The Time Traveler’s Life (Part II)

Lea 2The second part of this series on writing time travel fiction is precautionary. Hopefully it will help you avoid stuff that’s just weird.  A good example of weirdness is not Lea Thompson playing Lorraine Baines.  No, a good example of weirdness is that family photograph that Marty carried around in Back to the Future.  People loved that movie, so much so that it’s become a trope (very Back-to-the-Future), and its quotes have entered daily dialogue (“You’re my density!” and “1.61 gigawatts of electricity,” and “Great Scott!”).  But as much as people loved the movie they hated that damn photograph, and the way Marty’s family faded in and out depending how he was messing up the timeline.

With that in mind, here are a few other cliches you’ll want to avoid if you’re writing about time travel:

  • If the hero’s past and future selves encounter each other it’ll destroy the universe.  This one is just plain stupid.  And who’s to decide what’s stupid and what’s not?  I am.  It’s my blog.
  • The Butterfly Effect.  This one is just too worn-out or, as Doctor Who put it, “Just don’t step on butterflies, then.”
  • Overuse of Daylight Savings Time, the International Date Line, and clocks that run backward, and any other type of artificial construct.
  • Avoid having the hero travel back in time to give the time machine to himself.  This is actually my favorite paradox, but it doesn’t make for a good story.  You know what does make for a good story?  Characters.
  • Avoid the mysterious stranger who is revealed to be the hero’s past or future self.  Readers will spot this one immediately.  It’s much better to start with this as a premise and see how it goes from there, e.g., John the Younger has just discovered that spooky ol’ John the Older, who lives right next door, is actually his future self.  Have the story, novel, screenplay, etc, start there.
  • Going back in time 65 million years to be chased by a dinosaur.  If you want to get chased by a T-Rex just fly down to Isla Nublar. It’s much closer.jurassic-park
  • Repeating the same eras as destinations: I touched on this in Part I of this blog entry.  There are certain time periods that have captured our imagination.  Among them are prehistoric times, the Middle Ages, the American Civil War, the Wild West, World War II, the (not-so) good ol’ days of the 50s, and the Kennedy Assassination.  But if you just quickly browse any good bookstore you’ll realize that history is much more than this.  In fact, it’s been around for a long time.
  • Having the main character change sex as a result of time travel.  Robert Heinlein did this in “All You Zombies.”  It worked for him, but chances are you’re not going to ooh-aah anybody with that zinger these days.
  • Don’t make the future a dystopia.  A nuclear ash-heap of post-apocalyptic, angst-ridden, one-armed assholes carrying assault rifles fighting off hords of zombies and a virtual reality “Big Brother” is … tiring as hell.  I just made all that up, by the way.  So, if I can make up a cliche in thirty seconds there’s a damn good chance it’s overused.

This is just a snapshot of the cliches.   And also remember that if you’ve seen it once in a movie (e.g., Groundhog Day) it’s been done dozens of times in fiction.

A word of encouragement before I sign off … If you want your character to travel back to the Kennedy assassination  it’s perfectly fine to do so.  But what you need to do is find a fresh angle.  I’ll give you an example as a sort of writing prompt: Instead of writing about the events in Dealey Plaza why not write about the interrogation of Lee Harvey Oswald by the Dallas Police and the FBI?  Make your time traveler one of the FBI agents.  He could’ve “just flown in” from Washington.  And not only does he have to deal with the stress of the situation he also has to deal with a culture that is hostile to Federal agents.  Food for thought.  Or, as they say in the UK, food for thought.



Copyright © 2013

The Time Traveler’s Life (Part I)

Still-of-Lea-Thompson-in-Back-to-the-Future-24BJGVYFS3-moviereviewfeeds-comIt seemed apropos that, on Groundhog Day, I’d post a picture of the first actress I had a crush on  … oh, wait!  What I mean to say is that I’d be asked to post an article on G+ about the challenges of writing time travel fiction.  If you want to delve into this weird but amazingly fun genre (where you may indeed have a protagonist who looks like Lea Thompson) you need to know what you’re up against.  What I’ve tried to do below is compile a list of issues the time travel writer needs to be aware of.

As with everything else in fiction, of course, the way to attract readers is through character.  But this article doesn’t address character development; there are ample resources for that.  Right now, we’ll stick to time-travel obstacles.

• Paradox Lost – You’ve got to come to grips with the notion of paradox.  That means wrapping your mind around two conflicting ideas.  My favorite time travel paradox, for example, is the one where the time traveler goes back in time and gives the blueprints for the time machine to his younger self.  Thinking about cause and effect here requires some serious mental gymnastics, not to mention a tall glass of scotch.  However, you really should avoid using this particular paradox in your story; it’s an overused cliche.

• Who’s Out to Get Your Hero? – You need to realize the villain of your story may well turn out to be the hero’s younger or older self.

• Timeline – Stephen King wrote a phenomenal time travel novel in 11/22/63.  In order to do that yourself, you’re going to have to map out the timeline chronologically (ahem).  So if you had a present-day time traveler going back to witness the events in Dealey Plaza, you’d need a timeline from 1963 till now.  Otherwise things are going to be a tangled mess.  Index cards work well for storyboarding such a plot, with each card representing a major aspect of the plot.11-22-63

• Travel Agent Required – How does the hero travel?  Via H.G. Wells steampunk machine?  A spaceship?  Gateway?  Phone booth?  Sports car?  Magic? You need to decide.  And once you decide you need to stick with it.  Time travel is part of your setting.  You wouldn’t have a creek flow uphill, so why would you have a time machine that worked inconsistently?

• The Left Behind – When your hero travels he’ll abandon friends and loved-ones.  How does he feel about that?  That’s nontrivial and potentially traumatic.

• Culture Shock – When Doctor Who’s Martha Jones (a woman of African descent) arrives in Shakespearean London she’s worried about getting sold into slavery.  Think about that.  Takes some of the romance out of the “good ol’ days,” doesn’t it?

• Cause and Effect – If the hero buys a ton of Apple Computer stock in 1999 will he really get rich?  Or does his stock purchase affect Apple’s success?

• Think Out of the Box – Suppose the time machine is a simple door.  What happens if the hero steps through using his cell phone?  Does he still have coverage?  That’s not as weird as it sounds.  If he can see through the door (visible light) then cell phone signals (radio waves) can travel through it, too.

• Grandfather Paradox – Is the hero going to do something that keeps himself from being born?  Suppose it involves murder.  How does the hero cope with that?  Murder is murder, in 2013 BC and 2013 CE.

• History Mystery – The hero wants to witness the Kennedy assassination.  Great subject, but you better damn well know your subject.  As the writer, can you tell us who the Babushka Lady was?  Or what was on Dallas TV right before the news broke?  Which motorcycle cop had his two-way radio on?   What was the weather like?  What’s the distance from the Book Depository to Kennedy’s car?  What did the “Treason” leaflets say?  What did the Manhattan businessman say about JFK’s killer? Zapruder-Film-Frame-366

• Action or Reaction –  How does the hero react to witnessing a really brutal murder?  The President, after all, had his brains blown out, literally.  If you’ve ever seen the Zapruder film you know it was a grisly, ugly, and sickening sight.  Now imagine being there, with the sights, the screams, the smells …

Time travel is not for the feint of heart.

In the next installment of “The Time Traveler’s Life” I’ll explore some of the pitfalls you need to avoid.  And in a later chapter, I’ll recommend some books and movies.  Stay tuned, same Chiroptera time, same Chiroptera channel!

Pax vobiscum,


Copyright © 2013

Keith of All Trades

Forgive me if this post is a bit self-conscious, but I have a feeling that, among writers, artists, critics, professors and healers in general; and science fiction, fantasy, and horror enthusiasts in particular, this description of myself may be indicative of a lot of my readers.

I like time traveling, humor, creative writing, college football, frosted flakes, encyclopedias, garbage, history, whiskey, science fiction, gadgets, three-toed sloths, sketching, pleasing people, coffee, slouching, interesting monsters, connecting with people, graves, beer, bungalows, Heinz Doofenschmirtz, Lovecraft, quoting movies, fantasy, classic rock, Poptarts, Gnosticism, bookstores, Christmas, the Internet, drinking wine, Wile E. Coyote, banana pudding, tentacles, pot roast, and any year, make or model of the 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California (ohh, yeah).

I also write run-on sentences. #rebel

I’m a generalist, a Jack-of-all-Trades who happens to be named Keith.  I’m a Keith-of-all-Trades. While it’s true I have a technical degree, that’s not exactly by choice (long story). And while I do have a successful career, it’s not exactly a fun one.  I work with a lot of high-tech types.  Some of them are kind-hearted, thoughtful and witty.  Some are assholes. Such is life. But contrary to what you may read in articles about Myers-Briggs Personality Types, many tend to be “Es” and they tend to be “Js”.  There’s nothing wrong with that … unless you’re stuck in a room with one … all day … every day … while they make assumptions about you … without so much as a “by your leave” … and Father-God-and-Sonny-Jesus are those people tightwads.  There are times I really wanna bitch-slap ’em and say, “Spend the damn money, already!”

But I digress. This isn’t about them, it’s about me. I’m an INFP in the Myers-Briggs minefield (and Indiana Jones in my own mind-field).  That means, via nature and nurture, I should’ve been a minister, writer, or – if the stars had lined up just right  –  a dog-groomer. In other words, I was destined by DNA to be poor.

BradburyI am not poor.  Neither was Ray Bradbury (he was an INFP).

And I’m pretty sure Jennifer Aniston (also one) is doing okay for herself.jennifer

And while I can’t pursue my dream job I can still pursue my passion for writing, science fiction, whiskey … basically all that crap listed above.  And I can also pass along some wisdom.  Maybe you’ve never studied the Myers-Briggs profiles.  If not, no biggie.  Some people hate that kind of thing anyway.  But basically, if you’re an INFP you’re a healer; and if you’re a “healer,” then you might be an INFP.  If you have a friend or loved-one who’s like this, please encourage them to be the person they are instead of the person you want them to be.  If you do, they’ll accomplish more than you can possibly imagine.  Since people like lists here’s a checklist for those who’re burdened blessed with a healer in their life:

  • We work our asses off; don’t micromanage us.
  • We do the right thing; don’t moralize to us.
  • We sit in dimly-lit rooms; don’t turn on the fucking lights.
  • We feed you; don’t bite our hand.
  • We listen to your stories; don’t gossip about ours.
  • We use our hands and eyes to express ourselves; don’t ever tell us we’re melodramatic.
  • We joke; don’t steal our punch lines.
  • We criticize ourselves; we don’t need you to that for us.
  • We are your friend; don’t make us an enemy.
  • We will heal you; don’t betray us.

This last part is crucial. If you betray us we’ll be hurt, but we may not be hurt right away.  It may take a few days for the pain to sink in … unless we have a temper.  Given our penchant for drama, we might haul off and punch you in the teeth.  And that will hurt.  Because, you see, we learn.  We’re jacks-of-all trades.  We’ve learned all about street fighting. And boxing. And Boxing Day (Canada). And maple leafs. And the Maple Leafs. And ice hockey.  And horse hockey.  And commodes.  And plumbing.  And pipes.  And smoking.  And health.  And science.  And history.  And the future.

rocket shipWe’re science fiction fans.

I don’t think there’s a better description of an INFP than that.  We healers are science fiction fans, even if we hate science fiction.  Now as you know, I happen to love the SFFH genre, but I know quite a few who can’t stand it.  But whether they know it or not, healers are fans of science fiction because science fiction implies so much more than spaceships and ray guns and robots named Robbie. Science fiction implies speculation, thinking about what could be.  And INFPs love fiction, because we live fictional lives.  We look at our daily activity – scrambling some eggs, making coffee, taking out the trash – as if we’re watching ourselves through the kitchen window.

Since I’m here in the South, a lot of my readers will get pissed off that I’m going to close with a quote from the late Senator Ted Kennedy.  But what he said in his eulogy for his fallen brother, Robert, captures everything we healers want to be known for.

“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: ‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.’”

By the way, did you know Harry Potter is an INFP? HarryPotter

That’s fitting because he doesn’t exist.  Many of us feel like we don’t either, in a good way.  Now, where’s that invisibility cloak?

Until next time …

Peace, from Keith

Copyright © 2012 Alan Keith Parker.  All Rights Reserved.  Images are included under fair use regulations.  Hyperlinks are provided to websites that have their own copyright provisions.

For Susan, Wherever I May Find Her

Susan is ordinary. That’s the extraordinary thing about Susan.

Last night I watched the very first episode of Doctor Who, an episode titled, “An Unearthly Child,” that was broadcast on the BBC in November 1963, evidently not too many days after the Kennedy assassination.  I suspect, given the circumstances, that a fantasy such as this was a welcome relief, even in the UK.

So what did “An Uneartly Child” bring to the table that impressed me last night, approximately 49 years later?  It brought a haunting.  London fog.  Eerie lighting.  Suspense that only black-and-white television can deliver.  Horror memes.  And it brought a feeling that I know the episode’s protagonist, Susan Foreman.

Susan ForemanSusan is a very human alien (apologies to Captain Kirk).  She simultaneously astounds and confounds, baffling her teachers enough that they follow her “home,” to the junkyard where her grandfather keeps the TARDIS.  But I’m impressed with Susan.  And I wonder why that is.  She isn’t a knockout.  She’s not glamourous.  She doesn’t seem to have a flamboyant or funny personality.  She isn’t even particuarly normal, and yet …  and yet she aspires to be.  She is a genuis and a thinker — and sometimes the butt of a joke — who loves to groove to rock-n-roll on her transitor radio.  Like George McFly in Back to the Future, or even Star Trek‘s clumsy “Charlie X”, Susan shows little outward charisma.  (Side note: The actress Carole Ann Ford is actually quite attractive; I’m not being a beauty pageant judge here.)  But what Susan lacks in charisma, she makes up for with … charisma.  There’s something immenintly compelling about this girl who, of course, is not a girl at all.

This is something I’m going to mull over as I consider my next short story, and it’s an avenue worth exploring when reviewing movies, TV, and books.  How can a character be so engaging and yet so … plain?  There are millions of Susans in real life.  Maybe we’d do ourselves justice by seeking them out instead of the women who grace the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair.  I don’t know.  In fact, I know even less than I did, and maybe that’s a good thing.  And since I apologized to Captain Kirk, I need to apologze to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel as well, because I’m going to start looking for Susans, wherever I may find them.

Untill next time,

Peace, from Keith

Copyright © 2012 Alan Keith Parker. All Rights Reserved.