Africa Timeline: Planning My Memoir


Launching into writing Vaccines & Bayonets, my memoir of Africa, was deceptively easy—smooth, nonstop. Memories of our lives in the smallpox eradication campaign flowed onto the page. The more traumatic experiences came to me first—clear and fully-formed.


“Don’t speak. Just listen. Grab an overnight bag and be ready in ten minutes.”

Carl was calling from his office at the American Embassy. My husband could be a bottom-line person when he had to be, but this was different. His voice was different—wooden.


I loosened my grip on the phone and it clattered back into its cradle.

We must be in danger…who’s coming for me…where are we going? No opportunity to ask.


Those were the first words I wrote. They open the chapter I call “The Terror.” But how do I get from the beginning of my story—a dream to live in Africa—to the night we sheltered in the embassy?

My Smallpox Story Needed an Outline System…for the Non-Tech-Savvy Author

Our experiences in West Africa fell into a natural story arc, but not all the vignettes fit snugly into that chronology.

I jotted topics and story titles on cards and spread them across my living room floor. (Now, I didn’t go out and buy index cards, you understand. I used the backs of old business cards left from my previous career as a speech-language pathologist.)

Part I cards for Nigeria, Part II, Equatorial Guinea, and Part III, Cameroon. For a month these cards did a do-si-do around my floor, their order changed by my every flash of brilliance.

When I decided to invite some people for dinner one evening, stepping over and around cards to navigate the room became impractical. I thought of an out-of-the-way place for my array.

The inside of the hall closet door. Of course.


Scotch tape allowed continued maneuvering of chapter cards. Other colors brought in sub-topics.

Photos set beginning points in the outline–the whole exciting decision to move to Africa, and our pictures landing on official Department of State/USAID identification cards. We looked like such kids. Let me re-phrase that. We were such kids.

fullsizeoutput_327        fullsizeoutput_15a   (Need to let you know that “Bee” is a nickname.)

An Outline of My Africa Memoir Wasn’t Enough

The cards helped me plan on a macro level. But what about the micro level? When I plunged into the stacks of letters, cables, reports, posters, diary notes, photos, cassette tape letters, and home movies that had convinced me I had to write this book, I was overwhelmed.

Version 3


All his life, Carl was an organizer, and these file drawers were no exception. But. In the documents, the same events were reported by various people to various people, and time frames of documents overlapped.

It was too much!


I spent hours going back and forth and back again to the documents, peppering the pages with colored flags, determined to locate events and conversations as accurately as possible in my story. It felt like running in place. 

Until the day I looked across from my closet-door-gallery to the opposite wall. That was it! Painters’ tape and sticky notes should do the trick. I used—still use—the entire length of my hallway.

Version 2

Over the nearly three years since those two high-tech platforms became fixtures in my house, I’ve gone back and forth between wall and closet door, between micro and macro.

A new discovery in the documents led to a new sticky note on the timeline, which often changed the order of the cards. For months I arranged and rearranged. An order that seemed perfect in the outline stage became problematic as details from the timeline filled in blanks.

So far the scotch tape is still sticking, even though cards have shifted like the sands of the Sahara.


Version 2Finally, I had just the right chapter order. The story flowed with perfection! So, naturally, it was then that an astute beta reader said, “You know what….”

Well, of course! Why didn’t I see that? I moved another chapter.

Now I’m searching for an agent and publisher. Will there be endless changes before Vaccines & Bayonets goes out into the world? You bet.

I’ll continue to organize organically rather than use the latest computer program. (My address book is still a pocket-sized pencil-and-paper version, after all, some pages almost black from cross-outs as people’s lives change.)



Regardless of how they’re organized, the facts have to tell the story. We went to Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea for one reason.

To eradicate smallpox.

We couldn’t have known then that defeating smallpox would become only part of our family’s battle.


If you’d like to read one of the excellent bring-it-to-life books about the Smallpox Eradication Program, take a look at House on Fire by Dr. William Foege.


So, tell me. How do you outline? How do you organize your research? Are you high-tech or do you tend in my direction? And why? Have any special tricks you’d like to share?

Until next time, thanks for stopping by,


12 thoughts on “Africa Timeline: Planning My Memoir

  1. I really like your organizational system. It’s flexible, unlike the outlines I sometimes make for large projects. When things change, I have to redo, retype. Thanks to you, now I know what my hall and closet doors are for!

  2. Thanks for sharing your organization system, heronwater. I especially thank you for your kind words. Carl was one of those heroes for sure. Love the quote!

  3. Great process and I’ve been using a big easel and markers. keeping track of primary sources is also a challenge especially if some of it needs to be kept in archival folders , etc. But really , the biggest contribution is that you and Carl went there and did it!! The unsung heroes of our world are showing up in memoirs like yours. thanks for speaking up and spreading the word. there is some quote about all it take s to change the world is one person taking the first step! Even if it is in pumps!

  4. It can be fun, Janice. I’ve become quite a fan of hallways, myself. Someone in the visual arts could create a niche market for themselves – creating “writers’ hallways with flair.” : )

  5. I admire those of you who master the computer systems available to writers. But thank you, Mary Lou, for letting me know you see positives in my cards and sticky notes.

  6. Your system is calling to me while I’m in the weeds with my computer organization. Thanks for outlining such a simple yet effective system!

  7. It’s always rewarding to know that we’ve benefitted someone else. Thanks, reedel, for letting me know this was helpful. Let me know how this approach works out for you.

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