Time travel is tricky. It’s one thing to think about it, ponder about how to do it, and to dream about it, but it is quite another to write about it. How do you create that magic, wonder, excitement, danger, adventure… and somehow make it all plausible?
I’ve now read four novels about time travel (obviously I’m a fan of the subject)- “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffinegger, “The Mirror” by Marlys Millhiser , “11/22/63” by Stephen King, and most recently, “Time and Again” by Jack Finney, while “Time Machine” by HG Wells sits waiting in my “to-read” pile- and I’m intrigued by each author’s approach. In some ways, writing about time travel can allow the author a blank canvas on which to explore and create a whole new plausible outlook on the subject. On the other hand, however, writing about time travel can limit and trap the author into a corner by trying to have everything make sense.
The first rule I have as a reader of time travel fiction is to not get so hung up on the facts and details. In short, the how’s and why’s and technicalities revolving around time travel are not going to make perfect sense. It can’t, really, because as far as I know time travel doesn’t actually exist (as much as I wish this wasn’t true. Maybe it isn’t? Prove me wrong!). Every time I get hung up on a specific detail, or some aspect of the whole process of shipping oneself to another time doesn’t quite seem very logical, most of the fun goes out the window. I think it’s ok for everything to not make complete sense.
My own copy of “Time and Again” looks like it just traveled here from the 70s.
But what every reader and fan of the genre wants from a time travel novel is to feel his or herself utterly transported to a different time. If the process of time travel makes some relative sense- without the author getting too technical or philosophical on the subject- I want to feel that time travel is, indeed, possible. And regardless of how the main character gets to times gone by, I want to find out what happens when that character gets there. What does it smell like, taste like, look like? What are the differences from that time versus the modern age? Any surprises?? I want hints and clues, secrets revealed, facts debunked, theories expunged, adventures abound. It’s a very rare chance to walk in another’s shoes in a long-ago era and find out if the past is actually different from the present, or if it is really all the same- just with better plumbing.
What I’ve noticed from reading my four novels on time travel over a span of about 8 years is that similar themes and formulas in the writing start to emerge. Some of the above books are more creative with the topic, some not, but all of them were utterly engaging in their own way.
Here are some of the “rules” to create a successful (or not) time travel novel:
1. You must establish an effective and believable vehicle or machine in which one is able to time travel.
In “The Time Traveler’s Wife”, Henry deTramble has a rare genetic disorder, which sends him involuntarily to various points in his past and future. Shay, from “The Mirror”, travels back in time 80 years right into the body of her teenage grandmother with the help of a cursed antique mirror. “11/22/63” finds Jake Epping discovering a time warp portal in the back-room of an old diner and with the help and guidance of the diner’s owner, he steps back into September 9, 1958. And Sy Morley, from “Time and Again”, which incidentally inspired Stephen King to write his own time travel novel, goes back to the 1880s New York through the use of time and place immersion and self-hypnosis.
All of the above are fairly creative ways to introduce time travel, but my favorite (and what I would consider the easiest way and least complicated) is through self-hypnosis. If you believe time has weight and bends and flows like a river, then you too should be able to step back into time if you immerse yourself in the time period and let go of the modern age. Easy, right? 🙂 Of course, all of the above scenarios pose their own problems and mechanical questions. How do you hypnotize yourself to go back to the exact same day? How can you really time travel forward when the future hasn’t occurred yet? How can you physically go back into time, but your body and life remains active in the present?
I have to remind myself to not get so hung up on the details.
2. If your main character of the future accidentally or on purpose disrupts the past, chaos will occur in the present.
Main rule of time travel: don’t change the past, don’t interfere, just observe. No one follows this rule.
3. Your character will be tempted to fall in love while visiting the distant past. And will be tempted to stay…
Again, ties in with rule #2. If you fall in love with someone from the past, then you are obviously changing the course of the present/future. Henry deTramble goes back in time and meets his future wife as a child, however, he doesn’t remember that fact when it’s the present but his future/present wife does, so in a way her life was forever changed by knowing in advance she was going to marry him. Make sense? Probably not.
Shay has switched places with her grandmother Brandy (she’s literally herself in the body of her grandmother) and so naturally, if she wants to recreate the future she knows has already occurred, she has to marry and sleep with her own grandfather. But- here’s the rub- she truly falls in love and doesn’t want to switch places again. Ick.
Jake Epping meets a nice girl in Texas who could potentially stop him from completing his mission of saving JFK from assassination if he decides to marry and settle down. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t, but he’s tempted to go back and stay with her (or bring her to the future) a second time around, fully aware that he will be changing the course of history if he does so. See again, rule #2.
And Sy Morley falls for Julia in old New York and wants to stay in 1880’s for good. By staying, however, he would effectively wipe out his future self. Apparently he has no family that would miss him.
4. You must create an interesting character, but bland enough so that he/she can easily blend into the past.
Here’s where I take issue with the whole time travel canon that I’ve read. Where are the books about women and minorities traveling back to a different age when he or she would most certainly have a completely different day-to-day experience than if he or she were living in the present age? Only “The Mirror”- which starts with Shay as an up and coming liberated young woman of the late 1970s- makes the case for a woman dealing with sexism, wifely roles and duties, bathroom issues, virginity, childbirth in a different era than the one she was born into. But for Henry, Sy, and Jake they can easily be accepted as white males in whatever age they travel to and can blend in fairly easily, minor language and culture slips aside, because a white man today would have experienced approximately the same liberties in the country 100 years ago.
Jake touches briefly on segregation in the south in “11/22/63” and Sy confronts the sad state of constitutional rights and abuse by the police in 1880s NYC in “Time and Again”, but that’s about as harried as it gets. Neither man has any real distinguishable tattoos, mohawks, piercings, odd characteristics- anything that would cause them to stand out significantly in a different era and each have professions (artist and teacher) that could easily translate in the past.
It’s interesting to read about Shay’s journey to the early 1900s in Colorado because her experience demonstrates the changes that have occurred for women over the decades. She, a woman of the free lovin’ 70s, is now in an era where women cannot vote, are expected to marry young, and sex is for procreation only (and definitely not for female enjoyment as Shay disappointingly finds out).
Another striking feature about time travel books is that for the most part, the main character doesn’t have that big of a tie to the present. In the books I have read, only Henry deTramble needs to stay in the present for his family and they are definitely affected by his disappearences. Sy and Jake, however, have virtually no family to speak of in the present age and they can easily stay in the past without being much missed. I suppose this is the author’s way of not getting too specific with the fundamental rules of time travel and how it works, but it doesn’t make for terribly interesting characters if they have virtually no lives in the present that they can easily go off the grid for long periods of time, or forever. I can only hope someone in my family or my friends would miss me!
5. However, in addition to rule #4, your character must betray himself and his modern ways in some fashion that instantly puts people of the past on guard.
If you are from the age of technology specifically then you are certainly going to let a few things slip, naturally. I think it’s also nearly impossible to blend in perfectly into a different era simply because we are so much more relaxed in speech and customs these days. We swear, we wear flip flops, we know movie quotes, song lyrics, and slang that are so much part of our vernacular without us really realizing it. For instance, when you speak to another person, count how many times you say “like” or “um” or “yeah” or “cool”. These little word slips are fairly common across the board in the English language no matter which country you are from.
I get that if you said “That’s so cool!” circa 1865, someone might look at you funny. A woman letting a “fuckin’ A” out of the bag in the early 20th century probably wouldn’t go over so well, either. But are these slips anything that would really cause someone else to look at you as if you were from an alien planet? Both Jake Epping and Sy Morley from “11/22/63” and “Time and Again”, respectively, each get dinged for letting a few song lyrics and technological advances from the future slip out in casual conversation. Immediately they are looked upon with suspicion. Shay, in “The Mirror”, lets loose some historical facts that haven’t happened yet in the time period she’s traveled to, but the other folks write it off as “mentally disturbed”.
I dunno, if someone let fly a new word I’d never heard before I would probably wonder what he/she was talking about, but I don’t know if I’d immediately assume this person is an alien. But that seems to be the reaction in both novels. While reading “11/22/63”, I asked my parents- both in their late teens during the early 60s- that if someone came up to them and started quoting movies they had never heard of or used slang that was foreign to them, would they be alarmed. Both my parents told me that while they wouldn’t immediately think that person was from another time or planet, they would probably just assume he/she was weird and might avoid that person from then on. Interestingly, though, my parents did mention that in the late 50s and early 60s, the one word you absolutely did not use in mixed company, even in casual and friendly company, was the f-word. To hear someone (and I think nowadays our culture would be guilty of this) use the f-word so frequently and sprinkled liberally into regular conversation definitely would signal alarm and suspicion.
5a. The person who suspects you are not who you think you are will easily understand and come to terms with the fact that you are from the future when all is revealed.
Alas, all the love interests and casual acquaintances in each novel who eventually learn that the main character is indeed from the future seem to accept this fact in stride, after only a minor period of disbelief. In the case of “The Mirror”, Shay-as-Brandy’s husband and children do believe she has some sort of powers over predicting the future, as she successfully predicts a few events in the near future that come to fruition. I’m not sure any of them truly believe she’s actually from the future, but no one also really seems bothered by her “special” powers either.
Clare deTramble knows almost instantly that the man she met as a child is the same man she meets in a library in the present day- the man who will soon be her husband. I guess if there is anyone who should be understanding it is the the time traveler’s wife, as she’s grown up with time travel as part of her life. But most of the other love interests- Julia from “Time and Again” and Sadie from “11/22/63”- come to terms with their time travelin’ lovers fairly quickly. Both women even want to make the leap into the future, and Julia actually does. A big question remains, however, that if someone you met and love claims to be from the future:
a. would you automatically believe that person?
b. would you be scared witless by this fact?
or c. would you understand he/she was mentally “off” but never really fully believe the time travel stuff?
Most of the novels fall in category “a”. I, however, think I would (grudgingly) fall in category c. As much as I want time travel to be a real thing, even I would be skeptical.
6. You must absolutely include vivid details about what your character experiences in the past.
This rule, above all others, is what keeps me reading time travel fiction. If you want to feel like you’ve actually stepped right back in time, look no further than “11/22/63” and “Time and Again”. Each novel offers a wealth of detail, intricate cultural references, and nuance that makes the genre so much fun to read and explore. Some reviewers of both novels have complained that there was too much detail and background information, but I contest that such specific language and observation is crucial in order to make a time travel novel truly unique.
I want to feel exactly what life was like in the fifties, sixties or 1880s, and here is where an author gets to shine. He or she gets to recreate a whole time period that not only must be factually relevant, but should also include the author’s own imagination and personal spin. For sure, “11/22/63” and “Time and Again” are cloaked in nostalgia for a “simpler” time but each era feels especially accessible, as if I’m not just reading about it but actually experiencing and living in it. While reading “The Mirror” for example, I could almost taste the dust and hear silence in the night that Millhiser describes in an early 20th century mountain town. We can only imagine what life must have really been like a hundred years ago and the absolute treat is when a writer takes you there. And for maybe one minute, one moment in time, it’s possible to believe that time travel truly exists.