5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start Writing Time Travel

1. What are your thoughts on the grandfather paradox? The grandfather paradox is the notion that you can’t go back in time and kill your grandfather because that would eliminate the possibility of you ever being born. Some people are rigid upholders of the paradox, to which I say . . . eh, it’s fiction. You can make your own rules.

For example, in THE EIGHTH GUARDIAN, I’ve set up the world so that whatever you do in the past, no change will actually be made until you jump back to the present (which I call “projecting”). So it would theoretically be possible to go back in time and kill your grandfather, but then you would be zapped out of existence the second you project.

You’re free to make your own rules, but just make sure you have an answer to the paradox because it’s basically the first entry in the Time Travel Writing 101 manual.

2. Who is your audience? If you’re trying to target people with PhDs in astrophysics, you’re obviously going to have to aim for way more scientific accuracy than you are if you’re writing a rousing MG adventure.

But just because you might be writing for an audience who isn’t going to nitpick the quantum mechanics theories in your book doesn’t mean you can just fudge the details any old way you please. The second a reader—any reader—can figure out a flaw in your scientific world is the second you lose that reader.

That leads us to . . . .

3. Have you thought about how your world works? No, really, have you obsessed over it? Woken up in the middle of the night in a panic because you just figured out something doesn’t make sense? Gotten a wicked headache trying to puzzle through the details? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if your answers above are “No,” your world is underdeveloped.

For THE EIGHTH GUARDIAN, I decided to use the parallel universe theory of time travel. That theory essentially states, by way of example, that if you go back in time and kill Hitler as an infant (a common time travel trope), when you arrive back in the present, you’ll find yourself in a new, parallel universe where World War II never happened, However, the history as we know it—the war, the Holocaust, Stalin, the atomic bomb—would still exist; it would just be in another parallel universe we no longer have access to.

I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I endured as I tried to grapple through all the logical consequences of having a parallel world universe. And you’re free to set up your own time travel world as you see fit (and believe me, there are a lot of theories out there at your disposal). Just make sure that, whichever you choose, you ask yourself question after question until you can’t think of any more questions to ask. Then you might be done. (Until you think of more questions at 3 a.m.)

4. What are the consequences? Every act or omission a time traveler makes has the potential to seriously alter the course of history. Make sure you’re really thought that through.

Let’s go back to the Hitler example. If your time traveler goes back to 1889 and kills Hitler when he’s a baby, what is she going to find when she arrives back in the present? If your answer looks exactly like the world she left, you need to start asking some new questions. Namely, you have to think about the economic, political, and social effects. Without World War II, America probably wouldn’t have bounced back from the Great Depression of the 1930s as quickly. Stalin probably wouldn’t have taken over as much of Eastern Europe as he did, which means the Cold War might not have happened. Japan wouldn’t have received all of the post-war support it did, which means Japan might not be the technology leader it is today. There would likely be no NATO, no UN. And let’s not forget that our modern radar technologies were developed during World War II.

So just having your character pop back into the exact social and economic situation she left might be that moment of unbelievability for many readers—the moment they set down your book. (Unless, of course, you’ve  diligently already answered Question 3 and have set up a world where you can change whatever you want in the past, but you keep arriving back to a present where no change has actually happened).

RESEARCH RESEARCH RESEARCH! That’s the moral of the story.

5. Have you read TIME TRAVEL IN EINSTEIN’S UNIVERSE by J. Richard Gott yet? If you’re serious about writing a time travel, this book is a must-read. It explains all the various theories in a way a non-physics minded person (read: me) can understand, and it gives you the tools you need to build your own world. Get thee to a bookstore, stat!

Meredith McCardle is June's Affiliate Blogger. To find out more about our guest author positions here at the League, click here.

Meredith McCardle is a recovered lawyer who lives in South Florida with her husband and two young daughters. Like her main character, she has a fondness for strong coffee, comfortable pants, and jumping to the wrong conclusions. Unlike her main character, she cannot travel through time. Sadly. Her debut, THE EIGHTH GUARDIAN, will be published by Skyscape/Amazon Children's in Spring 2014.
The Eighth Guardian
by Meredith McCardle

Iris's world is turned on end when she's plucked out of her top-secret government training school and dropped into an organization she’s never heard of: the Annum Guard. It’s a team of highly trained operatives who have the ability to travel back in time and tweak the past to improve the present. Enhancement, not alteration—or so they claim. But the deeper she gets into the organization, the more she learns that the Annum Guard is keeping some very dangerous secrets. So now she has to start digging for answers without getting caught. For if she fails, it won't just be her life on the line. It will be an entire history's worth of lives.


Jessi said...

I've actually messed with a time travel idea a little and the interesting thing is, I also came up with the parallel universe idea and my idea involved Hitler.
In mine, due to the South winning the War Between the States, WWI ended differently and Hitler becomes a friendly painter. In this version, which I haven't planned out much, WWII still starts since the Soviet Union invades. Not sure if I'll ever try writing this idea. I'm not sure people would really like to read about the main characters working with a heroic Hitler family to stop WWII.

Kathee de Falla said...

Great blog! I love the idea that how the world works should keep you awake at night...I thought I was the only one :) Your book sounds great!

Julia said...

That is so helpful and true! I love books like Orson Scott Card's Pathfinder, where the time travel craziness kept ME up at night!