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Anne M. Marble (amarble "at" sff.net) has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR), "the back fence for lovers of romance novels." In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. You can read about her novels in progress, plus posts about publishing scams, ebooks, romance, fantasy, etc. in her blog, Gorok and Wulf Host a Blog. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

September 2002:

Writing Time Travel Romances

Time travel romances such as Diana Gabaldon's hugely popular Outlander series are popular with readers. Many writers are tempted to try their hand at this subgenre. However, like all romance subgenres, time travel romances have quirks and potential pitfalls. Here are some questions to ask yourself before writing a time travel romance.

How Does the Story End?

It seems odd to think about the end so soon, but the conclusions of time travel romances are notorious with many romance fans. Like other paranormals, time travels provide some leeway for writers. Publishers don't always expect the HEA (happy ever after) ending in a time travel romance. Keep in mind, however, that romance fans know this, and many readers avoid time travel romances because they want the HEA. Romance fans want the couple to end up together at the end. If they end up torn apart and living in different times, then many readers will loathe the ending, no matter how much they loved the book.

Jude Deveraux's A Knight in Shining Armor is one of the best-known time travel romances of all time. However, ask fans on the romance reader lists about this book, and you'll be in for a shock. Readers are torn between those who loved the book and those who hated the ending so much they never bought another Deveraux book. All because the main couple didn't have that HEA.

If you think the only good ending to your story is a poignant one where the lovers are torn apart, then go ahead and write it that way. But be aware that romances fans might hate you for doing that to them -- and that some readers will read the end before even buying time travel books, just to make sure they're not disappointed by a sad ending.

Who Ends Up When?

One of the most important aspects of the time travel romance is deciding who ends up leaving their present existence behind to live in another era. This is a difficult question to handle. Yet many writers deal with it casually, expecting us to believe that a modern-day woman will gleefully stay in Medieval England (leaving behind friends and family) for a hunk. Or that a stuffy Regency lord used to being treated with respect would leave it all behind to move into the heroine's condo in Walla Walla.

That's not to say that your characters decide to live in another era. But you have to set it up so that the reader experiences the heartache that character endures when making a decision. You could even force that decision upon the character, but even then, the character must still cope with living the rest of her life in a frightening new world, cut off from all ties to her past.

One possibility is creating a character who truly would be at home in another era. Let's say your heroine loves the Wild West and has gone so far as to learn the skills needed to survive there. In a way, the chance to live and love in the Wild West is a dream come true for her. This is a challenge, but it could make your story more rewarding. It could also give your story a tone of a higher destiny.

How Does the Character First React to Time Travel?

Many time travel stories fall apart for me shortly after the beginning, when the character first travels into time. All too often, characters then stop behaving logically. In some cases, heroines in time travel romances realize too quickly that they have traveled back in time. This makes little sense as the typical reaction to time travel would be to blither for several minutes, decide it was all a dream or hallucination, and then accidentally walk in front of a carriage.

However, even more annoying is the character who takes too long to realize she has traveled back in time. Constance O'Day-Flannery's Heaven on Earth nearly lost me at the beginning because the heroine took about 100 pages (a couple of days in the course of the novel) to admit that she had traveled back in time. She refused to believe it at first although she was confronted with whole neighborhoods without electricity in Santa Fe, a city filled with people in Wild West costumes, and even hotel clerks who didn't know what a credit card was. That was more than a bit too stubborn.

How Do the Characters React to a New World?

Once your characters have realized they have traveled through time, they have to accept that they have done the impossible. Medieval Europe isn't really like the Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas. Imagine getting thrown into the real Medieval Europe or the real Regency England or any other distant epoch. It would be scary, wouldn't it? Make sure your displaced character experience that fear, as well as confusion, shock, and even desperation.

For that matter, imagine how a character from the past would react when ripped from a familiar setting and brought into the present. Let's say a Medieval knight suddenly finds himself in present day Boston. In Medieval times, most people had a very set worldview with strong beliefs about religion, demons, and so forth. The moment he sees strange machines hurtling about, he will think he has been sent to Hell.

It's not just the physical differences that a character will notice. You might think that a character from the relatively recent past, such as Victorian England, would have a lot in common with someone from the present. Yet while some feelings will always be the same, some beliefs will separate these people from current thought. Imagine telling a Victorian lord that he should treat his servants better or constantly reminding a cowboy from the Wild West to say "Native American" instead of "Indian." For that matter, how would you react if someone traveled from the past and tried to persuade you that women should never be allowed to vote?

This is where your research comes in hand. Use this opportunity to portray the differences between the present and the past. Jude Deveraux's A Knight in Shining Armor did a wonderful job of contrasting two vastly different eras.

What Are the Mechanics of the Time Travel?

A time travel romance is usually a paranormal romance rather than a science fiction romance. For that reason, readers don't expect you to use time machines or other more "scientific" means of time travel. In fact, many fans of time travel romance would be disappointed if a book used a time machine. They want fantasy, not technology.

This, however, gives you more freedom to invent a technique for time travel. Modern day characters in romance novels have traveled back in time after getting hit on the head, picking up enchanted jewelry and antiques, and even after dying in car crashes. Characters from the past have been sent forward in time after casting spells or angering sorcerers. Claire Randall of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander was sent back into Scotland in the 1700s after visiting an ancient monument in Scotland. The heroine of Susan Grant's Once a Pirate is a fighter pilot who ejects in the sea and then finds herself rescued by pirates in the 1800s. Some romances, such as Suzanne Elizabeth's Destined to Love, bring a mysterious third party into the time travel. The technique you use can hint at the tone of your story. The heroine of Sandra Hill's The Outlaw Viking travels back to Viking days after listening to one of her husband's self-motivation tapes -- right away, you know this isn't going to be your typical time travel story. And indeed, as is true of Sandra Hill's other time travel stories, The Outlaw Viking is humorous and doesn't take itself too seriously. On the other hand, in Leslie LaFoy's It Happened One Night, the heroine is whisked back to Ireland in the early 1800s after performing a spell to fulfill her grandmother's dying wish. In this case, readers know that destiny and magic are involved and that the heroine is going to be a vital link to the way history unfolds.

Whatever device you decide upon, make sure you use it consistently. Readers will become frustrated if they is told that the heroine can travel through time when she touches her pendant, and then the next time she touches it, nothing happens.

Also, feel free to muck about with time. Maybe the heroine has been brought back in time to prevent a disaster or assassination. She can be called upon to set the past back on track -- much as Captain Kirk in the famous Star Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever had to let a loved one die to ensure that America joined the World War II war effort. Or perhaps she has to set events in motion that will change the future. This could be a fun, heady trip, but it will give your time travel romance a different twist not all writers dare approach.

If you try to play with history in this way, however, make sure you know your history. If you're not careful, you could wind up basing your entire plot on an error. In Janet Wellington's Forever Rose, the heroine traveled back into time to prevent the murder of Wyatt Earp -- but while Earp is portrayed as a heroic individual, the reality is much darker. Even more importantly, the reader is never told why it is so important that she must prevent this murder.

Why Not Play with the Conventions?

In time travel romances, readers have noticed that the time traveler is almost always the heroine and that she almost always travels back in time. When the heroes do the time traveling, they usually come from the past to visit the present. Some people have theorized that this is because time travel romances are the ultimate form of wish fulfillment. What better way to meet an alpha hero than by traveling back in time to find one.

But theories never helped anyone write a great book. Why not play around with the expectations of the subgenre? Feel free to send modern day heroes into the past. This could be a lot of fun. Lisa Cach's George and the Virgin is about a professional wrestler who travels back in time to kill a dragon. This likable wrestler manages to be an alpha hero and still an all around nice guy. If you want to have some fun with the concept of the alpha hero, consider creating a hero who yearns for the obedient women of yesteryear -- and then throwing him in the midst of aggressive women pirates or into a castle run by a powerful Medieval woman. Then watch the sparks fly.

Copyright © 2002 by Anne Marble

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