Haven’t we all wished to go back in time at some point or another? If I had the chance, I’d return to the seventh-grade field trip to the local golf course so that I could take three steps further away from the kid in front of me swinging his club a little too enthusiastically. I could save myself from three stitches and a week of drinking through a straw.
I recently found my report card from that year and noticed that my teacher wrote: Lee enjoyed learning the basics of golf. Which begs the question, “Why did he write that?” I mean, he MUST have remembered me getting unceremoniously whacked with a golf club. He was there. He’s the one who drove me to the hospital.
Unless . . . maybe there will be a moment in the future when I discover time travel and do in fact return to that critical moment in my life, saving myself from bodily harm and thereby impacting that line of text on my report card. Maybe the causal loops are yet to sync. The report card has changed, but the photo hasn’t faded from existence yet. Or maybe—
Well, here we are, already breaking our brains—because the moment you think about changing time and all the resulting cause-and-effect ramifications, a variety of fluids start leaking out of your ears.
Time travel, alternate dimensions, multiple timelines . . . these are all elements that have been featured in my books. Each and every time I complete one of these manuscripts, I make an earnest pledge to myself: NEVER do that again.
So, here’s my first piece of official advice when it comes to writing time travel:
1. Don’t do it
Seriously. Live your life. It’s a good life. You can survive without writing time travel.
Thank you for reading!
Well, if you’re still here, you’ve either decided to disregard my advice because a) you don’t trust my experience (I mean, I did get walloped by a golf club when I was eleven), or b) you’re already neck-deep in your time travel manuscript and you’re looking for a lifeline, so you’ve decided to turn to the guy with a slightly lazy eye and subtle scar on his lip.
Fine. I’ll keep going.
2. Decide your intention
This obviously matters for every genre, but it’s particularly important when it comes to time travel. So I ask you: Why are you including time travel in your manuscript?
Is it a framing device, a way for your character to explore a specific time period? In other words, you’re mostly writing historical fiction, but trying to connect it to a modern audience by bringing characters from the here and now and sending them to the past. By the way, this could go the other way, bringing a historical figure from the past to the present. (The first middle-grade book that comes to mind here is Archer’s Quest by Linda Sue Park.)
Maybe you’re using time travel as a plot device to allow your characters to witness past or future moments in their own lives (in other words, a way to achieve character development).
Perhaps you’ve implemented time travel as a device to manipulate events (basically, to achieve a certain outcome in the plot).
Possibly, you’re writing time travel to simply take your readers on a fun roller coaster ride.
Any of the above reasons are valid but being clear about them will help you choose the best approach. If your intention is to provide a fun ride, how important is it for your story to be scientifically plausible? How important is it for you to accurately capture manners of speech? For example, if you take your characters to medieval England, how authentic do you need to be in portraying the way people speak in that time period?
3. Decide your audience
Whenever I’m mentoring young writers (or older ones for that matter), I ask them who they’re writing for. Many times, their responses are very unconsidered. “People who like to read” is the type of answer that will definitely frustrate a potential agent or publisher, and the truth is that these writers do have a specific audience in mind—they’re just pretending that their book will cast a wider net than it actually does.
Your audience determines the style in which you write time travel (and is connected to your intention). In general, an older audience will crave more explanation, more depth and detail, like A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. A younger audience may be confused, and thus turned off, by an in-depth explanation of time travel mechanisms. They might prefer The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne, which employs an uncomplicated magical device (the eponymous tree house) to transport its characters to other time periods.
4. Decide the rules of your time travel logic
This is important whether you’re writing any kind of system of magic (and yes, I just referred to time travel as magic—hey, it’s called The MAGIC Tree House) . . . though I want to say that, by my observation, readers and viewers forgive anything in a plot if they love the premise and characters.
Still, my concern in this article isn’t for your reader, but to make sure YOU are okay during the writing process and that YOU do not crack your brain. So, yes, a system of rules will prevent someone from losing their mind on you in a Goodreads review, but it will also make your writing life easier.
Standard questions that I ask myself (and my students) regarding the rules of time travel:
- Can characters travel to the future and the past?
- Can characters travel to a time they already exist in (for example, to their childhood)?
- Can characters travel chronologically AND geographically? For example, if I want to go back to that golf course during the seventh-grade field trip, do I have to physically position myself in that course, then activate my time travel tech? (A precocious eleven-year-old student in one of my workshops pointed out that if you base your methodology on this premise, then good luck, because the planet orbits the sun, and you’ll probably end up in space and instantly die.)
- Can characters only witness history? Or can they interact with it? Can they change time? (This leads to issues of causality, which, in my experience, is when writing time travel gets really fun—and really mind-bending.)
- Is there a cost (physical, emotional, mental) to time travel?
5. Do your research
If you’re looking to provide a framework that is scientifically accurate, then you need to roll up your sleeves and do the research. But even if you’re not trying to provide a plausible explanation for time travel, you still need to research to make sure your writing is historically accurate and sensitive. This is especially important if you’re landing your characters in a culture and location that is not your own (or one that you don’t thoroughly understand). Otherwise, you run the danger of falling back on stereotypes or biased conceptions.
Think again about your intention. If your main purpose is to provide a fun ride, then you probably don’t need to worry so much about the ramifications of someone with a perfect set of teeth arriving in ancient times and how that would make them stand out, but that doesn’t mean you should depict that ancient society inaccurately or insensitively.
The Internet, libraries, and museums are all fantastic places to do research, but, if possible, I highly recommend visiting the actual location you plan to have your characters visit.
Some places feel pretty timeless and there’s a significant difference between looking at a picture of an ancient Maya temple and the experience of it—you know, climbing the imposing staircase of said temple (and wishing that the Maya had invented handrails), dealing with heat that has all the grace of a hammer, touching the textured stones, hearing the cackle of monkeys in the surrounding treescape, getting lost in the jungle on the way back to your cabin, and having a jaguarundi—and your life—flash right before your eyes.
6. Find relics
I love artifacts from the past. They are instant touchstones to other time periods and there’s something about interacting with them that is transportive in a way that a photo is not. Once again, a museum is a great place to begin (especially if it’s a local museum, in the place where you want your characters to go).
7. Diagram your time travel
We’ve all seen those movies where obsessed detectives or FBI agents have a wall in their apartment devoted to tracking a case they’re obsessed with. I’m pretty certain we could include writers of time travel fiction in this category.
I’m a highly visual person, so I doodle, draw, and diagram my way through every book I write, regardless of the premise. And, when it comes to time travel, I find it extremely helpful to produce a diagram to keep things clear in my head.
When I was working on my first time-travel book, Kendra Kandlestar and the Crack of Kazah, I wanted my titular character to learn about the history of her family and society, so instead of her watching these events through a magical device, I sent her back so she could experience and interact with these events firsthand. Inevitably, she interacted with the timeline and caused a divergence . . . well, things quickly got out of hand, especially when there were multiple jumps to multiple time periods that I needed to account for. I ended up producing several versions of a plot/timeline.
During the time I was working on this book, a friend visited my studio and saw this diagram lying on my desk. After scrutinizing it for a moment, she turned to me and earnestly asked, “Are you okay?” (My answer at the time: Barely.)
Then there’s the wall of diagrams that belong to my friend kc dyer. She has written several middle-grade time travel books, including A Walk Through a Window. Her kitchen wall pays the price for her commitment to her craft:
Well, I hope you found this post helpful. If you didn’t, don’t blame me. Blame the timeline, because some nefarious time bandit clearly traveled backward to excise all of my words of wisdom, leaving behind only muddled musings.
Oh, by the way, want to know what I’m currently working on? You guessed it. A middle-grade novel about time travel. It’s as if I’m caught in some sort of loop . . . because, yep, I never learn.
Lee Edward Födi is an author, illustrator, and specialized arts educator. His books include Spell Sweeper (HarperCollins), The Secret of Zoone (HarperCollins) and the Kendra Kandlestar series (Simply Read). He is a co-founder of CWC, a not-for-profit program that helps kids write, produce, and publish their own books, and has delivered many workshops in Canada, Korea, and Thailand. He has a degree in English Literature from UBC, and is a member of several organizations dedicated to children’s literature. He lives in Vancouver, where he likes to explore local parks with his wife and son in search of dragon eggs, talking trees, and hidden treasures.