31 May 2018

Writing a novel with dual timelines

Caroline Beecham, Author
by Caroline Beecham From Our Students, Writing Tips

Caroline Beecham’s first novel Maggie’s Kitchen (a romance set in WWII) was published by Ebury Press in 2017. Now she’s back with her second book, Eleanor’s Secret – the novel she worked on during her time on our 6-month online novel-writing course – which moves back and forth between two timelines:

London, 1942
When art school graduate, Eleanor Roy, is recruited by the War Artists Advisory Committee, she comes one step closer to realising her dream of becoming one of the few female war artists. But breaking into the art establishment proves difficult until Eleanor meets painter, Jack Valante – only for them to be separated by his sudden posting overseas.

Melbourne 2010
Although reluctant to leave her family at home, Kathryn can’t refuse her grandmother Eleanor’s request to travel to London to help her return a precious painting to its artist. But when the search uncovers a long-held family secret, Kathryn faces a dilemma: Is safeguarding the future worth more than protecting the past?

Here Caroline discusses the challenges she faced when writing the dual timeline of Eleanor’s Secret and tells us two pieces of writing advice from her CBC tutor Nikita Lalwani that worked for her:

The idea for Eleanor’s Secret had already formed when I was writing my first novel Maggie’s Kitchen. I was quite clear on my story and who the characters were, and also on the importance of the dual timelines: One reason for the dual timelines was that I was interested in the idea of connection between generations –  how the actions of one generation inevitably affect future ones; the good and the bad outcome. There are acts of selfishness that have repercussions – but there are sacrifices too.

The story was always about Eleanor and how she tries to realise her dream of being an official war artist during the Second World War, and it was intriguing to see how people recorded war so differently then and now; thumbnail sketches were sent home and major artworks worked up sometimes weeks later. Eleanor’s granddaughter, Kathryn, becomes fascinated by the contrast of this with the instant access we now have to conflicts. She becomes drawn into the search for the missing artist, Jack Valante, for her own sake as well as her grandmother’s, and this is the second reason for the dual narrative; her motivation to find out what happened drives her to solve the mystery.

For me, the challenges with writing the dual timelines weren’t anything to do with the changing points of view (Eleanor’s versus Kathryn’s) – but in connecting the story through the chapters so that there wasn’t any repetition – only intrigue to propel the reader to want to discover more. Two of the things that really helped me from the CBC course were that Nikita Lalwani emphasised how the first three chapters of your novel are the engine of your story, that they have to propel the story forward. This is crucial in dual timelines as you have to decide which storyline to begin with, and the placing of the alternating chapters to create the best tension. Kathryn’s search for Jack became the engine for the story, and the journey takes Kathryn back to her grandmother’s life in wartime London as she tries to uncover why Jack’s art – and he – is so important to her.

Nikita’s other piece of advice was to make sure that both storylines are equally compelling, and the characters as interesting; if they’re not, then readers would just flick through the pages following the preferred story. I knew early on that the two storylines were inextricably linked and that the characters and action had to be balanced to keep the reader’s interest. But the biggest challenge came from the editing and rewriting process: when you make changes in one storyline, you also have to change the other one! Luckily, I had plotted the story quite well beforehand and I also worked with a great editor who picked up on inconsistencies.

There was an extra pressure for me in having to write the second novel fast; it took nearly five years to research and write my first novel, and I only had a year for the second one. When I did my first rewrite and things started to change, I found myself having to spend a lot of time amending excel spreadsheets of important dates, plot intricacies and how edits  affected all the important aspects of the story, such as the revelations, the characters motivations, etc. It was a very intense period, and I was pleased when I came out the other side. My advice to anyone doing dual timelines is to keep a spreadsheet from the beginning so you don’t have to backtrack later on.

It was very satisfying to achieve what I set out to with Eleanor’s Secret, and now I just hope readers will enjoy the story. Meanwhile, I’m ready for the next challenge…

Eleanor’s Secret was published in May 2018 by Ebury Press in the UK and Allen & Unwin in Australia and New Zealand. It is available to buy it here.

If you are interested working on your novel with us like Caroline our next 6-month novel-writing course is open now for applications, find out more and apply here. There is also a fully-funded scholarship place available.

We also have three online courses for all-comers which last 6-weeks. Enrol now for the June courses: Starting to Write Your NovelWrite to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel, these are the last courses before autumn.

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