Whether you call it split-time, time slip, or dual timeline, books containing multiple timelines are gaining in popularity. And recent runaway bestsellers like Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing and Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours show the genre has the potential for some serious staying power. If you’re interested in trying your hand at writing split-time, here are a few key ingredients for a successful split-time story.
Two (or more) historical eras. Typically, one timeline is in the here and now, whereas the other is set sometime in the past. When should you set your past timeline? Whenever you want! Melanie Dobson and Kristy Cambron have written stories focusing on World War II-era past timelines, while Ashley Clark visits the Civil War era in her most recent release (Where the Last Rose Blooms) and Amanda Dykes will take us to 1800s Venice in her next book (All the Lost Places, releasing in December 2022). Jaime Jo Wright’s The Souls of Lost Lake takes us to the 1930s, Rachel Hauck and I have both set past stories in the 1950s, and Amanda Cox’s past timelines tend to be very recent, even as recent as the 1990s!
Linking Object. Most split-time stories involve some tangible object that links the past storyline with the present. Frequently the present-day characters encounter the object in some way and endeavor to learn about its past. The sky’s the limit when it comes to something like this, and I’ve seen lots of creative linking objects including a ring (Heidi Chiavaroli’s award-winning debut, Freedom’s Ring), a violin (Kristy Cambron’s The Butterfly and The Violin), a love letter (Pepper Basham’s Hope Between the Pages), and a steamboat (Rachel Scott McDaniel’s Undercurrent of Secrets).
I used a farmhouse in my debut, Roots of Wood and Stone, and in its sequel, The Songs That Could Have Been, an Alzheimer’s-stricken grandma served to link the two stories. Perhaps my favorite use of a linking object was a scarf in Susan Meissner’s A Fall of Marigolds; this scarf was actually missing for a good chunk of the story, so instead of searching for information about it, the characters searched for the scarf itself!
Common Theme. Many split-time stories contain similar—though not identical—themes for the present and past stories, although it can vary from author to author and even book to book. In Roots of Wood and Stone, both the contemporary heroine, Sloane, and the past heroine, Annabelle, experienced parental abandonment. How they reacted to and learned from this abandonment shaped both their character arcs.
Other books explore similar issues against the backdrop of different historical contexts. Heidi Chiavaroli’s The Orchard House explores spousal abuse in both storylines, while in Erin Bartels’ debut, We Hope For Better Things, all three (yes, three!) timelines feature interracial relationships. Setting the same situation in different eras proves fascinating for both reader and author!
Once you’ve got these ingredients assembled, mix thoroughly. This mixing is critical to split-time success. If, say, you can lift your past timeline out of the story and the present one doesn’t change at all, you might be better served fleshing out both and turning them into two separate stories! The best split-times are those where the past timeline is framework on which the present timeline is built. Neither story would be complete without the other. This is, I think, what presents the biggest challenge and greatest reward of these types of stories, and why despite having to do double the work (two eras to research, two story arcs to get right, figuring out just how and when to switch timelines to keep the plot moving), I love this genre and don’t plan to quit writing it anytime soon!
If you’d like to dive deeper into the craft of split-time writing, Melanie Dobson and Morgan Tarpley Smith have written a book on exactly that. A Split In Time: How to Write Dual Timeline, Time Slip, and Split-Time Fiction will help you navigate all the nuts and bolts of this challenging, but rewarding genre! And if you’re a fan of all things split-time, be sure to join our Facebook group, A Split In Time, where we share news about upcoming releases, reviews of books we’ve read, and the general joy of reading stories with multiple timelines.
Amanda Wen’s debut novel, Roots of Wood and Stone, released to both reader and critical acclaim. The book was named a 2021 Foreword INDIES Gold Award winner and was a finalist in both the Christy and Carol Awards. In addition to her writing, Amanda is an accomplished professional cellist and pianist who frequently performs with orchestras, chamber groups, and her church’s worship team, as well as serving as a choral accompanist. A lifelong denizen of the flatlands, Amanda currently lives in Kansas with her patient, loving, and hilarious husband, their three adorable Wenlets, and a snuggly Siamese cat. She loves to connect with readers through her newsletter and share book recommendations on BookBub.