In collaboration with Wilkes Magazine’s Summer Reads Contest, in which participants comment on the featured book of the week in order to win a free copy, I interviewed Todd McClimans, author of Time Traitor, whose book is currently participating in the contest.
Todd’s book, the first in the American Epochs series, is a middle grade, sci-fi/history novel about the adventures of children who travel to significant events in American history, such as the American Revolution, and where they meet historic American icons like Benedict Arnold.
The book’s Amazon reviews are very telling, with comments like, “McClimans does a masterful job of character development with his young heroes Ty and Kristi as well as the story’s supporting cast of friends and foes,” and “The author doesn’t shy away from the brutality of slavery or ground combat, and he does a fine job of showing that history, even the most painful aspects of it, is more complex than any textbook could capture.”
Time Traitor is the first book in the American Epochs series, a Middle-Grade historical/sci-fi series that is meant to take kids to important eras, or epochs, in American history and hopefully trick them into learning some important history while enjoying a story. I decided to incorporate science fiction and time travel instead of writing traditional historical fiction because, for one thing, I would LOVE to time travel myself and writing stories about time travel is the next best thing. But, equally as important, I want my readers to experience the events in history through the eyes of contemporary characters to which they can relate.
My main characters, Kristi (an African American girl from a rich family) and Ty (an orphaned boy from England) are real life kids with real life problems. Kristi is struggling with the divorce of her parents and lashes out in school as a way of getting attention. Ty is an introverted bookworm who deals with bullying and harassment and is unwanted by his step-father after the death of his mother.
The two discover that their eccentric history teacher, Dr. Xavier Arnold, is a direct descendant of General Benedict Arnold, a former patriot who sold out his friends and countrymen by switching to the British side during the Revolutionary War. Xavier Arnold, in an attempt to improve his tainted family name, invented a time machine to go back to the time of the war and assist Benedict in his plans for treachery and make him a hero again, but for the British this time. He drags Kristi and Ty back with him as pawns in his scheme and they have to traverse colonial America to stop Dr. Arnold and force him to return them to their own time.
How did the idea come to you?
I am currently an elementary school principal, but when I came up with the idea, I was a fifth grade teacher. I used novels about specific time periods in history to help the students gain a better understanding of the time periods and the cultures of the people in our social studies curriculum (Sign of the Beaver—frontier life and Native American relations, Rifles for Waite—western theater of the Civil War, etc.). But, beyond Johnny Tremain, I had trouble finding novels about the Revolutionary War for my students. So, I decided to write one of my own.
About how long did it take you to write it? What was your favorite/least favorite part of the process?
My first draft came to me quickly. It took me about six weeks to plan and outline the story. Once I had an outline, it only took me about two months to write my first draft. However, I am a compulsive reviser, so I spent the next eighteen months rewriting and revising before I started submitting. Revising is my favorite part of the whole writing process. In the classroom, I tried impressing upon my students that stories, or any other kind of writing for that matter, are never truly finished and can always be improved upon.
I love how you can simply change a few words or descriptions around to make a story funnier, scarier, happier—whatever-er.
My least favorite part is most definitely the submission process. Trying to boil your story, your baby, down to a few sentences in a query letter that probably won’t get past the cubicle of a college intern in a publishing office or agency is daunting and discouraging. I hate to use the cliché needle in a haystack, but that’s how it feels.
Have you started work on any of the other books in the American Epochs series? Can you tell me anything about those?
The second book, Time Underground, is currently with the editors at my publishers and is due to be released in November of this year. In Time Underground, Kristi finds out that her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was a slave who escaped on the Underground Railroad and survived to sire her family. However, he had a younger brother who attempted to escape with him, but was caught and disappeared from history. Kristi and Ty go to 1858 to find Kristi’s uncle and help him get to the north and safety.
I’m about 25,000 words into the first draft of the third book in the series. My working title is Time to Heal—but I’m not in love with that title yet, so I expect it to change. The third installment is set during the Civil War where Ty works in the hospitals and experiences the horror of Civil War medicine before he’s dropped right on top of Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg and the Confederate assault.
What was it like trying to collaborate factual, historical events to turn them into a fictional, fantasy narrative?
It was very important that my narrative be as historically accurate as possible. As I stated above, I wanted my readers to learn about the historical events while they are reading, so I do a great deal of research before writing and while I’m drafting. I believe the term for it is active history. It’s not a rote recitation of historical events, but a recounting of events through the eyes of characters who do not see the outcomes as predetermined. It’s a fine line to tread, but that makes it all the more fun to write…and hopefully to read.
How do you work with suspended disbelief, making something so fantastical become a believable scenario?
I use some author’s license and try to write in a way that seems believable. My stories are technically science fiction because of the time travel, but they are not traditional sci-fi. I don’t go into extended explanations into the science behind my time machine or the theoretical possibilities of time travel. I think it works because my stories are written from the points-of-view of young characters who don’t really care how they were transported through time, just that they were transported and what they are going to do about it. I count on my readers to use their imaginations while they are reading, giving them an active role in the story instead of a passive one.
When writing a young adult novel, do you have to give your language any special consideration? Is it difficult not to condescend to your intended audience? What do you think is the real difference between YA literature and Adult literature?
My series is meant for a Middle Grade audience (ages 9-14), a step younger than YA. That being said, storytelling is storytelling so I don’t see a whole lot of differences in the language for different intended audiences. Kids are more intuitive than we give them credit for. They know when language and descriptions are condescending and they’ll drop a book much faster than an adult at the first sign of condescension. No middle grade reader would be caught dead reading a “kiddie book”.
I see the major task for any writer, whether he/she is writing MG, YA, or Adult books is the ability to get his/her readers to relate to the characters and the real life issues they face. A story comes alive when the reader can see him/herself in the main characters. Take an adult detective novel, for example. The antagonists often deal with social issues such as alcohol abuse, broken marriages, or kids who won’t talk to them. Adult readers can relate to those issues. YA readers deal with teen angst (do we still call it that???) in their real lives. Many antagonists in YA books deal with questions and decisions about overbearing parents, individuality and independence, an even sex, alcohol, and drug use because those problems/questions are real to YA readers. MG readers worry about their parents’ divorce, bullying, and mean teachers. I see these issues as more innocent, yet no less real to the characters and the readers.
Have your children read Time Traitor? What do they think?
My oldest son is eight and going into the third grade. He has the reading ability to comprehend Time Traitor, but he doesn’t have the background knowledge about the Revolutionary War to truly understand the importance of the events in the book. I’ll wait until he reaches that point in school to let him read it.
What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?
I’ll be cheesy and steal Nike’s motto. Just Do It. Everybody knows someone who wants to write a book someday. And all of those people have real, legitimate reasons for putting it off (jobs, family, time, etc.) But to be a writer, you have to actually sit down and write it. Then rewrite it and rewrite it. You have to understand that you’re going to write a lot of garbage along the way as you learn. But the more you read and the more you write, the better your writing will develop. I’m not aware of any savants who sat down and wrote the Great American Novel on their first shot. You get out what you put in.