Posted On December 13, 2017 by Print This Post

Dual Timeline Novels…More Than a Flashback – by Phillipa Nefri Clark

Author Phillipa Nefri Clark joins us today for a discussion on writing stories with dual timelines. Welcome to RU, Phillipa! 

Most fiction is linear, told beginning to end, sometimes employing brief flashbacks to help things along. So, why use multiple timelines to tell a story, and what are some tricks to making it work?

Dual timelines are more than flashbacks. The second timeline runs alongside the main story, adding to its tension, excitement, despair, and resolution.

Imagine a story set today, but fuelled by events from the past. The main story belongs to the protagonist and the situation she’s in because of what occurred in another time. This is what happens to Christie in The Stationmaster’s Cottage. Bound by a sense of loyalty to her deceased grandmother, she finds herself in the middle of a fifty-year-old mystery. After inheriting an old cottage, Christie discovers long-hidden love letters and wedding rings in the attic.

This could be told in a linear fashion, but how much more interesting to take the reader back to the past, immersing them in a secondary tale! Clues from the past reached into the present, bringing the story to life. An example is a love heart engraved on a cliff face by the beach. The reader discovers it with Christie in 2017, then experiences the moment it was crafted in 1966. Connections matter and dual timelines are a perfect vehicle to exploit them.

Creating a dual universe allows the writer to engage readers on a different level. Not only are they falling in love with the MC and her hero, but with the characters from another time. And when the mystery of the past is solved and the two timelines come together… well, it is magical. Sounds easy.

Except, it isn’t. Let’s explore some of the complexities. Instead of one story with a beginning, middle and end, there are two. Possibly two heroines and their heroes, depending upon the book. Two worlds to create, each as real and vibrant as the other. Research increases, particularly if the older time is long ago or outside the author’s experience.

How much of the main story depends on the other, and what percentage of the book should each have? What are the threads holding them together and how to ensure every loose end is tied?

I gave no thought to any of this until at least halfway through writing The Stationmaster’s Cottage. Only when I ran into lots and lots of problems did I reconsider my choice. Except it wasn’t a choice. It was the natural way to tell the story.

How can you avoid my early mistakes? Whether you are a panster or plotter, when writing dual timeline it is imperative to think ahead. Find the tools that work for you and your book. Consider a program such as Scrivener that gives you control over what can become a messy process. I only found it when writing the sequel, Jasmine Sea.

After staring blankly at the ceiling for some time one late night, it occurred to me working in my head and on bits of paper wasn’t going to get the book written.

I purchased a whiteboard and hung it on the wall beside my desk. On this, I wrote headings (such as Letters, Rings, Painting) and below them, relevant plot points using different colours for each timeline.

All the pieces of the puzzle in my story were connected so I drew a mind map on a big piece of paper. The cottage was in the middle with spokes going out to different characters and items/events, and which time they are in. This ended up being included in the book itself as a tool Christie uses.

For some writers, creating a document for each timeline may be helpful. I wrote the love letters as one such document, adding notes about why each one mattered to the main story and which characters in both eras were impacted. This helped me select the best places to use them to move the main story forward.

Detail means everything. Several of my characters appear in both timelines, so their age and ageing process had to be correct. Find a method to keep track of their birthdate, events that might shape them (outside of the book), who they were then and why they are there at the end.

One thing that not only I missed, but my editors and beta readers, was a name and date on a headstone. A maiden name instead of married and an unworkable date. Thank goodness for a vigilant reader/author who picked it up before too many were sold!

I loved writing a dual timeline story, despite the intricacies and occasional terror that it wouldn’t work. It isn’t for every novel though, and the sequel, Jasmine Sea, makes use of a couple of flashbacks instead.

What do you think are the greatest challenges and benefits of dual timeline novels?


JASMINE SEA:  A River’s End Love Story. Book Two

Sometimes facing the past is the only way forward.
Starting over never felt better. Christie Ryan adores the little cottage she’s renovating, the seaside town that embraced her, and Martin Blake, the man she longs to marry. Ex-fiancé Derek Hobbs is finally out of the picture, and there are no more secrets in her life or mysteries to solve.
Will the arrival of a mysterious woman who commissions a portrait from Martin under a cloud of secrecy break her after all? Unrest and suspicion remind Christie that happiness can be fleeting, and when the peaceful town is shattered by crime, her past is again thrust into the limelight.
With one chance and only minutes to save those she loves, Christie comes face to face with her greatest fear—and there is no way around it.
Jasmine Sea follows on from The Stationmaster’s Cottage, set shortly after its stunning conclusion.

Amazon |  Amazon Australia  |  Amazon UK


Bio:  Phillipa Nefri Clark grew up around lonely Australian beaches with wild seas and misty cliffs. From a young age she wrote stories and dreamed of being a writer. There were many detours along the way as she trod paths as diverse as a travelling sales rep to singing and acting. Fascinated by film, Phillipa wrote five feature length screenplays, one which was optioned. Now living in regional Victoria on a small acreage close to a mountain range, she markets the family business a few days a week and writes the rest of the time. With nonfiction credits for specialist canine publications, she finally returned to stories with the release of The Stationmaster’s Cottage, a dual timeline romance, in February 2017. Her great loves, apart from writing, are her family of two young adult sons and her husband, their Labrador, music, fine wine, and friends.

Connect with Phillipa:  Website  |  Facebook  |  Twitter


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7 Responses to “Dual Timeline Novels…More Than a Flashback – by Phillipa Nefri Clark”

  1. Thanks so much for having me! I love popping in to read new articles – there is always something new and interesting. 🙂

    Posted by Phillipa Nefri Clark | December 13, 2017, 1:30 pm
  2. Hi Phillipa!

    I try to establish a timeline for my WIP, but as the story progresses and changes, so does the timeline. But it’s essential, especially if there are several references to a character’s past.

    I’m curious if writing your novel in dual timelines has changed your approach to writing single timeline stories.

    Thanks for being with us today.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | December 13, 2017, 2:07 pm
    • Hi Jennifer,

      Great point about timeline adjustments as your develop a story. It took me so long to write The Stationmaster’s Cottage (River’s End Romance Book 1) that the older timeline moved from the 1950s to the 1960s! I had to throw away a lot and research the changes made to Melbourne city in particular. 🙂

      Love your question. Yes, it has changed my approach to writing single timeline stories. I really love writing dual and even though I’ve classed Jasmine Sea! as single with some flashbacks, the richness of being in the moment still came through.

      So, going forward I need to ensure I use that technique of drawing the reader into the past, when needed, whether it be dual or single timeline.

      I hope I’ve answered your question, but please let me know if not. Thank you!

      Posted by Phillipa Nefri Clark | December 14, 2017, 12:35 am
  3. Apologies for awful grammar and punctuation above!

    Posted by Phillipa Nefri Clark | December 14, 2017, 12:36 am
  4. Great article Phillipa. I really want to attempt a dual timeline novel as I love reading them, but I’m quite daunted by the prospect. I’ll be checking out yours.

    Posted by Kerrie Paterson | December 15, 2017, 9:21 pm

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