C.M. Keller on Writing Time Travel Stories

Hey all! We have another guest here today. C.M. Keller is here as part of her newest book release. So before I hand things over to her, I thought I’d share a bit more information on Screwing Up Alexandria:

Time traveling has never brought Mark Montgomery anything but grief. And then, things get worse.

When Mark comes home from Babylon with a coded tablet, he never dreams someone would be willing to kill to get it. But they are. So Mark and Miranda kidnap an ancient cryptographer named Nin and take her to the Library of Alexandria to decipher it.

The search for the truth of the tablet takes all of them to the most dangerous time on earth. And when Nin ends up on an altar surrounded by blood-thirsty crowds, only Mark can save her. But he’s blind.

Sounds awesome, right?

And now, I’m handing over to Connie to tell us a bit more about writing time travel stories.

As a writer of historical and time travel fiction, one of the greatest ironies I’ve discovered is that as radically different as other times and cultures are, people aren’t that different than we are.

The trick to writing time travel is to remember that while the character’s hopes, desires, and problems are similar to ours, they must be shaped by the time they are set in. The culture of the time period must become a character and drives the narrative. In other words, what happens to the characters in Alexandria should be so defined by the time and place that the plot could never unfold like it does anywhere else.

When I pick a time period, I research the culture and history, immersing myself in the significant people, places, foods, etc. I use small details like food, drink, clothing, and superstitions to convey a sense of the exotic and add verisimilitude.

However, the places, people, and culture must propel the plot. For example, in Screwing Up Babylon, I needed a chase scene, and I knew it had to take place in the Hanging Gardens. So I envisioned myself as Mark trapped in the gardens and wondered, How can I escape? The answer was easy—by way of a man-made river that watered the garden. I ended up with a very authentic “waterslide” adventure inside Babylon’s Hanging Gardens.

One of the great things setting the novels in Babylon, British Middle Ages, Alexandria, Mongolia, etc., is that it helps to keep a series fresh. There are always new characters and experiences, so creative options are endless.

The hardest thing about time travel fiction is the language barrier. There is no way to give your characters facility in various languages. My main character Mark, who is seventeen when the series starts, does not/cannot know ancient Greek, Akkadian, Sumerian, etc. So, I’ve had to find ways to allow him to communicate and establish relationships with other characters without knowing the languages.

One way I did this was through the use of other time travelers, people with more language abilities. But I wanted to be very careful with this and not use it as a deus-ex-machina answer to Mark’s problem. So I gave the other time travelers their own agendas, and they are at least as unhelpful as they are helpful, which made them wonderful to write. (I have a soft spot for tough, witty characters.) Another way I dealt with the language problem was by realizing it wasn’t really a problem. The places where Mark travels are not backwaters. These cities are cosmopolitan, cultural crossroads. It wouldn’t be unusual for people without a common language to encounter each other. So I spent a lot of time figuring out how to communicate without words.

A reader once commented that it wasn’t until after she finished the book that she realized that Mark had never once spoken directly to the Babylonians. So I guess it worked.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, questions, or ideas.

Thanks, Misha, for this opportunity to talk about time travel writing!

About MeC. M. Keller is an award-winning novelist and the author of the SCREWING UP TIME series. She loves old movies and poison rings. In her spare time, she searches for that elusive unicorn horn. She’s currently hard at work on her next YA novel, the fourth book in Mark and Miranda’s story.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Connie! 

Removing the Scaffolding

Hi all, Today I welcome C.M. Keller. She’s here to write about Removing the Scaffolding and to market her new book, Screwing Up Time.

Mark Montgomery is a slacker content with his life. He’s a senior at New Haven Prep, has a great friend, and after graduation he’ll get a brand new sports car from his parents, assuming he stays out of trouble. Then, she comes into his life—Miranda with her I-just-escaped-from-a-Renaissance-Fair clothing. Only, she hasn’t. She has come from Bodiam Castle in the Middle Ages and demands a secret ingredient and a book of recipes for traveling through the treacherous colors of time. Although Mark has never even heard of either before, he must find them, or Miranda will die. To save her, Mark must break into a psych hospital to visit his grandfather who once tried to kill him, pass through the colors of time, take on a medieval alchemist, prevent Miranda’s marriage to a two-timing baron, and keep it all hidden from his parents. The sports car is definitely in trouble.

Screwing Up Time is available on Kindle and Nook

Now, without further ado, here’s C.M. Keller on Removing the Scaffolding:

First of all, I’d like to thank Misha for allowing me to guest blog for her today. I hope to share some of what I’ve learned in my years of writing—just because I had to bang my head against the wall of writing ignorance doesn’t mean you have to.

Every writer knows that after we finish the first draft, we need to edit. We have to fill the landslide-sized plot holes, rid our manuscript of characters whose original purpose we’ve forgotten, and murder our darlings. But this post addresses the editing that comes after that. The editing that we sometimes avoid because it’s tedious and because the next novel is already seducing us. (Resist your lust for new plot lines a bit longer.)

These secondary edits are an opportunity to take your writing to the next level. I call this stage “removing the scaffolding.” Think of it this way, when art restorers finish repairing a frescoed ceiling, they have to take down the scaffolding. Otherwise, no one can see the fresco. Similarly, writers need to remove their scaffolding—the words and phrases that supported the first draft. For example, when I’m writing a first draft and can’t think of the perfect word/phrase, I substitute an adequate one. This isn’t bad. In fact, it’s a good thing because it keeps me from getting bogged down and I can get the story on paper while the passion and energy are hot. (If you struggle with this, I’d recommend Stephen King’s book On Writing.) But once the story’s on paper, those supports have to go.

Every writer has his/her own structural supports, but here are some that writers, myself included, often use. For example, to provide the “beats” the dialogue needs, I often have a character make a physical movement. However, by the end of the first draft I have so many shook his/her heads that the characters’ necks should’ve snapped and their skulls ought to be rolling on the ground. I also end up with more look/looked/looking than you’d believe possible. Not to mention the myriads of he/she ran a hand through his/her hair—they do this so often, you’d think every character must have a serious case of eczema or lice. 

If you’re nodding your head and thinking “I do that too,” don’t be discouraged. Remember those supports were important—they were the scaffolding that held the story together as you wrote it. But now, they must be removed. So how do you go about it? One way I’ve seen writers deal with word repetitions is to use synonyms. And “looked” becomes glanced, perused, spied, peeked, peeped, etc., etc. Do NOT do this. All it does is tell the reader that you have a really good thesaurus. The way to a beautiful novel is to replace the adequate beats and repetitions with texture. In other words, the beat must advance the plot or teach the reader more about the character. If not, it’s called a “cheap beat” and says “I’m An Amateur” in blinking neon lights. 

Good beats read like this:

            “You mean you’ve—” Martin swallowed and his necktie climbed his swollen gorge.  

From Beyond the Bedroom Wall by Larry Woiwode, National Book Award finalist. Here we know that not only is Martin surprised and upset, he’s so straight-laced that with a big swallow, his too-tight tie climbs his neck.

            “…He decided one day to join the black horses in the mountains. One night during a terrible storm he was struck by lightning. The lightning burned him all black. He was killed. That is the end of the story.”

            There was silence. Through my open windows came the murmurous sounds of the surf.
            “I don’t like that story,” I said finally.

From Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok. Here the silence and the sounds give us the melancholy mood and foreshadow the boy’s response.

(Emerson and Amelia are discussing how to preserve a painting.)

            “A solution is precisely what it is. A mixture of weak tapioca and water, brushed on the painting—”

             “You said brushing marred the paint.”

            “I brush it on with my finger.”

             I starred at him with reluctant admiration.

             “You are determined, I’ll say that for you.”

From Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, New York Times bestselling author. Here we see the repartee both spoken and unspoken between the characters—and we get the sense that they have a unique but happy relationship.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s hard to write like that. Yeah, it is. But you can do it. After all, if you’ve completed a novel, the hardest part is already behind you. Do it. You know you can.

For more information on “scaffold editing,” I highly recommend the book Don’t Sabotage Your Submission by Chris Roerden, a former independent book editor for authors published by St. Martin’s, Midnight Ink, Viking, Intrigue, Rodale, and others. 

Thanks so much for the great post, Connie! Good luck with your sales!

I know that I can sometimes overuse some of my beats. I really have to pay attention to them when I edit. Which beats do you overuse?