What is Time Travel?

You’ve been introduced to historical fiction by Emilie and historical fantasy by Tricia, so last but not least I’ll cover time travel.

What is time travel, in relation to a novel? Simply put, it is the concept of moving between different moments in time. Characters can move backwards in time to a moment before the present, or forward from the present to the future.

Time travel is one of those tricky topics to place in a genre. It is so many different things—historical, adventure, mystery, and fantasy/science fiction! Ultimately, when a reader sees time travel they know to some extent what they’re getting into. I classify time travel as a subgenre of historical fiction. Why? Because time travel implies historical. The first question that comes to mind when I hear the words “time travel” is: What time period? The reader expects to go back in time.

Any book that moves forward in time I’m going to classify as fantasy or science fiction. By moving forward in time the author is introducing new worlds and rules and conventions. Any book that recedes in time I’ll classify as a subgenre of historical. By going back in time an author is setting up strict guidelines for themselves. They have to follow the rules and conventions of the past. History has been lived and documented and leaves little room for invention, unlike future time travel.

Now, after saying all that I’m going to tell you that historical time travel, even though it predominantly follows the rules of historical fiction, is also, technically, fantasy or science fiction. Time travel is unproven and hence fantastical. How do we determine which one describes a particular story? I had a chat about this once with Bruce Coville. He gave me some great advice on an easy way to distinguish between fantasy and science fiction. He said if you time travel by machine it is science fiction, and any other way, it’s fantasy.

For example, my Abigail Wenworth Series would be defined as fantasy. Abby gets to the past in many different ways. One book it’s through a schoolhouse door, another on a train, another on a boat, but there is never a machine that transports them. They never know exactly how or when they could end up in the past. On the other hand, Gideon the Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer would be classified as science fiction since the children go back to 1763 England by a machine made by their scientist father.

What distinguishes time travel from pure historical fiction is the author’s ability to change the past and also to compare the present and past. These are the two biggest reasons I write time travel. I want to be able to manipulate the past; even if it’s just one person’s life, I can still change it to some degree. And I love to throw my modern-day characters into a world they don’t understand. It just creates so many delightful problems!

This just touches the surface and we’ll get into more detail in future discussions, but now that you’ve been introduced to historical fiction, historical fantasy and time travel which is your favorite (to read or write) and why? Do you have any favorite books that you think are great examples?


8 Responses to What is Time Travel?

  1. Tricia says:

    It definitely creates all sorts of problems for characters when you send them into an unfamiliar world or culture. I love that, too!

  2. Hiya! Did we meet at SCBWI in Nashua? I’ll be trying to keep an eye on your blog … and good luck with your writing projects!
    Padma Venkatraman (author of CLIMBING THE STAIRS)

  3. And I’m so so so thrilled I’m on your favorites list! THANKS so much! It means a lot to me!
    Padma Venkatraman (author of CLIMBING THE STAIRS)

  4. Jennifer says:

    Hi Padma! We did meet at Nashua, and I was going to be emailing you in a week or two! I really did like your book so it deserved a spot on my favorites list! I learned so much from it (which I love it when I can read a historical book and come away with new knowledge). I recommend it to everyone who asks me for a good book to read! Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Kaye Dacus says:

    I’ve got to get my hands on some good time-travel romance novels, because I’ve had an idea for one for a couple of years now. Don’t know when I’ll get around to writing it (after all, I already have a bunch of stuff under contract that needs to be written first!), but I really want to try my hand at it!

  6. Jennifer says:

    Good time travel is hard to find. I don’t even have a favorite time travel book on my favorite list, because I’ve yet to find one that’s just swept me away. Most of the time I find the plots to be faulty – and you really need a strong plot to have a successful time travel story – especially when you get into the middle grade and YA market.

  7. Kaye Dacus says:

    My problem with plotting mine is that it would involve a murder mystery that must be solved in the modern-day setting that has to be solved by items the hero gives the heroine in each historical setting (a journal, a jewelry box, a letter, etc.)—which actually turn out to be artifacts she’s interacted with in the previous 24 to 48 hours before the time-traveling started. I STINK at mysteries—plotting them or solving them!

  8. Jennifer says:

    The Schoolhouse Disappearance is sort of like that. It’s a mystery and my character goes back and forth through time – she has to use things she learns while in the past to help her figure out things/what she needs to find in the present… I’m actually rewriting it, because I realized that the first go around (before Seton Hill) it had major plot holes – I learned a lot writing my second book in the series at Seton Hill. But yeah plotting a mystery is not something that comes easy to me either–and most time travel typically involves mystery of some sort.

    That’s a goodreads list of Romance Time Travel books. Never read any of them, but maybe it’ll help you some.

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