Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Caroline Lawrence Author Interview Nov 2001

[For the first unit in the literacy file of the LCP Literacy Schemes of Work - 'Stories with Historical Settings' - based around the Roman Mysteries series.]

Caroline & friend at Ostia in 2000
An interview with Caroline Lawrence
by students from class 4F at Charlton Kings Junior School following her visit in November 2001

Caroline is writing a series of adventure stories set in Ancient Rome. Each of these Roman Mysteries involves four friends who set out to solve a whodunit. The books are original and very easy to read, with pacy plots we have found very exciting. We invited Caroline to our school because we had used her books to learn about Ancient Rome.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Roman Ostia?

A: I first went to Ostia on a school trip when I was 16 and I have always remembered it. When I decided to write a book for children I chose to set it in Ancient Rome. The port of Ostia seemed ideal because the characters could arrive from and sail to different places, like Nubia the African girl who reaches Ostia on a slave ship.

Q: Your characters are very realistic. Do you get your ideas from people you know or are you inspired by something else?

A: I grew up reading Nancy Drew mystery stories. I wanted a heroine who was really clever and brave, just like Nancy, but I knew if she was 17 years old in Roman times she would already be married with children because they married so young. So I decided to make Flavia, my heroine, ten years old. Sometimes, though, I make up characters, like Lupus the homeless beggar boy who is mysteriously mute. But I have to admit, when he loses his temper and storms off he is a lot like me!

Q: There are many dogs in The Thieves of Ostia. Why is that?

A: Although I had a pet dog, I used to have nightmares about dogs when I was quite young. Dogs can be scary. I had the idea for The Thieves of Ostia when I heard a dog barking in the night and I wondered who might be creeping about. That got me thinking about my story. 

Q: You have some great mysteries in your books, like when Bobas the dog has his head chopped off. What inspired you to write them?

A: I had in my head the image of Cerberus the three-headed dog from Greek mythology, and I wanted to weave that story into my story. 

Q: One of the most gripping cliffhangers in your book is when Flavia is hanging from a tree with wild dogs under her feet. How do you plan and write such exciting cliffhangers?

A: I write a chapter outline first and I always try to end with a surprise. Then, if you are reading my book in the bathtub, you find the water has gone cold before you put it down!

Q: You have written two books already. How long did they take you to write and get published? Have you any plans for more books?

A: I seem to be getting quicker at writing my books. My first book The Thieves of Ostia took two years to write and get published, but The Secrets of Vesuvius only took one year. I have written books three and four and am busy on book five at the moment. I have also planned the sixth book which will be called The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina.

Q: Do you hope your books will be turned into films?

A: Oh yes! They'd have to be animated films, like Toy Story, because you couldn't use real actors. You see, each story takes place a month apart so the child actors would grow up too fast! It would be impossible to make six films in six months. The films would probably have to be PG certificate because some parts of my stories are quite scary. But I wouldn't want them to be gory. 

Q: You write lots of interesting stories. How do you think of them all? Did you start writing at school?

A: No! I didn't write at school but I did read. I still read lots of books and watch television and good films. I get my ideas from them. One of my favourite authors is Gerald Durrell and I also love The Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis. I think that without knowing it, you keep all the stories in you and one day, when you write, they all come out. 

Q: What is your biggest tip on writing?

A: I think my biggest tip would be to write for 10-15 minutes each day, as regularly as you clean your teeth!

Q: Where do you write your books and do you listen to music while you write?

A: No! I have to have complete quiet while I write but I do use music to inspire me. I have a piece of music for each of my characters. When I am gathering ideas I walk around London with my Walkman on, listening to music. Then I rush back to my desk which looks over the River Thames and write my ideas down before I forget them!

Caroline Lawrence was interviewed by children in 4F at Charlton Kings Junior School, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. They have used the Roman Mysteries in their Literacy, History, and Drama lessons and would recommend them to all Junior-aged children who are keen to learn about Ancient Rome and like an exciting read.

[Seventeen years later, there are 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series. These are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. They exist in hardback, paperback and Kindle. There are also audiobooks and DVDs of The Roman Mysteries TV series. Since this interview, Caroline has written the Roman Mysteries Scrolls for younger readers, the P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries, two re-tellings of Virgil for dyslexic teens and four-book series set in Roman Britain called The Roman Quests.]

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sam & Flavius Clemens

One of Mark Twain's favorite books was Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars. According to Twain's biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, he carried it around and read it until his very last day.

Near the end of the book, Suetonius tells how the Emperor Domitian put to death many people including his own cousin Flavius Clemens, a man "below contempt for his want of energy." (Latin "contemptissimae inertiae...") In the margin of his well-thumbed copy of the book, next to the name "Clemens" and the words "want of energy", Mark Twain wrote "I guess this is where our line starts."

This is amusing because:

A. Mark Twain's real name was Sam Clemens
B. Mark Twain was famous for his want of energy.

Huck and Jim enjoy a delicious "want of energy"

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Buried Alive?

or "The Case of the Bleeding Corpse"

In the winter of 1861, failed prospector Alf Doten was living in Milpitas, California, trying to be a farmer. The following year he would leave the Bay Area and head for Nevada to give prospecting one last try. He would fail again at prospecting but would end up as a newspaper reporter in Virginia City. Now, over a hundred years after his death, he is moderately well-known as a chronicler of Nevada History. For Alf Doten was a methodical diary-keeper, and the treasure he left was over 75 leather-bound diaries documenting fascinating aspects of daily day life in the old West. They have been edited and published in three big volumes (above) which I first discovered at the B Street B&B in Virginia City. The Journals of Alfred Doten (1849 - 1903)

I have been going through Alf's journals to get period details for my new Western Mysteries. Two days ago, I had reached November 1861 when I came across a couple of entries that chilled my blood.

Nov 5 - Campbell came this AM & got my pick to dig a grave - Miss Abby Nash died this morning around 9 oclock, of typhoid fever... She was 17 yrs old -

Nov 6 - Cloudy - Morning I rode Ben to Peacock's - learned that Miss Nash is to be buried at 10 AM - rode home - hitched Ben & Poncho to wagon - got ready - David and I rode to Peacocks - Took Mrs Peacock & Annie and a gentleman friend of theirs on board - drove to Nash's - friends & neighbors had assembled - Mr Barquay from Berreyessa officiated as clergyman - he read from the Bible, prayed, exhorted & we sang a hymn to the tune of Wyndham - four of us brought out the coffin & put it in Jim Smith's spring wagon - She looked very natural - procession moved to grave which was dug over next the fence on the line between Nash's and Valpy's farms - a very lonely out of the way place - opened the coffin that all who wished might take last look at corpse - her head was not properly pillowed so that in crossing the rough field I heard it knocking against side of coffin, and a large quantity of blood came from the right nostril - I helped lower her into the grave - funeral over - drove round & left our Peacock passengers & drove home - This funeral was got up on the very cheapest possible scale, and cost old Nash very few dimes - quite a saving -

What sent a shiver through me was this: I had always understood that corpses didn't bleed. As I re-read the entries, a few phrases seemed to jump out of the account: "she looked very natural" and "a large quantity of blood came from the right nostril" ... Was the poor girl buried alive in that "lonely out of the way place" where no one could hear her knocking to be let out? A truly horrible prospect.

I immediately sent a tweet to one of my favorite authors: Lee Goldberg, author of Diagnosis Murder and the Monk books. Lee instantly put me on the track of Dr D.P. Lyle, author of Forensics for Dummies. I was unaware that Dr Lyle has a fantastic blog about forensics for crime writers and other such eccentrics. I emailed him and wondered whether I would ever get a reply.

Yesterday evening, I had to go into central London to an event at the British Museum. As I was passing Jarndyce, the well-known Antiquarian Booksellers, a book in the window caught my eye: Premature Burial! I was early for my event so went into the bookshop and asked if I could look at the book. "You can look at it," said the nice shopkeeper, "but you can't buy it. It belongs to the owner." I perched on the edge of a walnut armchair and opened the book. Almost immediately my eyes fell upon this sentence: ‎"Live burials are far more frequent than most people think." Ew!

Sure enough, the book was full of accounts of people buried alive in the 19th century. Many people were so afraid of premature burial that they put clauses in their wills demanding that they be interred with coffins fit out with contraptions like that on the left. You could pull a little handle and a flag would pop up above ground, showing that you had been buried alive.

I was relieved to return home after my event and find that Dr Lyle, (the Forensics for Dummies doctor), had got back to me with a thorough and reassuring reply: "she was not buried alive and she did not bleed but rather this was either a broken down clot from her sinuses or purge fluid."

According to Dr Lyle, Abby Nash "could have had trauma to her face and blood could have collected in the sinuses. Blood initially clots and then begins to break down and separate into a contracted clot and serum. The serum or liquid part of the blood is usually tinged reddish brown in this circumstance and when they alter her position some of this could have leaked from her nose. This would simply be separated blood following the dictates of gravity. Also there is the situation of purge fluids. These appear as part of the decay of the body. This is blackish looking liquid that comes from the nose and often the mouth and has to do with decay of the tissues within the head. These usually appear a couple of days after death since it takes that long for the decay process to get that far. There are circumstances under which this process is sped up. Things like a very warm environment. Another is when someone has an infection. Here bacteria are already scattered throughout the body and therefore the decay process does not depend upon the intestinal tract breaking down first and releasing the bacteria within the bowel into the system. So she would already have bacteria in her bloodstream from her typhoid fever and therefore would decay much more rapidly."

I could rest easy. Poor young Abby Nash died tragically young. But at least she was not buried alive.

If you are of a ghoulish disposition and would like to read Premature Burial, you can do so online.
P.S. In the Arthur Conan Doyle 1901 short story 'The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax', a character is narrowly saved from being buried alive by the detective Sherlock Holmes.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Territorial Enterprise

The Territorial Enterprise Newspaper

The Territorial Enterprise was a famous newspaper in the Nevada town of Virginia City.

It was established in 1858 in the town of Mormon Station (AKA Genoa) in the Carson Valley, but moved up to Virginia City in 1860 shortly after silver was discovered on the Comstock Lode. Virginia City suffered from frequent fires and for this and various other reasons the Enterprise moved offices a few times in its first two decades there.

The first office of the Territorial Enterprise was a rickety wooden building up on A Street at the top of the town. We know this from the 1862 Directory of Nevada Territory. We even have a rough idea of what it looked like, thanks to a lithographic drawing by a talented young artist named Grafton T. Brown in 1861. (above) A full page ad in the 1862 Directory tells us that the magazine was published every morning except Sundays, which meant the reporters and printers had Saturday off.

Dennis McCarthy and Joe Goodman were the owners and editors of the paper. Under their guidance the Territorial Enterprise became one of the best-known newspapers in the West. It carried national and local news, mining statistics, advertisements, etc. Frequently - when local news was thin - the reporters filled empty column space with witty stories and tall tales like the ones about the "Demon Frog" or the "Travelling Stones". Some of these stories were pure fiction but because they were printed in a newspaper many people believed them. Later, when readers discovered they had been "taken in" many of them became angry and accused the reporters of being "hoaxers".

In late September of 1862 a dusty 26-year-old failed prospector arrived at the Enterprise to take up a position as a local reporter. His name was Samuel Clemens and he had been promised $25 a week. In those days reporters often used funny or witty pen-names instead of their real names. At first, Clemens signed his articles "Josh". But early in 1863 he tried out the byline "Mark Twain" and it stuck. That is the name by which people know him today. (left: Mark Twain in 1862, before he grew his famous moustache)

Some less-famous writers who worked on the Territorial Enterprise were William Wright (whose pen-name was "Dan De Quille") and Alfred Doten. From the 1862 Directory, we even know the names of some of the printers who worked on the paper, like D.P. Iams and James Richards. Another famous employee of the Territorial Enterprise newspaper was the Chinese cook, Old Joe. Dan De Quille writes that Old Joe did the cooking, and three times each day the whole crowd of "newspaper men" were called out to the long table in the shed to get their "square meal."

Shortly after Mark Twain's arrival in Virginia City, the Enterprise moved offices to a building on North C Street. (Any street above Union in Virginia city is North.) By the summer of 1863, the Enterprise had moved yet again, to a big brick building called the "Enterprise Building" on South C Street between Sutton and Union. This was probably to accomodate a new steam-powered printing press.

By now, the boom times had arrived and the Enterprise's day off had moved, too. Now everybody worked hard on Saturday to get out a special Sunday edition devoted to mining news and other related matters. Everyone was happy and busy. Then, in the spring of 1864, Mark Twain wrote a tall tale that got him into "hot water". He had to "skedaddle" out of Virginia City. Twain went to San Francisco to work for another newspaper, and sometimes he sent articles back to the Territorial Enterprise. But within a few years, he had become a famous writer and a popular lecturer. (above: detail of the newspaper on 8 July 1874, the year before the great fire, shows offices on 24 South C Street)

Twain came back to Virginia City a couple of times over the next few years, but he was long gone by 1875, when a terrible fire burnt down his former workplace. The Territorial Enterprise you see today was built in 1876, several years after Twain's last visit, so he never set foot in this building. However, down in the basement you will find the Mark Twain Museum, full of fascinating items such as printing presses, a desk and even a toilet like the one Mark Twain might have used.

For more info about the Territorial Enterprise, go to the Official Site.

[The Case of the Deadly Desperados features the 26-year-old reporter Sam Clemens who will soon take the nom de plume Mark Twain. Aimed at kids aged 9 - 90, it is available in hardback, paperbackKindle and audio versions.]