I enjoy novels which are set in both the past and the present, but it can be a tricky thing for a writer to pull off successfully. Here are some of the things a writer must think about if attempting a dual- or multi-time story.
Both parts of the book must be interesting
The historical story and the contemporary story both need to be intrinsically interesting in themselves.
An element of the contemporary story will inevitably be unravelling the historical tale, but it isn’t enough for the contemporary heroine to simply “discover” what went on in the past. If that is the case then there isn’t a compelling reason for the contemporary story to exist and the author might as well have written a straightforward historical novel.
Also, I think it’s a mistake to try and make the contemporary story interesting simply by giving the heroine, say, a problem with her boyfriend. Such problems tend to seem paltry when compared with the war/famine/plague/witch hunt/inquisition problems of the historical heroine.
Kate Mosse does a great job in Labyrinth by combining a powerful historical story about the persecution of the Cathars in 13th century Carcassonne with a modern-day thriller involving a religious sect. Both stories are full of suspense and the past fully impacts on the present, which brings me to…
Impact of the past on the present
The historical story must impact the present day in a significant, even devastating way.
The historical story needs to have an unresolved element, such as a mystery or a feud, which is only resolved by the actions of the contemporary characters. But more than simply solving the mystery of the past, the contemporary characters need to be impacted by it, by which I mean they need to be imperilled by it. Labyrinth and Sepulchre (also by Kate Moss) are two of the best examples I know where this is done brilliantly.
How the past and the present are linked
The past and the present must be linked in a convincing way.
The contemporary heroine needs a method of discovering the historical story and this often depends on the number of years separating the past and the present.
If the historical story is set in the 18th or 19th centuries then you can give your contemporary heroine access to diaries, letters, books, paintings and even photographs or phonographs from the latter part of the 19th century. It’s even plausible that your heroine might find a 17th century family Bible knocking around in the attic of an old manor house. But any earlier than the 17th century and it’s unlikely that your heroine is going to have easy access to written documentation unless she has access to the archives of somewhere like the British Library.
But it’s not terribly interesting if your heroine simply reads about the past. Authors usually want their contemporary heroines to get inside the heads of their historical counterparts and I think this is why they often employ the supernatural. The historical heroine starts appearing in dreams or is witnessed at dusk standing on the shores of the lake, that sort of thing. Kate Moss doesn’t shy away from using dreams and ghosts in her books to link the past and the present, and neither does Tracy Chevalier in her first novel The Virgin Blue.
Whatever method you choose I think this is a danger area where the author needs to take great care not to push the reader’s credulity too far.
I’d love to read more dual-time stories. If you have any recommendations, please do leave a comment below.