My approach to writing historical fiction in The Time Travel Chronicles
When I got the idea to write a time travel series where my characters travelled through history, I was excited. I could choose my favourite periods and spend time studying them. Ancient Egypt, medieval England, the Wild West, the pirate era and Edo Japan. All unique and totally different from each other.
But then I wondered—as all histfic writers do—is this a risky endeavour? Where should history end and fiction begin? That line is a grey one.
Let’s take Shoot-out at Death Canyon, book 3 in the Time Travel Chronicles, as a case study. It’s likely to be the most controversial in my series, because: 1) it’s closest to our current time, making the history the most knowable; 2) many of my readers have personal connections with the land and its people; and 3) they hold the period and its legends close to their heart.
Do I dare, as an Australian and an outsider, take liberties in representing the era?
When I sat down to write Shoot-out, I did what I’d done with previous books—made a list of the most interesting and iconic aspects of the period. In the Wild West, there were a lot. The pioneer spirit. People needing second chances. The lawlessness, the epic landscape. The cowboys. The saloons, gambling. Native Americans. The cross-country railway. The gold rush. I wanted to include them all.
But those who know their Wild West history—and many Americans do—can see the problem. To pull all those things together in a story which takes place over a couple of months, in a limited space, is impossible.
The gold rush in California was finished by 1855. Trains didn’t run from the west to the east till 1869. The golden era of the cowboy, driving cattle from Texas to railways in the north began around then and was over in less than two decades. An 1830 government Act began forcibly removing Native Americans from the land, making it difficult to pin down where any one group was at any time over the next five decades.
I had a choice—nominate a year and location and restrict myself to what I found there or use artistic license to draw the most thrilling elements from the wider period into my tale.
This is where the historical fiction part comes in. I decided to stick to facts where I could, but, when it served the story, I willingly diverged from them.
Does this mean Shoot-out is pure fiction? Nonsense? No. I did a great deal of research on the time—more than for any other book in the series. And this included eyewitness accounts from journalists travelling with cowboys, and people living in Wild West towns. It all fed into a gritty realism I tried to recreate as the backdrop to my time travel tale.
But I made up the town names on the cattle drive. I had to, really. Trying to stick to a real trail would require heaps more research that would not necessarily improve the story for readers. (Though I did try to keep roughly to the correct time it would have taken to drive cattle over that distance.) And I created a gold rush town where there wasn’t one, as I didn’t want to omit that exciting element.
My aim was to give readers an immersive experience. So they feel the dust catching in their throat when they’re at the rear of the herd, the warm wind blowing as they cross the plains, the thrill of finding a sparkly rock among the mud in the pan.
You could say I created a Wild West “fantasy” world, that blends reality with fiction. I did a similar thing with my previous two books in medieval England and Ancient Egypt.
I’m hoping readers will enjoy the stories for what they are—not a reworking of history, but a fast-paced, high-stakes time travel tale with a light tone and an abundance of historical detail to evoke the feel and spirit of the times.