The Year When: A Writing Exercise

This past week, I had the pleasure of being with the Phoenix Writers Network. What a delightful and talented group of writers. I shared a writing prompt with them, and the results were so impressive I thought you might find it useful.

A writing problem I have from time to time is getting started on a new project. I go through a series of starts and stops, unable to get traction and narrative momentum. This exercise, then, is meant to cut down on the hesitation and to move you away from time spent staring out windows to putting words on the page.

We begin with the opening of a Richard Ford story, “Optimists”:

All of this that I am about to tell happened when I was only fifteen years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the Army, and then did not come back.

With this opening, Ford has essentially provided a map to all that has to happen in this story. Some people might object to giving away the major events, but I’m simply curious to know how these things came to be. Plus, Ford’s language is so marvelous I’m eager to listen to his narrator.

This writing exercise can work with both fiction and creative nonfiction, particularly memoir. Here are the steps:


Using either facts from your own experience, imagined facts, or some combination of both. . .

Choose an age for your main character.

Choose a year, or some other time span, from their life.

Come up with three significant events from that time.

Test your facts to see if they establish a causal chain. Does the first fact help create the second one, etc?

Signal an irrevocable change in the life of your main character.


Sometimes we need to spur ourselves into writing by distilling the story line before we begin. I hope this exercise brings you to something you want to work on. If we have the major events of a narrative in mind, how can we refuse to write? We put ourselves into the role of the curious reader who’s eager to find out how our characters came to pass through these major events of a particular slice of their lives.


  1. Ellen Shriner on May 24, 2022 at 10:23 am

    Thanks for this. I’m looking forward to trying it.

    • Lee Martin on May 24, 2022 at 11:35 am

      I hope it proves useful to you. Thanks for your comment!

Leave a Comment