This afternoon at 2:15, my husband and I were supposed to be on a plane taxiing from the gate on a long-planned trip abroad—our first significant excursion in three years. I had been dreaming of our destination even before the pandemic hit. Having waited patiently, venturing only as far as a day’s drive from home for long weekends, we were at last ready to take the risk on international travel, once again.
Then, two days ago, my husband started coughing. His rapid test revealed a positive purple stripe even before the control was visible. I’ve been negative so far, but am not feeling great today. Fortunately, I was able to reschedule our trip for later in August. But for reasons unknown, my airlines app decided to notify me at the very second that our original flight was leaving the gate. For a moment, sitting at our kitchen table, I imagined what it would have felt like, right then, to be on our way. Yesterday, as I cooked and washed dishes and shopped for food and tended my husband, I thought about how I would have been packing, had all remained on track.
Our thoughts are not linear. We often experience the present moment while our minds are traveling backwards and forwards in time. But words and sentences and paragraphs and pages, by their nature, follow a linear sequence. How, then, to tell a narrative that is not linear, within a linear format?
I’m certainly not the first, nor will I be the last writer to confront this conundrum—especially in historical fiction, which, by definition, is set in the past. But here is how I solved it (or attempted to, as the reader will judge) for my World War I novel, Line of Flight.
I wrote the first few drafts as a personal journal, a travel diary that my protagonist, Simone Levitsky, keeps on her journey to find her estranged daughter, Camilla, who has run off with her beau to volunteer for the French ambulance corps in 1915. That structure was based on a straight chronology of events, even as it included past memories that embellished the plot. But I realized, several years into the process, that I was stuck. The format was too rigid. I had to come up with almost daily events and observations, even as that pacing might not serve the story well.
So I changed course, reconceptualizing the novel as a long letter written by Simone to Camilla’s daughter, Zoé, about her journey to bring Camilla home. This enabled me to more freely explore Simone’s memories as well as her insights gained years after the events, deepening her character. In earlier drafts, I had created a story-within-a-story of found letters from Camilla to her lover. Working them into the journal format was a bit forced. Here, I was able to integrate them more seamlessly.
But I needed another layer. What was Simone’s relationship to Zoé, and how did that inform her reflections about Camilla, as well as memories of her own mother? This evolved into a series of vignettes interspersed throughout the novel that capture what’s happening in the present moment between grandmother and granddaughter. Juxtaposed with Simone’s recollections, the vignettes serve to reveal her immediate emotional state as well as how she has evolved.
In so doing, I have tried to create a more immediate sense of how Simone’s mind works, how she jumps from present to past to future and back again, not necessarily in that order. I have tried to build her understanding of her life in layers that reveal themselves when, and only when, she is ready to acknowledge her own truths. To the extent that any of us can do so.
We are all time travelers, whether or not we acknowledge it—or an app reminds us where we might have been. Capturing the essence of that lived experience is the novelist’s eternal challenge.
Evelyn Herwitz writes about the journey of writing her first novel—a work of historical fiction set in World War I—the vagaries of the creative process, and her quest for publication, at evelynherwitz.com.
Image: Alex Guillaume