How to Plot a Dual-Timeline Novel

Guest Post by Meredith Jaeger –

Dual-Timeline historical novels continue to sell because they have their own special magic. However, many writers are intimidated by the prospect of plotting not one but two compelling narratives. I’m here to demystify the process. In San Antonio, Texas, last year, I gave a popular solo presentation titled: The Dual-Timeline Novel: Artifacts as Inspiration, while attending my first ever HNSNA conference. And so, without further ado, here is that presentation distilled into a blog post:

Discovering an Artifact—the inciting incident

By starting your novel with the discovery of an artifact, such as an eighteenth-century apothecary bottle, a rare vintage stamp, a painting or a photograph, your present-day protagonist can unravel a mystery from the past.

In the NYT-bestseller The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner, present-day protagonist Caroline discovers an eighteenth-century apothecary bottle while she’s mudlarking in the Thames. Curious about the origins of the bottle, Caroline begins her research, leading her to the lives of two eighteenth-century characters, Nella and Eliza. Likewise, in The Lost Letter, by Jillian Cantor, modern-day protagonist Katie discovers a rare WWII-era stamp, leading her on a quest to discover the identity of the stamp engraver.

The term “modern” is up to your interpretation. In her captivating novel, The Masterpiece, Fiona Davis sets the modern story in 1974. Protagonist Virginia discovers a watercolor painting in an abandoned art school in Grand Central Terminal, leading her on a quest to find an unknown artist who painted the work in 1928.

Creating Connection—The Messy Middle

Now that you’ve given your modern-day protagonist a course of action—discovering who owned the artifact and in turn, their fate—it’s time to flesh out your character in the past. Why was this person forgotten, leaving only a small piece of herself behind? Did she flee because of war? Because of heartbreak? Did he change his identity?

While the artifact can serve as a clue to your past-protagonist’s profession (apothecary, stamp engraver, artist, etc.), it can also hold special meaning. My own heirloom engagement ring once belonged to my husband’s great-aunt, Peg. I asked myself, what if I didn’t know who this ring belonged to? What if it held a dark family secret? Asking those “what if” questions inspired my debut novel, The Dressmaker’s Dowry.

Inspiration can be found in a dusty attic or in a local antique shop. It’s up to you to create an emotional connection between your two characters. Are they both yearning for the same thing—autonomy, freedom? Or are they long-lost relatives? No matter how your present-day protagonist discovers her artifact, something must make her question her choices in life, causing her to look to the past for answers.

Using the method taught by Martha Alderson in her book The Plot Whisperer (which I highly recommend) I plot my novels according to four energetic markers—the end of the beginning, the halfway point, the crisis and the climax. I know how my novel will end before I start writing it. I decide what dramatic action will happen at the halfway mark, and what even bigger dramatic action will take place at the climax.

It’s a challenge to plot two separate character arcs for two protagonists and to create not one, but two stories that will keep readers invested. But the middle of a novel doesn’t have to be messy, especially if you keep the action building. I believe WWII fiction is popular because the stakes are so high—often a matter of life and death. The present-day may not offer your protagonist a physical crisis, but an emotional crisis can also pack a punch. Or perhaps your present-day protagonist needs to travel abroad to learn more about the protagonist in the past, taking her deeper into the story.

Weaving Threads Together—The End

When done well, dual-timeline fiction is incredibly satisfying to read. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Homecoming by Kate Morton and Symphony of Secrets by Brendan Slocumb are some of my favorite dual-timeline novels. Before writing your own, think about your novel’s ending. Is your character from the past still alive in the present? If so, plan accordingly. Very few holocaust survivors are still alive today, which is why the modern storyline in many WWII novels takes place in the 1980s.

Before you start, look to news headlines for inspiration. Sometimes the discovery of something—a Paris apartment untouched for seventy years, a trove of Nazi-looted artwork—is the spark of novel waiting to be written. Once you’ve mapped out your energetic markers, chosen your two time periods, picked your artifact and created a connection between your protagonists, you’re ready to go!

I like to write novels that are bittersweet. Not everyone gets the ending they wanted, but sometimes my characters get what they needed instead. It’s important to tie off loose ends and to give readers a sense of resolution. Usually, the present-day protagonist has learned something as a result of her journey into the past, much like life. After all, we write historical fiction in the hopes that past wrongs won’t be repeated. And we read it because we love to, and there are countless stories to inspire us.

Meredith Jaeger is the USA Today bestselling author of four dual-timeline historical novels, including The Incorrigibles, The Pilot’s Daughter, Boardwalk Summer and The Dressmaker’s Dowry. The daughter of a Swiss father and an American mother, Meredith was born and raised in Berkeley, California. Her historical novels are about the interweaving of past and present, family secrets and untold California history. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their two young children.


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