London, 2004. Frankie didn’t always have it easy. Growing up motherless, she was raised by her grandmother, who loved her – and betrayed her. For years, the rift between them seemed irreparable. But when their paths suddenly cross again, Frankie is shocked to realise that her grandmother is slowly losing control of her memory. There is a darkness in her past that won’t stay buried – secrets going back to wartime that may have a devastating effect on Frankie’s own life.
Somerset, 1940. When seventeen-year-old Violet’s life is ripped apart by the London Blitz, she runs away to join the Women’s Land Army, wanting nothing more than to leave her grief behind. But as well as the terror of enemy air raids, the land girls at Winterbourne Orchards face a powerful enemy closer to home. One terrible night, their courage will be put to the test – and the truth of what happened must be kept hidden, forever . . .
Timeslip fiction: When two stories become one
I love historical novels and I love contemporary women’s stories, but one of my favourite genres is Timeslip Fiction. It’s called ‘timeslip’ because the plot ‘slips’ back and forth between different points in time, usually with a dark secret or a fateful discovery tying the two together. The best kind gives both strands their own plot arc and central character, and ideally, you love both equally and neither strand dominates over the other.
There are so many wonderful timeslip writers out there who achieve this seemingly effortlessly that, when I first went into writing my own, I wasn’t quite prepared for how tricky it actually is and just how much planning it requires. It’s like playing chess or one of those complicated strategy games: Connect A, line up with B, hark back to C, make sure it doesn’t contradict D, move across to E for an extra twisty plot twist… Time has to be both strictly linear (or else you’ll lose your mind) as well as lateral (so that something you plot now can connect five chapters later with something you didn’t know then would exist), and it’s usually at this point that I really, really wish I was better at chess.
With My Mother’s Shadow, I first wrote the story of Addie, who is confronted with a sister she never knew about and a dark time in her mother’s past. Working through Addie’s emotional fallout, I realised I needed to know more about her mother, Liz, to really understand how we got here. At first, I just wrote a few diary entries set in Liz’s time, 1958, but I kept fleshing out her character and adding details until all of sudden it was a story all of its own.
With Summer of Secrets, I turned this process upside down and wrote the historical story first. During the last golden days before WW2, a country-house weekend at beautiful Summerhill on the Cornish coast goes horribly wrong and the heroine, Maddy Hamilton, is forced to grow up fast. I then wrote a contemporary framework set in the present day. Young photographer Chloe faces up to the dark side of her seemingly perfect life when she is sent to Summerhill to take a photo of an old lady called Madeleine Hamilton… Themes and emotions echo back and forth between these two stories as both women find the strength to embark on a path of change.
With my newest novel, The Orchard Girls, I chose yet another approach. The contemporary strand is centred around Frankie, a young journalist whose beloved grandmother Violet begins to suffer from dementia. As Violet’s mind unravels, memories surface of a dark secret harking back to 1940, where Violet, then a young London debutante, has run away from home to join a group of Land Girls at a troubled orchard estate in Somerset. I wrote a very fast, very messy draft of Violet’s main movements, then wrote a very fast, very messy draft of Frankie’s discovery of her grandmother’s past. That was the easy part. What followed was a long and painstaking process of welding these two stories together, filling in the blanks, smoothing over innumerable cracks, until both had become one.
Because with timeslip fiction you’re never just writing one book. You’re writing three. One that tells the story of the past. One that tells the story of the present. And one that tells an overall story of past-and-present-together. And after all these years, I still haven’t quite found the exact magic formula to make this happen. All I know is that it requires an excel sheet the size of you, several notebooks of details, someone holding your hand every now and then and a lot of chocolate. And inevitably, there comes a point when you have to abandon best-laid plans altogether and just go for it: sweep across the board of your novel and play your very best game of narrative chess ever.
Thank you, Nikola Scott and Rachel’s Random Resources
About the author
Nikola Scott started out in book publishing and worked as a crime fiction editor in America and England for many years. Turning her back on blood-spattered paperback covers and dead bodies found in woods, she sat down at her kitchen table one day to start her first novel — and hasn’t stopped writing since. Obsessed with history and family stories (‘How exactly did you feel when your parents gave the house to your brother?’) she is well-known – and feared – for digging up dark secrets at dinner parties and turning them into novels.
Her first two books, My Mother’s Shadow and Summer of Secrets, have both been international bestsellers and were translated widely around the world. Nikola lives in Frankfurt with her husband and two boys (and a kitchen table).
Once a month, Nikola sends out a popular newsletter about writing, reading, book news, freebies and loads of therapeutic baking.