I’ve always been intrigued by the past – especially certain time periods in the past. As I am a life-long student of Ancient Egypt, of course that tops the list. It is such an ancient land that the boundaries between past and present sometimes seem to blur. Did you know that at Deir el-Bahri there exists the stump of a tree planted at the time of its construction? Now desiccated and surrounded by an ugly iron paling, it still sits there in defiance of the millennia that have passed since it was planted by hands long turned to dust. Such things never cease to thrill me.
So, when I decided to write a time-travel, Ancient Egypt was a natural. If you’re interested at all in history, if you know how the past sparks your mind – what would it be like to actually be there? To live there? What would your daily life be like? How would it feel to realize that you could never come home again, that everything you had always known was forever denied you? Not just cosmic things like family and medicines and knowledge and the immediate gratification of almost every wish, though – everyday things like Mexican food, sneakers and hand cream.
And so was born PASSION’S CHOICE, a story about an average American woman thrust back into the turbulent time of Pharaoh Hatshepsut. And the work began. To sit and fantasize about living in another time and place is one thing. To make it into a believable, coherent story that is historically accurate (a very big thing with me!) is another. Would my heroine have worn cotton? (No) Eaten lemons? (No) Had slaves? (No – at least during my time period) Had toilets? (Yes, and flushed with water, but still very different from our own) Had pets? (Yes)
Writing a time travel means creating a believable, workable world with rules and parameters, just as must a fantasy writer creates a world of cool orange oceans and children who can fly up to the age of eleven, or whatever. A time travel is harder, though, because you are writing about something that is true, something that once actually existed. Most everyone knows something about most time periods, though, making your mistakes that much more visible. (Alternative histories and fantasy histories are completely different animals.) And you daren’t let a fact slide, thinking it is too obscure or unimportant to research. I guarantee someone will catch it and call you on it.
Once given the basic fantasy aspect of a modern-day person going back in time, there are just as many restrictions as writing a contemporary ‘reality’ story. Not only must you conform to the framework of history, you must accept the mores and mindsets of your chosen time period.
For example, the Ancient Egyptians believed most thoroughly in magic. In fact, to them magic and religion were inseparable, two disparate parts of a single whole that infused every aspect of life. The medical texts show this; the spells which were to be recited by the priest/physician and the magical texts which were to be inscribed on the bandages were given equal importance as the physical medicaments. To the ancients, it was a package deal; our perception of religion as one thing and medicine as another would have been incomprehensible and more than a little blasphemous to them.
It is tempting to create our own worlds and live our own fantasies when writing time travels, but it is imperative to keep your characters (time traveler him/herself excluded, of course) and facts, lifestyles and beliefs congruent with their time. Otherwise you end up with the dreaded ‘21st century people in fancy dress’ syndrome. That’s just plain bad writing.
No, writing a good time travel is difficult, and – if it is going to be a good one – takes a great deal more work than a simple contemporary story. You not only have to have the viewpoint and beliefs of your time-traveler, you also have to have the viewpoints and beliefs of the time traveled to. That conflict, of beliefs and attitudes as well as technologies, is what makes your story, and we all know that good books are nothing but a series of conflicts arisen and resolved.
Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson is a 7th-generation Texan and a 3rd-generation wordsmith who writes in mystery, romance, and horror. Once an actress and a singer Janis has also been editor-in-chief of two multi-magazine publishing groups as well as many other things, including an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist.
Janis’ husband even proposed in a moonlit garden near
the Pyramids of Giza.
She and her husband live in Texas with an assortment of rescued furbabies.