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Shortly after Time and Regret released, I had the good fortune to write a post for mystery author Elizabeth Spann Craig‘s blog. The post was called 8 Tips on Writing Dual-Time Mysteries. Let’s see how author Sarah McCoy’s novel The Mapmaker’s Children, which I’ve recently read, stacks up.
Are you telling two stories or one? Each timeline must enhance the other. For me, this is an area where The Mapmaker’s Children disappoints. One storyline deals with Sarah Brown, daughter of abolitionist, John Brown while the present day story centres on Eden, a woman desperate to conceive a child. The link between the two stories is the house Eden and her husband Jack live in and the head of a porcelain doll she discovers in the root cellar. Unfortunately, Eden’s struggles offer little connection with Sarah’s and the two stories do not enhance one another.
Both timelines have to engage the readers. I found the Sarah Brown story very engaging. The history of that time is rich and the story combines danger and uncertainty with strong emotions and a family torn apart by war and abolitionist sentiments. In comparison, the present-day story seemed simplistic and predictable.
Readers must care deeply about both protagonists. Sarah Brown’s plight engaged my emotions; Eden came across as unreasonable and full of self-pity.
Each protagonist must have a distinct voice. McCoy does a good job of creating distinctive voices for her two protagonist. Eden’s is clearly modern while Sarah Brown’s voice invokes a past time by using different language and sentence structure.
Readers must be clear about which era they’re in at any point in the novel. Beyond distinctive voices, the author makes the timeline clear to the reader by adding the protagonist’s name to each chapter heading. And beyond that, the action and historical references keep the timelines clearly delineated.
Plotting a dual-time mystery is even more complicated than a regular mystery. Because of what occurs in Sarah Brown’s timeline, as readers we know a good deal about the mystery Eden is struggling to solve. Unfortunately, this takes away from the suspense of the story.
Avoid jumping back and forth too frequently. The author handles the balance between the two timelines well.
The rules of excellent historical fiction still apply. Sarah McCoy bring the past to life with a great piece of historical fiction embedded in The Mapmaker’s Children. I thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Brown’s part of the story and learned a lot about the underground railroad. In my opinion, the author could have written a brilliant novel solely concerned with the historical piece of the story.
If you’ve read The Mapmaker’s Children, what are your thoughts? If you’ve read other dual-time mysteries that you feel hold up agains these criteria, I’d love to hear about them.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.