BLOG: Dual-Timelines--Their Intricacies and Challenges
Updated: Aug 23
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Also, I have two more exciting blogs on research to share--and they'll be coming your way soon. Both will be specifically tied to my next project, so expect to get some more little tidbits of insight into Julia Clark's story.
This week's blog is a great topic for those folks who enjoy dual-timeline books.
From Outlander to this past March's NYT bestseller, The Lost Apothecary, dual-timeline novels have really taken the book industry by storm. So what exactly is a dual-timeline novel? In short, it's a story taking place in two separate time periods, that has a central plot which ties both together. It's become an extremely popular method of story construction and has withstood its test of time, too. Agents are still thrilled with the notion of a story spanning two periods. This makes a lot of new writers eager to try their handing at crafting one. But what are the tricks of this trade, and how difficult is it to piece together two plots that flow smoothly together, eventually resolving in a satisfying climax?
This week, I'm delighted to welcome Clare Marchant to Brook's Journal to discuss her experience in writing a dual-timeline work. And her featured book, The Queen's Spy is dual-timeline. I'd also like to take this opportunity to congratulate Clare on being a finalist in the Saffron Hall Joan Hessayon Awards. WAY TO WRITE!!! Now, without further ado--Welcome, Clare!
The Intricacies and Challenges of Writing a Dual Timeline
By Clare Marchant
I love writing dual timeline books, but I must admit it isn’t for the faint hearted! In my opinion the most important part of writing them is that you need to plan before you start. I know there are many, many authors who only have an idea of where they want their book to go before they jump right in and start, and I am deeply envious of those people, but when each timeline depends on another one, without a plan it is easy to get completely tied up in knots.
So first of all, I need something that will link the two timelines. This can be an object, like the triptych in The Queen’s Spy, or indeed it may be a place, an old house, a letter or a photograph. Alternatively, I may choose to use a theme to link both the historical and modern protagonist’s journeys, so they are both striving for a happy ending connected by the same premise. But both stories need to be tied together for a timeslip to work, and I need to have decided on what this link will be, before I start writing.
Before I can start planning the book though, I have to be absolutely sure of my historical facts. I prefer to use as many real events as possible, and people who were there at that moment, weaving my own protagonists into the action. This means a lot of reading and researching to make sure that everyone can be exactly where they should be. With Tom’s story for example, everything that happened apart from Tom not actually being there, really occurred. There was even a man in a blue coat who delivered letters for Walsingham!
And when the research is done, next comes the planning. Mine is always done in great detail so that each chapter fits within the whole and nothing is given away in the present day before it has happened in the past (believe me, this is so easy to do!). I start with a rough plan and then break it down into scenes. For the most part, one scene is a chapter. Then I turn to my trusty post-it notes and I have a very large cardboard display stand; using different coloured post it notes for each timeline, I stick them on. I can very soon see if things are wrong and I spend ages swapping them around.
I try and alternate my historical and present-day timelines chapter by chapter, although they are not strictly like this if I need two chapters together depending on what is happening; however, some dual timelines are written where the present-day chapters are at the beginning and the end, and the historical story happens during the main bulk of the book. There is no right or wrong way. But I do always need to remember to end each chapter on a cliff hanger so that readers are racing through to find out what happens next!
Also, some authors will write the historical section in its entirety and then do likewise with the present-day part, however I prefer to write it in a linear fashion alternating between the two timelines as it is on my plan. I just find it easier to keep track that way. I write in a software called Scrivener which shows me at a glance where my chapters are so I can just drag and drop them elsewhere if something has accidentally been revealed before it’s time – despite all my planning it still happens occasionally! It’s okay to hint at something that may be to come, but it is all important not to have the present-day protagonist discovering something that has yet to happen in the past.
So, as you can tell it isn’t plain sailing when writing a dual timeline novel, but it is certainly fun. For me, it all comes down to the research and the planning. I love writing them but I don’t need any surprises to throw me off course!
Growing up in Surrey, Clare always dreamed of being a writer. Instead, she followed a career in IT, before moving to Norfolk for a quieter life and re-training as a jeweller. Now writing full time, she lives with her husband and the youngest two of her six children. Weekends are spent exploring local castles and monastic ruins, or visiting the nearby coast.
Blurb for The Queen's Spy
1584: Elizabeth I rules England. But a dangerous plot is brewing in court, and Mary Queen of Scots will stop at nothing to take her cousin’s throne.
There’s only one thing standing in her way: Tom, the queen’s trusted apothecary, who makes the perfect silent spy…
2021: Travelling the globe in her campervan, Mathilde has never belonged anywhere. So when she receives news of an inheritance, she is shocked to discover she has a family in England.
Just like Mathilde, the medieval hall she inherits conceals secrets, and she quickly makes a haunting discovery. Can she unravel the truth about what happened there all those years ago? And will she finally find a place to call home?
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