Monday, 22 April 2013

From Rome to the Wild West - An Interview with Caroline Lawrence

Caroline Lawrence is the author of the fantastic Roman Mysteries series, which follows a group of child detectives all around the ancient world, and of a new series which is called Western Mysteries in the USA and P. K. Pinkerton Mysteries here in the UK. As you can probably guess from the name, these are set in the 19th century American West, and they are just as absorbing and exciting as the Roman Mysteries.

I’ve been a huge fan of Caroline’s writing ever since I picked up my first Roman Mysteries book in the library (recommended by my cousin’s daughter). I was reading completely out of order at first (The Sirens of Surrentum), but soon bought the whole collection and read through in order. They are completely addictive! (You can win a copy of the first or second P. K. Pinkerton Mysteries book in my giveaway here!)
Today, Caroline has stopped by to answer some questions about herself and her books.

Hi Caroline! Hope you’re having a lovely day!

I am indeed, Vicky! I just finished the first draft of my fourth P.K. Pinkerton book.

What made you decide to go from Rome to the American Wild West?

For me, writing historical fiction is like time travel. Ancient Rome is one place I’d love to visit in a my magic time-bubble; the other is the American West. I love the landscape, the history and the movies associated with that place. Also, the American West is part of my heritage!

How much research goes into each book?

My whole life is research. Attending Latin classes, going to movies, talking to friends, listening to music, reading books, walking, day-dreaming and travelling: all are grist to my creative mill. But I also do specific research, like browsing the database of Mark Twain’s letters online or attending Roman Re-enactment events.

Have you found out anything really surprising during your research, or busted any Western myths?

Yes, I’m always making discoveries as I do research. For example, most western saloons don’t have those swinging doors, but I love them so much that I kept them. What I didn’t realise was how prevalent tobacco was in the American Civil War period, when I’m writing, and especially spittoons. There were even dainty glass spittoons for women!

Would you ever consider changing any historical facts to fit the plot or to make things more exciting, or is that a big no-no?

I get so much inspiration from real historical events that I hardly ever make changes. One little change I made in my latest P.K. Pinkerton book was putting the exploits of shootist Farner Peel in 1862 rather than 1864.

How many of the places in the books are real, and what made you choose Virginia City as your main setting?

Caroline and StinkE (Caroline's photo)
In 2008 I went on a road trip with my sister Jennifer to find the most exciting setting for my new Western series. The “living ghost town” of Virginia City, Nevada was high on my list because

a) some of our ancestors had lived nearby
b) its heyday was during the Civil War
c) Mark Twain lived there…

But it captured my heart when we drove in and the first person I saw was StinkE with a capital E! (see picture) When I discovered that the owner of the B&B we had booked was a Nevada historian I knew it was meant to be!

Caroline and Jennifer on their road trip (Caroline's photo)

Am I right in thinking that you travel a lot? What’s been your favourite place(s) to visit?

Near Sorrento (Caroline's photo)
I’ve travelled to almost all the places where my books are set. I even try to go at the particular time of year when the book will take place so I can get details of weather, bird migration, seasonal food, etc right. I love Ostia, the ruins of Rome’s port, and I think there is something almost magical or perhaps I should say ‘numinous’ about it. I also adore Sorrento and the Bay of Naples, the deserts of the American West, the Sierra Nevada mountain range and San Francisco. In fact, it’s often the places I love that determine where my books will be set!

You grew up in America. Do you have any personal family connections to the history of the American Old West?

Yes! My great grandmother was born in Battle Mountain Nevada and worked for a time at the Carson City mint. Another one of my ancestors was a Union paymaster in the American Civil War.

The Western Mysteries, like the Roman Mysteries, have such brilliant characters. Are any of them real historical people?

I am always using real people! But I try to make them peripheral rather than main characters, (though sometimes they will take over). In my Roman Mysteries you will meet Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger, the Emperor Titus, his paramour Berenice, Josephus the Jewish historian, Suetonius the famous biographer and Valerius Flaccus a patrician epic poet, just to name a few. In my P.K. Pinkerton books we meet Sam Clemens AKA Mark Twain and lots of real gunfighters, politicians and newspaper reporters from California and Nevada Territory! I have to be careful there because some of them have great, great, great grandchildren who are still alive!

The main character, Pinky, seems to have Prosopagnosia (difficulty recognising faces), and perhaps also Asperger Syndrome. This can make some aspects of being a detective tricky, but is also advantageous in some circumstances (such as remaining calm when in danger). Why did you decide to write Pinky in this way?

My starting point for PK was that the books would be told in first person without the reader being certain of whether PK is a girl or a boy. (So yes, add gender confusion to those other things!)

Who is your favourite character from any of your books?

In a strange way, P.K. Pinkerton is the most like me. I took my own quirks and eccentricities and exaggerated them to the max!

Do you have any writing habits or a favourite place to write?

I love to write on my Apple Mac in my riverside flat in London (see picture). I’ve found the first few hours of the day most productive. I only write for an average of two hours a day. The rest is ‘research’!

Caroline's flat (Caroline's photo)
What’s your favourite book/author?

The Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault. It changed my life because it introduced me to the Classical world. Some of my other fave books are True Grit, My Family and Other Animals, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and the historical novels of Patrick O’Brian.

I don’t have much experience of Westerns beyond your books, True Grit, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Can you recommend any favourite Western movies?

My favourite Western film of all time is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). The others on my list are always shifting and changing but here are four more I think my fans would enjoy: Lonesome Dove TV series (1989), Eagle’s Wing (1979), The Tin Star (1957) and Little Big Man (1970). Notice not one of them stars John Wayne!

Can you leave us with one fun fact about the Romans or about the American West?

First century Rome and Western America in the 1860s had a surprising number of elements in common: both were horse-powered societies, both were surrounded by perceived “barbarians” and both had achieved roughly the same level of medical knowledge. But if I had to choose one to live in, it would be the American West: at least they had chocolate!

Thank you so much for stopping by, Caroline!

Thank YOU! And Happy One Year Anniversary of your great blog!
Me proudly wearing my 'P.K. Pinkerton Private Eye' badge!

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