I knew from the outset that I was going to have to plan The Hidden Legacy in detail. I've tried writing an opening scene and then just setting off to see where it will take me, but that approach would have been desperately difficult, given that I was dealing with such complex timelines. So I planned meticulously, working from cards pinned on a board. I knew, before I'd written anything, exactly how many scenes there were going to be and how many I would need to write each week to meet the deadline I'd set for myself. I think every writer has to find her or his own way of operating but this certainly worked well for me.
Before any of the planning was done though, I needed my central character. I had a rough idea of who Ellen was but needed to know her better so I used a character checklist to itemise just about every aspect of her life: which newspaper she read, what music she liked, any guilty pleasures she might have, what she feared more than anything else. Before long I found I was carrying her around with me everywhere I went, wondering how she would react to news items etc. And once I had her, I had the plot because it grew out of her needs, strengths and anxieties.
Top 10 Tips on how to write a time-slip novel
- Build a plan. If you're setting out for John O'Groats from Lands End and take no account of road maps, satnav or even signposts and just trusting your instincts, you'll probably find yourself somewhere near Canterbury by the end of the week. It doesn't have to be as detailed a plan as the one I used for The Hidden Legacy. It doesn't even need to be written down anywhere for you to keep referring to it. I'm not sure though how effectively you can keep track of where you're heading without at least some idea of where you are along the route and where to go next. I accept this may be a personal preference. As I said earlier, all writers have to find what works for them.
- Get your timelines down on paper. For The Hidden Legacy I had two different timelines, one starting from 1966, the other from 2008. I used a Word document to record the exact dates of every significant event in the novel, including the personal details of the major characters such as date of birth, marriage, children, moving house, starting jobs . . . everything. This meant that I had a chart going from 1916 through to the present day and was able to keep the chronology straight in my head. There's nothing worse than describing an event in your lead character's life and being really delighted with the outcome, only to find that it couldn't possibly have taken place at that time.
- Keep revisiting your timelines. You need to do this every time you edit . . . and believe me, at some stage in the process you will be doing a lot of that! Despite my detailed timeline which I confidently expected to see me through the process, I was asked by an eagle-eyed editor if I was sure a certain character was that age when she fell pregnant - surely she had to have been a year younger. I was confident I was right until I checked - because I'd edited two or three times and changed a few details about one character, it then interfered with the chronology I'd set up for another and I was indeed out by a year. I was lucky that the editor was so conscientious. I may not be so fortunate in future.
- Consult others about the plan. I'm assuming most writers have a team of readers, however small, to whom they show work in progress. Don't be afraid to share the vision. Talk to them about what you're planning and see if they think it will work. Sometimes, especially when you're head down and bombing forward, it's easy to lose track of simple problems and opportunities that your reader will spot for you. Get your head up every so often and take stock.
- Don't overdo it. Many readers love to be challenged by complex storylines so the temptation is there for an author to make things as difficult as possible. After all, no one wants to be told that readers have managed to work out who the guilty party was before the halfway stage. It's possible to go too far with this however - darting back and forth between multiple time zones and different narrators (who may not have the clear, distinctive voice you imagine) can leave the reader confused and irritated. In The Hidden Legacy I hope the story itself will offer enough challenge to satisfy anyone so I've labelled each section clearly to make it clear when this is taking place and who the central character of that section is. It's the reader in me! I think it's important to aim for the clarity I would welcome as a reader.
- It doesn't have to be post-its. About 6 months before I started planning The Hidden Legacy I watched a recording made by the comedian Rob Newman (if I remember correctly) who set out to write a novel in 12 months and videoed the whole process. He did all of his writing in one tiny room and plastered every available bit of wall space with post-its, each containing ideas, bits of dialogue, plot twists etc. I adapted it slightly, opting for something more structured, using a notice board. It's just as easy though, as I've found with my second novel, to create a Word document and simply keep editing via track changes. It really doesn't matter how - it's the process that's important. Use anything that will get you from a blank page to a detailed plan.
- Read other novels. The more you read, the easier it is to learn from the experience of others who have been there before you. I've picked up so much from authors such as David Mitchell, Sarah Waters, Toni Morrison, Anita Shreve and many others who have successfully juggled timelines. Re-inventing the wheel is maybe good for the soul but it's so time consuming.
- Do your research. It's an occupational hazard that whatever you choose to write about, the chances are high that there will be someone out there who knows the subject better than you do and will spot a factual or procedural error you've unwittingly made. Don't worry about it - these things happen and the chances are that the error is not even going to be spotted by the other readers, let alone spoil their enjoyment of the book. But you can at least cover yourself as much as possible by keeping factual errors to a minimum. Research the era to which you intend to return as thoroughly as possible. Remember that personal memories - especially of the 60s and 70s! - can be unreliable so make a point of checking contemporary references to the best of your ability. Little things, like adverts from that era or music and films that evoke a particular age are easy things to slip in but locations and shop names etc can help to bring a scene to life and put the reader in the centre of the action for that brief moment.
- Buy shares in paracetamol. You'll need them.
- Bring it all together somehow. I was acutely aware while writing The Hidden Legacy that I had a responsibility to make sure that things were rounded off satisfactorily with no loose ends. No reader who has stayed with you for 400 pages is going to want to be left dangling. It's important to take from them any opportunity to say "Wait a minute . . . what about . . .?" I'm hoping I've managed that but will doubtless find out before long.
The Hidden Legacy by G.J Minett is out in ebook on 5th November and released as a paperback in 2016 (Twenty7).