A Brief Guide to Time Travel by Sam Hawksmoor

I’ve always loved Time Travel stories and movies such as Twelve Monkeys or the recent Looper. I love the paradox and all the complexities. The Butterfly Effect was a pretty good attempt at showing just how impossible it all can be to go back and ‘fix’ things, and more importantly they didn’t obsess about the machinery to do it. He just focussed his mind and suddenly was there. Quantum Leap and Time Tunnel (not to forget The Philadelphia Experiment) spent a great deal of time on the mechanics of getting there. As Bruce Willis as Old Joe says in Looper ‘I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws’.

For every romantic Time Traveler’s Wife there’s a cynical Hot Tub Time Machine – equally valid, one definitely funnier than the other. We can blame H G Wells for starting this, and let’s face it who hasn’t wished they could go back and change one thing? The girl you never said hi to, or the boy you wished you never said yes to, or the fork in the path where you quickly realize that you chose the wrong one from which there is no return…

For every romantic Time Traveler’s Wife there’s a cynical Hot Tub Time Machine – equally valid, one definitely funnier than the other. 

Mark Twain was tempted down this road with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – a Yankee engineer accidentally appears in King Arthur’s time and pretends to be a magician to impress his way into the Court’s favours, predicting an eclipse to get out of being burned at the stake by Merlin. Being American stood for all that was modern in 1889 and of course he wanted to bring improvements to 6th Century England – which naturally means guns. It’s a satire but told with affection.

Alison Uttley in 1939 used the real 16th Century Babington Plot to free Mary Queen of Scots in A Traveller in Time. A 20th Century girl is transported back to meet the conspirators. (I grew up on her Little Grey Rabbit books I seem to recall.) In 1958 Philippa Pearce wrote Tom’s Midnight Garden – a time-slip story taking her protagonist back to a time and place she has special affection for and a secret garden that only appears at night. Jack Finney’s Time and Again, where a man dreams his way back to New York, 1882 uses real tintypes to bring Manhattan vividly back to life. Also using found images to create a much creepier effect is Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs. Talking of misery. I almost forgot Stig of the Dump by Clive King (1962) - where an eight year old’s best friend is from the Stone Age. It’s sort of time travel, but a classic. As is A Stitch in Time by Penelope Lively in 1976 that reads like a haunting, but is in fact gentle time travel - and if you like fossils this is for you.

The Terminator is time travel of course and it takes a contortionist to work out the plot as bad robot becomes good robot and meanwhile the fate of humankind is in the balance against the machines and AI. Most travel to the future is pretty bleak. Burned out worlds, over population, climate change, zombies. It’s no wonder we prefer to go ‘Back to the Future’… It offers a chance to put things right or show how different (and primitive) earlier times or situations were. But even It’s A Wonderful Life reveals how fragile we all are. Rebecca Stead wrote When You Reach Me about sixth grade kid, Miranda, in New York who gets a message from the future that says ‘I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. I must ask two favours. First, you must write me a letter…’ More notes keep coming and Miranda knows something really bad is going to happen.

Alex Scarrow writes Time Riders using kids who should have died in the past (on the Titanic etc.) and are perhaps, cynically, expendable. They are meant to stop a maniac with a time machine who has joined forces with Hitler, who then conquers America. Like many time travel stories, it throws up more questions than are answered I think, but hey, kids like it.

What is important to realise is that time travel and history work best if kids are actually taught history in school. They risk not being able to get the point if they don’t know why something is important.

And then there’s Steampunk, which really relies on history, but not as you know it. An example is the grim but fantastic The Dead Gentlemen by Mathew Cody, about an evil villain in 1901 who hates living creatures and a boy who steals a mechanical bird but then is trapped for a hundred years in the basement until a girl called Jezebel frees him. Time travel, monsters, the undead, what’s not to like?

I started writing this on Groundhog Day. The idea of a man stuck on one day and having to stay there until he finally learns the one important thing is a great one. Bill Murray’s finest hour and a half probably. Kids still love Time Bandits. And who wouldn’t like little people, worm holes in a Time Map, Satan, God? Throw in some classic heroes such as Robin Hood and a small boy called Kevi… brilliant. Then there’s ‘Where were you Robert?’ by Hans Magnus Enzensberger about a boy who just looks at a painting and suddenly he’s there in whatever era, facing all kinds of dangers (and no one seems to miss him). There are hundreds of time travel stories out there – which shows that writers love to think about the past and, of course the future. The past we can change, the future is still up for grabs.

Sam Hawksmoor started writing after careers that involved travel, photography and teaching (running the Masters Programme in Creative Writing at Portsmouth University and Falmouth before that).
He is the joint editor of Hackwriters.com - the writers website now in its 15 year.

Sam is the author of four YA novels. The Repossession, The Hunting & The Repercussions of Tomas D and soon 'The Heaviness' - the final thrilling volume in the Genie Magee trilogy - due May 2014

The Repossession was Winner of The Wirral 'Paperback of the Year' + finalist for the Leeds Books Awards & Bronze Winner of The Amazing Book Awards 2013


  1. Stimulating stuff, Sam, thanks. Hopefully good fiction such as you list will help maintain interest in the past - and provoke intelligent speculation about where we're all heading. A reassuring thought on the day the IPCC released its latest data.

  2. You only have to look at the continuing success of Doctor Who to see the grip that time travel continues to exert on our kids (and quite a few adults!) But one of the big problems that time travel narratives have is that they quickly get tied up in knots. The Terminator series is a good example of how complex the web can become, especially as the forthcoming "reboot" film reportedly takes place at the same time as the first two in the series. I can see how, for a writer, this kind of story is a fascinating challenge, but I don't think it always remains that way for the reader or viewer. Back to the Future Part 2 managed a witty riff on this kind of intertexuality, but I'm not sure that the Terminator series is ready to take that route!

  3. Interesting piece - thank you. Time travel plotting works if it's internally consistent. You can go for the complex logic of the under-rated 2004 film Primer (you'll need diagrams with straws). Or there's Doctor Who's description: "time is a ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey ... stuff"


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.