From Outline to Mind-Map: History and Non-Linear Storytelling

Workers erected the Black Rock monument in 1859. Image from the McCord Museum (Creative Commons).

Establishment of the Black Rock monument in 1859. Image from the McCord Museum (Creative Commons).

History tends to be interpreted in the form of a story with a beginning, middle, and end.  And so as I started to plan out my Goose Village documentary project, I created an outline laying out the area’s history in chronological order.

The shortcomings of this approach were immediately apparent.  Take, for instance, the Black Rock monument.  The rock relates to many periods of history and themes covered by my project, including the typhus quarantine sheds for immigrants in the 1840′s, the building of the Victoria Bridge in the 1850′s, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians’ annual marches in the present day.  Bones from the mass grave of immigrants have been continually unearthed and reburied near the rock, “a voice arising from the old clay,” as an Irish ambassador referred to them in 1942.  So the Black Rock does not belong to one moment in time, easily wedged into an outline under a single heading, but to a 150+ year period of history and memory. 

I dispensed with the outline and tried mind-mapping with a free trial version of MyThoughts:

Toward a visual representation of thoughts!

A non-linear representation of thoughts!

This web of associations better suits the project than a list.  Main themes are branches, sub-themes are “child branches,” and arrows draw relationships across them.  Now the Black Rock grows out of quarantine sheds, but arrows link it to the Victoria Bridge and to the Ancient Order of Hibernians.  And I’ve only begun with this — I can add more branches and arrows as I go along without disrupting the whole structure.

The documentary itself will be constructed using Korsakow, a platform for non-linear web video.  (For an example of a Korsakow film, see Ceci n’est Pas Embres.)  In Korsakow, video clips need not appear in predetermined order.  Rather, they are linked by keywords, and the viewer selects which one to view.

When I first heard about Korsakow a few months back, I felt intrigued yet skeptical about its usefulness for history.  It seemed to me that the essence of history is “change over time.”  I worried that dispensing with a linear narrative would handicap my ability to make any sort of meaning out of historical material.

But the more I thought about Goose Village — the tangential associations of memory and the unexpected juxtapositions of the built environment, as with the Black Rock – the less a linear format seemed to make sense.  The history of the land over the last 200 years seems to me more like a cycle or palimpsest than a straight line.  And as I’ve learned from combing archives and listening to hours of oral histories, there is no single answer to the question “What was Goose Village?”  Different ideas about the past circulate, and they may all be “true,” though some memories conflict with others.

Furthermore, from an aesthetic viewpoint, a strict linear approach to the history of Goose Village would result in a Ken Burns-type documentary.  While I appreciate fiddle music and zooms into sepia-toned photographs as much as the next American history enthusiast, I find that Ken Burns’ movies come across a bit like textbooks: “This happened, then this happened, then this happened.”  Rather than a litany of historical facts in order of how they occurred, I’m aiming for more of an essay film.

A non-linear structure will best mirror the documentary’s themes of memory and evolution in the landscape, and this is now reflected in every aspect of the project’s organization.  The mind-map can translate directly to Korsakow.  Each “child branch” could be a video clip.  The clips could be linked by keyword to others on the same parent branch and by those connected by arrow.  And so the material will unfold in meaningful ways for the viewer.

It seems somehow radical to step outside of outlines and strict chronology for a history documentary.  For me, this project is becoming a grand experiment, a strange overhaul in my usual thought-process.

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3 responses to “From Outline to Mind-Map: History and Non-Linear Storytelling

  1. Duane Osheim

    Kate, I liked the blog and I was very interested in watching Ceci n’est pas Embres, The thing is, it is not linear narrative, you are right, but there are still only a limited number of ways to experience it.
    But I was impressed by the Black Rock and the multiple meanings it could have. The image you created is fascinating!

  2. Matt Soar

    Hi Kate, just found your blog. Glad that you enjoyed my film, and looking forward to seeing what you do with Korsakow. If you ever need any help, just holler! Best, Matt

    • Hi Matt! Thanks for your comment and offer of help. Korsakow is the ideal platform for what I’m doing — no problems so far. I’ll be sure to let you know when the project is complete!

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