The Scrivener/Save the Cat webinar wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was a free seminar and there was still some useful stuff in there. I just would have liked to see more about how to use Save the Cat with Scrivener rather than a whistle-stop overview of Save the Cat.
Because of a request I received over the weekend, after the webinar had finished I rebooted my date work, and worked on that into the late evening.
I have a dates file in which I make a note of all the upcoming topical or anniversary dates in case I get the germ of an idea for a short story. This is a process I’ve been doing since the year dot, for as long as I can remember and it usually forms part of the backbone of my working month. I’ve mentioned it once or twice before… okay, I’ve mentioned it loads of times before and now, finally, and because someone said they’d like to know more, I thought I’d drill down and go into more detail.
Now, much of this will be very familiar to experienced jobbing writers. But for the record, and for the beginners, here, for your delectation, I give you my dates process in full.
I start by printing off blank weekly calendars. These can be dated or they can be blank. When I had a colour printer, I liked to print off pretty, colourful weekly calendars. Now I only have the mono laserjet, I print off mono calendars. They can be landscape or portrait, but they must have enough space against each day for that week in which to write some notes.
I punch holes in the sheets and file them in a 2-ring ring-binder using colourful dividers numbered 1 to 12 to separate the various weeks.
I always used to think ahead about 12 months because in those days magazines still worked 12 months or more ahead. Weekly magazines had shorter lead-times depending on the number of staff they had, and newspaper lead-times were even shorter. Since then, computers have made it easier for magazines to be turned around far more quickly and now, of course, they’re published online even quicker.
In the very olden days, when I was a prolific freelance, I also had ‘Research’ in there and ‘Query’, because I had far more time to actually research a topic in depth, including any site visits or interviews, and I used to query magazines before I wrote anything.
In my entire writing career, aside from correctly termed work experience when I was studying for my journalism certificate or when I worked for an organisation who was paying my wage while I did the writing, I have never written a non-fiction article on spec without first having a paying market for it. Yes, I sold every non-fiction article or feature I wrote before I’d even written it.
With progress, and with me changing direction slightly, I dropped the ‘Research’ and the ‘Query’ parts, choosing instead to simply search for the dates and just write something, especially when I switched my focus from non-fiction back to short fiction.
Now I have my Think/Write/Submit process and I work it out like this:
THINK 6 months ahead
WRITE 5 months ahead
SUBMIT 4 months ahead
So, if it’s January now, I’ll be THINKING July, WRITING June, and SUBMITTING May. Fortunately, this still just about fits in with the weekly magazine lead-times I still strive to write fiction for. But if I see something that might be a bit meatier, I’ll also have a look around to see if there are any anthologies calling for submissions in the next 6 months too, or competitions on the horizon.
I have a spreadsheet for this now.
I don’t just choose any old anniversary or topical date. It has to be a round number of years ago in order to be of interest to me. So, if something happened 7 or 16 or 22 years ago, I pass, because it will come round again soon enough when the anniversary will be a more rounded number.
Instead, I look for dates 5 years ago, or 10 years ago, or 25 years ago. Then the numbers jump up to 50, 75 and 100, and then they jump again to 250, 500 and 750. Sometimes I even look at events from 1,000 years ago, but usually those will take too much work for the result to be accurate.
I start with the year I’m thinking about (2023) and I work backwards:
- 5 years ago 2018
- 10 years ago 2013
- 25 years ago 1998
- 50 years ago 1973 and so on
And then I make a spreadsheet or I jot the dates down so that I can see at a glance what years I’m looking for.
Then I’ll THINK ahead to, say, July 2023 and I ask myself, What happened 25 years ago in July 1998?
Once I’m in the swing of things I’ll remember that the years I’m looking for end in 8 or 3, and I quickly remember years like 2018, 2013, 1998, 1973, 1948, etc. That means it doesn’t take me too long to find a topical or anniversary date that I can work with. All I need do then is make sure it’s something I’d be interested enough in to write a story.
Dictionaries of dates
For many, many years, the only source I used for topical and anniversary dates was an old dictionary of dates that ran out at the end of the 1980s. (Chambers Dates: Second Edition edited by G.L. Hough, W. & R. Chambers Ltd, Edinburgh 1983 reprinted 1990.) This dictionary is quite battered now and was even mauled by my third dog Roly when he was a puppy.
Later, I stumbled across a similar dictionary, but this one concentrated on myths and customs. (Maypoles, Martyrs & Mayhem: 366 days of British myths, customs and eccentricities by Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan, Bloomsbury, 1994 reprinted in paperback 1995.)
Now, of course, the internet is saturated with historical websites, sites about folklore and traditions, and on-this-day pages. But I still go to my two old books first, because it warms me up and I like the rhythm.
I have a few websites I like to go to that carry folklore or historical stories. I also have a couple of special date sites as well as one for public holidays. I can look at these on the phone and copy any over to the story writing app I have on my phone. Once I get to the desktop, I trawl through the on-this-day websites. There are loads of websites like these, but I know which ones tickle my fancy and which aren’t as, say, accurate as others. So I have my favourites.
Sometimes I find a date and I think it’s too big for a short story. I did that recently when I found out about a rural murder and about an invasion of England. I didn’t want to use up those wonderful anniversaries on something short, but I wouldn’t mind using them for something long, like a novel or a novella.
I asked myself a few what-if questions about the murder, and I decided that would make a nice historical novella for my amateur Regency sleuth, Lady Matilda (Investigates…). I did the same for the England invasion story and thought Lady Mattie might like that one too. So those have been shelved until a bigger anniversary comes along in a few years, anniversaries with a zero on the end.
The dates binder
I have a 4-ring ring binder in which I have 12 subject dividers, one for each month of the year. In this binder are weekly calendars I print off that have plenty of room for me to jot ideas and dates down.
The first thing I do here is jot down all of the fixed celebration days (like International Nurses Day and Christmas Day) that don’t change from one year to the next. Then I go to the public holidays website and make a note of all of the public holidays and religious festivals this year that move (spring bank holiday weekend, Palm Sunday, Summer Solstice – yes, it can move each year, backwards and forwards – etc).
Once I’ve jotted down the dates from the ‘on this day in history’ website, I go to my old faithful dictionary of dates and I add in any other anniversaries or events that interest me. They all must interest me, otherwise I’d be really bored both doing the research and then writing it up, and if I’m bored, it might also be evident when I’m trying to sell the idea ahead of writing it up. (Note: I said ahead of writing it up…)
*** Aside ***
For the record, and once again for those at the back, apart from work experience when studying for my broadcast journalism qualification, I’ve never, ever written something that didn’t already have a market to go to. That’s right, I always sold my non-fiction before I wrote it, and that usually required a brilliant query letter that sold the idea to the market first.
This is how I did it. I’d come up with several slants for one idea and then target specific magazines. It was rare I was asked to write up the same topic for two different magazines, but it did happen and I had to make those different versions as different as possible.
I’m not freelance writing at the moment, other than fiction, but I still like to use the procedure to come up with ideas for fiction. Fiction editors and publishers like topical short stories and novels equally as much as features editors do.
*** End of Aside ***
I’ll then go to the days out and annual events websites, usually via the local tourist information centres, and see what events are coming up in six months’ time that I can:
a) research ahead of time
b) arrange to go along to, and
c) go along to this year with a view to writing it up next year.
Once I have a list of topics, ideas, events, anniversaries, and more, I go down the list and decide which ones I’d like to pursue. All the others are throwaways, and that’s what you lot get – my throwaway ideas to do with as you see fit.
Evergreens are ideas that crop up year after year that can be written about over and over again.
The trouble with evergreens is that if an editor runs out of room or if another story comes in that s/he likes, the evergreen can go back on the pile for next year, and when some markets don’t pay until publication, we want to avoid that if we can.
The beauty of evergreens, though, is that you can write them up and send them out and, if they come back, they can go out again in time for next year, polished or amended if necessary but often exactly as they are, which means less work in the long run for you, the writer.
Here then, to get you started, are a few suggestions for April. I don’t think I’ll have time to do much with any of these, and those I think I might be able to rustle up have already been put to one side.
- April every year is Stress Awareness Month (evergreen)
- April every year is National Pet Month (evergreen)
- 1 April every year is All Fools’ Day or April Fools’ Day (evergreen)
- On 1 April 1873, 150 years ago, the British White Star steamer Atlantic sank off the coast of Nova Scotia (topical anniversary and a round number)
- 2 April this year is Palm Sunday (annual but moveable event)
- 4 April every year is International Mine Awareness Day (evergreen)
- 6 April this year is the first day of Passover (annual but moveable event)
- 8 April this year is The Nutters’ Dance, Bacup, Lancashire (annual but moveable event)
- 13 April every year is National Scrabble Day (evergreen)
- 23 April every year is St George’s Day (evergreen)
- 23 April every year is Shakespeare Day (evergreen)
- On 25 April 1898, 125 years ago, Spain declared war against the United States (topical anniversary and a round number)
- 25 April every year is Penguin Day (evergreen – but how can you fit a penguin into your story?)
- On 28 April 1848, 175 years ago, slavery was abolished in the French colonies (topical anniversary and a round number)
- 30 April every year is International Jazz Day (evergreen – a jazz-playing penguin?)
There you go, 15 ideas to get you writing.
Over to you
If you choose one of these prompts, or even if you find one of your own, do come back and let me know what you did with it and/or how it fared!
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