How many of us have heard someone mention an old school friend (or foe) and thought: “I wonder what they’re like now?” Have they gained weight, lost hair, become kinder or more cruel? Did the popular boy or girl become a successful adult, or end up a failure in the “real” world? Did the shy child blossom? Did the bully become a better person?
Dual timelines in fiction give you the chance to answer those questions — to see your characters as both children and adults, discover what formed them, and, ultimately, find out what they have become.
The Chalk Man is set in 1986 and 2016. I picked those years mainly because I wanted the adult section to be set in 2016 and then worked thirty years backwards – that’s about as far as my novel-planning goes! It turned out perfectly because the mid-eighties were such a vivid time for me. I was around the same age as my characters, and the books draws a lot on the stuff my friends and I would get up to as preteens.
Although the chapters alternate between 1986 and 2016, I wrote the ’86 parts first. It just felt natural to do it that way, and it meant that when I came to writing 2016 I already knew my characters. I knew what had happened to them as children and how those events had made them who they are.
Conversely, I never considered writing the book in two parts. I always felt that it was important to weave the timelines together. I wanted the reader to follow both journeys without knowing what happens at the end of either. It enabled me to build suspense and have cliff-hangers in both timelines. In a way, it’s like reading two stories at once. Of course, the challenge is making sure both narratives are interesting so the reader isn’t racing through one timeline to get back to the other.
The structure also gave me the opportunity to examine the question of how, or if, we ever really change from children. I still see the friends I grew up with and, apart from being greyer, more wrinkled and able to hold our drink a bit better, I don’t think we’re very different at all.
Sometimes, I wonder if our personalities are fully formed by the time we reach our teens. Other events may mold us, but nothing really has such an effect on our “selves” as that hinterland between childhood and adolescence.
That’s even more true if, like Eddie and his gang in The Chalk Man, you never leave the small town where you were born. Nothing binds you to the past, or your childhood, more than the place where you grew up.
It’s a theme I return to in my second book, which also uses dual timelines to an extent. In this, my protagonist Joe returns to the village where he lived as a child after more than twenty years. As he says: ‘There’s a line people spout, usually people who want to sound sage and wise, about wherever you travel, you can never escape yourself. That’s bull. Get far enough away from the relationships that bind you, the people that define you, the familiar landscapes and routines that tether you to an identity, and you can easily escape yourself, for a while at least. Self is only a construct. You can dismantle it, re-construct it, pimp up a new you. As long as you never go back…”
Of course, that – as they say – is another story!