Kathleen McGurl on Writing Dual Timelines

This week in our NaNoWriMo series, Kathleen McGurl joins us to give us her top tips on mastering the tricky art of dual timeline novels! Kathleen has written almost a dozen dual timeline novels now, and her lastest read The Forgotten Gift is out in e-book today! Click here to read more, or scroll down to discover how best to write dual timeline novels for yourself.


What is dual timeline?

Here are my tips on how to write a dual timeline novel but first, what do I mean by dual timeline, as opposed to time travel or timeslip?

My definitions:

  • Time travel – characters deliberately and intentionally travel through time. Science fiction.
  • Timeslip – characters unintentionally and accidentally slip through time. Supernatural/magic.
  • Dual timeline – a mystery from the past is uncovered and resolved in the present day. The story is told in two timelines, woven together. No science or magic needed.


What do you need?

Let’s look in more detail at dual timeline novels.

First of all, the structure. There are many ways to do it, but here’s what I do:

  • Each chapter is a single timeline, alternating (so reader knows what to expect)
  • Chapters around 3000 words (to give reader chance to get into each timeline before swapping)
  • Chapter 1 and last chapter are the contemporary story – the character with whom the reader will most identify
  • Possibly include a prologue from the historical, as a hook
  • Make both stories equally strong

You need several elements for a successful dual timeline:

  • Two linked stories
  • Strong characters in each timeline
  • A great setting, that the reader sees in both timelines
  • An item turning up in both timelines

And importantly:

  • A theme to help tie the stories together


Linking the stories

This is really important! You’re not writing two separate novellas. The book has to hang together as one novel. There are many ways you can build in links between the stories:

  • The setting
  • An item appearing in both timelines
  • A character who’s alive in both timelines
  • A diary or letters
  • Genealogical research
  • THEME – can more subtly link the stories. What is the novel really about on a deep level?


Why dual timeline?

There are pluses and minuses to writing dual timeline novels. First, the plus points:

  • Readers can identify with the contemporary characters
  • Readers who don’t like pure historicals often enjoy dual timeline
  • You get to write 2 shorter stories, 40-50,000 words each
  • End of chapter cliff-hangers – reader must read a whole other chapter before they get back to it!
  • You can try to ask a question in one timeline that is answered in the other…

And now, the minus points:

  • You have to think of 2 stories and a way to link them
  • You must make it feel like one novel not two novellas
  • Pacing can be tricky
  • Story arc – hard work weaving the two together
  • Early part of novel can feel disjointed
  • Coming up with a satisfying resolution that works for both can be difficult


Consider your ending(s)!

Resolution of dual timeline novels can be tricky. You need:

  1. A satisfying ending to the historical story, that leaves a mystery
  2. A satisfying ending to the contemporary story


  1. The contemporary characters must solve the historical mystery


  • Your characters research – genealogy and newspaper archives
  • Your characters find a convenient diary or bundle of letters
  • Your characters find a convenient old person who remembers it all
  • Your characters find a convenient buried skeleton!


The importance of planning

Here’s how I plan and write a dual timeline novel:

  1. Decide on your basic 2 stories and historical period
  2. Decide on your setting
  3. Work out your theme (although this may change as you write)
  4. Develop your main characters
  5. Write a chapter plan (2 sentences on what will happen in each chapter)
  6. Write chapters 1-3 in order (contemporary, historical, contemporary)
  7. Write the rest of the historical story (all the even chapters)
  8. Write the rest of the contemporary story (all the odd chapters)
  9. Edit!


Finally, good luck to all those taking part in this year’s NaNoWriMo. I am in awe!


The Forgotten Gift by Kathleen McGurl is out now in e-book. You read more of her other books here.

If you’re enjoying our writing tips, there are more on the way! Keep your eyes peeled on the blog for more NaNoWriMo content, you can find the previous posts and other writing tips here! We also post about it on our twitter page.




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