Weekend Reading Assignment posts feature book recommendations from Undertaker Books staff. These books are short enough to be read in a weekend, but give strong examples of how to execute important skills in writing.

This week’s Weekend Reading Assignment is from Rebecca Cuthbert, recommending Holley Cornetto’s We Haunt These Woods.

Alternating timelines are a great way to reveal backstory in small doses while also keeping tension high in the present moment of a narrative.

But it’s not easy to do — there are pitfalls to avoid. Spend TOO much time in the past, and the reader loses the thread of the present-moment narrative. Spend too LITTLE time in the past, and those interruptions become jarring shifts away from the story’s present-moment action.

Holley Cornetto does a great job of shifting between past and present in her novella We Haunt These Woods, published by Bleeding Edge Books. I would describe it as eco horror, folk horror, and recent historical horror. It’s especially tasty to those of us who grew up without cell phones—when you and your friends had nothing better to do than to disappear for hours, exploring the woods or the creek or wherever, and your parents only knew where you were when you showed back up at home.

In this novella, Cornetto shows us how to balance the past and present material, how to make the past matter to the present, and how to keep the present narrative’s tension high.

  • Strike a balance:

Cornetto alternates chapters between the story’s present and a summer 20 years ago, when the protagonist Nate vacationed with his family at their lake house. There, Nate met up with the other kids whose families had summer homes on Lake Swart. No spoilers, but, it is horror, so you know some scary stuff went down.

The chapters are also short, which I love — it keeps the pacing quick, and doesn’t allow readers to get so absorbed in one timeline that they forget the other. This leapfrog pattern is only broken toward the end of the book, when the chapters all shift into the present. (The prologue is also in the present timeline, and I do recommend that — making sure the book starts and ends in the present.)

  • Make the past matter:

Part of what makes alternating timeline stories tough is that everything has to matter. Readers don’t want to waste time with filler or random tangents. It has to be exciting, so, the material from the past has to help us solve whatever mystery or problem exists in the present.

That means, of course, that there has to BE a mystery or problem in the present that requires characters to dig beneath the scars and scabs of their trauma. Whatever they’ve buried as a means of self-preservation must be brought to light, and boy is it going to hurt. In We Haunt These Woods, the characters are wondering if the nightmare from their childhood was real, or just their overactive imaginations conjuring a boogeyman. They need to know if they played a role in the terrible events of that summer 20 years ago. Nate wants to help his old friend Jennifer, and we, the readers, want to know what made Jennifer a jittery, damaged husk of the girl she used to be.

And of course, we have to time travel to find those answers.

  • Keep the present tension high:

I teach creative writing, and whenever I talk to my students about flashbacks, I remind them that if the past gets more interesting than the present, the story won’t work—the past narrative informs the present, no vice versa.

Cornetto keeps us interested in the present narrative by giving us a potential romance there, a still-burning rivalry between Nate and another character, and (what Nate sees as) a race to save Jennifer from her demons. Just to keep it fiery, we also get another missing person and some good old-fashioned breaking and entering!

We Haunt These Woods is a great read, and by the end of the book, you will come to see how the title has two layers of meaning. It’s 152 pages, and the text is NOT tiny (I appreciated that so much, and we’ve talked about font size recently at Undertaker, wanting to make our books more accessible).

In fact, I like the narrative so much that I want to try something with a similar structure one day. After you read it, maybe you will too.

Leave a Reply