Double Trouble #HNS2019

Beatriz Williams and Kate Quinn were obviously having a blast at their session Double Trouble at #HNS2019. The topic was all about crafting the dual timeline historical novel and having written two of them — Time and Regret and the as yet unpublished The Admiral’s Wife — I wanted to hear their advice. They ran the session like a conversation which worked extremely well.

According to Beatriz and Kate, dual timeline novels are hot, and I wonder whether this is because they can appeal to both fans of contemporary and fans of historical novels. But let’s hear from the experts!

BW: a dual timeline story is a dialogue between past and present and as such it connects us to the past

KQ: Kate’s editor suggested writing a dual timeline novel, apparently saying that it had the advantage of getting your books shelved in two spots which will broaden your reach. Kate said that historical fiction is a more difficult sell in the market and that dual timeline makes the ‘sell’ easier.

BW: historical fiction doesn’t feel relevant to many readers; with the present being so challenging (!) and dynamic, many people have less respect for the past. It’s very important to create HF stories that are relevant to readers. Dual timeline has been around for a long time and is a respected structure for a novel.

KQ: there are many varieties of dual timeline. For example, you can position the same character at different points in his/her life. The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams follows that model. The contrast between a character at time A and time B creates tension, interest, questions, and drama.

BW: you can show how the time — the era and its events — affected the character. And the points of inflection in a character’s life. Stories like these are a bit more demanding of the reader. In terms of technique – you can write one narrative at a time or go back and forth between the narratives.

Both: Beatriz prefers to write one narrative at a time in order to feel immersed in the era. Kate said she wrote The Alice Network going back and forth between the narratives. Both said there is no ‘right way’ to do it and you can/should make connections between the timelines as you switch.

BW: every book has its own personality.

KQ: there are various devices to link the timelines. Characters, objects/artifacts, locations, dead bodies, antiques can all serve as links between timelines. Kate mentioned that old letters from the past are a bit overdone as a technique.

On the topic of pitfalls and problems:

BW: you need to ‘get into’ each character with enough depth and detail to give them the richness they deserve and make them come alive.

KQ: in The Huntress, three main characters gave variety in time, setting and character. In the process, this created much more research, challenges with language and slang, and a huge requirement for fact checking.

BW: you need to create difference as well as consistency of voice. She finds this challenge easier if she writes one timeline at a time. Recommends that you create variation in your characters in terms of ages, gender, backgrounds, experiences. As a writer, you need to slip into the being of your character, which in turn will help your readers do the same.

KQ: likes to write ‘fish-out-of-water stories’. For example, a night witch with a Nazi hunter. This technique creates conflict, tension, dissonance. Kate recommends 2000 to 5000 words before switching timelines. She also recommends creating some parallels in points of inflection for each timeline. These become the beats of the novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Kate and Beatriz and will take their advice into my next dual timeline! By the way, I’ve read both The Summer Wives and The Huntress – highly recommended and superbly crafted.

If you want more information about dual timeline novels, Susanna Kearsley did a session on them at the 2017 conference. I wrote about it in Weaving the Twin-Stranded Story.

Other posts about #HNS2019: Tips on Writing a Series,  The State of Historical Fiction and When You Don’t Quite Fit.


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

The Alice Network with Kate Quinn

What book am I recommending these days when friends ask? The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Why? Because it grabbed me from the very start and wouldn’t let go. And what special ingredients does it have? Flawed, heroic, and intriguing characters – check. Tension that builds and builds – check. A superb sense of history and setting – check. Strong writing – check. An immersive experience – check. A flawless weaving of two timelines – check. What more could you ask for?

Better still, Kate Quinn has graciously agreed to answer a few questions about The Alice Network and her writing.

Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for The Alice Network?

I first came across the historic Alice Network in a fantastic non-fiction book called “Women Heroes of WWI” by Kathryn J. Atwood, and was astounded that I’d never heard of this spy network or its brave operatives before. It was a story that begged to be told.

Eve and Charlie are powerful characters – do you use any special techniques to outline your characters in advance? And if so, how did you decide on the attributes for these two women?

I do a lot of outlining with Scrivener in advance, tracing character arcs, background, inner wounds, etc. I knew I wanted Charlie to be pregnant and unmarried, because that was an effective catalyst to get her to Europe and because it gave her story emotional ballast–being an unwed mother is a huge problem to overcome in the 40s! And it was my husband’s idea to give Eve a stammer; he has a similar speech impediment, and has faced many of the same struggles Eve does. I loved the idea of having a heroine with a speech problem–taking what could be a weakness, and weaponizing it into an advantage as she lets people underestimate her.

Writing a dual-timeline novel is challenging. How did you keep your plot organized and ensure that the pacing flowed effectively back and forth?

I plotted out each timeline separately first, A-Z, then intercut them as I wrote, going back and forth from chapter to chapter. Plotting each timeline out separately kept them organized, and then going back and forth as I wrote made it easier to tease out the parallels between plotlines.

What did you leave out of the novel – scenes that went by the wayside? Characters you discarded?

Quite late in the editing process, I came across some wonderful information about real life members of the Alice Network–all through letters discovered in family archives by their modern-day descendants. These real-life figures make tiny cameos in the book, but I’d have loved to make them bigger characters with more story and plot. If I hadn’t been 5/6 finished with final edits, I would have!

You’ve previously written about ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance – what made you change time periods? Were WWI and WWII easier eras to tackle?

I’ve never been a one-era-only writer; I’ve always had potential story ideas set all the way from the ancient world to the 20th century. So when I saw the recent boom in 20th century war fiction, it made sense to revisit some of those ideas (“Book about a female spy…? Use a real spy…?”) and see if anything took off in my imagination once I started researching. And it did!

Many thanks for answering my questions, Kate. I’m sure both readers and writers will find your experiences fascinating.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, code name Alice, the “queen of spies,” who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. That is until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth . . . no matter where it leads.


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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