Please welcome Nina Schuyler to Writer Unboxed. Nina is the author of The Translator, which won the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Award for General Fiction and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Writing Prize. Her novel The Painting was nominated for a Northern California Book Award and named a Best Book by the San Francisco Chronicle. Nina teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco.
The Translator involved weaving memories into the present story line. I wanted to get underneath the advice—“use memories or the past to advance the story”—and figure out the effective ways to use the past to enhance the story.
Time Travel Done Right: Weaving Memories into a Storyline
Keep the present action going. Don’t include the past at all. Include it, but don’t put it there. Or there. Or there.
There’s an abundance of writing advice, regarding the past and the use of memories in fiction. Some of it is contradictory, most of it confusing, because well-regarded writers often use memories to create rich and compelling stories.
By including memories, you can heighten tension by raising the stakes, dramatize a character’s change, complicate motivation, and create subtext to guide the reader to the heart of the story.
Raise the Stakes
In Joseph O’Neil’s wonderful novel, Netherland, Hans van den Broek’s wife has taken their child and moved back to London, leaving him alone in New York City. Hans discovers a cricket bat in the trunk of a taxi cab, and the driver, seeing Hans’ interest, invites him to play.
[pullquote]By including memories, you can heighten tension by raising the stakes, dramatize a character’s change, complicate motivation, and create subtext to guide the reader to the heart of the story.[/pullquote]
If the scene ended there, the act of playing cricket might be viewed as a way to distract the narrator from his troubles. But the present action causes Hans to remember his boyhood in Holland, where he lived alone with his mother. As a boy, Hans fell in love with cricket. It provided surrogate fathers, and there, in his memories, he sees his mother on the sidelines, watching him, supporting him.
“From September through April I played football, proudly wearing the club’s black shirt and black shorts bought at the sporting goods store on Fahrenheitstraat; and from May through August I played cricket. I loved both sports equally; but by my midteens, cricket had claimed its first place.”
And then, “It was her (his mother) habit to unfold a portable chair by the western sightscreen and sit there for hours, grading homework and occasionally looking up to follow the game.”
The stakes are raised—what can be gained, what can be lost—by including these memories of his boyhood; the reader understands that Hans is depending on cricket, not only as a distraction, but also to help him through this difficult time.
By including a memory, a writer can convey a change in character. In my novel, The Translator, my protagonist, Hanne Schubert encounters Moto, an unemployed Noh actor [Read more…]