Lucy Saint Smith, The Grey Coat Hospital
Caroline Lawrence is the author of 32 historical-fiction books for children, spanning two series: the Roman Mysteries, set in first century Ostia and the P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries, set in the 19th century American West. Before becoming a full-time writer she studied Classics at Berkeley and Classical Art and Archaeology at Newnham College Cambridge, and worked as a primary school teacher. She is currently the president of the Joint Association for Classical Teachers. Caroline also maintains a highly informative blog, which is itself a great reference site for children. She posts lots of factual information and links about the historical period she writes about, as well as tips on writing for young people.
In describing her research process the author states that she imagines she is “going to a foreign country”. This means she takes a multi-sensory approach, considering what people’s voices sound like, what food and drink was available and what clothes and objects people used. Her preferred material is primary sources, like contemporary fiction, eyewitness accounts and objects: “there is nothing like handling an object from your time period to bring it alive”. She says that she finds herself getting “quite nerdy” about objects, weapons in particular, because being specific and accurate is important to the story.
When asked about how she goes about acquiring this information Caroline describes herself as being “intrinsically lazy…My husband Richard is a member of the London Library. I often send him off on a quest for specific books. Very occasionally I use the Classics Library at UCLbut I use the internet for 95% of my research”.
It is obvious from her blog that she is enthusiastic about promoting good online research and the resources that she has used to inform her work. “Most of my sources for the P.K. Pinkerton books, set in Nevada Territory 1862, come from online newspaper and magazine archives”. She is constantly amazed to discover the “vast wealth” of primary sources that were available online.
In Caroline’s first series of books, The Roman Mysteries, language and the way the characters spoke was not so important to her, “because Latin would have sounded modern to them”. However in her latest series, the P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries, language in particular has been a real focus for her research. “I am much more careful to use authentic vocabulary, word order and slang. In fact, I’ve composed a whole dictionary of authentic and non-authentic words for Nevada Territory in 1862”.
Many of the primary resources she uses she has acquired via the “ever-useful” Internet Archive, including Godey’s Lady’s Book (https://archive.org/details/godeysladysbook1862hale)
and A New Dictionary of Americanisms:
(http://www.archive.org/stream/newdictionaryofa00clapuoft/newdictionaryofa00clapuoft_djvu.txt). “The Internet Archive is an American non-profit organisation that describes itself as building an ‘internet library’.” They catalogue both born digital content (they created the Wayback Machine) and digitised books. It has a vast range of primary sources, particularly for scholars of America in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, but due to the resources coming from a wide variety of sources the classification is somewhat haphazard and not all resources are available in all formats. “I find it to be a fantastic resource for finding research material”.
Caroline has a subscription to the Harper’s Magazine online archive (http://harpers.org/archive/), which she finds particularly useful for the illustrations. She describes Mark Twain’s online archive (http://www.marktwainproject.org/) and Alfred Doten’s journal (ISBN 978-0874170320) as her “go-to reference works”. The Mark Twain archive is “a very well put together website with an easy-to-use search-engine” that enables the user to search through Mark Twain’s letters, works and photographs as well as writings about him by his contemporaries and maps of the parts of the world he lived in. It has a helpful user guide, and each record is accompanied by short biographies of any other individuals mentioned in the writings. Alfred Doten’s journal is not available digitally, but Caroline relies on it for “fascinating glimpses into the daily life in the American West of the second half of the 19th century” and often quotes from it on her blog.
Caroline rather interestingly adopts an auditory approach to some of her research in order to be better able to use the appropriate language and “to get the speech rhythms right”. As well as listening to period-appropriate audio books, she will often read parts of a resource she is using into her iphone, and then listen to it when she is out and about.
The author maintains that researching for fiction in general, and children’s fiction in particular, is no different from researching for an academic piece. “The difference comes in the writing” she explains, “Any modification or softening of material occurs in the actual writing process”. She doesn’t believe in patronising her readers by removing historical detail they may not understand, however, “I don’t care if people get [the historical details] or not. I know they give a sense of authenticity to my stories! So I use the ones that are relevant to my story.”
One might argue, however that she is not completely accurate with this assessment of her research. Although she frequently posts about her sources on her blog, Caroline’s method of recording her sources is less than rigorous: “I usually just jot down key phrases or sentences on my computer”. Additionally her phenomenological focus on how things looked, how things sounded, is a research goal that is more specific to fiction, or other creative arts. She is not interested in analysis, but in “bringing a world to life”, which by necessity affects the information that she is looking for.
So how do we, as librarians, go about supporting authors like Caroline in her work? Caroline suggests that easily accessible online support, such as the blog she herself has created, would be most helpful. “The internet has a truly amazing range of literature available at the touch of a keyboard” she says. “For a writer of historic fiction, it is important to know how to reach all those archives of primary sources that might be useful”.
Caroline’s blog, “Roman Mysteries & Western Mysteries” is available from: http://flavias.blogspot.co.uk/