Duelling with dual timelines?
Huge thanks to Kayte Nunn, Kirsty Manning, Alli Sinclair, Darry Fraser, Tea Cooper and Christine Wells giving us the inside story when it comes to writing dual timeline historical fiction.
Writing dual timelines novels is hard yakka as some folks here in Australia might say, however, some authors seem to take it in their stride, blanking storylines, crafting compelling characters, magically weaving the past and the present together seamlessly. It . is an enormous thrill to be able to share insights and wisdom from seven superb Aussie authors as they reveal their tips and techniques for mastering this intricate and slippery story form.
For the sake of expediency I have had to edit some of the responses and I have not included all of the questions I posed to these authors. If you could like to read the full interviews, I'll be sharing them on my blog in the coming weeks.
For now, buckle in and get out out your pen and notebook.
Here are Kayte Nunn, Kirsty Manning, Alli Sinclair, Darry Fraser, Tea Cooper and Christine Wells giving us the inside story when it comes to writing dual timeline historical fiction.
What particularly attracted you to the dual timeline novel form? Why do you think it has such appeal?
Kayte Nunn: I really fight to write enough words, so the thought of writing two shorter stories initially held great appeal for me. I also love the way a story in the present can uncover a secret from the past and I think readers who enjoy a dual-timeline novel (not everyone does, however), because if done well it increases the page-turning element of the story, and makes it more relatable.
Kirsty Manning: I can’t speak for all readers, but for me dual timelines are appealing for a number of reasons: the mystery that unfolds and weaves between eras, the moment to dip in and out of history and for me, it is an opportunity to explore a piece of history that is often overlooked.
A.S. Byatt’s Possession is one of my favourite books. I love the way the mystery and love stories threaded and knotted their way through the plot. More recently, I’ve enjoyed Geraldine Brooks and Dominic Smith who are both masters of the genre.
I just find myself losing myself in dual timeframe books for hours on end. I thought, why not have a go at something I love to read?
Alli Sinclair: I love the ability to explore two different eras with a central theme or connection. For example, in The Cinema at Starlight Creek one story is about a Hollywood starlet in 1952 and the other story is about a location assistant in Queensland in 1994. It doesn’t sound like much of a connection but once you delve deeper into the story, the parallels of women working in the screen industry—in front of and behind the camera as well as forty years apart—the reader is able to see how much, or how little, has changed for women working in the film industry (or anywhere, in general!). Comparing eras and trying to figure out where the stories will intersect definitely appeals to readers of dual timelines and it’s also fun to write.
Darry Fraser: What comes before us shapes us’ – sort of thing. It’s the unravelling of mystery, too, but for me it’s mainly how the past affects the present.
Christine Wells: Initially, my editor recommended that I write a dual timeline for THE WIFE’S TALE because the 18th century is just that little bit farther distant and unfamiliar than, say, WWII, so it is a good idea to draw the reader in with a modern protagonist who can explore that previous era – perhaps solve a centuries-old mystery, as my heroine, Liz, does—and digest and discuss the mores of the earlier time in a modern context. I also had fun writing a contemporary point of view, which I’d never done before.
Tea Cooper: It wasn’t until my publisher rejected my idea for a series that I began exploring dual timelines. The first book in the series became the backstory, the second book the earlier timeline and the third the more modern timeline—and so The Naturalist’s Daughter was born!
The appeal for me, as a writer is that it allows me to delve more deeply into the characters and their past—I’m a great believer in the past informing the present!
Ella Carey: I love the sense of mystery that a dual timeline affords. I think I was attracted to adding in this layer of a question about the past, and so having a dual timeline allowed me to combine three of my favourite genres- historical fiction, mystery and women’s fiction.
How do you go about dreaming up, planning, plotting and structuring your dual timeline novels? What is your writing process for a dual timeline manuscript?
Kayte: For The Botanist’s Daughter, my first dual-timeline novel, I started with the biggest piece of paper I could find and divided it in two, with possible events and dates for each timeline on either side. For The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant I used a whiteboard divided into 5k sections with a different coloured pen for each timeline and filled it in as I went, with the events of the story every 5,000 words, so that I kept up the pace and knew exactly what was happening in each strand. I also did this for The Silk House.
Alli: “Where do you get your ideas from?” is a question I’m often asked. Sometimes I know exactly what inspired me to come up with a particular story and it can be something as simple as someone making an observation about something, or a random newspaper article. Other times a story just pops into my head, like it’s been waiting in my subconscious for the right moment to appear. I always write a comprehensive outline before I start and I usually do character summaries as well, so I can better understand what they are about and how they will react to certain situations. I’m definitely a planner! I tend to work on one timeline at a time and I usually start with the earlier era first. I have no idea why, I just do! Once both timelines have been written then I look at how I can alternate the chapters. This is the fiddly part of the process and sometimes it means I might have to tweak a few scenes to make it flow smoothly. I tend to go with my intuition on this as writing dual timelines actually is easier for me than writing a single timeline!
Tea: The process isn’t really any different to any book except that, in my case, the story usually spans several generations. I’m a bit of a random plotter! The only difference with a dual timeline is finding the elusive links between the ‘past’ and the ‘present’.
My writing process is erratic, to say the least! I tend to write the scenes that appeal to me first and I also have to write my way into the characters. Then I stop and make notes to fill in the blanks, check the finer details of the research and jump into one or other of the stories. I write the first draft of each story separately until the point where the two stories converge and then the dominant story (usually the more modern timeline) takes over—I simply conclude the story in the usual fashion, making sure it answers the questions posed in both stories.
Kirsty: All of my historical timelines are inspired by true stories. So that means certain dates form the scaffolding of my novels ... I have some clear scenes mapped out and a rough idea of how the book ends. I use Scrivener, and find it very helpful to map out scenes and move them around. I’ve learnt, after four books, I tend to write the opening, then a lost ending, and then I patchwork the two storylines together.
I’m never quite sure of how it will turn out, but a plod away and somewhere in the writing some magic happens to join all the dots up. It’s a delightful surprise (and a hell of a relief!) when it all comes together in the end.
Ella: It was a case of one book leading to another with my dual timeline books. Once I had written Paris Time Capsule, I wanted to know more about one of my characters, Isabelle de Florian, and I felt one great way to discover more about her story, would be to have a contemporary character also wanting to find out what really happened in Isabelle’s life.
As for planning, I do tend to outline the story before I write, but I often veer off that course once I start the first draft, as my own characters take over and the story takes on its own life.
I structured the books evenly, with one chapter in the past, and one in the present, and my writing process was linear. I would write the entire book through. I didn’t write the past section, then the present section, as I found I could weave the two narratives together more effectively by writing them together.
Darry: I don’t overthink things (but having said that I wake up with ideas and plot points almost every night/morning, so clearly my subconscious is on the case non-stop). For The Last Truehart (due Dec 2020) I found an interesting snip of history that even as a Melbourne born-and-bred I didn’t know – that in 1865 the Confederate Steam Ship Shenandoah was docked in Melbourne for repairs during the American Civil War. Boy, did that fire the imagination. The ship took on 42 local men … so I jumped 33 years ahead and had one of those returned local men searching for his child who’d been conceived in 1865.
Process is the same for every story – check facts, dates, remember who-was-when (!) and continue as normal. Research is always part of it. Set up a style sheet: characters, their characteristics, where they lived etc, their horse’s name … that sort of thing.
As for plotting … hmm. Pantser here. Often the characters take me on the journey, so I have to go back over my previous chapters and insert bits and pieces, sometime whole chapters, to keep things neatly tied up.
Christine: That is an entire day’s workshop, I think! Inspiration for a novel usually comes from an amazing person or event I’ve read about. I will often use real people or base characters heavily on them ...
Real life usually forms the spine of the book ... Then the key turning points for my main characters became more vertebrae (to continue that metaphor). All the better if those key events coincided with real events, of course. Real life so rarely conforms to the hero’s journey story structure I like to use, but often a kind of resolution can be found further down the years. Dual timelines are especially good for telling that kind of story, where a wound from the past is still festering somehow.
Many times, I will write the timeline that occurred first from start to finish, then write the second timeline. The first timeline will loosely follow the hero’s journey but break off after the black moment. And often it is completely black, because it becomes the wound that will resonate for years, until the story is resolved in the second timeline.
The second timeline will begin with a new challenge that is presented, but that will force the protagonist to find some kind of resolution to the broken storyline in the first timeline.
I don’t say this is the way it must be done. In fact, I did not analyse anyone else’s novels or read up on how to do it. It just felt right to me and it’s how my stories naturally want to be told.
The trick is in making both timelines compelling, so that readers are not impatiently thumbing through one to get to the more exciting events in the other. In other words, the framing story must have its own compelling narrative and character arcs.
How do you balance the two storylines to ensure both are equally compelling?
Darry: Strong characters. My stories are character driven, so they’re pretty important to me. I don’t mean they’re only physically strong, or their personalities are strong, but that the character is built properly to help propel the story. For instance, I can’t have a caricature baddie or a contrived cataclysmic event. Each character responds to what’s happening around him because of his own nature/nurture. Weak types of characters still have to have to be well built to compel the story.
Ella: I do pay careful attention to both storylines to ensure they are both strong, and I do this before I start writing. I think having strong characters is key, so I had two equally strong, often very different protagonists, whom I hoped readers would relate to, and then, I made sure their inner and outer journeys were equally compelling by digging in and really understanding who they were as characters before I wrote the books.
Kayte: I write each one separately (usually the historic timeline first) and ensure that the structure of each is as sound as I can make it. I generally give as much space to each story and try and create tension in both, as well to that the reader is equally invested in each narrative strand.
Tea: My aim is to give equal importance to both timelines however I often find that when I have finished the first draft I am more attached to the characters in one timeline, that’s where the editing comes in. I have noticed over quite a lot of reviews that often it is simply the reader’s preference. You don’t want your characters in the two different timelines to be identical so it’s only natural that readers gravitate towards the character they relate to best.
Alli: I find one timeline dominates the other so it’s usually 60% of the main timeline and 40% of the other timeline. I actually don’t do this on purpose, I just find that’s how I write them. But yes, both timelines need to be equally compelling because you don’t want the reader to skip one timeline to get to the other. The best way to keep a reader invested in both timelines is to ensure the characters and story are well developed in both and that takes time and lots of editing. Having a trusted person or two to read through your work is also a must because it is very easy to lose a thread or two of the storyline when dealing with two timelines. Extra eyes are really good at finding things we’ve dropped!
Christine: The complaint I hear most often about dual timelines is that the framing story (ie the more modern timeline where a character is trying to find out what happened in the past) feels tacked on to the more intriguing earlier timeline. I try to avoid that by giving the characters a compelling personal reason to solve the mystery of the past, beyond the fact that they find it interesting. This motivation has to get to the core of that protagonist’s identity and they must be changed by what they find, or by the process they undertook to discover the truth.
What is your editing process once you have finished the first draft?
Ella: I usually have time to do one round of edits before it goes to my editor. At that point, I am hugely relieved to have another pair of eyes on my work. Once it comes back, I’ll take a week to think about what the editor is saying, then dig in, and not do anything else while I’m editing. My family and friends know that while I’m under a structural edit deadline, I tend to work seven days a week and just get it done.
Kirsty: It depends on the novel, each has different issues and different editing needs. Usually I get feedback from my US and Australian publishers, and often my UK agent, so I incorporate all their feedback. I then have a large round of structural editing, and then a round of copyediting.
Each country often teaks at the copyedit stage, to Americanise words etc, then there is proofreading. Voila!
Alli: As my books are based on a lot of fact, I find that even though I do a lot of research before I start writing the book, there are often things I need to go and investigate before I start the second draft. So my first draft tends to have a lot of ??? throughout which is my signal to say “go and research this!”, or perhaps I need to delve into my character a bit more to better understand them. I find it often takes me one or two drafts before I get a full understanding of what my characters are really like. I also make sure I have at least a few weeks between drafts because taking a break helps me see the manuscript with fresh eyes on the next round of edits and I often find things I’ve missed in the previous draft.
Christine: It’s always most efficient to go from big picture to small detail when editing, so I always think about structure first. I try to make sure all of the story threads are carried through the narrative and tied up properly at the end, that I’ve shown the character arc of all of the characters who have one, and I cut any extraneous or repetitive scenes. Often, I have to write in new scenes and flesh out the narrative as my writing tends to be on the spare side in the first draft.
I have a running list that I always write on a pink legal pad (so I can easily locate it among the piles of research and drafts) of things I know I have to fix or look up. I tick off those one by one as I deal with them, and I check my historical timeline to make sure I have followed it.
I read the book again for structure and character arc, probably do a few passes on that. Then it’s more fine-grained work of sentence-level editing. After that, I might send the book to my agent and a critique partner, who will both give me editorial feedback. Then, I do another pass or two based on their comments. Next, I send the document to my Kindle to read it like a proper book, making notes of any last things that need fixing. After that pass, I send the book to my editor.
Kayte: I go back to the beginning and tighten each chapter and try and see if every scene is completely necessary. I identify the key emotional scenes – I did a workshop once with Kathryn Heyman and she said that a novel should have 4 or 5 searing moments – and spend a lot of time on those, rewriting and heightening them. I look at the start of chapters and the end of chapters and try and make those as compelling as possible. Finally, I have a long checklist of things to look out for. Something I learned from working in magazines and checking proofs, is to isolate one element and just focus on that – so I will look at each character individually and their presence on the page and their arc, I will also do a pass focussing on dialogue and sharpening that, and I will do a pass for tension, for humour, over-used words, etc
Darry: Editing never ends! I just have to let go of the story and hand it on, either to a beta reader or to my editor. I should take at least a week’s breather before sending it to anyone, to take another chance to go over it but that’s usually impossible because I’m still so invested in it, I go back over and over it until the deadline. The pings keep coming through for the story even well after it’s left my desk for the publisher.
What are your top three tips for writers who want to tackle a historical dual timeline story?
Kirsty: I’m not sure that dual timeframe tips vary from anyone else wanting to write fiction.
Make sure the characters are compelling, that each of the plots is strong enough to pull you through a book, and resist the urge to overexplain or put too much detail in. Less is more.
Darry: Have a clear idea what you want to achieve: a mystery cracked, lovers/family reunited etc. Good writing will carry you. Tying up all the threads you’ve produced is imperative.
Kayte: 1. Research – know everything you can about the time period you are writing – the everyday things like what they ate, how they travelled, what they wore, what were the social concerns, mores and manners, etc. I also regularly look up words on etymyonline to see when they were first used – you don’t want to put words in character’s mouths that would not have been spoken then!
2. Read in the genre you want to write in and dissect those books that you particularly admire – figure out why you like them and how you can incorporate those elements in your own work. It’s not copying, for your work will be decidedly different.
3. The best book on craft I’ve come across is Donald Mass’ Writing Twenty-First Century Fiction – I read it at least once a year, sometimes twice and never fail to learn something new. It has really helped me to develop layers of meaning in my work I think. It’s so good for all writers of fiction, not just historical fiction.
Alli: Research, research, research! Historical readers may forgive the odd small mistake but glaring errors such as a character wearing a watch in an era when only pocket watches were around, will pull the reader out of the story and they might lose faith that the remainder of the story is not authentic to the eras you are writing about.
Read, read, read! Study other dual timeline stories and see what works or doesn’t work. This is an invaluable learning tool and will help your writing skills immensely.
Get a couple of critique partners with keen eyes who can look at your character development, story structure and how you’re meshing the timelines together. The pickier they are, the better! Also, critique other people’s work because not only does it help the other writer, it is a great way for you to learn more about the craft of writing as well. Often people say “oh, but I’ve only written one manuscript and I’m not published yet, what can I offer?”. You can offer a lot! Some of the best critique partners are people who aren’t yet published.
Tea: Firstly, read several, lots! There are as many ways of structuring a dual timeline as there are dual timeline stories.
Secondly, sketch out your mad idea and make notes of all your clever tricks. In fact, plot much more than I do!
Thirdly, start researching and make sure that the two timelines can tie up naturally.
And a top tip … not all stories are meant to be dual timeline … don’t force it!
Ella: I think it’s vital to have equally compelling strong storylines, two differing, strong relatable characters, and then a moving, emotive connection between your two lead characters, and good high stakes (i.e what happens if your contemporary character does not find out what happened in the past? What is at stake for her?)
1. Make sure it’s a story that needs to be told as a dual timeline. If it can be told in a single timeline, then I recommend sticking to that, particularly if it is a popular era, eg from about early 1900s to immediately post-war seem to sell well in their own right.
2. Do everything you can to make your later timeline as exciting as the earlier timeline. If your protoganist was in mortal danger in the earlier timeline, is there a way you can place your later protagonist in mortal danger as well? Later timelines often feel too safely distanced from the thrilling action in the earlier timeline.
3. If your later protagonist is uncovering the mystery of the past, make the resolution of vital importance to her sense of self. A protagonist’s mere intellectual curiosity about the mystery of the past is not sufficient reason to tell that later story.
4. Bonus tip: Think about tone. Don’t make the modern timeline too different in tone from the earlier timeline or the reader will feel jarred in each transition. If you look at Kate Morton’s novels, they have an old-fashioned storybook quality even when she is writing in the modern era, and that tone carries through seamlessly to the earlier timeline.