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The Knotted Line

Evan Bissell, Author

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Historical Fiction Time Travel

Download: The Knotted Line Curriculum

What follows is a suggestion on how to integrate The Knotted Line when paired with a novel or historical fiction. It was originally developed by Oakland educator Liza Gesuden for working with  the science fiction novel Kindred by Octavia Butler. The project can work with any literature, but The Knotted Line and Kindred share a particularly strong conceptual relationship. 

In the project, each participant develops a fictional character from a different time period. Participants, as their character, then write letters to each other speaking to the connections and differences in their respective times as they deal with a conflict, question or problem. By the end of the project participants have exchanged a series of letters in a transhistorical dialogue. 

Foundational Understandings

  • Different understandings are revealed when history is studied chronologically compared to when it is studied by the relationships between events/forces/themes throughout time.
  • Art, media, and culture can produce counter-narratives that reshape how we see the world.

Essential Questions

  • How does the past shape who we are today?
  • What can we learn about one time period by looking at another?


  • Participants will explore ways that creative writing and historical research can produce counter-narratives.
  • Participants will see themselves as active authors of history.
  • Participants will expand their understanding of the connections between different historical time periods.

Facilitator Preparation

  • Familiarize yourself with the workshop sequence.


Materials Needed: See materials in each workshop
Recommended Age Range: 14-23
Ideal Number of Participants: 15-30


Week 1

Introduce the project overview before participants begin reading the book: 
Facilitator: In this project, each of you will develop a character from a different time period. Working in pairs, you will write letters back and forth from the perspective of these characters. By the end of the project you will exchange a series of letters about a problem or question. 

Show We will be working with The Knotted Line and your book to identify and research the moments which your characters are from. 

Go through the following workshops from this guide:
Facilitator Note: As participants read the book, the POWER words can be applied to analysis of the reading. This can be done through warm-up activities or by keeping notes such as the following:

Week 2

Go through the following workshops from this guide:

Facilitator Note: During this workshop, participants will form pairs and choose a POWER word that they see in the book. They then use this POWER word to guide the construction of their X-Y axis. 
* Each person will choose a moment from their Y-axis to create a character from. The time period can be from the book or not, but they should not be from the same time. Use the final hour of working time to deepen research on the chosen historical moments. 

Week 3

Character Development
* Read through Michaela’s sample letters created with this project (9th grade, Oakland, CA). 
* Participants use the Character Sketch worksheet and their research from the previous session to develop their characters. They may need to do more research here.
* Some things for writers to remember:
      * The characters are speaking from their historical moment—what are the details and environment of that time period? How can you make the “voice” appropriate by use of language? What does someone in 1973 know that someone in 1863 doesn’t?
      * Think about your character’s physical appearance, personality, relationships, hopes, fears, dreams, etc. Don’t list them—how have they influenced who this person is? Be specific!
* Introduce and go over the letter rubric.
* Begin letter writing. This can be done in meeting time or as additional work depending on the time needed to read and discuss the book as well. Only one person in the pair will be writing at a time so you will have to stagger the letter writing with another activity. Instructions for pairs:
   * First Letter (partner 1)
      * In your first letter, you should introduce the issue or problem you are facing. The problem should be connected to your historical moment. Ask for advice, pose a question. Remember, you may not know who you are writing to or anything about their time period. 
   * Second Letter (partner 2)
      * Respond to the first letter—imagine you just received a letter from 200 years ago at home. What would you say or do? Do you have a shared problem or experience? Pose questions back, keep the conversation growing.
   * Keep the correspondence going until you have a total ___# of letters.
   * By the end of the project, you should have a total ___# of letters exchanged between your characters. 

Week 4+

* Continue the letter writing, staggered throughout the reading of the book. Use the book to help parallel the developing character and complexity of the letter writers. What unexpected things come up, what secrets or needs are revealed?
* Reading/Publishing
   * The letters present a great opportunity to share the work publicly or within the group. Some possibilities:
      * Pairs record videos or audio of themselves reading their letters
      * Pairs do a reading of their letters in a theatrical set up
      * A zine or booklet is printed with the collection of the whole group’s letters, organized in penpal pairs

* Art extension note: At the high school where this project was originally developed, it was also integrated in the visual arts class. Students used Kara Walker’s silhouette work as a model to create their own paper cut-out silhouettes relating to a specific moment chosen from their letters or the book.

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