Combine what has never been combined before. I don’t remember who said this or where I read that quote but it inspired me. When I first started writing my novel I wanted to create something new. The outcome is my debut novel Belfast Central which is told
- In two perspectives
- In two timelines
On top of that I wanted to touch the historical background of the Northern Ireland Conflict. Not an easy task considering, I live in Austria, Central Europe. Therefore, I had to do a lot of my research from afar.
Basically, I broke two general writing rules:
- Don’t make your first novel too complicated
- Write about something you know
Fellow writers and writing coaches warned me about this project which just seemed a bit too ambitious for a debut novel. But I wouldn’t listen and dared to create something wonderfully unique.
Why so complicated?
First of all, I didn’t mean to make my first book project so complicated. The story I intended to write asked for it. Why? Well, at the centre of my story is this mentor-mentee relationship of two very different men. The mentor sees how the mentee struggles in his life and starts to tell his own life story. This path down memory lane stirs up a lot for both of them.
For me, this story would only work if I tell the story in two timelines:
- The present: the mentee struggles and turns to his new found mentor
- The past: the life story of the mentor is told through his eyes
This implied that I had to tell the story from two perspectives as well. Yes, I could have made my life easier by telling both timelines from the mentor’s point of view. But then I would have been limited in showing how deeply affected the mentee is by the mentor’s life story.
1000 pages later
I set off writing quite carefree, starting with the life story of the mentor. I had no idea where the story would lead me or how it would all come together in the end. With every scene I wrote I got to know my characters better but I also produced a lot of pages I wouldn’t need in the end. That not every scene and not every paragraph makes the final cut is normal. But there is a line – a line I crossed without noticing.
I once copied everything I wrote in one word file and in the end it were about 1000 pages. Still, I had no structure, no clear plot yet. I had reached a dead end. And I knew I wouldn’t get out of it alone. So I joined a writers group and went to writing classes.
To understand your own mistakes you usually have to get past them first. That was the hardest struggle for me – identifying why I couldn’t make it work.
In a writing class I got in touch with different tools to create a reasonable plotline. It was not until then that I realised: I needed two plots in one book. One plot for the mentor and one for the mentee. In order to make the two stories work together I needed to make them work separately first. That was probably the most important learning in this writing journey.
How to make it work
1) History first
Deciding in which year your book is set will automatically decide your characters environment – in politics, in technology and so on. When you write in two timelines one timeline will define the other. My book’s present is the year 1993 therefore the youth of the mentor is set in the 1930s.
2) Think about the structure early
With the complexity of a book the danger of confusing a reader increases. So I made sure the separation between the present and the past was as evident as possible. In the two timelines I used different tense (present and past), different perspective (first person vs. third person) and always clearly stated in which year the multi-chapter part is set.
3) Start with the story more central to you
In my mind, the problems and struggles of the mentee were the frame for my mentor’s story. So I started with the mentor, knowing only the basics about my mentee and his struggles. I knew I had to paint the picture first and worry about the details of the frame later.
4) Think in plot cycles
Just because you write one book doesn’t mean that you are writing one plot. Writing two timelines/two perspectives is a bit like writing two books, actually. – Two books that have a common ground and are only able to live up to their full potential by combining them. Although they can exist apart, they create an even bigger picture together.
5) Put the pieces together
Look at your two plotlines and decided where in the story the “crossroads” are. Where does it make sense to switch from one timeline/perspective to the other? Sometimes it works to change with every chapter; sometimes the story needs to be split in multi-chapter parts. But don’t worry it’s not as scary as it might sound. Trust your feeling for the story and its flow.
6) Edit the whole piece
Of course writing is a lot about rewriting. Once you put the pieces together it is necessary to edit the piece as a whole. Most likely more than once. Although editing can be daunting try to enjoy it. After all, you are creating something wonderfully unique.
(c) A.K Amherst
Born and raised in Austria, I travelled the world from a young age. This influenced my writing, which relates to history and cultures of foreign countries. Intensive research is part of my job, and I really love this job. You want to be taken into another setting and experience life from a different angle? Then I am the writer for you.
As a business graduate, I never really fitted into the number-driven accountant-stereotype. Despite all these boring business lectures, my creative spirit was not broken. In the end I managed to find my spot within the vast world of business: in marketing. My job has given me the opportunity to work with a bunch of creative people and learn a lot from them.
Besides writing and traveling, I like to try new hobbies. I have been to archery classes, African drum classes, and Hot Yoga classes. For me, staying curious is essential for inspiration.
As broad as my interests are my portfolio includes short stories, travel blog articles, and my first book, Belfast Central.
About Belfast Central:
Belfast 1993: A nocturnal ambulance service at the Belfast Central Station almost turns deadly for the young paramedic Ryan. In the crosshairs of the IRA, he is badly wounded and wakes up in the hospital with muddled memories. The police close the case fast, leaving too many burning questions unanswered. Most importantly, who was that old man who appeared at the scene out of nowhere and saved Ryan’s life? Not fully recovered yet, Ryan begins searching for the mysterious man, only to get dragged into a feud between opposing paramilitaries – with fatal consequences…
A thrilling story about fates in 20th century Northern Ireland.
Order your copy online here.