Working out the issues in novel writing.
It seems like everyone wants to be a Time Lord these days. You know, travel through time and space at will? I hadn’t been paying attention until I read this post written by Jack Binding. It made me aware of a trend among some of the books I’ve been reading. These two: “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr and “The Lake House” by Kate Morton, and the one I’m currently reading, “A Desperate Fortune” by Susanna Kearsley, all employ timeline shifts to tell the story. “The Lake House” especially was confusing. The story changes time periods and then the characters have flashbacks within the new timeline. If you’re not paying attention, you’re left wondering who’s talking and what the devil is going on. I hate feeling like the book I’m reading for entertainment needs that level of concentration. At least in Kearsely’s book, the time changes with the decoding of an old diary and each timeline, the present and the past, proceeds in a linear fashion.
My concerns go beyond mild irritation with my current reading material. I realized that I’ve jumped into the same “time machine” with my serial fiction piece, ‘Here Lies a Soldier.’ The present day characters are about to discover a 100-year-old discrepancy in their family’s history. I have the entire plot outlined. I intended to slowly reveal the information in letters sent from their two ancestors fighting on the Western Front. However, I’m beginning to think that the information that comprises the “secret” wouldn’t necessarily be recorded in a letter. Alluded to, yes, but not stated plainly.
So what is a writer to do? My options are limited. What if I simply went back in time? Just started a fresh chapter with the story told in the words of one of the players from the earlier time period? That is essentially what Kate Morton did in “The Lake House.” Her present-day character was reading documents from multiple sources: books and old newspapers from the library, a collection of letters and diaries. The actual documents were never quoted or read from. Separately, we hear from another character’s point of view, not just her first-hand account, but also her sister’s. That is partly why the time shifts were so jarring. The reader was sent to the 1910s, to the 1930s and back to present day with no warning. Adding to the confusion, in the two past timelines, many of the same characters are in the scenes.
And yet, the reader was privy to more of the story than were the characters within. It kind of felt like cheating.
Back to ‘Here Lies a Soldier’ and possible means to travel in time. The letters will tell part of the story, but where does the rest come from? Grandmother’s scrapbook will yield some clues. Do they discover a journal kept by a female relative back home? (Ugh, not another diary!) Is anyone left alive that might remember? A child now grown very old? There are outside sources: newspaper articles, archival records -like baptism registries at the church, birth and death certificates. Here’s the funny thing about that: so much information is available at the click of a mouse that I’m not sure how long it will take for our characters to figure out. I refuse to make it purposely more complicated than it needs to be. That’s just not realistic.
Finally, do I need to jump timelines at all? I’ve considered just having the characters sift through the information in the present day and put the pieces of the puzzle together as they are discovered. The downside of that option is not being able to explore the minds and hearts of our characters in the past. Frankly, part of the appeal of writing this story is trying to feel what life would have been like for the men and women who lived and died during The Great War.
Decisions, decisions… At least, I’ve made it as far as my next chapter! After that? Who knows!
These are the issues we face when writing a novel across time. Want to see how I figure it out? Stay tuned! What do you think? Do you like a story that jumps time?