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Spelunking Speculative Fiction: In Which Jess Evander Breaks Down the Space-Time Continuum

Her blood holds secrets she never knew existed.

Despite the fact that she acts as a parent to her alcoholic father, Gabby Creed feels pretty normal. But her life is turned upside-down on her seventeenth birthday when a bracelet appears on her wrist and sucks her back through time. 

Turns out she’s not even a little bit normal. She’s a Shifter—a protector of humans and of history itself. And she’s not alone. The other Shifters believe Gabby is special, even more special than the mysterious Michael Pace. Oh, and the Shades—seriously creepy creatures who feed off of human despair—are determined to capture her. 

It’s all a lot to absorb. So Gabby’s grateful to have Michael as her Trainer—or she would be if she could get her rebellious heart under control. Then again, if the rumors about her blood are true, saving yesterday will be the least of her worries.

That's Saving Yesterday, loves. It saved me one afternoon, too. Stuck in an epic downpour, I suddenly had a few hours to read in my car. It's a rare thing for me to have uninterrupted reading (without editing) time. 

I devoured the book. And I've been hungry for the sequel ever since. JUNE, people. It's almost here. 

Jess is gifted at writing in several different time periods and storyworlds at once. (She's got to be.) I asked her to tell us a little about how she pulls us from time period to time period, grounds us so quickly, and keeps the action from suffering even a beat. Here's what she says:

Full disclosure here: I’m a fantasy-light writer. Which kind of means I’m a cheater in the speculative fiction world. When most people think spec fiction they picture four-hundred page tomes that have made up languages, have names the reader can’t pronounce, and are heavy on world building. But spec fiction doesn’t have to get bogged down in the details, even when you’re writing complex layers, intersecting plot lines, and many locations.

Take my TimeShifters series for example. The books start in a contemporary setting. But then the heroine, Gabby Creed, discovers she’s a Shifter—a person who gets pulled through time to protect humanity and safeguard history. The rest of the book straddles multiple historical settings as well as a made-up place called Keleusma where the Shifters live and train.

The changing locations and time have the ability to quickly confuse a reader, especially when you consider the story is told in first person, so the reader figures out where in history Gabby is when she does. 

But with a couple tricks, it’s not hard at all.  

  • Ground the reader in each location with tangible items they can relate to.

If you’re going to tell a story that takes place on a purple planet where the creatures have horns on their face instead of noses, that’s fine, but you must give the reader a way to attach to the location so they can picture it. Think of it as a flag in the ground for them that everything else can grow from. Like when you’re traveling in a third world country and come across a bottle of Coke and suddenly don’t feel so lost.

For example, while some aspects of Keleusma are foreign to a reader and can be hard to grasp, all of my characters obsess about the pumpkin muffins served there. Instantly a reader knows what a pumpkin muffin is. They can picture it, taste it. All without me having to waste words on description. Something small like that makes the reader feel comfortable in your world. And you want that. Very much.

Um, I know I at LEAST want that muffin. (Signed, Bethany)

Think of Tolkien. For all the strange names and languages found in Lord of the Rings, the world is easy to imagine because it has forests and mountains and rivers—same as ours.

  • Go easy on the crazy.

Yes...spec fiction is the place to let your imagination explode. But within reason. Why stop at purple planets and horns instead of noses? Why not have them walk on ceilings and sleep underwater and eat...let’s stop there, okay?

At some point (even in spec fiction) you have to pull the reins on your imagination for the sake of your readers. They can’t walk into our heads and see this glorious world we’ve created (and even the most talented writer can’t write perfectly the world we’re envisioning). It’s easy to make readers feel lost. (Remember, help them find the bottle of Coke—offer them something normal to hang on to while they absorb everything else). Pick important and distinctive things that are make-or-break aspects of your story and highlight those. After that, err on the side of making the reader comfortable in your setting instead of making the setting crazy different.

  • When you bring us somewhere familiar, use description sparsely.

Speculative fiction is my favorite genre to read (YA spec fiction, to be exact) but the quickest way an author can get me to toss a book aside is to slow down the plot and character development with huge portions of text dedicated to description dumps and worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is important—imperative. But a cool world does not a story make. Your characters are why we’re reading, so keep them the focus.

When you bring your characters somewhere familiar (for a reader), try to use that time to build your plot and characters and keep your description to a minimum. Think about the Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins doesn’t load the first chapters detailing where Katniss lives. Why? Most of us, at one point or another, have learned about mining and what miner’s lives used to be like. As an author you have to be in tune with what the preconceived ideas are about your setting and use that as a springboard for your world.

While Gabby is in contemporary time it would be a waste of page space to detail her family home because the reader knows what a suburban house in 2015 looks like. I lace in one-line details here and there and call it a day. The reader doesn’t need to know the color of the carpeting unless it’s meaningful to the story.

That’s the best question to ask yourself: Is this meaningful to the storyline? If not, leave it out.

  • Use extra detail when you land your character in places that will be unfamiliar to your readers.

I know. I know. This is completely contrary to my last point, but stick with me here. When you drop your characters in a place that is completely unrelatable to our readers, this is when you can disregard everything else I’ve said, roll up your sleeves, and detail to your heart’s desire.

For me, it was when I dropped Gabby into historical situations. I needed her to catalogue the world around her so she could figure out when she was and what her mission would be—but this also served to help readers connect to the location.

In unfamiliar places, you have to take time setting the stage before action and development can happen, or else you risk losing or confusing readers.

By doing these things and balancing worldbuilding details, we can write spec fiction that captures the readers with plot and pacing that doesn't suffer because of the details, but instead, shines because of them.

Jess is giving away an autographed paperback copy of Saving Yesterday to one lucky commenter. Here's what you have to do to enter: 

In the comments, hit us with an example of something that grounded you to the storyworld in one of your favorite spec fic books. Be sure to share the title and the author. And, if you're a fan of Jess's already and have read Saving Yesterday, give us an example from there! That'll score you two entries for a chance to win a signed copy! (Who wouldn't want that?)

Get the word out.

Jess Evander is the young adult pen name used by multi-published author, Jessica Keller. Jessica holds degrees in both Communications and Biblical Studies. She writes Young Adult Fiction and Inspirational Romance and has 100+ magazine and newspaper articles to her name. Making her home in the Midwest, Jessica believes there’s never a wrong time to eat cake.

Connect with Jessica through her  Website, blogFacebook, Amazon Page, Pinterest, and on Twitter.

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