The Uncharted Flight of Olivia West: A Dual Timeline Inspired by Hawaiian Aviation History
BY CYNTHIA ANDERSON
Leafing through an old book on the history of Hawai’i, Sara Ackerman read about the 1927 Dole Air Race from Oakland, California to Hawai’i and the idea for a novel came to her.
“How had I never heard of this incredible story of courage and tragedy, having been born and raised in Hawai’i? Charles Lindbergh had just completed his famous Atlantic Crossing, which inspired James Dole, pineapple magnate, to offer up a large prize purse for first and second place. Aviators from around the country scrambled to enter. But since it was 1927, there were no female pilots in the race, only a female passenger named Mildred Doran, though there were many capable female pilots at the time. I thought it would be fun to create a few of my own characters, in a kind of ‘what-if’ scenario. Thus, Olivia West was born.”
The Uncharted Flight of Olivia West (MIRA, February 2024) alternates between two female protagonists in different time periods—Olivia in the 1920s and Wren in the 1980s—whose stories weave together at the end. Ackerman likes dual timeline novels. “They have a built-in level of suspense because the reader is now required to wait longer to find out what happens when you switch timelines. That can also backfire, especially when readers are not equally invested, so I work to create two compelling main characters. It’s not easy but it can be very rewarding in the end.”
Her previous novel, The Codebreaker’s Secret, was her first dual timeline and Ackerman explains what she learned while writing it. “I quickly realized I had to write the older timeline first, so that I knew what happened. Then I wrote the second one, and later weaved them together. It was almost like writing two shorter novels and the pacing threw me off at first, but I adjusted. I did the same for Olivia West. I also knew that to merge them I would have to have more Olivia chapters in the beginning and more Wren towards the end. The future timeline will, to a certain degree, always be dictated by what happens in the past. Once I had both my stories written, I made a chapter list and decided where to stick in the new storyline. Also, as a reader I like to spend some time with each character, so I chose not to switch every chapter. I feel like that breaks things up too much.”
Ackerman’s use of chapter titles not only helps orient the reader but plants pebbles of suspense for the reader to follow. “I use chapter titles for all my novels. A book that made me see the value in chapter titles was The Book Thief. It was genius! I love the creativity and challenge to finding a word or a line that hints at what is coming without giving too much away. Sometimes it comes easily and sometimes it takes a while before I settle on one. In at least one of my books I think I have THE for each one––as in, THE VOLCANO HOUSE, THE ENCOUNTER––which makes it simpler.”
She relied on three main sources to create the fledging world of aviation in the 1920s. Race To Hawaii by Jason Ryan, which recounts early attempts to reach Hawai’i by plane, including the Dole Air Race. “Ryan included many first-hand accounts of pilots and navigators and what it was like to fly through the fog and through the night, worried about fuel and finding their way, and descriptions of what the planes were like.”
Charles Lindbergh’s insightful and lyrical The Spirit of St. Louis was another source. “I was able to glean much from Lindbergh on the mechanics of it all, along with his state of mind during the flight, how he navigated, and what kinds of challenges he encountered. I worked hard to add the human element, because I was so intrigued by how a person could endure 27 hours in a tiny plane over the Pacific, with a good chance of never making their destination. The mind played tricks on you. Some people seemed to thrive and rise to the occasion, while others panicked. It was definitely a case of you won’t know until you go.”
While cleaning out her late father’s storage room, she found American Practical Navigation, published in 1926, the year before the Dole Air Race. “Finding that book was serendipitous, Ackerman said. “It was what I needed at just the right time. The book showed me how complex early navigation was. I also watched old movies of early flight, and even found footage of the Dole Air Race, which surprised me.”
As in all her previous novels, animals make an appearance in The Uncharted Flight of Olivia West. “I am a little bit of a bird fanatic and love to watch the albatross in flight over Oahu’s north shore. They are some of the most graceful creatures on earth. I thought it would be fitting to have Wren with a bird name as a tie in. The book is, after all, about flight! As for the dogs and other animals, it was not a conscious decision to include them in the story, they just naturally arose because I love animals. Pa’a the dog was a surprise for me, and I felt like she added another dimension to Wren’s story.”
The Uncharted Flight of Olivia West is Ackerman’s first published novel not set during World War II. She will continue that trend with her next two books under contract. “One is a dual timeline that takes place in Waikiki in 1905 and a hundred years later, and the other is a contemporary (2012) adventure/love story. I do have an idea for a book that bridges the last year of World War II and the year following, set on Hawai’i Island. So, we’ll see! So many book ideas and so little time.”
About the contributor: Cynthia Anderson is a writer living in Switzerland. She’s written The Pilot’s Watch, a novel about WW2 Switzerland. You can connect with her on Instagram at cynandersonwriter.