the process, in Shades of Darkness, Shades of Grace I had a great story that had evolved from real-life events. Still, the majority of my experience was writing nonfiction, a style that generally called for straight facts with less emphasis on descriptive elements. Exceptional fiction requires authentic details that pull the reader into the world in which the story takes place. I discovered that one of the best ways to do this is to construct the narrative around a calendar.
Wanting feedback on the story, I sent an early draft of the manuscript to an editor I’d learned of through one of my writing groups. While she liked the novel, she noted there was no specific timeline of years or events, and felt the story could essentially be taking place at any time. The editor suggested using a calendar with actual dates and specific years during which the story would be set. Taking this approach, not only helped me plan the story better but a historical reference of Jesse Ventura’s election as governor of Minnesota in 1998 or making note of the Aquatennial Festival held in Minneapolis each July could be woven into the narrative and enhance the authenticity of the book.
Implementing her advice, I constructed a five-year calendar over which the story in Shades of Darkness, Shades of Grace unfolds. The calendar not only worked well as an organizational and research tool, but it also served to focus the book over a definite time period. In real life, the events that inspired Shades of Darkness occurred over a much longer period of time, making for an unwieldy time frame that dragged on too long, offered no sense of closure, and risked boring the reader. By using a specific calendar, those events could be compressed into a much shorter and more intense span.
Employing a real calendar also heightened the dramatic effect of the narrative. In a crucial incident near the end of the book, Paul Pierson is arrested for domestic battery in a scheme orchestrated by his ex-wife. Threatened with spending the weekend in the county jail if bail money cannot be raised, the scene takes place over the New Year’s holiday of 2000/2001. Only by using a real calendar did I discover that if Paul were arrested on Saturday, December 30, 2000, he could be looking at several days in jail. In 2001 New Year’s Day fell on a Monday, and banks would not have reopened until Tuesday, January 2. Utilizing real dates offered the dramatic dilemma of the Pierson family frantically pooling their financial resources to keep Paul from extended jail time.
Working off a calendar can also combat one of the hazards many authors confront … writer’s block. Once I had the basic framework of the novel laid out across a calendar, if I was having difficulty with a particular chapter or scene, I could write another chapter and return at a later point to the problematic area with renewed inspiration. For many authors I’ve known, it can be easier to write out of order when the energy strikes than to force a writer to compose a manuscript in a linear fashion. A calendar not only helps an author render a vivid story but can be a useful tool in tracking the progress and consistency of the plot.
The initial version of the calendar was bare-bones … an outline of the main scenes that comprised the novel. From there I began writing individual scenes, building on them and incorporating the crucial details, many of which were discovered through research. Those descriptions that make a scene real might be as ordinary as the weather on Halloween or the once-in-a-lifetime occurrence of the Millennium, experiences any reader could relate to.
Details should engage the reader and connect them to the characters, setting, and narrative. This editor taught me a great lesson … that for fiction to truly come alive requires authentic details. For many authors, those details can often be found within the framework of a calendar.