The Devil Made Me Do It: Writing and Researching a Time Travel Novel

So, life was creeping on in its steady pace from day to day. I was about to turn 40, and I was in a pretty terrible mood. For no real reason: things were fine. I'm an English professor at Bryn Mawr College, I live in Philadelphia, it's a good life. Philly's great, I love my students, I like thinking deep thoughts about 19th century literature for pay. But my birthday was looming and my mood just got worse and worse...

One morning I woke up and instead of heading down the rickety old stairs in my little Philly row house to make a cup of coffee, I headed up the rickety old stairs to my study. I sat down at the computer and opened a new Word document. I stared at the screen for a second, and then I started typing.

I wrote for fourteen hours straight. The next morning I made the coffee, but carried it upstairs with me and it grew cold while I typed. There were four weeks of summer break, and even though I had a ton of other responsibilities I shoved them aside and I wrote all day every day, like a person possessed.

I was writing a time travel novel.

The River of No Return ($27.95, Dutton) is a hell-for-leather story about a man who jumps forward in time two hundred years from a Napoleonic battlefield, and has to remake his life in the 21st century. The story got bigger and bigger as I wrote, and pretty soon there were secret societies, ominous guys from a faceless future, true love in Georgian London, beautiful medieval beet farmers, lascivious Russian counts... it was as if my life had been taken hostage by the love child of a Doctor Who episode and a Jane Austen novel.

I've never had so much fun in my entire life. I didn't even notice my birthday coming and going. The story just roared out of me.

But... I'm an academic, a literary critic and an historian. My novel carries its action from the present back to the past, and even though time travel is a fantasy, I wanted the past that my characters encountered to be accurate. I wanted it to look and smell and feel right. Luckily my field is the 19th century; luckily I've spent several years living in London. I already knew the broad political and social flavor of the time I was trying to evoke, I knew the general look of the city I was writing about. But fiction hungers for the detail, for the strange little scrap, the forgotten ingredient that made the past something more than just a collation of war and peace.

My novel wasn't just hungry, it was ravenous, and with each sentence its demand grew stronger -- it wouldn't wait.

I'm used to a slow, contemplative pace to writing. A day in the library, a day taking notes, a day writing, a week off to teach, and repeat. Now I had the devil on my back, my fingers twitched to get back to the keyboard whenever I took a break, I dreamed about writing every night. I didn't have time to go sauntering through real stacks, and even the virtual stacks on the web are Byzantine. I spent a whole day lost in speeches given in the House of Commons on a single day in 1815; by the end of that day my characters were ready to stage a revolt. They made me stay up all night writing. My time travel novel had its spurs in me and I was galloping full tilt.

Google Image became my best friend. A single example. I'm writing along, everything's fine, when suddenly my main female character, Julia, storms into her evil cousin's study. He's in there, but she controls him with her secret power (I'm not giving anything away!). Why is she in his study? She's looking for Johnson's Dictionary. She's in a rage, she needs a definition and she needs it now. I know all about Johnson's Dictionary and its importance for literature, for the consolidation of culture... but what the hell did the thing actually look like? Type it into Google Image. Two volumes. OK, two volumes, bound in brown leather: she can pull them both off the shelf at once, her index and middle fingers hooked over the headbands. She's looking up the word "talisman."

What does she page past on her way to that word? Ye gods, it turns out that someone spent precious years of their life making a concordance to Johnson's Dictionary online. You can look up a word and see an actual transcription, page by page. I can scroll through and see that Julia would have had to wade through page after page of definitions of the word "take" before finally getting to "talisman." It's been five minutes and I'm back, Julia has her definition, and the two of us can get on with crashing through the action.

When I was finished with that first, madly written document, I had a little more freedom to review what I'd done. The devil went off to bother someone else, and my characters kicked back and let me alone. I was able to spend leisurely hours in libraries real and virtual, checking my facts, adding details, polishing my novel, making it as perfect as I could. In fact, I fully rewrote it twice before it was finally done, at a calm and rational pace that matched the rhythms of real life.

I indulged myself, during those calmer days, in researching the history of Berkeley Square, where several scenes take place in my novel. I looked for images of the house my main male character lives in in 1815, only to discover that it was blown to bits by a German time-delay bomb in the early morning of September 18th, 1940. I gasped and blinked back tears when my finely honed Googling skills winkled out a photo of the ruin. You could see one side of a beautiful drawing room, turned in an instant from a three-dimensional space that housed human life and drama, into nothing more than a painting on a wall.

I have lots of advice for people who want to write novels. Get depressed, then write like a bat out of hell. Add more characters than you know what to do with - they will force you to have a plot. But most of all, if your characters are as bossy as mine? Make sure you have high-speed internet.

Bee Ridgway is a professor of English at Bryn Mawr College, and the author of The River of No Return (Dutton).