What a treat to have author Hannah Foley on the blog today, generously sharing her experience of writing the dual timeline in her latest book – The Tiger Who Sleeps Under My Chair.
The writers among us will be heartened to hear that, while stories and their structures don’t always come easily, an unexpected image might hold the very key we’ve been looking for.
Read on to find out how a fossil helped Hannah understand how the stories of Jude and Mary worked together to create the novel as a whole.
I’d never written a dual timeline story before but as soon as I had the idea for The Tiger Who Sleeps Under My Chair, I knew it would have these two stories running alongside each other, getting closer and closer, until, they collided. The book is a mystery story exploring mental illness and family secrets, set on the Jurassic Coast in the southwest of England. In the Victorian times, Emma is frightened by her brother, James’s reaction to a stuffed tiger. In the present day, Jude finds his classmate, Rosie, unwell and fixated on tigers.
The character of Jude in the present day was easy to write. I felt him on my shoulder continuously, badgering me to hear about football results or what he’d had for lunch. He eclipsed Emma, in the Victorian era, for a long time. Hidden away under the eaves of her London attic, her voice was a little whisper, shy and lacking in self-confidence.
I’m not a natural planner but I recognised straight away how important it would be to lay a trail of clues for my readers to follow and to make sure the two timelines were well-balanced. I was so keen to get it right, I ended up going the other way, boxing myself in to a rigid structure. I was sure I needed to mirror one story in the other, absolutely, chapter by chapter.
The Jurassic Coast was the home of the famous fossil-hunter, Mary Anning and it was the image of an ammonite fossil that eventually helped me find my way to a structure that gave both Emma and Jude the space to tell their side of the tale. I began to think of the two stories pirouetting around each other, like the ancient spiral of an ammonite shell. At times the story draws close to Emma and at others, to Jude, but all the time the resonances build, twisting more and more tightly.
At the front of the book is a quote from Wendell Berry, “There’s more to us than some of us suppose”. With the help of my brilliant editor at Zephyr, I took the leap to truly trust my readers. Children are more perceptive, intuitive and empathic than we often give them credit for. I hope this book will be one they come back to again and again. Like the layers of rock in the Jurassic cliffs, I hope they will re-read Jude and Emma’s stories and recognise their own developing understanding of the world reflected there.
And how did I solve the issue of Jude’s noisiness? Just as with my own real-life children constantly interrupting each other, I had to tell him to be quiet! For those of you who have read the book, you’ll know he’s the sort of lad who took this on the chin, grinned, and became a champion for Emma, shaking his head with a raised eyebrow whenever he didn’t think I was paying her enough attention.