Multi-Period Novels: The Keys to Weaving Together Two Stories from Different Time Periods

Tori Whitaker

In Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre, HNR’s own Sarah Johnson discusses how “multi-period novels shift between contemporary and historical subplots. This dual timeline approach lets readers see the parallels—and the differences—between the present and the past.” 1 As an avid reader of multi-period novels, I’ve observed that they typically fall into one of three categories. Let’s look at the challenges authors face in writing dual storylines—and how they bring to readers a better understanding of today’s world.

Object connects characters across time

We can call the first category “Object connects characters across time.” Here, two characters are related in some way but are separated by time. An object compels the contemporary character to learn what happened in the past. Readers may recall Anne Fortier’s Juliet (Ballantine, 2010), where a woman receives her late mother’s key to a safety-deposit box in Italy and soon discovers that her family’s origins reach back to literature’s greatest star-crossed lovers. In Category 1, then, dual storylines each feature different main characters, but the historical narrative often informs the modern-day character’s situation in a meaningful way.

Chanel Cleeton’s new release, Next Year in Havana (Berkley, February 2018), is another example. Cuban-American Marisol Ferrera wants to fulfill her grandmother’s dying wish to scatter her ashes in the country of her birth. The story alternates between Marisol’s mission (and her unearthing of family secrets) in Cuba, and the late 1950s when her grandmother fled Castro’s reign.

To craft a dual period novel, says Cleeton, “A lot of shifting around of sections is needed to flesh out the tension points and the parallels—such as having the black moments come closely together. Though one storyline may have higher stakes, each narrative should stand alone with plot arcs and character arcs. One narrative must do more than merely prop up the other. Both narratives need elements of mystery to keep readers asking questions.”

Object links two unrelated characters

My second category is labelled “Object links two unrelated characters.” While there are still different main characters in dual storylines, the characters are not related. Rather, they “become linked” through an object, a place, or an inciting event, such as with The House Girl (William Morrow, 2013) by Tara Conklin. Here, dual narratives follow a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation in 1852 and a modern-day lawyer handling a reparations lawsuit claiming that the slave girl—not her mistress—painted the artworks in a prominent collection. Novels in Categories 1 and 2 often bring parallel journeys together thematically; Conklin’s work explores what it means to repair a wrong.

Jane Johnson, publishing director for Voyager HarperFiction and author of Court of Lions (Head of Zeus, 2017), says, “Weaving effectively is the technical challenge, leaving each storyline not exactly on a cliff-hanger, but certainly just before a point of revelation the reader desires.” Johnson’s latest saga alternates between Granada in modern times and the same city in Spain five centuries before. While visiting the Moorish palace Alhambra, a troubled Englishwoman discovers a scrap of paper written in an ancient language—perhaps a love letter or a poem. The novel braids together Kate Fordham’s struggle to overcome her past with Granada’s expulsion of its last Muslim sultan, led by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

Johnson says, “It’s a delicate balance to ensure the stories match up to one another in interest and tension, and it’s crucial that the characters in each thread are compelling. For readers, it’s about the personalities of the narrators and other main characters of each narrative, and just how complex and horrible a knot you can twist them into. Conflict lies at the heart of every story.” Johnson aims to have each narrative echo or throw light onto aspects of the other, to bring a historical issue into a modern perspective. “I particularly like using a contemporary narrative as a guide to the reader so that—unless they’re already an expert in the historical subject matter—they learn alongside the modern protagonist. There are, effectively, two casts of characters to manage. It’s a significant challenge!”

Character looks back

In the last category, which I’ve tagged “Character looks back,” something happens in the contemporary period that triggers a character’s memories—often something tragic—and thus, readers are transported to an earlier era. Essential to this category is that the same key character appears in both the contemporary and historical storylines. Take Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale (St. Martin’s Press, 2015). In the novel’s opening, set in 1995, an elderly woman removes from an old attic trunk the identity card of Juliette Gervaise. The story propels us back to Nazi-occupied France, and the love and betrayals of two sisters who do everything to survive.

Ariel Lawhon’s I Was Anastasia (Doubleday, March 2018) also opens up in a modern setting, 1970. The novel shifts through time, going back as far as 1918 with Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia recounting her heart-breaking tale. Lawhon says, “This is absolutely about the Anastasia readers know and love. I believe Romanov enthusiasts will be pleased. But it’s also not the story they think it is. . . .”

In writing novels that shift between past and present, Lawhon admits, “I probably struggle most with that all-important but subtle transition between chapters—the segues between time periods, if you will, making sure the reader doesn’t want to leave the narrative she’s in, and then grabbing her immediately upon beginning the next chapter.” When it comes to intertwining the narratives, Lawhon adds, “The writing is art and it’s science, and it can be mentally exhausting.”
Given the novels we’ve examined so far—and we could cite many more—it seems clear that readers are drawn to books that alternate between the past and present. I was eager to learn the authors’ insights as to specific reasons why.

Lawhon reads multi-period books herself and says, “In many ways, the structure allows for a bigger, sweeping story. I love the sense of mystery that unfolds when a novel shifts between past and present.”

Cleeton concurs. “When readers have interest in history, these stories give the ability to make that connection; the novels give us a chance to be explorers. The story becomes a quest.”

Johnson asserts that for some other readers, history can feel distant from our modern world, and they don’t connect with the past in an immediately empathetic way. “They don’t viscerally understand that people have largely remained the same down the ages. People may wear different clothes, but they’re still staying alive in a hostile world, falling in love, losing people they love, and fighting injustice.” For these readers, dual narrative books offer “an easier path into the past.”

Taking it a step further, Johnson says, “It’s absorbing to tell two stories in one and to make them both work upon the other to the greater understanding of a larger truth about our world now.” Consider how well the novels we’re examining illustrate this point.

Next Year in Havana was inspired by Cleeton’s own family’s experience. “It’s a map of my Cuban grandmother’s footsteps,” she says. “My novel is about what exile meant to those who left. The revolution goes on, but the yearning to return to the homeland carries through the generations.”

Lawhon’s novel also has ties to current events; its publication coincides with the centennial of the Romanov family massacre. “I’m amazed at how people have long been obsessed with the Romanovs in general and Anastasia in particular,” she says. “Perhaps it’s the allure of royalty and the end of that dynasty?” Indeed, one has only to follow today’s news media to see that a fascination with royal families remains high.

As for Court of Lions, Johnson notes, “Like all of my novels, its heart resides in the similarities and differences between people, particularly between Christians and Muslims, or West and East. In the book’s modern narrative, Kate is dealing with terrible personal oppression, and this acts as a sort of microcosm of the larger historical narrative about the huge clash of civilizations, and of fundamentalism, that focused itself on Granada at the end of the fifteenth century.” Readers can recognize how the West–East clash is alive in the world today.

Concluding our analysis with one final book, The Cloister by James Carroll (Nan A. Talese, March 2018), we see that this novel, which falls into the second category (“Object links two unrelated characters”), has similar themes that resonate across the centuries. The story shows how the medieval struggle of Abelard and Heloise brings two people—a Catholic priest and a Holocaust survivor—together in the twentieth century.

“The myth of the great French Catholic thinker and his brilliant noblewoman pupil,” Carroll says, “is known for its power as a doom-laden story of romantic love. Yet, in the age of Crusader assaults against both Jews and Muslims, Abelard and Heloise stood almost alone against what turned out to be a crushing tide of intolerance. That tide of contempt flowed seamlessly from anti-Semitism into Islamophobia, ultimately into white supremacy—and even the contemporary “‘Crusade’ of America’s War on Terror.”

Carroll believes that past-and-present fiction may draw readers for the “pleasure in the gradual unfolding of the subliminal bond that ties otherwise unrelated stories together. The threads are interdependent and so must subtly weave back and forth across time and place—two stories becoming one. When the novel works, the interwoven threads become a rope.”

I agree. And yet, one wonders if perhaps multi-period novels also pull us in, in part, because we all grapple with pasts of our own.

1. Sarah L. Johnson
Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre, Libraries Unlimited, 2009, p.6

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Tori Whitaker is chief marketing officer for a national law firm based in Atlanta. She’s also at work on a novel and blogs and tweets about multi-period books. Follow her at and @ToriLWhitaker.

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