Customer Stories

How David Williams made the leap from journalist to novelist with Aeon Timeline

David Williams has over thirty years' experience as a journalist, academic and author. His first book exposed the Mafia's crime networks in Western Australia when he was just 21.

A newspaper subeditor and a fact-checker in his spare time, his long-form writing focus is on adult literary fiction and a science fiction series he has been working on for several years.

David describes his research process for writing biographies, how he discovered his most recent subject's story could be best told through fiction, and how Aeon Timeline helped him make the leap to begin thinking like a fiction writer.

Creating better biographies using timelines

David started using Aeon Timeline to plot events for his biographies on a timeline, but this transitioned into a companion tool when interviewing his biography subjects.

"When I was working on Finding Solo, we sat down for 12 interviews — in a cafe, with Aeon Timeline open — to get a clearer sense of the timeline. From those bird's eye view dates, I asked her to tell stories, which I would plot as events and mark the ones I knew would go into the book.

We built up the timeline like this, but of course, that still isn't a story. As we talked, she started to reveal things about her past, and so I plotted all of these events back to her childhood. Suddenly, the deeper story is taking place. These are actually the key moments of her life: I could add notes and links to other events and the book started to take shape in front of me.

Because I had these bigger themes, the whole story became about being solo for her entire life. Lyn paddled for 14 months, she is tough as nails, and just wanted to tell her story on the boat. But I could show her on the timeline how all of these things were connected."

Rearranging the narrative to build better stories

The problem

There was one interview subject that led to a change in direction for David, when he realised the material was best suited to a work of fiction. But with seven drafts in seven years, David found it was not a natural transition from journalism to fiction writing.

"He had an amazing story: he grew up in a town south of London, and essentially became the Mr Big of that town. He ran the drug trade, had an overdose, became a Christian, became not-a-Christian.

I said, "I'll interview you, and then I'll turn your story into a novel", thinking I would apply the same process: timeline, look at the events, and then just tell a story. I used Aeon Timeline to pick out the best bits of his story: the fun stories, the stories that resonate with the overarching theme.

I've written seven drafts of this book, but something about it just wasn't working. It might sound strange, but it’s not a natural transition from journalism to fiction: I thought I was writing a novel because I made stuff up... but that's not a novel, that's not a fictional narrative."
A major breakthrough

Using Aeon Timeline 3 during its beta phase helped David realise that even though he had 160,000 words of decent material, he was still writing a biography.

"I realised I could take the events from the timeline, and arrange them any way I wanted in the narrative. Just the freedom to be able to throw these events around made me realise I had been getting it entirely wrong.

In his early 20s, he goes to prison for 3 days: he's been a drug dealer and an addict, he's beaten people up and threatened to kill people, but here he is in prison because he's not paid £2000 in tax.

Looking at this on the timeline, I thought, that's actually the beginning and end of the story. Because in prison, he is confronted with himself, with loneliness, with his doubts — he thinks he might never get out because his enemies are right there with him.

I've taken 20-odd years of information, and I have turned it into a weekend. I had worked on it all that time, and I wouldn't have even seen that if it wasn't for Aeon Timeline 3."

Crafting more powerful stories using themes

Being able to plot both a chronological timeline of events and an independent narrative structure is now central to David's work.

"So I've taken the events from the timeline that are this weekend, and they now frame the story in the Narrative View. Within that, I've plotted events from the period he's reflecting on, and interleaved events and characters from within the prison, because that's the frame I'm using.

Narrative View takes dates and events and moments, and enabled me to construct an entirely different narrative structure, that is now a fictional book and not just an autobiography in drag.

The cream on top has been the work on the themes: I have gone from having a lot of themes, but not really knowing what any of them were, to now having just three key themes that the characters carry through the novel — some of which just weren't there before.

It becomes a very powerful story thematically because I was able to boil it all down."

Interview with David Williams

How does Aeon Timeline fit into your writing style?

I like to write fast and I like to write loose. Aeon Timeline is a framework or matrix that allows me to do more of that, not less of it. It allows me to be more spontaneous, because in the background, I can build this framework that I can rely on to work out where I am. It encourages me to be spontaneous in the space in-between.

What is your advice to someone considering Aeon Timeline?

Aeon Timeline pushes me to be more creative.

Don’t be afraid of it, and don’t think that it’s going to stifle your writing. It’s actually going to enhance your creativity, and give you more freedom.

What are your thoughts on Aeon Timeline 3?

It has taken something that was a utility and added a layer of creativity.

Narrative View has been the real breakthrough for me, but I use all the views at different times: Spreadsheet View makes things practical; Subway View let's me see whether stories and themes are circling back enough; And I still begin with Timeline View.
David Williams is a New Zealand-based journalist, academic and author with over 30 years of experience. His first book exposed the Mafia’s crime networks in Western Australia when he was just 21.

More recently he wrote a New Zealand bestseller Message To My Girl, an account of the last days of a young trainee surgeon dying of cancer. He has also ghostwritten autobiographies and young adult sci-fi steampunk novel, The Timekeeper's Apprentice.

A newspaper subeditor and a fact-checker in his spare time, his long-form writing focuses on adult literary fiction, as well as a science fiction series he has been working on for several years.

Read more of David's work on his blog ›

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