Effective Use of Timelines in Nonfiction Articles

by James M. Powles
The Internet Writing Journal, October 1997
In writing historical articles I have found that making an outline of dates and times of events in the articles to be very useful. The articles I write range from military subjects such as a recently published article in Civil War Times Illustrated about a Union dummy ironclad to Americana pieces on the Ferris wheel and ice cream.

Articles such as these are what I refer to as date/time intensive. Being so, however, does not mean that an article has to cover a long period of time. The story of the dummy ironclad took place over a few days but a lot happened in that time. It was important to get the times of what happened correct and in proper relationship to each other. On the other hand, the article on the history of ice cream spans centuries. With this article dates are important as they were with a biography I did on General Arthur MacArthur (no, I didn't get the name wrong -- Arthur was Douglas' father).

I call this outline I use a "timeline" because it is simply made up with three columns. In the first column I put the date and/or time of an event; in the second is put a short description of the event; and in the third goes the source of the date and event. I make an entry for each date and/or time I come across in my sources.

The first two columns are easily understood, but the third usually raises a question or two. This column is necessary since it is surprising how often a date and/or time can vary from one source to another. When this happens I use the third column to help determine which date and/or time I believe to be correct.

Below is an example of my timeline from my article about John Paul Jones that will be in an upcoming issue of Naval History:

Dec. 3, 1775 Raises the Grand Union flag on Alfred The First Salute
American Naval History
"People and Events"
Raises the Union Jack on Alfred Ships and Seamen of the American Revolution
June 14, 1777 Congress adopts Stars and Stripes American Naval History
Ships of John Paul Jones
Nov. 1, 1777 Jones sails for France John Paul Jones
Ships of John Paul Jones
Nov. 2, 1777 Jones sails for France "People and Events"
All listed references are books except for "People and Events", which is an article.

Note that the first entry has one date but two different versions of the event for that date. The timeline is helpful in pointing out such discrepancies.

These discrepancies do crop up no matter what your sources are and show the need to check not only the dates but all facts with several sources. I use the old standbys of newspapers, articles, and books as my sources for information and have been able to get most of what I need at my local library. Recently, though, I have been using the Internet more to get information I needed in a hurry and for back up material -- I never trust just one source.

Awhile back, while in the middle of writing an article on Guam during the Spanish-American War, I realized that I needed some background information on that island. To get this information would have required a trip to the library. However, I got on the Internet and using Infoseek found two web sites on Guam which had all the information I needed. Although I have not always been able to find what I needed this way, it's been well worth the effort. The search engines I use are Infoseek, Excite, and Yahoo.

I also use the Internet to cut down on the time I spend in the library. By using the search feature of online bookstores like Amazon.com (there are other online bookstores but I have found Amazon.com to be the best for my purposes) I can quickly find out what books there are on the subject I am researching. Having the titles and authors' name cuts down on the time I spend in my library's database. And if the library doesn't have what I am looking for, I know what titles to ask them to try to borrow from another library for me. The only drawback I find to using online bookstores is that I buy more books than I should.

Regardless of where the information comes from, submitting articles that have the dates or times wrong will quickly mark a writer as being an amateur or careless -- neither of which will win any points with editors. By making a timeline I find that I have a better understanding of the time frame of the article and I am able to write a more accurate piece.


There are many markets that use historical articles. To find them I recommend first checking The Writer's Market and The Writer's Handbook. Both these books are updated yearly and are available at bookstores. Also many libraries have the lastest verisons in their reference section. Just don't check the obvious history and military markets in these books, there are many other types of magazines that use historical articles such as general interest, regional, and trade. Each time a new edition of these books comes out, I go through it cover to cover.

For more timely news about markets, I use Writer's Digest and The Writer magazines which come out monthly. These magazines are available at newsstands, by subscription, and at many libraries. Although these books and magazines list thousands of markets, they do not cover them all. Because of this, I am constantly checking out newsstands and wherever else there are magazines for possible markets.

**James M. Powles is a freelance writer living in Livingston, New Jersey with his wife and two children. An avid writer in high school and shortly thereafter, but stopped after a family came along. Two years ago, while recovering from a heart transplant, he began writing again. He has had articles published or accepted articles in Capper's, Command Magazine, Civil War Times Illustrated, Naval History, and Scale Ship Modeler. He can be reached by email at powljim@msn.com or by telephone at (973) 994-0390.

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