A Tale Of Two Timelines


I enjoy a challenge.  And if I can do it sitting down, all the better.  Cue my obsession with reading and writing dual timelines.   The marmite of the literary world, dual timelines can either thrill or annoy a reader and as a writer of the genre, I’ve found myself oscillating between both emotions on more than one occasion!  (Often at the same time, but that’s duality for you).

First things first:  What is the difference between dual timelines, time-slip and time travelling?  Like branches on a family tree, they all bear a close resemblance, but have their own individualistic quirks that mean Sunday dinner will always be a tricky affair.  Dual timelines do exactly what they say on the tin; there is a story with roots in the past that affect the present, so both stories are told side by side.  A good example is Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, where a famous writer tells her life-story to a biographer.  Time-slip tends to involve a twist of the paranormal, where a character has flashes of a past life or in the case of Susanna Kearsley’s novel, The Firebird, the protagonist has a kind of psychic ability that means she can sense stories from the past merely by touching an object.  Time-travelling hardly requires any explanation, but I’ll just say Outlander and leave it at that!

My first introduction to this 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, ‘time-slip’ opened up a whole new world of story-telling to me.  It’s such a dynamic genre, allowing you to trace the influence of the past on the future, creating layers to draw the reader in.  But how do you go about writing what are essentially two separate stories and deftly weaving them together?

The most obvious feature of a dual timeline 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. When writing my debut novel The Heirloom, the most important aspect for me was providing each section with its own unique ‘voice’ in order to convince the reader that they are really moving from one time period to another. The whole atmosphere of the story changes – the dialogue used in 16thCentury 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 the dual timeline genre is no different. The setting for my first 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. The time-slip genre does tend to have some paranormal plot devices which require the reader to suspend belief to a certain degree, so when you’re writing fiction, make sure you get your facts straight!  A good piece of advice is to know more than you put on the page.

Now the trickiest and most enjoyable part of writing dual timelines is connecting your stories, so that each has a bearing on the other. The pacing of both stories is paramount to the genre’s success, so you have to carefully develop the plots from both timelines at an even pace.  The switching needs to be seamless so the reader can keep up and transition easily from one timeline to the next.  That’s really where your characters and settings come into play, because you want your reader to anticipate each narrative as it unfolds.  In my current novel, the sections from the past are told in the first person, while the present day parts are told in the third person.  This automatically changes the tone and offers the reader a different perspective on each timeline. As I said, both timelines should be strong enough to stand on their own, yet contain all of the thematic links that bind the stories into one. It’s a delicate balancing act, but if done successfully, it’s a genre that can be a thrilling ride, for reader and writer alike.

Every author has their own approach to writing dual timelines and this can vary with each book.  The Heirloom was written in sequence, but my new novel (which is also dual timeline) was written in separate blocks.  I wrote the present day first and then focused entirely on the past.  I found that really allowed me to immerse myself completely in that era (which happens to be the early 1900’s, just before the war).  However, either approach has its challenges so you need to do whatever you can to get yourself into the zone.  One of the most powerful tools I have for getting into that head-space is music, and I listened to lots of traditional Irish music and folk songs written at that time.  Music has a timeless, ethereal quality that really helped me to let my mind drift back through the ages and channel the past.  Again I read biographies and other works written at that time in Ireland and hopefully I’ve achieved an authentic setting for my novel.  The real fun began when I had to try and weave the stories together!  But like I said, I enjoy a challenge.

The dual timeline genre 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 first 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.

So while dual timelines might seem like a niche genre, I have seen its popularity grow over the years.  Writers like Kate Morton and (ahem) myself are bringing these kinds of stories to a wider audience of readers who like their history with a dash of contemporary on the side 😉

new heirloom1+1


Read my dual timeline novel The Heirloom on Amazon


Author Photos – Get Ready For Your Close-Up

Source:  Photopin
Source: Photopin

Man, I hate getting photos taken.  I never seem to look like myself, or at least the self I see in the mirror.  But it’s not that important, because if photos are being taken, it usually means something fun is happening like holidays or a party, so who cares how you look, right?  Not so when it comes to the all-important author photo.  On the torture scale, it’s right up there with writing a blurb.  You’re trying to condense everything you ever wanted to say about yourself as an author into one awkward shot and the results inevitably fall short of the goal.

Luckily, when it comes to self-publishing and eBooks, there’s no real need for an author photo because there is no dust jacket.  So it begs the question, do readers really care what the author looks like?  Publishing companies and agents have always considered author photos an important marketing tool for selling books and we always hear how the readers aren’t just buying your book, they’re buying into you as a writer.  Personally, I would have to say that an author’s image is really unimportant to me as a reader.  I’m currently reading Wonder by RJ Palacio and I have no clue what she looks like.  I didn’t even know if the author was male or female when I bought the book.  So it really doesn’t make a difference to me if she is young or old, black or white, serious and intelligent or fun and intelligent.  I’m loving the book, so as far as I am concerned, her work is done!

I had this discussion with my sister and she said she actually found it off-putting to have an author’s photo on the back of a fiction book – that it somehow breaks the spell, or that magical contract between writer and reader that doesn’t concern itself with reality.  I have also found this to be true, depending on my perception of the author photo.  If I feel I can identify with the author and the photo fits the style of writing, I feel an even greater connection to the work.  But if the photo is ridiculously staged and contrived, it can be a bit of a turn off.

For example, when I bought Kate Morton’s ‘The House At Riverton’, I flicked to the back cover and saw a pleasant photograph of a woman sitting happily on the ground in a stable of some sort.  To me, the image said “This is me, no fuss, just down to earth.”  Literally!

Source: Amazon - Kate Morton's Author Page
Source: Amazon – Kate Morton’s Author Page

Maybe it’s the duck-egg blue paint peeling off the distressed wood, her casual outfit or her warm smile, but I instantly felt comfortable with this author.  There was no black and white artsy stuff, or that patronizing ‘high brow’ stance with the hand contemplatively touching the chin (you know the one).  It just feels natural.

However, when I began reading Jojo Moyes’ ‘Me Before You’ and saw the following image on the cover, my response was completely different.

Source:  Marie Claire UK
Source: Marie Claire UK

Confusion reigns on this one – I mean what is she doing in the middle of a field, propped up on an old land rover with a type-writer on her lap?  Barefoot??  It makes absolutely no sense.  Maybe for a magazine shoot (maybe!) but for a book, this seems ridiculous to me and over the top.  I can understand the desire to get the author’s personality across to the reader, but this just comes across as smug and it actually made me wish I hadn’t seen the photo before reading the book.  I see that Ms (Miss, Mrs?) Moyes has another photo on her Twitter page, which gives a remarkably similar feel to that of Missus Morton and I have to say, I much prefer it.  It’s warm, it’s easy and it’s almost as if we’ve caught her in the middle of an autumnal stroll in the countryside.  Simples.

jojo moyes

But then again, it’s easy to critique other authors’ photos, and my interpretation is of course completely subjective.  Someone else might be wholly enamoured by the vision of an author straddling a clapped-out jeep and find these ‘smiling in the barn’ photos twee.  It’s impossible to gauge how readers will react to the image, no matter how hard they try to be all things to all readers.  And let’s face it, these famous authors have had help – expensive help, like professional photographers and hair and make-up people.  So what chance do us self-published authors have?  Is it just a matter of taking a rather grainy selfie and sticking that up on our social media platform, or should we consider taking the whole author photograph thing more seriously?

If you’ve done any kind of marketing for your book, you will undoubtedly have been asked for your author photo, so it’s something we’ll all have to do at some point.  I decided to have my photo taken in my garden with very little preparation on my part or the photographer’s.  It went a bit like this:

Me:  “Oh listen, can you take my author photo?”

Friend:  “Sure.”

Me:  “Great, it won’t take a minute!”

Followed by an hour of terse remarks like, ‘What are you doing with your mouth?’  ‘You look like you need the loo!’  I thought I was smirking, as opposed to outright smiling, suggesting that I’m a content writer, but also deep and thoughtful.  In the end, we just started talking about why I write and what I enjoy about it and we finally got our shot.  It’s not exactly perfect, but I wanted an authentic image and I think we achieved that.

Author photo
“This writing lark is so easy, I have all the time in the world to just relax in my arbour and dream up new stories!”

I think the main thing is to avoid selfies or cutting and pasting yourself out of a wedding photo (especially if you were the bride!).  Whether readers care what we look like or not, I suppose it is like a business card in a way and so it deserves a little bit of consideration.

As self-publishers, we’re used to thinking independently and creating our own rules and Mel Sherratt is a prime example of this when it comes to her author photo. Traditionally, crime writers have to look mean and moody to suit their genre, but not Mel.  She just looks so damn happy to be a successful author with a large and loyal readership, who wouldn’t want to buy her book?!

Source:  Writing.ie
Source: Writing.ie

At the end of the day, I think it’s important to be yourself and satisfy your own needs, without trying to guess what people want.  (A good motto for life there, methinks.)

You can get my books here.