Adventures in Writing Time Travel ‹CrimeReads

What does it feel like to travel back in time? That depends if you are ready for it. If you’re going with a time machine, you’ll probably have a chance to prepare yourself, and that’s certainly the comfortable way.

But imagine being thrown back in a flick. One minute you are in our world, and the next, you are in a different period of time. It’s going to be horrible and overwhelming.

In fiction, however, the narrator is the one thrown into chaos. We don’t have to worry about how to find food and shelter, how to live and thrive, how to avoid being thrown into a prison cell or a mental institution. We don’t have to know how to tie a corset, how to find hot water for bathing, how to hail a hansom cab … and how to pay for the fare. The narrator is forced to find out all of this, mistakenly both funny and dangerous… and as readers, we experience it in vain, riding on this poor character back in times past.

While traveling in time Possible take us to the future, I am always focused on the past. A Rip Through Time is not my first foray into the world of time travel, but I treat the rest as steps into historical fiction, with limited settings and limited interaction with the wider world. My characters find themselves in a big house or a small village, where they just have to convince some people that they’re not angry. They were not pushed into the wider world to face all the challenges there. That means a manageable amount of research.

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I then decided to try a time-travel mystery… with a modern detective, who was transferred to the body of a housemate working for an undertaker — who became an early-forensic-scientist in 1869 Edinburgh. That means research in domestic service, practice, law enforcement, medicine, forensics and much more, all in Scotland while most of the resources are English.

I quickly learned that secondary sources were not necessarily reliable. I spent the first quarter of the book referring to my local police detective as Inspector McCreadie, based on secondary sources who insisted that was the right title in both England and Scotland. Then I started checking police accounts and contemporary newspapers, only to discover the right title was Detective.

Sometimes it is said that time travel is a little cheat for historical fiction. Since the narrator is not from that time, they can make mistakes (or, more accurately, the author can make mistakes and blame the poor narrator.) Mistakes are certainly given at the beginning of the story, when the character is new. in the world. For example, when my narrator, Mallory, sees Detective McCreadie smuggling a corpse into his boss’s lab at midnight, his knowledge of history tells him it was an extreme theft for anatomy research. That’s a reasonable assumption… if you didn’t know that the 1832 Anatomy Act put an end to the “resurrectionist” trade in Britain. The narrator may make mistakes, but eventually they have to realize their mistakes … which means the writer has to do their research. So, yes, the mystery of time travel involves a lot of research like a historical novel, which… many.

I salute the research with the determination to do everything right. However, the deeper I dug, the more contradictions I saw, the more questions I had and the more impossible it seemed to be certain of the answers I was looking for. When I consulted with experienced historical novelists, their advice was simple: Do your best. Do as much research as possible, while acknowledging that I will definitely be wrong (and feel awful about it.) The book was released just a few days before someone pointed out that I could easily be replaced by Mallory her boots … which would not have been possible while tied to the corset. That was clearly an area I needed to pay more attention to, and the reader who caught it offered great advice.

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While I am determined to do it as correctly as possible, I also need to remember that it is historic mystery, not historical nonfiction or even historical literature. History is the setting, not the point of the story.

Instead of making things easier, time travel adds an extra layer of complication to the fascinating element of, well, time travel. Oh, sure, science is theoretical, so the writer is not limited to reality, and that helps. However, it’s important to know what’s currently going on in research (e.g., recent theories argue against the possibility of a “butterfly effect.”) So, yes, more research.

Once you understand the existing theories, it’s time for building a world of pleasure. How time travel works your world? How do people get there? How can they return? Are they corporeally transported or are they body swap? Are they traveling into “our” past or an alternate version of it?

Once you determine how your version of time travel will work, how much do you reveal to the reader? Some want all the rules to be clearly laid out, but unless you’re writing an omniscient point-of-view, there’s rarely any way for the narrator to nature rules. They are experiencing an incredible event and knowing it as they go. Does this mean you can take a shortcut and find it as you go? No. You should know the rules in advance, because you need to apply them consistently. As someone who has written fantasy for decades, I can guarantee that readers will be hurt by inconsistencies in the development of the world such as historical mistakes.

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So, yes, writing time travel mysteries can be a challenge, but that’s part of the fun of writing, isn’t it? We may not yet be able to travel in time, but as authors, we can build time machines for our readers, zip them up into the old and new world, full of wonder and adventure.