Time Travel: When Sci-Fi Meets Historical Fiction

by Pamela Taylor
published in Writing

Not long ago, I worked on a copyediting project in which the story included time travel, a narrative element straight out of science fiction. As I worked my way through the manuscript, in which the characters were searching for a way to survive a dystopian future and decided their best option was to live in the past for some period of time, my thoughts returned to an article in this column from the summer of 2020. In that column, entitled “When Is It Historical Fiction and When Is It Something Else?” we explored the overlaps and intersections of classical historical fiction with its sub-genres (and, in the case of historical romance, a sub-genre of romance).

I thought it might be fun to take a look at how the element of time travel creates a tangent between historical fiction and sci-fi.

A Visualization

As in the earlier article, it seemed like a picture might be useful for discussing the relationship and interplay of the genres.

time travel

If a narrative’s time travelers always go to the future, then the story remains solidly in the realm of science fiction. The genre junction occurs when the characters travel to the past.

The Author’s Basic Responsibility

Regardless of the basic premise or genre of the story—whether it’s romance or a mystery or fantasy or even horror—when an author embraces time travel as a mechanism for revealing the plot, they share the same responsibilities as the historical fiction author. 

They must research the time period in which their characters will land. That portion of the narrative that occurs in the past must be authentic in every respect. The details of everyday life. Clothing. Events occurring in the larger world in which the characters must exist. The language of the time and place. Food, medicine, tools, gender roles. All the elements of authenticity that we’ve discussed in other articles for this column, including the less savory ones. An author can’t send characters back to the US in the first half of the nineteenth century without acknowledging the existence of slavery.

The Author’s Added Responsibility

Beyond that, authors who use time travel have some additional responsibilities related to when their characters become aware of traveling backward in time.

Is the time travel intentional? Do the characters return to the past of their own volition for their own particular purposes? In such stories, the characters must have a pre-awareness of how the past will differ from their present. Most likely, their intention is to fit in from the moment of their arrival in the earlier time period, so preparation is required. At a very minimum, they must be dressed in the proper clothing before undertaking the travel so that they don’t stick out like a sore thumb wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops when they materialize among the Barbary Pirates in 16th-century Algiers. 

In the manuscript that was the inspiration for this column, the author was careful to show the characters’ preparation for the journey, including subtle details like the acquisition of coins that wouldn’t be suspect in the target era so that the characters could buy food and temporary lodgings while they were getting themselves established.

The other side of the awareness coin for intentional time travelers is anachronism awareness—knowing what they must leave behind. A cell phone or a modern firearm during the Napoleonic wars is just wrong on so many levels. For the author, however, anachronisms are a rich opportunity for creating or exacerbating conflict in the narrative.

And then, of course, there’s the time-travel mechanism. If it’s a physical device, how do the characters prevent discovery? That’s probably a little easier in a genre where spoken incantations or mystical use of ordinary objects is permissible.

But what if the characters are transported back in time at the whim of some other characters or some other force within the story? For such tales, the author must be prepared to provide time-period-plausible cover stories for the characters while they figure out where they are and what they’re going to do about it. Or perhaps bumbling cover stories that only sort of ring true and serve to heighten the suspense by raising suspicions about this character that has just appeared as if from nowhere into the ordinary lives of people native to the time period.

Regardless, when science fiction meets “The Past,” it only works successfully when the author embraces the same guiding principles that are the bread and butter of historical fiction authors.

time travel

An award-winning author of historical fiction and a freelance editor, Pamela Taylor loves helping others polish their stories almost as much as she enjoys writing her own. She’s a member of the DFW Writers Workshop and the Editorial Freelancers Association and for four years was on the judges panel for the Ink & Insights Writing Contest. She shares her home with two Welsh Corgis who frequently remind her that a dog walk is a great way to get inspiration for that next chapter.

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