By Sequoia Nagamatsu
I grew up wanting to be an astronomer (or an astronaut or some kind of physicist). If the job had the potential to take me out of normal reality, I wanted to be there. Dr. Who and Captain Picard and the team from Stargate adorned my walls and shelves in the form of books and action figures. Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking filled my head with concepts of the multiverse and parallel dimensions. My favorite episodes of science-fiction shows were always the ones where characters were transported to a particular historical time period, sometimes careful not to interfere and change history (and sometimes getting involved with reckless abandon). Does Mark Twain’s nosiness prevent the crew of Enterprise from returning to the future? Did Charles Dickens really foil an alien invasion with Dr. Who? Too bad he died before writing that tale. Time travel. Warp drive. Bending space. Oh, if I had only been born in the future. If only I had been gifted with the ability to navigate complex mathematical equations. Alas. But I eventually realized I could time travel in fiction, lording over how fast or slow a reader perceives the movements of a character. Not with a particle accelerator but with punctuation, the white space, section breaks and headings, and the rhythm of language. I could demonstrate time shifts without having to overtly provide a time stamp (the cinematic captioning “THE FUTURE” at the bottom of the screen) by creating texture in the world and, more importantly, reimagining the lives of people in a given time and place.
When I began working on a story about a race of world builders, an alien civilization who seeded the universe with the building blocks for life, I found myself wanting to capture the history of Earth within three to five-thousand words. Where and when to stop? How much detail should I give? I started before humanity with my narrator as a Trilobite and quickly moved to mythic history via Atlantis. I did not dwell on the Trilobite because I wanted to focus on familiar conceptions of love. There was a love affair with Galileo, a tryst with Issac Newton, and a Civil War massacre of a family. There are no right answers here especially for a first draft. Perhaps you’ll discover that you wrote one too many pages on a character’s childhood in 1950s New York. This over or under writing can, of course, upset both development of story as well as pace, but these are things that can be studied once you’ve written, so your time travel appears confident and assured (My character just went from teenager to adult and that’s all I have to say about that). For this exercise, I want you to embrace moments and play—what do you know to be true about this time and place? What do you need to research? How did a historical character live and how do you want them to breathe on your page? The end product of these moments might last a line or two or they might last for pages.
Whatever you’re writing, playing with moments will help you discern possible shapes for your story and help you discover the texture of your characters. These moments may become integral parts of your narrative or they might be digressions or asides that illuminate particular elements, draw out tension, and provide a sense that time has passed in the reading experience. Travel through time and space if you’re having trouble with a draft. Jump in your time machine as part of your prewriting or brainstorming process.
Let's Get Started
1. Create a timeline for a character's life from conception to death.
You can work on a large piece of paper or create a Word doc with columns for each decade or each historical moment that highlights an era. For instance, the author Ron Currie in his novel Everything Matters! highlights a classroom experience of the Challenger explosion as a pivotal childhood turning point. Under each heading, write down everything you can think of that is associated with that era or event—facts, your own personal memories, sensory detail, individuals who were involved, media coverage. If you were not alive during this time or have no personal connection, you might do some light research or continue imagining what ifs.
Note: You might also elect to include associated timelines for supporting characters and consider how histories might converge.
2. Choose one of the columns and write a vignette (200-500 words).
Don’t worry about your overarching story just yet. Embrace the moment. Consider what movement or action will open this section, what sensory detail that will provide the necessary context for the reader. Are people wearing bell bottoms? Are we listening to Suffragettes in the street? Moments that consider character decision and relationship or nod at consequence will likely carry more narrative weight in the long-run, but don’t shy away from vignettes that are largely descriptive and seem like they don’t belong (they might be just what you need).
3. Choose another column and instead of a sustained vignette, try writing a series of sentences (or clusters of two or three sentences) that individually encapsulate the time and place and/or passage of time sweeping over this time and place. Consider lines such as these: My mother spent the next few years painting nylons onto the legs of the other mothers. They wanted to feel beautiful in the factories and at home as they heated canned meat. They wanted all the things the war had taken. These lines could very well be the transition for the entire 1940s.
4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 with your remaining columns.
You may be deciding which moments need to be sustained and which can inhabit a single line. Try both possibilities on for size.
4. Read through all of your moments.
If you have a story in mind, consider where, in the trajectory of your main character’s arc, these moments might fit. Consider how some of these moments react to each other when placed side-by-side or when placed out of order. This is where time traveling gets messy and incredibly fun. Try not to blow up the universe.
Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of the forthcoming novels, HOW HIGH WE GO IN THE DARK and GIRL ZERO (William Morrow/Harper Collins and Bloomsbury UK) and the story collection, WHERE WE GO WHEN ALL WE WERE IS GONE (Black Lawrence Press), silver medal winner of the 2016 Foreword Reviews Indies Book of the Year Award, an Entropy Magazine Best Book of 2016, and a notable book at Buzzfeed. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Conjunctions, The Southern Review, ZYZZYVA, Tin House, Iowa Review, Lightspeed Magazine, and One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories, and has been listed as notable in Best American Non-Required Reading and the Best Horror of the Year. He is originally from Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area and currently teaches at St. Olaf College. He lives in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota with his wife, the writer Cole Nagamatsu, and their cat Kalahira.