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5 Things to Consider When Writing One Story in Multiple Time Periods
Written by
She Writes
January 2020
Written by
She Writes
January 2020

Today's guest post was written by Constance Sayers, the author of A Witch in Time (February 11, 2020).

In the last few years, historical fiction has been on the rise both in readership and stature. As an avid reader and writer, I found myself increasingly looking backwards for storytelling, admiring novels like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Susan Barker’s The Incarnations—all ambitiously set, in not one time period, but multiple.

While I hadn’t written any previous historical novels, as I began the process of plotting out my novel, A Witch in Time, I found that I had a story with multiple historical time periods. Quickly though, I began to realize how easily I could get buried under the multiple histories, and all the associated research, if I wasn’t careful. As a writer, one time period can be tricky enough, but juggling multiple time periods requires keeping a few things in mind.

Choose Time Periods That Represent Larger Themes 

You’re going to get very knowledgeable about these time periods, so choose ones that are of interest to you, but also propel your characters forward into larger themes. In other words, the time periods shouldn’t just serve as settings, especially if you’re proposing multiple. All time periods should tie into one another or build upon one other. While I was writing a love story in A Witch in Time, I also wanted to highlight the struggles women faced in key periods of history. My main character is a powerful voyeur to so much history that I wanted those representative time periods to be meaningful in terms of cultural change. 

For example, I started in 1895 Belle Epoque Paris, a time known for its beauty, but under the surface, women had little choices in this age so I wanted the time period to feel as constrained as a corset. The next time period was 1930s pre-Hayes code Hollywood. The “image” of women in Hollywood cinema was created during this time, so I thought it was fitting to place my character in the studios of the day. By 1970, my character was fully embracing the “free love” generation in California and the choices offered to her, yet she was coming into her own rejecting the decisions she’d made in the previous two lives. As my character evolved, she did so against a backdrop of key moments in women’s history. 

Go Beyond the History Books

While the temptation is to dive into non-fiction history books alone for information (trust me, I’ve got shelves full of them), remember to also read novels or watch films produced within the time period (if available). These cultural artifacts can serve as helpful time capsules. How did people talk to each other? What words were in fashion? How did they dress? History is also fashion, food, music, art and language. If you’re writing about a historical location, try to find an example of buildings or even neighborhoods that would still look the same today and spend some time sketching out those settings. For A Witch in Time, I hired a tour guide in Los Angeles who showed me examples of neighborhoods that wouldn’t have changed much since the 1930s. In Paris, I hired a Louvre guide who spent a day fully immersing me in the art and culture of Belle Epoque Paris, giving me helpful tips about the customs for women at the time that I hadn’t found in history books.

In Multiple Time Periods, Characters are Key  

While this is the case in most good fiction, in novels with multiple time period scenarios, characters must pick up more of the workload. If you’re looking at different characters within different time periods (like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours), the characters need to be memorable enough and distinct enough to share the overall novel with each other.  

If you have one character, spanning multiple time periods (like my characters in A Witch in Time), that character needs to evolve through the various time periods. In this case, spend time sketching the character’s overall arc as it relates to each time period. In this type of book where you have a single character remaining through multiple historical timelines, try to anchor some traits that are your characters easily identifiable “waypoints” in all of the time periods. Details like red hair, a love of playing the piano, preference for blue ties or black coffee—all can remain anchors as your characters are being affected by different time periods that have the potential to be dizzying to readers.

Research is Essential, But Don’t Let it Overwhelm the Novel 

The biggest issue that I have seen other writers (as well as myself) struggle with is the idea that you can never do enough historical research. I have stacks of books and DVDs and spent months getting the most accurate details that I could find before beginning my first draft. Add multiple time periods into the mix and historical research has the potential to topple both the novel and the writer even before they begin. 

You’re not writing a non-fiction history book, so don’t let the history overtake all other elements of writing a good novel. I recall finding an authentic menu from The Brown Derby in 1934 which was a perfect detail for a dinner scene that I had just written. It was one of those rare, yet amazing historical finds. Later, as I was editing the scene, I realized that while it was an accurate detail that certainly helped plant the characters in that time and space, it didn’t make the reader really care about them more. When readers told me that they couldn’t put the book down, they weren’t meaning it was because I’d discovered the historically correct menus from The Brown Derby. Write the shell of your character journey first; plant a lot of [insert historical detail here] cues for yourself in the drafts; then make sure that you’ve built a world and characters that are interesting. Remember, emotions like love, loss and struggle are timeless. Try spending the majority of your time, nailing those details first and then fill the historical detail around them, not the other way around.    

Balance Your Timelines

In my early drafts, I struggled with balancing the amount of real estate that I’d devoted to each time period. Ultimately, you’ll prefer one of your periods more than the others or you’ll struggle with the development of another. After my second draft, I found that my time periods were uneven, causing the book to feel lopsided. Strive to have all the time periods equal both in page count and emphasis. If you favor one, I guarantee your readers will know.

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