When I was first published, a wise and experienced author told me, ‘You’re only as good as your last book.’ It was a warning I took to heart and it has led me, inevitably, to taking on new challenges.
After writing more than forty contemporary romances, my two most recent books, Moonlight Plains and The Secret Years, are intergenerational stories that combine a contemporary story with a historical thread set during World War 2. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the historical research, as well as trying to capture the speech patterns and atmosphere of another era.
It isn’t just the historical element of dual time lines that excites me, however. These more complex books provide extra opportunities for character development and for deeper themes. I’ve been able, for example, to explore the long-lasting impact of a decision made by a character in the past on his descendants. These “double” plots have also provided extra opportunities for secrets and surprises – devices that make commercial fiction hum.
Probably the biggest challenge of a dual time line is getting the right balance. It’s important to make sure that one story isn’t much more interesting than the other. Both stories need to be compelling. It’s important to create two sets of characters that the reader cares about. Both heroes (or heroines) need to follow an important emotional journey.
Interesting events need to take place in both time lines to move both plots forward. The central character in each story will have separate problems to overcome. Each story will have its own rising action, climax and resolution and there will probably be a significant point where the stories intersect, usually towards the end.
I’ve never been one for strict writing rules, though, and I know each writer will approach this challenge differently. Some authors like to write the two stories separately, so they have complete control over each plot. Then they work out how, where and when to interweave them.
This is fine, but I prefer to do the weaving as I write. I enjoy the organic flow. Whichever way you approach this task, working out how long to stay in one time zone before switching to the other can be tricky. I’ve judged this intuitively, rather than by any hard and fast rule, but I know from my experience as a reader that I’m annoyed if the ‘back-and-forth’ happens too quickly. It’s a bit like watching TV with a channel surfer. You’re just getting interested in a show, when you’re suddenly whisked to a completely different story.
For this reason, I think it’s possibly better to give approximately equal weight to each story and to allow a chapter or two in each time period before making a change. You need enough time to develop important action and intrigue in one story and to allow the reader to become immersed in the characters and the setting, before whisking her back to another time zone.
To help the transition, I think it’s also worth dropping a hint, to subtly warn readers that a time switch is coming. This is possibly easier in intergenerational stories, as the contemporary characters usually know the historical characters (often grandparents) and some kind of linking reference can be made. A question, a supposition…
Objects like photographs, diaries and memorabilia also make useful symbolic links. Studying the way movies make similar shifts can also be useful. How many times have we watched a door close on one scene in a movie only to open on a completely different set of characters? One character goes to sleep. Another wakes up…
Despite the risks of dual time lines, I think it’s a challenge worth trying. As your story reveals extra, unexpected layers, you’re in for an exciting ride and your readers will be, too.
by Barbara Hannay
Some family secrets are best set free.
When Lucy Hunter stumbles upon her grandfather Harry’s World War II memorabilia, she finds a faded photograph of a stunning young woman known simply as ‘George’ and a series of heartfelt letters. They are clues about the secret years, a period of Lucy’s family history that has been kept a mystery . . . until now.
How did a cattleman from north Queensland find forbidden love with the Honourable Georgina Lenton of London and persuade her to move to his isolated outback property? And why are the effects of this encounter still reverberating in the lives of Lucy and her mother, Rose, now?
As the passions of the past trickle down the years, three generations of one family pull together. Each must learn in their own way how true love can conquer the greatest challenges of all.
From the wild beauty of the Australian bush to England’s rugged south coast, this is a deeply moving story of heartbreak, heroism and homecoming by a beloved, multi-award-winning author.