A quick way to outline your memoir

Has an idea for a memoir been pulling you out of bed in the night, but you just don’t know where to begin to turn it into a book?

Whether you’re starting from a scene, a thread or a single idea, here’s a quick way to outline your memoir.

What you need: index cards, a large piece of cardboard, thick pens, and uninterrupted time to think freely and not edit yourself as you brainstorm.


  1. Categorise your memories chronologically

Memoir is, loosely translated, “a collection of memories” so i really love this method.

Let’s say your memoir idea is around a huge life achievement. Get your memoir idea down into one sentence, and then start to think about your memories as they relate to that sentence.

Here are some examples of memoir topics:

  • Your journey to win gold at the Olympics
  • A business you started to help modern victims of slavery
  • Recovery from any kind of addiction / relationship / crisis / health issue

Mapping out the chronology helps you identify major turning points.

Step One:

On a stack of index cards, jot the major turning points that made up your story. Let yourself think unedited. Just jot keywords, if you need to.

TIP: every scene, keyword or idea needs to relate to the central premise of the story. Use that sentence as your end-point.

Use a separate card for each idea or keyword or scene. For example, just say you’re writing about a journey to the Olympics, you might scrawl topics like:

  • 5am starts
  • Year 9 coach
  • Chilli con carne
  • Failing track

Step Two:

When you’ve come up with as many as you can, try to allocate the month / year / your age on the back of each card.

Step Three:

Pull out a pile of cardboard index cards and write each year in order on one side of the index cards. On the other, write a word or sentence that summarises the turning point that you want to include.

What I love about this method is that once you hone in on specific dates, you can allocate your writing time to that specific index card. Fleshing out scenes, you can consult world events, diaries, library archives, photos, even find music that was popular at that time.

It’s a great way to break down the overwhelm as well, when you think your memoir has to be about your entire life.


For my memoir A Letter From Paris, here’s the kinds of things I put on my chronological cards at the outline phase:

  • Sole Memories of dad (age 4 or 5)
  • dad’s death
  • Packing up his house
  • First trip overseas / search for Gisele in Paris
  • Contact from Coralie
  • Library (first try, second try)

TIP: When identifying your turning points, they all need to relate to the central quest or theme or point of your memoir.


For my complete blueprint to turn a personal story into a finished memoir, 90 day memoir gets you there in 3 months!




About the Author:

Author. Editor. Memoir course creator. Lover of cats, kindness, and coffee.

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