So you want to write time travel?
By Monique Martin
Writing time travel takes someone who loves history, but can embrace fantasy. It’s reality-adjacent. It also helps if you were dropped on your head as a small child because you have to be crazy to want to do it. Of course, all writers have a certain baseline of crazy, but I think time travel writers have an added masochistic streak.
Like their cousins, the historical fiction writer (I’m parsing out non-fiction, because they’re a completely different kind of crazy, amiright?), the time travel writer has to love history and research. Love it so much you might actually own vintage pantaloons or civil war bandages. Love it so much last Halloween you went as Haile Selassie. Love it so much that if you ever met Thomas Alva Edison, you might sock him on the nose.
You have to love it because you’ll spend the next few months (or years if you’re truly crazy) researching what the price of cotton was in 1852 Natchez (approximately $0.14/pound), or if someone would be drinking tomato juice in 1906 (sorry, no). You’ll probably watch videos of people putting on period underwear, start calling your friends dollface or have Cook’s luggage labels on your laptop case.
Happily, I’m one of those loony people. I stay up late worrying about anachronisms. I love knowing all of that stuff. I love knowing what people wore, the slang, modes of travel, politics, weapons, food, currency, pop culture, and all of the rest of it.
I’ve found a few research tools that have helped bolster the verisimilitude of my books. I know there are oodles and kaboodles of tools, and an endless of non-fiction books to choose from, but these are a few of my go-tos:
- Mail Order Catalogues – It’s not always possible to find them, even repros, but if you can, nothing beats a good Sears & Roebuck for great period detail.
- Diaries & Letters – What could be better than reading about people from a specific period in their own words?
- Travel Guides – I recently came across a 1910 Baedeker’s guide for my current book and it’s gold, I tell you, gold!
- YouTube & Google Maps Street View – From how to properly load and fire a musket to how to make mead, YouTube is a fantastic resource. Google street view, isn’t always ideal, but if you can’t afford a trip to Paris, you can still walk the streets with this tool.
For the time travel writer though, the crazy doesn’t end with historical detail so accurate that it brings a tear to your eyes. You have to deal with the word that makes every time travel writer shudder — paradox. Pro Tip: Keep a bottle of Excedrin handy. Time travel headaches are the worst.
Obviously, at some point you and your readers have to simply accept certain things, like it’s possible to travel in time. But there are tons of decisions still to be made. Do you keep the timeline unchangeable? If you change it, does all of time change or just a soupçon? Is there a butterfly effect where every change matters or are you going all Sliders (remember that TV show?) where your protagonists are visiting the past/future of a parallel Earth so changes to the timeline don’t matter to them?
The only advice I can give, or follow, on this front is, make your rules and be consistent. No one likes retroactive continuity (known by most film and comicbook geeks as retcon) where past events are re-purposed/changed solely to serve a current plot need. I’m looking at you, George Lucas. All right, that wasn’t a time travel retcon, but I’m still bitter.
Those are just some of the challenges facing a time travel writer. It’s hard. Heck, all writing is hard, but it’s exciting. I love it. I also secretly think Doctor Who might be real, so take all of this with a grain of salt.
Of course, every genre has its challenges. What’s the most challenging part of yours?
About the Author
Monique Martin is the author of the Out of Time Series–a mixture of romance, suspense, and a dash of the paranormal. Professor Simon Cross and his assistant Elizabeth West discover a time travel device and the mysterious Council for Temporal Studies. Their adventures back in time — from 1929 NYC to 1852 Natchez, MI — test them and their growing relationship in ways they never could have imagined. With their very lives at risk, they race to solve mysteries in time where the stakes were never higher.