In my story, there is a character who can go back in time, and has done so already, for the purpose of getting rich. He is not the main antagonist, neither is he the main character. He is mostly just a guy who saw a chance to get a ton of money and took it, and will obviously be important to the plot.

His "get rich" technique went like this. Bring with you, either in paper or virtual format, many interesting stories, books, movie scripts, etc. I haven't decided yet exactly how far he went in the past, but let's assume he has no trouble reading his stuff, so no more than a few decades.

Then, back in time, he "writes" himself big hits like Harry Potter, to get all the money and fame instead of J.K Rowling. He does that for several big media. He copies them word for word, and releases them early enough so that the "real" author can't go to court with their own manuscript, because they have no such thing, and even if they do, everyone thinks they copied our guy's book, and not the other way around.

It works pretty well, and he earns a reputation for mastering several different writing styles and settings.

My main character is aware of the existence of time travel, but has not used it himself yet. He lives in the "past" that our con man travelled to. Time travel is not widely known, and both those guys encountered the information by complete chance.

I'm looking for a way to figure out the con's scheme from the past, when all you have is a vague suspicion someone is up to something through time travel, because they need specified tech for another purpose.

The setting is not final, but it goes like this: in 2010, mr X steals time travel technology from evil corp, and uses it to get rich in 1990. Evil corp has no way to reproduce the technology, but has already sent one more guy a bit earlier for their evil plan. Main character in 1995 is aware of evil plan, and tries to stop it, and his only chance is by borrowing/stealing time travel device from mr. X in 1995 and use it. Main character would not be thrilled by mr. X's scheme, but also has more important priorities so wouldn't mind allying himself with him if required. Mr X didn't plan on using the machine again, but is doing all in his power to hide its existence while still making millions.

I am looking for a way to see through the scheme enough to at least make contact with mr. X, even without understanding the whole thing. What mistakes are either unavoidable or very likely to be overlooked when using that plan? What signs are noticeable to someone who is aware the tech exists, but not where it is or if even anyone has used it?


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  • $\begingroup$ +1 but how does your character get the story? $\endgroup$ – Mikey Jun 8 '17 at 6:49
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    $\begingroup$ "many interesting stories, books, movie scripts, etc" - it seems unlikely that any one individual produces all of these. Just stick with the Potter stories alone (JKR is the 197th richest person on earth; that ought to be enough), and release them at the same rate. Don't forget to read them in great depth, and be intimately acquainted with them. Don't give interviews. Especially don’t talk to fans, who will know more about “your” creation than you do. Personally, I see many problems with this scheme & would find some other way that future knowledge could help (gambling, investing, etc) $\endgroup$ – Mawg Jun 8 '17 at 8:08
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    $\begingroup$ Getting published and making a fortune from it isn't just about having good writing. There are lots of great writers out there who are working in complete obscurity. Harry Potter got rejected by a stack of publishers before being accepted. And even then, there was no guarantee that it would be a hit; the success of Harry Potter was largely a case of luck and good timing; if it had come out in the '80s or '90s it might not have been what people were looking for. In short, your character's plan is a lot harder than it sounds. As a time traveller, he'd do a lot better by buying lottery tickets. $\endgroup$ – Simba Jun 8 '17 at 8:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Simba - +1 I was about to say the same thing. We've been sold so many times the story about hard-work, talent and success that we indeed believe they are related. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Jun 8 '17 at 8:49
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    $\begingroup$ See worldbuilding.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5044/… $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 8 '17 at 10:07

The first thing that will stand out about this con man is that he will likely be self published. If he's working with a publisher he'll be working with an editor and when the editor says "can you change this" massive red flags will be raised when the change comes back with a wildly different writing style.

This gives him two options. He needs a patsy editor to rubber stamp the books(although I'm not sure how many publishers will accept an outside editor), or more likely no matter how big he gets he will be self published.

Of course unless your protagonist is in the publishing industry they're not likely to be privy to this sort of information. So the more likely red flag is the different writing styles.

Every writer has his own style, little choices that when put together are like a fingerprint. To take an extremely simple example i would use colour over color as I come from a Commonwealth background rather than an American one, so one book with Commonwealth spelling and one with American would be a massive red flag. Of course spelling is simple to change with a word editor but choice of words, and construction of sentences and paragraphs is more fundamental and difficult to change.

So a good way of getting your protagonist to discover this is have them be a massive fan of Mr X and have them realise that it feels like there are different authors writing these books, yet there's the same guy's photo in the back of the book. With his suspicions aroused the protagonist could start investigating.

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    $\begingroup$ Very creative idea with the language as a fingerprint. Problem is, if somebody tells me J.K. Rowling is a time traveler based on her varied language use, I'd call them crazy, so I don't think that's enough. $\endgroup$ – Goose Jun 8 '17 at 3:14
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, that's a big leap in logic. An original author could simply have a used ghost writer from their current time period (not the future's). That being said, there is no reason that the entire secret has to be uncovered all at once. The mere suspicion of a well-known author using a ghost writer could be enough for an editor or a fan to start an investigation in a quest of finding that original ghost writer. $\endgroup$ – Stephan Branczyk Jun 8 '17 at 3:31
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    $\begingroup$ This is a good point. However, this would be an indication of regular plagiarism, not time-travel plagiarism. If Mr. X gets big, publishers will bow to his eccentric requests, whether it's his own editor, or staunch refusal to make any significant re-writes. But starting out with self-publishing in 1990... it's going to be tough. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 8 '17 at 6:26

It is not uncommon for an author to have notes, ideas, fleshed out scenes and the like done years ahead of the work in which they finally appear. MC could be the brother of one of these starving artist types - a truly gifted guy who has been trying to get his stuff published for years but whose eccentricities and disorganization works against him.

When the artist recognizes his exact text in the best seller he has a cow of course. But Mr X is famous, gets lots of attention from groupies, fans, enemies etc and unfortunately the artist has had some mental health issues in the past. No-one believes him except his brother MC who actually had read the stuff some years before.

The eccentric artist brother is a fine side character for something like this. I envision Luna Lovegood played by Steve Buscemi. MC has to be methodical and organized which gets boring.

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    $\begingroup$ I second this. Having a close personal connection to one of the people being ripped off would help raise MC's suspicions. Perhaps also make it so that some of the details that appear in the published work are ones that you couldn't know to include unless you actually saw a recent draft in person - like a scribbled note in the margin about "give Susie background in Atlantean pottery" that the brother only wrote that morning. $\endgroup$ – ConMan Jun 8 '17 at 4:29
  • $\begingroup$ IMO this is that only plausible solution. Either the protagonist is one of the writers or is very close to one, and they have personal knowledge of the writing that gets ripped off. Everything else would get chalked up to coincidence. Consider how many stories in The Onion have come true, or how some technology in Star Trek later became real. $\endgroup$ – Kat Jun 8 '17 at 5:48
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    $\begingroup$ Additionally - many writers started their story-telling by spinning stories for their siblings, friends, or children. While they would have no proof that their story was stolen (no written evidence), their siblings/friends/kids would remember the stories from years before. Stories may change, but character names and traits usually remain the same - enough to garner a fair amount of suspicion for those in the know. $\endgroup$ – ArmanX Jun 8 '17 at 6:58
  • $\begingroup$ @ArmanX I agree about telling some episodes to friends. But names could be changed at publishers will - and there are numerous examples where book, film and even actor change their names. $\endgroup$ – ADS Jun 8 '17 at 9:07
  • $\begingroup$ @ConMan the protagonist could be not only the brother of writer but also his lawyer. A lawyer with specialisation in plagiarism could detect Mr. X. But protagonist should be sure that Mr. X chose this way (not a lottery ticket) before he come back to 1995 $\endgroup$ – ADS Jun 8 '17 at 9:12

The days directly following Mr. X arrival in the past, are when he will be most vulnerable and detectable. At that point, he has no time-appropriate credentials, no personal contacts and is pitifully out of sync with the culture and current events of his destination date. This is also the point when Mr. X will be addressing his greatest and therefore most revealing challenge... making sure that time travel does not get created in the future from which he comes. Only by changing the events which lead to the discovery of time travel, can Mr. X make himself safe from Evil Corp's retaliation. So during the first few days of his time in the past, Mr. X has the least resources and the most outlandish goals. This is the time when your hero can uncover his evil plan.

But even during these vulnerable moments, your hero needs three things...

  • She must be in the right place and time to encounter Mr. X
  • She must witness Mr. X behaving in a manner which defies other explanation
  • and she must believe in the possibility of time travel, because without such belief, she will just write Mr. X off as that rare multi-genre talent (like James Patterson) who can produce best sellers in a diverse spectrum of genre. (I personally don't believe in real-world time travel, but Mr. Patterson and his co-authors are beginning challenge that disbelief.)

The easiest solution to these three requirements is to make your hero a graduating physics student in the process of applying for work at Evil Corp. Have Mr. X know that she is the maverick genius who will someday create the time machine. Have him know that her immediate future history involves her joining a high security research project at Evil Corp, during which time she will be completely isolated from human contact. Mr. X's arrival date is also the date of her final interview. His last chance to stop her from eventually creating time travel is to stop her from getting to that interview.

During Mr. X's under-prepared-for, bungling attempt to intercept her, he drops one of his books (perhaps Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as it involves time travel). As she escapes Mr. X's clutches, with incriminating book in hand, she has met all three of the requirements above and she is well on her way to uncovering his evil plan.

-- on a brief aside -- I believe that Mr. X's plan would probably not work. Any successful book is much more than simply great writing. Best seller's come from those rare moment's when everything clicks! Just the right story reaches just the right initial audience which wins it the support of just the right spokespersons to put it in front of the world at a moment when the world is hungering for just that story. With all due respect to J.K. Rowling's beautiful prose, I doubt that Harry would have become a household name, if his adventures had started even one year earlier or been published and marketed by anyone other than the people and firms who pulled off that real world magic.

In your story, Mr. X is most likely destined to see only moderate success with his purloined creations and will very quickly wish that he had pursued the more standard sci-fi trope of historic stock investing.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the well-thought out answer. As for the problem of not only needing the book to be good, but also lucky (timing, etc), in-universe that is exactly the reason why mr. X brought so many popular books with him. He is aware that most of them won't turn out as popular as they did in the original timeline. $\endgroup$ – Kaito Kid Jun 8 '17 at 2:43

There are a few ways that Mr. X could slip up in a noticeable way.

A lot of authors' longer works are based on ideas, settings, characters, and plots that they previously explored in other media, such as short stories.

For example, Doc Smith's Lensman series of books were mostly published in the 1950s, but they were based on short stories Smith had written (and published) in 1930s and 40s. The same pattern (of writing successful novels based on short stories previously published in pulp magazines) holds true for much of golden age science fiction, from Heinlein and Asimov to Bradbury and Clarke, but the pattern extends to modern authors as well, such as Stephen King (whose 1982 The Dark Tower was a collection of stories published from 77 to 82).

Another consideration is that copies of manuscripts can exist several years prior to a work being published. For example, JK Rowling's Harry Potter manuscript was written in 1995 and rejected by 12 publishing houses before being published in 1997. If Mr. X doesn't pay careful attention to the history of each manuscript, he may run the risk of introducing it after it's already been written in some form; he may even submit it to a publishing house where it's already been rejected.

As an aside, a slightly different take on this underlying premise has been partially explored to great comedic effect in the short story "Who's Cribbing?" by Jack Lewis (Startling Stories, 1953). I won't spoil it for you, but it's worth the read.

  • $\begingroup$ A little literary history. While the Lensmen series were published as books in the 1950s, they were appeared as novel-length serials in Astounding Science Fiction. Yes, Triplanetary was a partial fix-up with new material added. First Lensman was a bridge to the core sequence of novels from Galactic Patrol to Children of the Lens. Thanks for the information about Jack Lewis' "Who's Cribbing?" See Harry Turtledove's "Hindsight", first in Analog, (1984); collected in Kaleidoscope (1990), where time travel is used for plagiarism. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jun 8 '17 at 9:05

Here is a story snippet for this case.

When he is a little kid, the main character develops an encryption technique to hide messages in text, and never tells anyone about this. He doesn't necessarily suspect anything at this point. He is just an eccentric guy who likes to do unique things.

As a habit, he uses this technique on every text he reads and writes. Someday he notices several books that generates interesting messages when this technique is applied and he begins to suspect the existence of this time traveler. These books are all written with the same style and he suspects that he is the author.

To clear his suspicions, he begins to write a book, which he planned since he was little so he will surely recognize if it was his book. He hides a secret message with his encryption technique, as he always planned to do with his books.

To discover the identity of Mr. X, he should add a little twist to this encryption technique, or include a message only X will understand. He could talk to X using his books. He could exploit a habit of X. This part is tricky but there are many possibilities, and this is what that will make your story unique.

Long story short, he cannot discover the identity of X being a third person. He should be the one whose books are stolen. He will also need cooperation from X. If X really wants to stay anonymous, MC would never be able to find him.


I'm assuming that the time traveler will publish before the original author is even born, let alone starting to write.

Works of fiction have lots and lots of cultural references. Ask yourself without google, since when are suspects being read their rights in the US? When did the UK start to award O-Levels to students (cf O.W.L.s in Harry Potter)?

Works of science fiction have lots and lots of fictional cultural references. A well-known example is Heinleins dilating door.

An astute reader might wonder about cultural references to events/developments which came after the delivery of the manuscript, and which the author got exactly right. Say a "Miranda" warning in a 1965 crime story, when that case was still in state courts and going against Miranda.

  • $\begingroup$ Today we have TV shows and essays explaining how Star Trek invented the future, how Verne, Wells, and Asimov were prophetic, etc. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 8 '17 at 8:48
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz Which explains why we have space guns for lunar travel, phasers, subspace radio, Cavorite, and robots with positronic brains today. :) Frederik Pohl called it the "shotgun effect". Imagine enough future things and some of them will be correct. There are thousands of science-fiction stories, some of them will something right. Science-fiction prophesying the future is over-rated. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jun 8 '17 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz, the question will be how close those shotgun predictions come to reality. Reading a suspect his rights, maybe. Reading his Miranda rights goes beyond coincidence. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Jun 8 '17 at 16:38

If the time traveler brought back books, the suspicious person could locate the stash of books and just check the copyright date. It's no proof, but it's certainly evidence.

If the suspicious person destroyed the books and the time traveler ceased writing, that would foil the get-rich-quick scheme as well as providing more evidence of foul play.

  • $\begingroup$ That might have not been clear enough, but I'm not looking for a way to prove anything. I'm looking for a way for my MC to get suspicious in the first place. That first piece of anectodal evidence or just small hint that he could stumble upon and that would allow him to identify his suspect or at least start watching him more closely. $\endgroup$ – Kaito Kid Jun 7 '17 at 22:46

For a third person, it is virtually impossible to detect "Mr. X", unless he has some major slip up.

An original author would suspect that something is not right, but unless the manuscript was prepared years in advance (and there was a proof for it), the author would most likely be quiet. So everybody else would not suspect anything.

So, what mistakes can Mr. X make?

Obviously, he may be caught in the act of time traveling, or accidentally bring some artifacts from the future. Or his books may contain references to real world events that have not happen yet in 1990, but would happen few years later. Or (since Mr. X is from near future) there is a younger version of Mr. X in 1990, and if those two versions are not closely and carefully cooperating, some people would notice. Or Mr. X may have one too many drinks with your protagonist at the bar.

  • $\begingroup$ Or he could act like the slightly smarter kids who download essays from the Internet, but change the wording around a little before submitting it. In Mr. X's case, introduce a few minor events that don't actually happen. $\endgroup$ – Spencer Jun 7 '17 at 23:26

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