Jumping in Time within a novel and avoiding clichés

I seek out books that are set in different times and the story moves forwards and backwards between those times. I want to know how the author has handled both the passage of time and signals that time has moved on or the scene is set in the past. There are a number of devices such as using objects, white space or new chapters. It’s such a pleasure when it’s done well.

It was this that drew me to listen to Mary Paulson-Ellis and Kjell Ola Dahl at The Edinburgh Book Festival last week. Both Mary’s book The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing and KO’s book The Courier are set in World War I and the present, just like my memoir. That was the interest and where any resemblance to my book ends – both Mary and KO are established authors in the crime genre. Mary told me that her first book The Other Mrs. Walker also jumped forwards and backwards to different years and that all her books will probably do so too – that’s the way stories present themselves to her. It was very encouraging to know that when she started her first book, she too searched out books that did this too.

I asked them both what mechanisms they used in their books to signal the change so the storyline remained interesting and cohesive, and the reader didn’t get lost. @ko_dahl said that he wrote each story in the time zone out completely and then cut and spliced. @mspaulsonellis took a different approach. She said (something like) ‘I wasted eight to nine months trying to put the story into a conventional story arc and then let it take its own form’. Both of them used objects for the transition between the time zones, KO using a bracelet, Mary using a few objects among other ways. Of course I bought both books. I can enjoy myself while studying the masters.

The other thing I like are interesting turns of phrase. I found some lovely ones at the ‘Rewilding Fiction’, an Edinburgh Festival writers’ masterclass. The task was to make verbs dynamic and avoid clichés. It was a pleasure to be among such a diverse group, not only ranging from those just starting out writing to others with such an impressive number of published books under their belt that they could take the class, but also from all over the world. I particularly liked ”The rain was groping my collar; ‘the pen pirouetted across the paper’; ‘the train picked along the steppe like a sentence’.

The group also found some very satisfying alternatives to clichés, such as: ‘As hard as a pebble under foot’, and ‘As soft as the underbelly of a cloud’ – I particularly liked that one. It was a nice reminder that yesterday’s clichés can be burnished into todays interesting insight – one woman gave us ‘As black as Newgate’s knocker’, no longer the chiché of her childhood.

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