Read on for reviews of Karen Musser Nortman’s Time Traveling Trailer series, then see below for an interview with the author.
Lynne McBriar is estranged from her husband and growing ever more distant from her 14-year-old daughter, Dinah. Hoping to find a hobby that will give them quality time together, Lynne purchases a vintage camper from her old friend Ben, which he hasn’t used since his wife dies. Lynne spruces it up, talks a reluctant Dinah into a camping trip, takes a test run at a nearby park—and wakes up in the 1960s.
Thus begin Lynne’s adventures with The Time Travel Trailer.
Fortunately, since she runs her own travel agency, Lynne is acquainted with the idea of travel, and she quickly turns into a seasoned time-traveling pro. She figures out fairly quickly what propels the trailer back in time, and also (overcoming the usual sticking point in time-travel stories) figures out how to get back to the present; she’s careful not to change anything to disrupt the time flow; and, as she goes back to an earlier and earlier decade each time, she also proves proficient at managing to prepare for her excursions by having period-appropriate attire, cooking utensils, decor, and even, yes, license plates. She’s a thinker, that Lynne.
Dinah also, after some initial terror, gets interested in the time travel concept, and starts reading up on the phenomenon through several excursions to her local library, where she meets a helpful college-age guy who gives her a good reading list. The whole time-travel thing is a fun and loopy secret hobby until, one day, Dinah gets taken hostage by an escaped criminal, and Lynne realizes time travel is more dangerous than she thought. So is parenting, as she discovers when Dinah disappears—and only Lynne knows how far Dinah might have run not just geographically speaking but temporally speaking, too.
This first installment in Nortman’s pair of books is is a fun, entertaining, well-paced story where the writing never gets in the way of the action. Nortman is a pro at putting together mysteries thanks to her practice with the Frannie Shoemaker mystery series. She’s a seasoned camper herself, so she knows the details about camping life that make those scenes particularly rich and fun. She also knows her history, so each time Lynne goes back, she sees for herself a cultural moment or attitude in the way it affected real peoples’ attitudes and lives. Those are rewarding scenes for the history buff.
The only complaint I had about the book is a mild one in that there seemed to be a few missed opportunities. Nortman takes it fairly easy on her characters, never putting them in danger the reader fears they can’t find their way out of. Lynne knows in advance not to leave her cell phone sitting out on the camper counter when she travels. When her husband insists on coming with her to help find Dinah, he has the foresight to raid his coin collection and bring period-correct change. While these are smart and capable things to do, they also mean missed opportunities in terms of getting the characters into real trouble in their scenes spent out-of-time.
But then again, this is cozy-variety sci-fi. Some of the things I expected as a lover of the time-travel genre didn’t, in fact, happen. For instance, I was sure the mysterious library guy was going to turn out to be a time-traveler himself, with some last minute information that would pull the rug out from under everyone. But nope; he was just a good kid.
There were a few surprises when characters go back in time to meet their own family. It turns out Lynne’s grandmother Lynette, for instance, was quite a hellion in her day. She gets Dinah in a lot of trouble, which keeps the pages turning quickly to the end. Still, there don’t seem to be any time-forward consequences to what happened. Lynette doesn’t turn out to influence the present moment as more than a gentle reminisce. The really poignant mystery is what happened to Ben’s wife, and that too gets a fairly easy (if somewhat confusing) resolution. For all that they’re messing with forces beyond their control, one never gets the sense that the characters are in Real Trouble; Lynne will simply figure everything out. Resourceful, intelligent, and fairly even-keel, Lynne is the kind of person you would want helping you out in a disaster, but you’re also never worried that she won’t think herself out of a problem.
That doesn’t take away at all from the enjoyment of the read, which is lively and fun. Nortman has a wonderful, dry, witty voice and I often found myself grinning at her observations about raising teenagers. I do wish there could have been some more resolution to the unresolved conflicts with her daughter and husband, and more information about what comes next for Ben. But on the whole The Time Travel Trailer is a satisfying read, and will leave you eager for the next installment.
In Trailer on the Fly, Lynne decides to dust off the trailer she thought she’d retire in order to help out a friend who’s paralyzed with grief. Still as competent as ever—though her relationships with her husband and daughter don’t seem to have changed significantly from the first book—Lynne wastes little time worrying about the philosophical paradoxes that might result from messing with the time stream. She’s a woman of action, and she has a problem to fix, and some camping to do.
Dinah isn’t part of this book, and the story lacks some of the pull of the first as a consequence. Lynne has much less invested in what is going on in the not-so-distant past (she only goes 10 years back this time) and isn’t as attached to the people. True, she’s the only one who knows of an impending natural disaster, but one never gets the sense that Lynne herself is at risk. Her husband, Kurt, is also harder to like in this version, and while he presents the appropriate obstacles to Lynne’s achieving what she wants, it doesn’t really feel like they’re working toward resolution, either.
The best part of the second in the series is, again, the camping, which this time entails a wonderfully described kayak trip down the river and Lynne’s being adopted by a gang of gregarious women campers calling themselves the Sisters on the Fly. The relationships among the sisters, a few dangerous escapades, and the mortal danger looming over them keep this portion of the book moving along, though once again the stakes seem fairly low; Lynne knows how to get back to her own time whenever she needs to. Altruism wins out, but then she returns home to find that messing with past events has somehow tampered with her own life—at least in so far as the progress she thought she was making in “working things out” with her husband never happened. So now Lynne has to fix her own life, in the present, with only the resources to hand.
Altogether, the books are an amusing concept, and they don’t present too much mind-twisting with the whole idea of time travel. They’re fun reads that you can share with friends, and once you’ve read them, treat yourself to Nortman’s Frannie Shoemaker cozy mystery series for more camping fun.
Karen Musser Nortman spent 22 years as a secondary social studies teacher and 18 years as a test developer for ACT. Now that she’s retired, she gets to have fun writing books. She and her husband, Butch, are diehard campers, and her books so far all center around camping. They have three children, eight grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.
FL: Tell us the story behind the stories. What made you start writing novels? What drew you to writing mysteries in particular?
KMN: I have always loved mysteries of all types, but especially cozy mysteries. Camping offers lots of material in the form of interesting characters, both funny and serious mishaps, and unexpected events from nature. When you are camping, you get brief glimpses into people’s lives. Those glimpses could be explained by nefarious deeds—perfect material for mysteries.
FL: What was the inspiration for the time-traveling trailer?
KMN: I became interested in the current popularity of vintage campers and combined with my interest in history, the idea of a vintage camper that is a time portal intrigued me. But I didn’t want to do something where the main character goes back several centuries or alters major events. I have always been fascinated by the part common people play in history.
Many women today are especially interested in restoring vintage campers and planning events with like-minded women. Some are single, divorced, or widowed; others have husbands who are not interested in camping or have jobs that prevent their participation. One woman I know works during the school year but her husband is a greenskeeper and therefore busy all summer. These kinds of events have been very empowering for women.
FL: What made you want to write the second book?
KMN: I didn’t plan on it, but one of my readers demanded a second and even sent me a plot idea! She is a member of the Sisters on the Fly, who organize outdoor adventures for women, many of who have vintage trailers.
FL: Why did you choose the time periods you did?
In the first book, I wanted the main character to be able to meet and observe her own grandmother as a young girl. Although there are few hard and fast rules for time travel, it seemed logical that a trailer should not go back any farther than the year it was built. So I searched for a camper that was being built in the 1930s. One of those was the Covered Wagon brand. The story line involves the gradual rehab of the trailer to its original condition, and each removal of later remodels sends it back to a previous time period.
FL: What kind of research did you do?
KMN: From teaching history, I knew about the major events of the time period, but I did extra research on the popular culture and slang of the time.
FL: Time travel is a tricky subject. How did you manage some of the paradoxes?
KMN: I’m not sure I did. Working with time travel is sort of like picking up mercury. You try picking something up and it skitters all over the place. But in the first book, Lynne and her daughter never go back in their own lifetimes. When Lynne does in the second book, we are left to wonder if there is another ‘her’ somewhere. Time travel really requires a willing suspension of disbelief. One of the reviewers on Amazon liked the book, but said it was “pretty far-fetched.” Well….yeah.
FL: What do you most hope readers will take away from your books?
KMN: The time travel books started because I of course only knew my grandparents in their 50s and 60s as community leaders and fairly stern individuals, but there were hints of less acceptable behavior in their youth. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask them about that when I could have and have always wished I could have been a mouse in the corner to see them in their terrible twos or as rebellious teenagers. I think the message in those books is that what we see in the present is only the tip of the iceberg.
My campground mysteries are meant to be exactly what camping is meant to be—a relaxing escape.
FL: What’s your next project?
KMN: I’m working on a third time travel book, Trailer, Get Your Kicks! Lynne and her family take the trailer on “the Mother Road”—Route 66 in the 50s.
FL: Tell us something about your process for writing books – preparation, research, drafts, beta reads, editing, time to publication, those sorts of things. You don’t have to give away any secrets if you don’t want to.
KMN: I don’t have any secrets. Often a germ of a plot comes to me from an actual event or something someone says. Sometimes I have a general outline in mind, but mostly I’m a pantser, writing it as it develops. I do a lot of rewriting and tweaking as later events change things in the plot and research as I go along. My characters are very important to me and sometimes I write backstory about them that will never be in the book but affects how well I know them. Generally a book takes me about six months. I have three regular beta readers: another cozy mystery writer, my ex-boss who is also a camper and a stickler for details, and a good friend who is a retired librarian. My husband also gives me feedback on technical aspects.
FL: What’s your advice for writers who would like to write mysteries of their own?
KMN: Keep asking “what if?” Most basic plot ideas require a lot more added complication. I read once that if things seem to be slowing down, throw another body on the doorstep. That doesn’t have to be literal, but adding another stumbling block adds interest.
FL: How can readers get in touch with you?
KMN: My website has links to my email, Facebook page, and Twitter accounts. I also have a blog on there about our camping adventures and news about my books.