Faerie Tense


image from Midsummer Eve- a fairy tale of love - free from British Library

Writing time can be as complex as a faerie riddle.

I wrote a novel about fairies. The heroine Gigi is a sixteen year-old with a little faerie problem. Make that a big faerie problem.

The other problem she faces is time.

Time is a constant struggle in writing. Time changes everything: the fluidity of your writing, the way a story unravels.

The first draft of The Faerie Queen of New World Underhill is written in the present tense. I like the tension of the present: it makes Gigi live in an immediate now, which is also the immediate now of her faerie cursed parents.

But all the way through writing I found myself struggling to keep to the present. I’d slip into the past tense – the most traditional of tenses for fiction – and have to correct myself endlessly.

So how do you move from past to present?


True Born was also written in the present tense. For this near-apocalyptic novel, the present tense adds to the dramatic tension of a world ripe with uncertainty:

 We’ve thought about what it will mean if one of us turns out to be a Laster.

We’ve talked until dawn about what we’d want, what we’d want to do. I tell Margot I’d want to go with her but she’s against the idea.

“One of us needs to survive,” she’s said to me, her stormy grey-green eyes as serious as I’ve ever seen them.

“What if it’s not that?” I’ve asked her.


In this scene, Lucy recalls a habit of conversation with her sister, so the past tense is easily drawn upon as a collection of moments, upon which a singular incidence is framed.

Then there is the “straight recollection.” These ones require careful set up:

A few, we hear, actually sprout fur. True Borns can be extraordinarily strong, gifted at hunting and catching prey.

None of them, not a one, ever catch sick.

Evolve or die. That’s what the True Borns have done. The preacher and his people have a point.

“Can’t be,” Margot told me, shaking her head.

“Why not?” I asked, but I knew why. Margot and me, we look perfectly normal.

We haven’t sprung fur or feathers. Our eyesight isn’t 40/40. We are as human as   our mother and father, bone and blood.

And yet… Nurse Bambi finishes with a big old Miss Dominion smile, she straps the blood into a tester case and tells us to hang tight while Clive comes for us. And disappears.

Consider your transitions out of a past-tense memory as cautiously as you plot your way into it. Think about clear demarcations between past and present: you could try using characters that only exist in one time line, or narrative contrast (“in the here and now, though, we were broke”).

Whatever you do, try to take it easy on your readers, who may not be as adept at time travel as yourself.




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