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Susanna Kearsley shared insights on what she called twin-stranded – or dual timeline – stories at #HNS2017 in Portland, Oregon. I remember reading Kearsley’s novel, The Winter Sea, a number of years ago and being enchanted by the story of an author writing about her long ago ancestors and suddenly finding herself transported back into the very time and setting of her novel. Having written my own dual-timeline story – Time and Regret – this was definitely a session I wanted to attend.

Kearsley feels this type of story is an “easier entry point for readers into historical fiction” because of the way it uses the present day to explain some of the history. Another feature of these novels is the ability to use foreshadowing to create suspense for the storyline set in the past. An author can also cut from one thread to another at a suspenseful moment – thus extending the suspense until returning to the earlier thread.

Kearsley used the image of a river and a boat to describe how she works her twin-stranded stories. The past is usually the river having more power, suspense and action while the present-day story is the boat bobbing along the river. Keeping readers oriented in both stories and avoiding confusion is critical.

When developing her novels, Susanna mirrors one story with the other in terms of themes although her characters often make different choices when faced with similar circumstances which allows her – and her readers – to explore these themes more deeply.

Helpfully, Susanna provided us with a handout. One section called Making the Switch: Techniques is a description of seven ways to switch from one storyline to the other.

  1. Start a New Chapter or Section
  2. Use a Line Break with a Clear Lead-in
  3. Change from 1st to 2nd and/or 3rd Person
  4. Change the Narrator
  5. Protagonist Tells Us Where We Are
  6. Author Tells Us Where We Are – usually with a date line
  7. Change the Font

The second section of the handout offered novels and films illustrating six types of twin-stranded stories.

MEMORY – The Shell Seekers by Rosamund Pilcher, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, the film Titanic

STORYTELLING – A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, Every Secret Thing by Susanna Kearsley, the film Definitely, Maybe

CONSCIOUS ACTION – like time travel – The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier, Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson, the film The Two Worlds of Jennie Logan

UNCONCIOUS MEMORY – time slip or ancestral memory – The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, Before I Wake by Robert Wiersema, the film Sliding Doors

ONLY THE READER KNOWS – often suspense fiction – Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett, Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart, the film Day of the Jackal

RESEARCH/LETTERS – a very common approach – Possession by A.S.Byatt, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig, the film The Words

The audience paid close attention throughout the session – with more than fifty in attendance I suspect we’ll soon be seeing more twin-stranded stories! At the airport on Sunday, I discovered Susanna Kearsley waiting for the same flight back to Toronto and we had a lovely time talking about writing and historical fiction.

For further thoughts on twin-stranded or dual-timeline stories, have a look at The Mapmaker’s Children – A Dual Timeline Mystery or 8 Tips on Writing Dual Timeline Mysteries.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.