And now, a special anthology interview with some of the writers of Marching Time.
I didn’t need much inspiring to have a go at writing a time travel story, particularly one which focused upon its use in war. The idea was just too cool to pass up. In hind sight however I can see now that taking on such a concept was massively underestimated by me in the sense that it’s just such a difficult premise to get your head around. I spent countless hours pondering what-if scenarios before I could even put pen to paper, or rather, finger to keyboard. I have a folder on my PC with several unfinished attempts to crack the theme of time travel. I think the single biggest inspiration for me personally was the fact that my work might end up in a published anthology.
This gave the whole project a sense of professionalism and made me ‘up my game’ as it were. I think the Bolthole forum has really created something special here, and I’m not just talking about this book. They’ve created an exceptionally friendly, nurturing environment for new writers to find a voice and feel supported. That’s a major inspiration to me and I’ll certainly be looking forward to contributing to their next offering should I make the cut!
In the end I suppose the inspiration for Ultionem Lapsis came from a dark place in the back of my mind where I’d taken a ‘what-if?’ and asked myself if I was Gideon, what would be the worst thing that I could imagine happening to me? For Regicide, it was simply a piece of music that I have on my writing playlist. As it played I just couldn’t shake the idea of a guy from the future wading into war in a medieval era.
I don’t want to give anything more away than that because I like my tales to have a sting in the tale, a sudden twist that takes the reader somewhere they weren’t expecting to go. Sure, my ideas are often dark at times, but there’s often a message in there too which is what writing or story telling is really about.
When the theme for the second Bolthole anthology was announced, my only real problem was deciding which idea to go with! A collection of short stories themed around time travel and war was a tremendously fun concept, and I knew the writers were going to come up with a huge variety of tales.
In the end one idea kept coming back to me: the question of how battles would be fought if time machines existed, and tactics could be tried then edited out of existence if they didn’t work?
Combine that with my love of stories set on distant worlds in the far future, and Ripples was born.
I’d like to think that writing for the Marching Time anthology changed my rather jaded opinion of time travel entirely.
I was very much of the fixed mindset that sees time travel as either A) A lazy plot device B) An easy-out for script writers C) An over saturated media format. When I see ‘time travel’ as a movie sub-genre it makes me wince, wishing for someone to look slightly outside of the opportunity simply to get a re-use from that damned period drama set.
Give me linearity and formula any day. Characters rather than character.
And yet, when viewing our editor Ross’ carefully worded recruitment poster that emphatically stated; “we want war stories” I felt the pocket of bile that I’d reserved for said topic dissolve into my intestine with nary a pop nor poke. Perhaps this was how to dissolve my disaffection. Perhaps now that time travel was a far less significant part of the story would I enjoy writing around it, rather than against it.
So I sucked up my own reservations and pitched a story. Thanks to the editors everything went well.
I think it’s common practice for parents, teachers and other well-meaning adults to take aside any child who has started to show an interest in writing, that two great lessons might be imparted. Never end your story with ‘then he woke up and it was all a dream’, and stay the hell away from time travel. And I think I understand why: there are a great many ways for a time travel story to go wrong, and very few ways for it to be pulled off.
There is the risk of the deus ex machina on one end of the spectrum, and absurdly convoluted rules, regulations and temporal bureaucracy on the other. So going into my project for Marching Time I was treading very, very carefully. If there was one inspiration guiding me, it was fear – fear of being right back in that primary school classroom and making the rookie mistakes all over again.
A large part of Hero of Magong‘s development was therefore my attempt to deal with this major concern, and the fact that the editors were looking for a primarily character piece was a definite life-saver. The time-travel really became more of a background element – the complication at the start of the story, not the solution at the end – with the bulk of the narrative instead focusing on the consequences of traveling.
From the beginning I wanted to do a story where the protagonist is forced to literally confront himself, or at least a younger version. How much more ‘character piece’ can you get? On top of that core I spread a generous helping of World War Three, using a NATO-Chinese conflict for both the source and destination of the time travel. With its scale, technology and underlying nuclear threat, it was about as pressing a reason for tearing great chunks of the space-time continuum a new one as I could imagine. I didn’t want protagonists returning from some pristine far-future with only a distant interest in events; this was going to be dirty, close-quarters time travel with personal stakes.
Finally, because I love working weird and blasphemous designs with narrative, I twisted some of the tenses around so the reader would get the disjointed, unnatural, stranger-in-a-strange-land feel of a time traveler’s perspective. Then it was just a matter of bashing my head against the keyboard and a brick wall alternately.
The rest is history. For now…
As with most writing, it was about 50% inspiration and 50% cold calculation. I knew I wanted to use time travel as a sort of take on post-traumatic stress disorder as I think in a very pedestrian way, most of us go through periods of being depressed time travellers.
We mentally relive and revisit unpleasant events in our life far more regularly than going over our triumphs.
I knew I wanted to take it further and have people actually physically revisit these sort of events and get ‘stuck’ in the past. So that was my starting point. I also had an image of someone whose scars would disappear, which sparked the idea for the nocturnal battles with the protagonist and her veteran father. Which brings me to the calculation part. Those who have read the story will notice that it is quite small scale/domestic compared to some of the others which are more epic story arcs.
This was partly to cover up my poor knowledge of military history/ warfare (sorry) but also to suit the limitations of a short story.For me it was far easy to keep the word count down by stripping down the cast to a minimum and having a first person narrative. I also decided to make time travel an inherent ability, in part because of the relationship between the characters but in part to cut down pages of explanation about how a time machine might work.
I think my favourite element of how the story turned out is down to the input of Ross. He suggested I change my initial idea to have my main character become a soldier too. I was reluctant at first (see lack of military writing experience) but in the end it really added something to the relationship between daughter and father, allowing some character development as the daughter gains an understanding of her father’s behaviour. We also see her recognise similarities with him when put under the pressure of military life.
Overall, I enjoyed the experience of writing something new and out of my comfort zone but I have to say that time travel is a hard theme to work with… Throughout the writing process I would tie myself into knots trying to get my head around the many, many potential plot holes opened up by time travel. I’m not sure I’d rush back to time travel but I’d definitely be interested in pitching for other Bolthole anthologies.
My story for Marching Time is an idea that has been kicking around in my head for at least a decade at this point. The Lost Blitzkrieg grows from two of my great passions: WWII history and old monster movies. Bringing the two together felt especially exciting and in plotting out the story I wanted to not only be true to the setting but also to evoke the feel of all the films and pulp stories that inspired it.
I was less concerned with current scientific theories and more on the fictional creations of men like Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen – the menace faced by the characters in the story isn’t meant to match up with what you’d see on the Discovery Channel or a BBC documentary, but rather a crackly black-and-white movie or in the mouldering pages of some forgotten issue of Unknown or Amazing Stories. It is escapist fun, after all, not education!
I will admit to being a good deal more judicious in my presentation of the German Wehrmacht in the early days of WWII. I’ve read many memoirs from soldiers of the era and viewed copious amounts of documentary footage, including the Nazi films Sieg im Westen and Stukas which really helps to delve into the Fall of France from not merely a German perspective but the German perspective as these events were unfolding.
One of the big challenges for any writer is to get inside the heads of his characters, to present them in ways that are accurate for both who and what they are. In resisting the temptation to abuse the authorial voice and allow the actions and thoughts of the characters themselves to illustrate the time they live in, I think a writer both challenges himself and encourages the reader to look at the story with a more insightful eye.
The old mantra of ‘show don’t tell’ is never more important than when it comes to philosophy and history. The lens of time inevitably distorts the image, but I hope I’ve created a vision of that moment which is at least vibrant enough to be engaging.