As a writer of fantasy, I’ve realised that it’s relatively simple to set a story in a fantasy or future world. Once you’ve established where you are, you can easily find ways of getting around: a supersonic pod, seven league boots, or have your characters hitch a ride on a bird or a whale perhaps. The complications set in when you’re writing what has proved to be a favourite genre of mine: the timeslip story, which sees characters from our time moving to the past, the future, an ‘otherworld’ or a parallel reality. The big question is: how to move your characters through time and place in a credible way?

This was something I had to come to grips with while writing my Shalott trilogy, in which five Australian teenagers time travel to the parallel reality of King Arthur’s Camelot to try and save the life of ‘the Lady of Shalott’ and thus rewrite the fate of a kingdom. Getting them there and back was challenge enough but, as I continued the series, I found that I needed them to traverse four different ‘worlds’: our own, Camelot, the Celtic ‘otherworld’, and historic (medieval) time. And I thought I’d share with you some of the things I learned along that journey.

First up: how did other writers manage the challenge? In two best sellers for children, the characters in Narnia (CS Lewis) enter their magical world through the back of a wardrobe, while Harry Potter steps onto Platform 9 ¾. In a personal favourite, Connie Willis’s The Doomsday Book, a ‘time console’ is used to transport Kivrin back to the middle ages. In Guy Gavriel Kay’s classic Fionavar Tapestry, words of magic and power dissolve reality and transport the characters to the otherworld of Fionavar.

If only I’d learned that lesson from the masters: KISS, as in keep it simple. Instead, I had the brilliant (I thought) idea of using virtual reality as my mode of transport: a programme gone wrong so that instead of interacting with history and/or legend, the teenagers traverse time and space to the ‘real thing’, the parallel reality of Camelot. What I didn’t realise, as I industriously read up on the latest advances of virtual reality (while steadfastly ignoring the fact that I’m a Luddite and a technophobe) was that even as I read, this technology was being superseded by ever new and wonderful advances in the virtual world. What I could (and should) have done was yes, use the concept of virtual reality as a medium, but make it all up, as HG Wells did with his time machine so many years ago. At the same time, I should also have kept explanations to a minimum. Fantasy is not called ‘fantasy’ for nothing!

Thing improved, however, once I’d succeeded in transporting my characters to Camelot. In that other time and other place, such inventions as V/R were still in the future. How, then, was I to return my characters to the real world? Now I was forced to use my imagination, and now I started to have fun.

In the first instance, I had them sail downriver (as Elaine of Astolat does in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the scene which inspired Tennyson’s famous poem). In this case, they sailed beyond the scope and design of the programme and thus returned to ‘reality’. In fact, I found water invaluable as a medium for traversing time and place: sometimes moving characters to our own world and sometimes accessing the sacred otherworld of the Celts through thick mist or with the power of a magical incantation.

Spells and incantations, magical objects or creatures – all have their place in the world of fantasy. Even walking widdershins may unravel time and interfere with the continuum. On one occasion, in Shalott: The Final Journey, Callie climbs up and up around a ziggurat in pursuit of a magical creature, a white stag, which leads her into an explosion of light – and she finds herself back in our world but at the wrong time and in the wrong place. The only way to come back, once her task is done, is to jump from a high tower into another dimension – or perhaps to her death.

No doubt expressing my own frustration with my lack of technical knowledge, I have Callie smack and kick the VR machine in her desperation to rescue her twin sister and friends from the battlefield of Camlann. Eventually she hits on the solution: with her sister’s life at stake, and as a last desperate act, Callie deletes the programme she has constructed so carefully, and so manages to remove her sister and their friends from the dying days of Camelot, and bring them safely home.

The bottom line to all this? Use your imagination rather than relying on technology which, by the time your novel is published, will already be out of date.

© Felicity Pulman, 2008