Posted by Gwynlyn MacKenzie Jan 8 2014, 12:01 am in craft, dual timelines, free books, guest author, guest blogger, kristina mcmorris, women's fiction, writer's advice, writing tips, writing tools
I realized from the beginning writing dual timelines was going to be a challenge; I’d never before attempted to interweave past and present storylines into a single novel. Yet due to the nature of what would ultimately become my latest release, The Pieces We Keep—in which a boy’s dreams are mysteriously linked to family secrets from WWII—I decided it was definitely worth a try. Among my greatest concerns, however, was that one storyline would outshine the other.
When I myself have read novels with dual timelines, frequently I’ve had to fight the urge to skim the present-day chapters to return to the historical ones. Granted, in large part this is likely due to my personal passion for tales of the past. But I also find that high stakes involving life and death are naturally inherent in most historical settings—from revolutions and world wars to times of slavery and civil rights—and can therefore easily dominate when placed directly beside current-day conflicts of familial or romantic relationships.
To overcome this obstacle, I tried to imagine which scenarios would be as devastating to me, or my character, as the harrows of wartime. My answer, as a mother, came without pause: losing my child in a tragic death, or perhaps in a battle for custody. Obviously there are many other situations that can ratchet up tension and maintain a high level of suspense, no matter the era in which they’re set.
Another challenge I encountered came from my choice to alternate the two timelines with every chapter. I am personally a huge fan of short chapters, finding it nearly impossible as a reader to put down a book when the end of the chapter is “just a few pages away,” but I realized it would be important to find a way to prevent jarring the reader. Also, since links between the two storylines in The Pieces We Keep are fed out gradually, I wanted to suggest a connection early on, without (hopefully) giving too much away.
To address both issues, and in hopes of creating a feeling of fluidity, I opted to start every chapter with a sentence that in some way echoes the last sentence of the preceding chapter. For example, one chapter would end with: “He left no proof of existence—save for the missive in her hand.” While the next chapter would begin: “A half hour later Audra sat alone on a stranger’s couch, the slip of an address still in her grip.”
Finally, another goal of mine was to immediately ground the reader in whichever era they were reading, never wanting them to feel “lost.” Date and location stamps were an obvious choice, but with more than 70 chapters in my novel, I felt these would be cumbersome and redundant (and perhaps even make the book 50 pages longer, ha). Fortunately, my publisher allowed me to use two different fonts, one for each chapter/time period. As a result, this required me to merely state the dates and locations at the start of the first two chapters. I’ve also seen this done in other novels to great effect when clarifying changes in points-of-view.
Needless to say, the tactics I’ve mentioned might not work for every book featuring dual timelines, but perhaps they’ll at least serve as options to consider while you’re brainstorming ideas for your own interwoven story!
Thank you, Kristina, for this intriguing glance at your process.
For those who want more information, Kristina will be stopping by periodically to answer your questions, and in true Ruby fashion, will be drawing the name of one lucky commenter (Shipping costs limit this to US residents only) who will receive a signed, trade-paperback copy of The Pieces We Keep. Of course, you can find all of her books at various retail outlets including Amazon and Barnes & Noble
Kristina McMorris is a critically acclaimed author published by Kensington Books, Penguin, and HarperCollins UK. Her works of fiction have garnered more than twenty national literary awards and appeared on the New York Times and USA Today bestsellers lists. Inspired by true personal and historical accounts, her novels include Letters from Home, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, and most recently The Pieces We Keep. Prior to her writing career, Kristina worked as a host of weekly TV shows since age nine, including an Emmy® Award-winning program, and has been named one of Portland’s “40 Under 40” by The Business Journal. She lives with her husband and two young sons in the Pacific Northwest, where she is working on her next novel. For more, visit www.KristinaMcMorris.com