Monday, 19 October 2020

Writing against the clock by Joan Haig

Autumn. The season of geese winging their way south and pictures of pretty fungi posting their way to Instagram. It’s also, this year for me, a season of overdue chapters. Much as I love conkers and bonfires, my focus needs to be on writing. I wish I had made better use of summer’s long hours of light. If only I could travel back in time in order to alter my work pattern and meet my deadlines.

Luckily, children’s books are brimming with ideas on how to do this. Below I have categorised six devices for getting me back to the summer solstice. (With apologies to all scientists and science fiction aficionados.)

The first storybook device I might borrow is the magical/fantasy object. I’m thinking of Terry Pratchett’s shopping trolley, Philippa Pearce’s grandfather’s clock, or Janis Mackay’s gold ring. In this scenario, I have to find a magical thing to transport me. Unsuccessful guesses at what this might be have included a vintage suitcase, a fossil, and a glass bottle (emptied of its grapy contents).

I could be looking for the wrong type of thing, of course. If not in a material object, the magic might come in the form of an animal or other living organism. Kate Saunders has gifted the Psammead – E. Nesbit’s sand fairy – with the power of time travel. I’ve spoken to one of my cats about this. Flotsam spends most of her time sleeping, which may be a sign of her powers and the early twentieth-century time-travel trope of falling asleep and waking up somewhen else, like Rip van Winkle.

Character action can result in time travel, too. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'engle is compulsory reading for anyone writing about time travel (don’t worry, I will read it in the past). L’engle advances the mathematical idea of the ‘tesseract’, first described in 1888 by Charles Howard Hinton, allowing her characters to tesser, or take ‘shortcuts’, across time and into distant space.

This leads to the penultimate device on offer: the portal. Portals are used by Alison Uttley in A Traveller in Time (1939) quite literally: old doors are passages to other centuries. The portal is a disused elevator in Liz Kessler’s A Year Without Autumn and a forest in Sophie Kirtley’s beautiful debut, The Wild Way Home and it’s, among other sites, a cave in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. I’m optimistic my portal will be a bookshop, so I’m visiting as many of those as I can. It’s a straightforward option, since all I’m looking to do is hop back a couple of months and then hop forward to the present.

But what happens if I can’t get back forward? Ross Sayers’ novel for teens, Daisy on the Outer Line, cleverly uses sleep and the idea of a physical loop – in this case, the Glasgow Underground – to play with the idea of being trapped in time. And as Dr Who reminds us, even the most high-tech device – the time machine – can be tricky to operate. A case in point is the time machine suit in Joan Lennon’s shimmering Silver Skin, which flings its wearer back to the Stone Age.

Getting stuck isn’t the only potential hitch. In Time Travelling with a Hamster, Ross Wellford introduces a number of problems, not least the concept of the causal loop. Here’s the thing: if I go back and change history, I will prevent the situation that caused me to go back from happening (which may include my own existence). Encountering one’s past self is also something to avoid. In the animated film, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, self duplication causes disaster in the space-time continuum.

It doesn’t end there. All time travel by necessity is space travel, since the Earth is always moving. Travelling back in time therefore means arriving at a different place, a problem that is imagined away by most fiction authors. Note, too, that you can’t simply pause time (as was the ruse in a certain *cough-splutter* Tiger Skin Rug). And it’s worth noting that one can only travel backwards in time: physicists agree that travelling forwards is impossible, since the future has not yet existed. (Sorry, HG Wells.)

I’m not sure my editors appreciate the risks I take for them. Even so, I will give it a go. If you are reading this, of course, it means I have failed. But all is not lost: if I spend fewer hours browsing bookshops for, and blogging about, other people’s books, I might have enough time to finish my own this side of winter.


©Adrian Haig

©Andrew Haig 

P.S. In the future, my children will finally learn how to spell the word 'finally'.


Joan Lennon said...

You can do it! Or maybe I mean you did it - or will have done it - or will be doing it till it's done ...

Sue Purkiss said...

Good luck, and see you whenever...