Time-slip fiction is fast becoming my favorite genre. Catching the Wind, a World War II novel by Melanie Dobson, helped confirm that. For a writer, maneuvering through two timelines is no easy task. It requires perfect timing and finesse.
It’s more than writing two separate plot lines. Each storyline must ebb and flow with the other, tying together characters, settings, and themes. The effect of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
This time-slip technique is also known as split time or dual timeline. Whatever you call it, Melanie has mastered this dance. She and Morgan Tarpley Smith even wrote a handy guide for authors: A Split in Time: How to Write Dual Timeline, Split Time, and Time-Slip Fiction. If you write time-slip fiction, or are considering it, I highly recommend this book with its practical tips, examples, analysis of two novels, and author interviews.
In case you missed it—for a different slant on World War II fiction, check out Amy Lynn Green’s epistolary novel, Things We Didn’t Say, featured last week.
What happened to Brigitte Berthold?
That question has haunted Daniel Knight since he was thirteen, when he and ten-year-old Brigitte escaped the Gestapo agents who arrested both their parents. They survived a harrowing journey from Germany to England, only to be separated upon their arrival. Daniel vowed to find Brigitte after the war, a promise he has fought to fulfill for more than seventy years.
Now a wealthy old man, Daniel’s final hope in finding Brigitte rests with Quenby Vaughn, an American journalist working in London. He believes Quenby’s tenacity to find missing people and her personal investment in a related WWII espionage story will help her succeed where previous investigators have failed. Though Quenby is wrestling her own demons—and wary at the idea of teaming up with Daniel’s lawyer, Lucas Hough—the lure of Brigitte’s story is too much to resist. Together, Quenby and Lucas delve deep into the past, following a trail of deception, sacrifice, and healing that could change all of their futures.
“There’s power in story,” she said slowly.
“We may be powerless at times in this life, but on paper,
we can chase our demons away.” — p 369
This quote resonated with me. It’s so true for those who journal or write memoirs or fiction.
Surely journalist Quenby Vaughn feels the same way. Especially since she wrestles with a demon or two.
Hired by Daniel Knight, present day American journalist Quenby Vaughn searches to learn what happened to ten-year-old Brigitte after escaping Germany during World War II, over seventy years earlier. Meanwhile, back in the 1940s, we traipse alongside young Daniel and Brigitte as they flee to safety and slam into obstacles. The two timelines coincide perfectly as we discover tidbits along with Quenby.
Besides Brigitte’s disappearance, another mystery drives Quenby’s quest. She’s investigating the story of a British woman who supposedly aided Germany through espionage during the war. The woman’s family is of no help. Quincy’s efforts keep meeting dead ends. And danger.
At Daniel’s insistence, his attorney Lucas assists Quenby in the search for Brigitte. Spurred by fear and pain, she mistrusts him from the get-go. But they have to depend on each other going forward as their pursuit takes them from England to northwest America back to England, then to Florida and back to England.
My only disappointment was having a few situations told in retrospect. That’s because I was so engaged and wanted to continue experiencing scenes in real time. But due to a plethora of riveting, potent scenes and captivating characters, this book is still a remarkable read and worth your time.
Join me for some Q & A with author Melanie Dobson.
Questions about Catching the Wind
What was your inspiration for writing Catching the Wind? What’s your personal connection to the setting or situation?
Melanie: Back in 2015, I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop during a dry writing season, looking out the window at the silvery fronds of a weeping cedar, begging God for an idea. I’d never been in such a desperate place as a writer, but I knew that our Master Creator was passionate about story. And I couldn’t write a new book without His direction.
God gifted me with a picture that afternoon—a boy and girl playing in a treehouse. I knew right away that the children were in Germany in 1940, and I knew that they were going to have to run. I also knew that Brigitte, the little girl, was going to get lost along the way.
Words poured out that afternoon as the first chapter flowed onto paper and then the beginnings of a synopsis. But I didn’t actually know what happened to Brigitte until right before my deadline.
The entire journey of writing this book was a journey of faith for me. And while my family used to live in Germany, my personal connection to this story was really the sweet hours that I spent with our Lord through the process. Catching the Wind was a gift to me, and I am so happy to be able to share it with others.
What historical parameters were imposed on you? Where did you have to fill in the gaps with your imagination?
Melanie: Historical accuracy is very important to me, and I absolutely love learning new-to-me stories from books or friends. To research Catching the Wind, I spent time at the National Archives outside London, pouring over newly released files about both British and German spies in England during World War II. Then I went down to explore a manor house and gardens in Kent to capture the sensory details that I use to invite readers into my settings.
Whenever I write a historical novel, fact and fiction weave themselves together naturally in my mind. The plotline about spies in England and the refuge crisis were inspired by true stories. Brigitte’s hiding place and then Daniel and Quenby’s search to find out what happened to her after the war all stemmed from my imagination.
Do your characters hijack the story or do you have full rein? Which characters would you most likely get along with?
Melanie: It’s really fun for me to create fictional men and women with unique personalities and goals and then plunge them into a new challenge together. My characters always surprise me and take my stories in different directions than I anticipated. I simply follow their lead.
That’s a fascinating question about which characters in my novels might be a friend in real life. Every hero and heroine have qualities I admire, but the character that comes right to mind is Maggie in Shadows of Ladenbrooke Manor. She is a warrior mom who is raising an artistic daughter named Libby. A girl who would now be on what we call the autism spectrum. Most of the story takes place in England in the 1950s, but if Maggie was still alive today, I think we would be the best of friends.
Last year, when I was researching my next-time slip novel (The Wings of Poppy Pendleton) in the Thousand Islands of New York, I had an unusual character experience. A bookstore owner suggested that I interview a couple named Kenny and Melody who grew up in that area.
One of the main characters in my novel happens to be a caretaker named Cade, and when Kenny introduced himself, he told me that he was a character …and a caretaker. I loved hearing his stories, and for the entire, rather surreal interview, I felt like I was really talking with one of my characters!
What are the challenges of creating a split-time novel? How do you overcome them?
Melanie: When I first started writing time-slip fiction, about twenty years ago now, my greatest challenge was creating equally compelling plotlines from the past and present and then weaving them together in a way that was believable and intriguing for readers.
I am not an analytical person but I love a good challenge, so when my intuitive approach to writing stunted my growth as a time-slip novelist, I began collecting clues as to what kept readers engaged in a split-time novel along with the techniques that seemed critical to create one impactful story from two timelines.
I spent many hours studying historical mysteries with dual timelines like Sarah’s Key and Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper and then writing and rewriting my ideas with these techniques.
A few years ago, Morgan Tarpley Smith and I compiled a lot of this information in a writing resource called A Split in Time: How to Write Dual Timeline, Split Time, and Time-Slip Fiction in hopes of encouraging other split-time writers and continuing to grow this genre.
What unusual thing did you do or discover while researching for this story (or any story)?
Melanie: Something odd or unusual always happens on my research trips whether it’s becoming stranded in an unexpected storm (Mackinac Island), a story-changing interview (Amana Colonies), crawling through secret rooms used on the Underground Railroad (Liberty, Indiana), or getting locked behind a barbed wire fence (Normandy).
When I was researching for Catching the Wind, I ended up stranded again at a manor home in southern England, seven miles from the nearest train station with no bus service on Sunday. And I sure wasn’t going to call back the tipsy cab driver who’d left the pub to drive me out there.
A woman from Prague eventually offered to give me a ride back to the station and it turned out to be a serendipitous encounter, as these experiences often are. Her husband was an Oxford grad and aspiring novelist. Not only did we enjoy our time talking history, they answered many of my questions during and after the ride.
Questions about writing
What books have been most influential for you as an author?
Melanie: I have always loved to read, and when I was young, I stumbled on a book by Lucy Montgomery called Emily Climbs, written in 1925. Emily, a fourteen-year-old girl, is learning to embrace her love of writing, and even when adults tell her that her stories are no good, she continues writing because the stories keep stirring inside her, begging to come out.
Emily’s desire and journey gripped my heart. I wasn’t yet a teenager, but it seemed that someone finally understood me—someone equally as compelled as I was to write—and it made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I wanted to be just like Emily when I grew up.
When I was in my twenties, Catherine Marshall’s novel Julie reignited my passion for story. I empathized with the main character (a young writer) and was inspired by the powerful themes of faith and love in a historical setting. After reading Julie’s story, I began actively pursuing my dream of writing fiction.
Where do your story ideas usually originate from—character, plot, setting, theme, or a combination? Share examples of how one of your stories grew from an initial idea.
Melanie: Every book idea comes from a unique place. Often, they stem from a piece of history that intrigues me or something unusual that I learn when I’m researching another book. Sometimes they are inspired by stories from a reader or friend.
The Curator’s Daughter, for example, was inspired by a reader whose mother-in-law lived in Nuremberg, Germany right after World War II. Chateau of Secrets was also inspired by a friend’s mother-in-law except she lived in her family’s French chateau for much of the war. While German officers occupied the upper floors, she was helping Allied airmen and others escape in the tunnels underneath the house.
The idea for The Winter Rose, my latest book, was sparked when I read about American Quaker women who helped rescue Jewish children in France during World War II. I wanted to find out what motivated them to travel to France, how they helped these kids escape, and what happened to the children after the war.
Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Melanie: Each story is inspired in a unique way, but after the initial sparks of an idea, my process for each novel is fairly similar. I usually spend about a month researching the historical facts, interviewing experts, and visiting my main setting. During this time, I also develop detailed character profiles and dream about the possibilities for the plot.
Usually I have an idea where the story is headed, but I discover during the writing process what happens to my characters and how they change through the story. The discovery and then putting together all the pieces are what I love most about writing.
You’ve written historical fiction in many time periods. Do you have a favorite time period? Please share something about a current project or the direction you want to go as an author.
Melanie: I love learning and finding little-known pieces of history that haven’t been fleshed out in a novel. And I really like writing about ordinary people throughout history who did extraordinary things to love their neighbors.
Memories of Glass, for example, is about three Dutch heroes— Walter Süskind, Henriëtte Pimentel, and Johan van Hulst —who partnered together to rescue more than 600 Jewish children in Amsterdam during World War II. I wanted to use their incredible examples of sacrifice to give readers a glimpse of hope and light during a very dark time in history.
Currently, I’m working on two books. One is the time-slip novel called The Wings of Poppy Pendleton about a little girl who goes missing in the Thousand Islands during the Gilded Age. I loved visiting the castles in these islands and learning all about this unique era.
I’m also writing a novel based on the Biblical story of Hagar and am equally intrigued by her story and both ancient Egypt and the wilderness setting where Abram’s family lived.
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Melanie: Years ago, I watched an interview with a bestselling novelist, and I was shocked when the woman said she was a “horrible” writer. She quickly followed up her admission by saying that even though she was a horrible writer, she was a fabulous re-writer.
During that season of my life, I was talking about writing often and thinking about it even more. The problem was that I was not actually doing much writing because I was terrified I would fail. And if I failed, it would be the death of my dream.
Once I realized my first draft didn’t have to be perfect, I let go of my fears and began scribbling random thoughts and scenes onto paper. Then I reworked and polished these thoughts and scenes over and over until I had a clean manuscript that I could send to a publisher.
I would encourage anyone afraid of the process to sit down with a notepad or computer and begin pouring out what’s in your heart for the first draft. If God has given you a story, pray for persistence, courage, and the skills to pursue it.
The journey may be challenging, but it will be an amazing, soul-inspiring one as you diligently listen and learn and then write and rewrite the stories that He’s called you to share.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you like dual timeline novels, you might enjoy mine: Fifteen Minutes with Mr. Baum. Set in Holland, Michigan, this pre-published novel alternates between 1980 and the early 1900s, and highlights The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author, L. Frank Baum. Read more and watch the book trailer here.
If you enjoy small town Southern fiction, consider my re-launched novel All That Is Hidden. Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
In June, I was named a semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest for All That Is Hidden. Additionally, in August, All That Is Hidden became the winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award.
I invite you to join my monthly newsletter for updates, freebies, and giveaways. Sign up and I’ll send you a free gift: www.StandoutStoriesNewsletter.com
Melanie Dobson bio:
Writing historical and time-slip fiction is Melanie Dobson’s excuse to immerse herself into the past by reading old books, interviewing new friends, and exploring fascinating places across the United States and Europe.
Melanie is the award-winning author of almost thirty historical romance, suspense, and time-slip novels. Five of her novels, Memories of Glass, Chateau of Secrets, Catching the Wind, The Silent Order and Love Finds You in Homestead, Iowa, have received Carol Awards. Catching the Wind received the Inspirational Fiction Audie Award in 2018 and was nominated for a Christy Award in historical fiction. The Black Cloister, her novel about a dangerous cult, was named the ForeWord Religious Fiction Book of the Year.
Melanie enjoys teaching at writer’s events, conferences, and as an adjunct professor. She received her undergraduate degree in journalism from Liberty University and her master’s degree in communication from Regent University. Prior to her writing career, she was the corporate publicity manager at Focus on the Family and owner of Dobson Media Group. Learn more about Melanie on her website.
Join me next time for a visit with author Olivia Rae.
Meanwhile, have you read Catching the Wind or any other books by Melanie Dobson? Do you enjoy dual timeline fiction? Answer in the comments below.