8 Tips on Writing Dual-Time Mysteries

Source: Mexperience

As I mentioned on Tuesday’s post, I’m this week’s host over at American Historical Novels. I’ve had a great time talking with readers about the craft of writing and about Time and Regret. Today’s post at American Historical Novels is a condensation of the one below, which I wrote for Elizabeth Spann Craig’s blog.

What do The Ashford Affairby Lauren Willig, The Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian, The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro, and The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier have in common? Answer: they are all dual-time mysteries. I love reading stories like these. But writing one proved to be a significant challenge and demanded a different approach from my previous historical novels.

So what did I learn? Below are eight tips for crafting this type of story.

  • Are you telling two stories or one?You need to be clear on whether you are telling two stories or one. In other words, the links between each timeline, the character arcs, and essence of the mystery need to integrate seamlessly into one satisfying read. Each timeline must enhance the other. If you conclude that you are telling two stories, you really should write two books.
  • Both timelines have to engage the readers– finding the balance is critical. I once read only the present day portion of a novel because the historical portion was confusing and added almost nothing to the story. In another instance, my review suggested that the present day story was very thin and could have been eliminated.
  • Whether separated by fifty years or five hundred, your novel will have two protagonists, one for each time period. Readers must care deeply about both of them. Furthermore, the present day character should be more than merely a narrator for a story set in the past.
  • Each protagonist must have a distinct voice. Your readers should never be confused about who is in charge of the story at any given point. The thinking, inner dialogue, and perspective of each protagonist should set them apart.
  • Beyond the distinct voices of your protagonists, readers must be clear about which era they’re in at any point in the novel. This requires careful attention to setting, dialogue, behaviours, events of the time period, possessions, attitudes, and other elements that alert a reader to the era.
  • Plotting a dual-time mystery is even more complicated than a regular mystery. Clues will emerge from each time period. I developed a table to track every clue regardless of time period and its relevance to the overall mystery. And if you want your readers to puzzle out the mystery as they read, be careful that the earlier storyline doesn’t reveal too much of the mystery too soon.
  • Avoid jumping back and forth too frequently. Readers need to engage sufficiently in each story before you change the characters and time period. This piece of advice is particularly important in the early chapters when you are establishing characters and setting, creating hooks, and revealing the central questions the story will answer.
  • The rules of excellent historical fiction still apply. In a 2013 reader survey I conducted, readers said that the top three reasons they read historical fiction are: to bring the past to life, because it’s a great story, and to understand and learn without reading non-fiction. To augment that data, in 2015 readers chose immersed in time and place, superb writing, characters both heroic and human, authentic and educational, and the dramatic arc of history as the top 5 factors in favourite historical fiction. (You can find more survey insights on www.awriterofhistory.com.)

Mysteries are a favourite genre: 40% of participants in a 2015 historical fiction survey and 55% of participants in a 2018 broad reader survey chose mysteries as one of their top three types of stories to read. Write your dual-time mystery well and it will appeal to mystery lovers as well as lovers of historical fiction.

By the way – there’s a giveaway for Time and Regret over at American Historical Novels 


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.

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7 Responses

  1. Great post, Mary! And a subject I’ve been dealing with in the writing of my new novel.

    But what if it’s a different kind of “dual timeline”? Like if the protagonist is in *both* timelines? I’m thinking of books like: 11/22/63 (Stephen King), Time and Again (Jack Finney), and Timeline (Michael Crichton). Admittedly, this moves more into SciFi and/or Fantasy territory, but these are also blends of Historical Fiction and Mystery. I think most of your tips still apply, don’t you?

  2. I always enjoy reading dual timeline stories. My favorite novel of this genre is The Eight by Katherine Neville.

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