When starting my first book, this was one of the most challenging questions I needed to address.
I knew that my storyline was going to move forwards and backwards in time- linking together events from different periods, but I wanted my narrative to be firmly based in the present day.
So, to achieve this shift in timescales, I divided my book into different sections- providing the reader with the date in which each part was set. However, the majority of the novel was written in the first person- from the perspective of my main protagonist. This may sound unnecessarily complicated, but as writers this can be one of the most tricky aspects to get right. You can often find yourself slipping into the wrong tense if you are not clear from the beginning about the where your novel fits within time itself.
For example, many of the most celebrated novelists use the passage of time as a key feature of their story. Take David Nichols’ novel ‘One Day’, which followed the main characters on the same day each year for two decades and it worked brilliantly. It allowed Nichols to explore the social and political changes over those twenty years and to develop his characters accordingly. It had an immediate appeal to those readers- like myself, who had lived through those very same changes. It helped to create an empathy and connection with the protagonists which made the reader really care about what happened to them.
Some authors, on the other hand, like to make their novels almost ‘timeless’. Their main characters stay much the same despite the passage of the years. I am thinking here of Inspector Wexford or Adam Dalgleish who first appeared in mystery novels back in the 1960s but who are still sleuthing, little changed by the ravages of time, to this very day.
Both techniques can work equally well and, as in the case of Wexford, for instance, the world around him does alter with the passage of the years even if he, as a character, does not.
Sometimes it is childrens’ books which deal with the enigma of time the best. the concept of time-travel has been often explored in fiction aimed at the young. Children have a particular fascination with time, I think, as it suggests the promise of new worlds and new possibilities that appear to offer a tantalising taste of freedom that can so often be missing from their own ordered and restricted lives.
The only dilemma that exists if your main characters are young is whether or not they should age from one book to another. This was handled extremely well in the Harry Potter books when J.K Rowling could easily have kept her protagonists forever youthful.
Many books aimed at children deliberately utilize the concept of growth and development so that their characters can age alongside their young readers, giving them a sense that they are not alone in having to face the challenges of reaching each new milestone in life. My daughter particularly likes Jeff Kinney’s ‘Wimpy Kid’ series for that very reason.
Whatever decision you make about your novels’ place in time, it is important to get it straight in your mind before you begin to write and then stick with it throughout the novel. I chose to add dates to the three sections of my first book, in order to help my readers to easily follow what was quite a complex plot. However, with my second novel I have decided not to do this, as I was concerned that adding specific years to the book might, paradoxically, have the result of ‘dating’ the piece. When, for all of us writers, the elusive prize is to create a book that is literally ‘timeless’ and can be read in decades to come, but will still feel totally relevant and contemporary to the reader.