The Big Idea: James Renner
It’s not easy to write a time travel novel — all those timelines to keep track of, to start — so when you set out to write one, to whom should you turn for inspiration? James Renner knows; his new novel The Man From Primrose Lane travels all around the time stream. To make it work, Renner looked to more than just the usual suspects to guide the structure of his work.
The Man from Primrose Lane began as a Big Idea. Forever a fan of science fiction—and, more specifically, time travel stories—I wondered what it would be like to be a minor character in some time travel adventure. Not the time traveler, not his companion, but someone tangentially affected by the time traveler. After all, we know already what happens to the Terminator and Sarah Connor and Marty McFly and the Doctor. We’ve seen that. But what about the cop that comes across some dead time traveler at the end of that story? Wouldn’t a good detective want to figure out where this guy came from and why he was here?
That idea became the prologue to the book and it was the easiest part to write. Figuring out who killed this man—and why—was harder.
There’s another problem with telling a time travel story from the point of view of someone who does not travel through time—your structure gets all jacked up. In order to follow the action, to explain the motivation of the time traveler, it forces the writer to tell a non-linear story. This can be quite jarring for a reader, unless the author follows sets concrete narrative rules and sticks to them (chapters will alternate between the present and future; all flashbacks will be in italics; the past will be in the past tense, the present in the present tense). It took a long damn while to figure out the structure of the Man from Primrose Lane and ultimately what helped me was the loose way the writers of Lost played with past/present/future. By the end of that series, it almost didn’t matter if you were aware of when the present really was, anymore.
Note to the reader: For another Big Idea, look into the current quantum theories that suggest all of history is happening at the same moment.
Remember that noise in Lost that clues the viewer into a shift in time? I came up with a visual cue for the reader that serves the same purpose, a line drawn between paragraphs when a time shift occurs. I also divided the book into three parts of equal length, to cue the reader into the idea that in the first section we’re going to the past, in the second we’re more concerned with the present, and that we will ultimately visit the future in the final third. As an added bonus, it’s further divided into 18 “episodes” in homage to Ulysses, a book that was written to be read beginning at any random chapter.
Another influence was Stephen King’s underappreciated novel, Lisey’s Story. Though it’s not about a time traveler, the narrative is very trippy and non-linear and lends itself to scifi quite well. In that story, King jumps back and forth through time to tell a love story. But get this: everything that happens in the past is written in the present tense; everything that happens in the present is told in the past tense. While I didn’t mess with tense changes, King’s gall gave me the freedom to shift POV at a dramatic point in the story.
Once I was able to build a structure to contain this Big Idea, it was only a matter of creating some believable characters to populate this universe. I created them, I let them go, and I watched as they went about solving the murder of the Man from Primrose Lane. The whole process kind of reminds me of another big idea: the discovery of the shape of DNA. Once the scientists figured out the structure of DNA, everything else became clear.