If I had known how difficult it was to write time travel, I might never have started my young adult novel, So Close to You. But back when I opened that blank document and typed my first word, I was blissfully unaware. I loved reading and watching time travel, so why wouldn’t I like writing it? How hard could it possibly be? Very, very hard, is what I should have told myself.
I didn’t even really set out to write time travel. I wanted to write about the Montauk Project, a real life conspiracy theory that suggested Nikola Tesla had faked his own death and created paranormal weaponry for the government during World War II. Every year, conspiracy theorists flocked to Camp Hero, an old army base on the very tip of Long Island, looking for clues that a secret government facility was hidden under the ground. Tesla’s most famous supposed invention? A time machine that once made a U.S Navy ship disappear.
And so time travel quickly became the basis for my young adult series. I focused on Lydia Bentley, a headstrong budding-journalist who inadvertently stumbles through time and ends up in Montauk, New York in 1944. There she must solve the family mystery of why her great grandfather went missing and how his disappearance was connected to the Montauk Project.
Unlike most subject matters, time travel has strict rules. It has to – otherwise your characters could be bouncing through the universe with no thought to consequences and no real plot structure. I quickly had to decide how my universe worked. Would Lydia be able to change the past? Yes. Would she disappear if she did, ala Back to the Future? No―because she was “outside of the timeline” she wasn’t subject to any shifts, which could make things complicated if she made it back to her own time and she no longer recognized it. Then there was the question of who controlled time travel – in my case, a shadowy branch of the government – and what lengths they would go to in order to protect their secret. Enter Wes, Lydia’s love interest, a recruit for the Montauk Project, and a boy she’s not sure she can ever fully trust.
Here’s the main problem with time travel: your plot is filled with tiny loopholes that you can never truly predict until you’re halfway through a story and have no hope of fixing them. I rewrote the first draft of So Close to You about six times. In a very early version, Lydia was being chased by a recruit from the future, who knew about something she would do in the past, who might or might not be from her present, who was being attacked by another recruit who knew something else about her future. Sound complicated yet?
Revising, already a strenuous task for a writer, turned into a minefield. If I wanted to change one small thing, I found myself having to start over completely. And if I thought it would get easier with time and experience, I was sadly mistaken. By the time I wrote the third and final book, Find Me Where the Water Ends (out July 1), I was trying to recap not just the previous two novels but the previous two universes as well. Lydia’s relationship with every character had shifted as time shifted, until she was trying to handle several different versions of her own life. Dealing with that was part of Lydia’s struggle as a character, and it was definitely part of my struggle as a writer.
I’m not alone in my time travel woes either: last year, at the Romantic Times Conference in Kansas City, I met some of the leading-ladies of young adult time travel literature. Myra McEntire, Tamara Ireland Stone, Julie Cross and I all posed for a picture – and talked time-travel shop. Never again, we all agreed. Never again will we attempt these bendy, twisty plots that have turned our brains into mush.
But you could tell that none of us truly meant it. Because when everything in your universe finally clicks, the satisfaction and pride you feel is unparalleled. All of a sudden the struggles, the rewrites, the charts and the graphs seem totally worth it. There’s a reason everyone loves time travel so much; it’s the idea that our world is full of infinite possibilities, that we can change the past and see into our own futures. And yes, that can be hard for a writer – when there’s no end to what a character can accomplish, how do you reign in the story? But it’s also the most freeing way to write – your characters are limitless, can live in any kind of time or future we can imagine. And I wouldn’t give that freedom up for anything.
Although next time I might just write a book about kittens. Kittens can’t be too hard, right?