Kate Heartfield: Five Things I Learned Writing Alice Payne Arrives

A disillusioned major, a highwaywoman, and a war raging across time.

It’s 1788 and Alice Payne is the notorious highway robber, the Holy Ghost. Aided by her trusty automaton, Laverna, the Holy Ghost is feared by all who own a heavy purse.

It’s 1889 and Major Prudence Zuniga is once again attempting to change history—to save history—but seventy attempts later she’s still no closer to her goal.

It’s 2016 and . . . well, the less said about 2016 the better!

But in 2020 the Farmers and the Guides are locked in battle; time is their battleground, and the world is their prize. Only something new can change the course of the war. Or someone new.

Little did they know, but they’ve all been waiting until Alice Payne arrives.

* * *

Time Travel Is Hard

I don’t mean actually traveling through time, although yeah, that too. Time travel is hard to write because stories are, almost by definition, events in linear time, and once you start messing with that, it can be a challenge to preserve things like pacing, conflict, urgency or, uh, coherence, which are things I’m told some readers expect. Oh no the bad guy’s coming! He’ll be here any second! Hurry! Or…. use your time traveling device, stop by Ibiza, have an umbrella drink, whatever.

So the writer has to put limits on what time travel can do (it’s much like working with a magic system, this way), without destroying everything that makes time travel cool and interesting in the first place.

My friend Kelly Robson has written about why she made her time travel consequence-free in her novella Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach; she wanted to write about how time travelers would act if they believed that nothing they did would alter the future, to explore what it would be like to have a “Google Street view of the remote past.”

In Alice Payne Arrives, I set out to do the opposite, to explore the consequences of individual decisions on the future. In my novella, time travel is mostly restricted to two militaristic factions who are working endlessly to change the timeline, and so the history of the world and the characters’ own backstories can change, even within the span of the novella. (Did I mention plotting this was hard?)

So I had to build in other restrictions, other reasons why time travel can’t just fix everything. This is important not only for storytelling reasons, but also for ethical ones: If you write a book in which time travel can change history, and that history still includes any of the genocides and oppression of our own history, you’d damn well better have thought through the reasons you’ve made that authorial choice.

Chapter Titles Are the Neitherlands

Before I wrote this book, I thought about chapter titles mainly as guidelines and signals for the reader.  I loved them, but I thought of them as ornaments.

Because much of Alice Payne Arrives takes place in the 18th century, and one of my point-of-view characters was born in that century, I knew I wanted my chapter titles to include some echoes of the glorious chapter summaries from that period in English literature. Henry Fielding has some amazing ones in A History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, which was written in 1749:  “Chapter Twelve: Containing what the reader may, perhaps, expect to find in it.”

Although I wanted some of that flavor, Alice Payne Arrives is not an 18th century pastiche, and one of its point-of-view characters was born in the year 2132. So the chapter titles became an interstitial space between the worlds of my point of view characters. They started to remind me of the Wood Between the Worlds in the Narnia books, or the Neitherlands in Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy: places where the story isn’t happening, but the world of the story is still assumed to exist. This draws back the curtain on the ontological workings of the book as a construct. For example, my favorite chapter title in Alice Payne Arrives is: “Shit Gets Weird; Or, A Consequential Encounter.” That chapter title doesn’t belong to the 18th century point of view, or the 22nd century one. It belongs to both, or … neither?

Chapter Titles Are the Soundtrack

This whole thing with the chapter titles got me excited because I’ve long been fascinated by the way historical movies can use deliberately anachronistic music to shorten the emotional distance for the audience. What does it mean to tell the truth about the past if a Just the Facts portrayal of the past can actually convey a false emotional experience? For example, if I have a character say “zounds”, that feels different to my readers than it would have felt to the people in the room with the character because their social and cultural context is different.

One way to try to tell both kinds of truth is to present the facts and present some anachronistic cultural context, to help guide the modern time traveler.

Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is a brilliant example of this, as is the movie A Knight’s Tale. For an exploration of what makes A Knight’s Tale so great in this way, read Michael Livingston.) Maybe, I thought, chapter titles in fiction could serve the same sort of mediating function that a soundtrack does in movies?

And of course, the musical Hamilton does exactly this with music too, so I was amused to find that the behind-the-scenes book Hamilton: The Revolution (affectionately known as the Hamiltome) does something similar with its chapter titles as I did in Alice Payne Arrives. (E.g.: “Stakes is High; Or, What Happened at Lincoln Center and What Came After, Including Lunch with Jeffrey Seller.”)

Worldbuild for Book 2 in Book 1

Roughly while I was working on the copy-edits and proofreading for book 1, I was drafting book 2. I’d never written a sequel to anything before.

World-building in a book is sort of like set dressing in a stage production: You show the reader the stuff they need to see, and you hint at other bits to create an impression that the world continues, off-stage. Sure, you have some ideas about what’s happening in those imagined spaces, but for the most part, behind and between the lovely painted sets, there’s nothing a bit of plywood and some rat poop. I’m used to doing just a little bit more world-building than I’ll actually require for a given book.

I soon discovered that a sequel would require me to fill in those gaps in my setting: sometimes quite literally. In book 1 I had some scenes in the study and some scenes in the foyer without nailing down which rooms were in between, but in book 2 I had a scene in which the characters move from the study to the foyer, so I had to make sure that the rooms I filled in for book 2 didn’t contradict any offhand remarks I’d tossed off about the layout of the house in book 1.

So now I understand why series writers love their wikis and their notebooks.

Go Weird or Go Home

I wrote Alice Payne Arrives when I was on submission with what would become my first published novel. Being on sub is a great time to just write whatever the hell you want, if you can carve out the time to do that, because your brain weasels are busy telling you you’ll never succeed in the industry. You can respond to said brain weasels by saying, “Yes, I know, that’s why I’m writing whatever the hell I want.” Win-win.

So I spent a month furiously writing 28,000 words of fast-paced, bonkers mash-up of historical romance and thematic political SF with complex plotlines, complicated relationships and world-ending stakes. Novellas are great for that kind of experimentation; they let you explore a bigger idea than will fit in a short story, but they won’t eat months or years of your life.

And lo and behold, my agent and I sold it to one of my dream publishing houses. It can be scary to write the weird joy of your heart without holding anything back. But sometimes, that’s exactly what resonates with other people.

* * *

Kate Heartfield is a former newspaper editor who lives in Ottawa, Canada. Her time-travel novella, Alice Payne Arrives, releases on Nov. 6 from Tor.com Publishing. Her historical fantasy novel, Armed in Her Fashion, was published in spring 2018 by ChiZine Publications. Also in the spring of 2018, Choice of Games released her interactive novel, The Road to Canterbury. Her short fiction has appeared in several magazines and anthologies.

Kate Heartfield: Website | Twitter

Alice Payne Arrives: Print | eBook