My first introduction to the time-slip genre was when I read Labyrinth by Kate Mosse (who, it turns out, is not a supermodel but a highly successful author). Instantly, I knew that this was my kind of book. It had mystery, intrigue and… shut the front door – two parallel stories in different time periods! It felt like I was getting two books for the price of one – a bargain. As a writer however, time-slip opened up a whole new world of story-telling to me and once I found my subject, I began writing my novel The Cross Of Santiago.
The most obvious feature of a time-slip novel is the parallel narrative that runs throughout the book. It’s vital that the narrative is equally engaging for both the contemporary and historical sections of the book, otherwise you risk losing the reader’s interest for large portions of the book. While both stories are connected, they must have enough appeal in their own right to engage the reader. The most important aspect of this for me was providing each section with its own unique ‘voice’ in order to convince the reader that they are moving from one time period to another. The whole atmosphere of the story changes – the dialogue used in 16th Century Ireland is very different to that of the present day, so it can be a challenge, almost like writing two completely different novels at once.
The next feature of time-slip writing is research. Historical fiction is a genre that requires meticulous researching and Time Slip is no different. The setting for my novel was medieval Ireland, 1588 to be precise, when the Spanish Armada wrecked upon our rocky shores in one of the deadliest storms ever recorded. I probably spent the best part of a year researching 16th Century Europe and the battle of the Armada against the Royal Navy. I also had to research life in Ireland at that time, which was under foreign rule but, especially in the West, remained quite independent in their laws and culture. Everything from what they ate, what they wore and what they believed in (Brehon Law still existed at that time) was crucial to create a realistic picture. I didn’t just stick to books and websites; I watched movies set in and around that time, documentaries and visited museums. You simply cannot know enough about your setting, which brings me nicely on to my next point.
Try not to force-feed the facts to your reader – they will not appreciate it! It can be so tempting, after months of researching your subject, to thrill (or bore!) your readers with every minute detail you picked up along the way. But you have to know when enough is enough. It’s important for you to know the background to the story, but the reader doesn’t need a history lecture, so you have to find a way to weave the facts into the story and keep the reader entertained as well as informed. Time-slip does require the reader to suspend belief to some degree, so when you’re writing fiction, make sure you get your facts straight!
Now the trickiest and most enjoyable part of writing time-slip is connecting your stories, so that each has a bearing on the other. In The Cross Of Santiago, it is the cross itself that connects the characters in the contemporary and historical sections of the book. The device I used to create the actual ‘time-slipping’ was a rather haphazard hypnosis session, which takes the protagonist on a far deeper journey into the past than she bargained for. This was the fun part for me, because I had a very cynical young woman in the present, finding herself connected to a very dutiful young woman from the past and by discovering more about her counterpart, she influences change in her future. That’s what is so dynamic about this genre, you can trace the influence of the past on the future.
Every author has their own approach – I think Kate Mosse writes her historical sections separately – but for me, I wrote the chapters in the sequence that they are read. After the first draft was completed, I was able to then go back and really concentrate on the historical sections as a whole. Interestingly, I found music a great tool to get into the historical ‘headspace’ and spent many an hour listening to Enya and Loreena McKennitt. Their music has a timeless, ethereal quality that really helped me to let my mind drift back through the ages and channel the past.
Time-slip is such an intriguing idea and in fact it was a book I read about past life regression that gave me the inspiration for my novel. It offers endless possibilities for writers and there are no rules as such. But my one piece of advice is this: Write about a time period you are passionate about. I was fascinated by the Armada landing in Ireland and how the locals tried to help them hide from the authorities. I rented a cottage that overlooked the bay where the ship I was writing about sank. I visited the graveyard in Galway City where a plaque erected by the Spanish Marine Corps remembers the Spanish Soldiers who were executed by the English army. I don’t think I could have written this story if I wasn’t so passionate about the human story behind historical facts.
Finally, time-slip can be challenging for some readers who find the actual ‘slips’ in time a bit fussy (although for me, that’s what makes time-slip so exciting and unpredictable). That’s really where your characters and plot come into play, because you want your reader to anticipate each narrative as it unfolds. Each story should be strong enough to stand on its own, yet contain all of the thematic links that bind the stories into one. It’s a delicate balancing act, but if done successfully, time-slip can be a thrilling ride, for reader and writer alike.
(c) Evie Gaughan