Sunday, 12 June 2011

Romans 17, Cowboys 1 (but rising)

The Book Maven is delighted to welcome Caroline Lawrence, who is stopping off for a metaphorical slug of liquor and plug of baccy on her demanding blog tour for The case of the Deadly Desperados. And here she is, for once not dressed in a toga or full set of buckskins!

                                                WESTERN vs ROMAN

For most of the past ten years I've had a fabulous time writing a history-mystery series for kids set in ancient Rome.

My main motivation for writing is to transport myself to another place and time. I write about places Id like to have lived; civilized towns with a hint of danger and unpredictability, and populated by intriguing historical figures. While writing my Roman Mysteries, I have met Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger, the Emperor Titus and his brother Domitian, the astrologer Ascletario, the orator Quintilian, and Suetonius biographer of the Caesars  when he was twelve years old.

But now I've turned my eyes to the west, the Wild West. So how did I get from first century Rome to nineteenth century America?

It was HBO's Deadwood that rekindled my interest in the Western genre. When I saw the first episode of this TV series in 2005, I had a eureka moment: THAT's what it would have been like! Grimy, grubby & unglamorous. No swinging saloon doors, no shootouts, no glossy saloon girls in ruffles. Instead writer David Milch and his crew gave us canvas pest-tents, knifings, and sorry-looking dope addicts. It was full-frontal, profane, and violent, sometimes almost too violent to watch. This is a shame, because the producers did such a marvellous job of recreating that look and feel of a mining camp in the 1870s.

Deadwood sparked my interest in Westerns because I wanted to see more of this world, which was the world of my own heritage. I had abandoned the US a few decades previously to study in the UK, and ended up settling here. But now I wanted to read about my ancestors: grizzled men, gutsy women and pioneer children. I craved big skies, sage-dotted deserts and shadowed canyons. I started to re-watch Westerns I hadn't seen in years. After Deadwood, most of them seemed laughably clean and unrealistic, but a few were as fresh and vital as the day they had first been screened. I was entranced by Eagle's Wing, Little Big Man, The Outlaw Josie Wales and Dances with Wolves.

Then I saw The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, a spaghetti western from 1966. I remembered it as being rather silly, perhaps because of its famous theme song. But as I watched the remastered extended version I was amazed at how good it was. Exciting, clever, surprising, and blackly funny. And, like Deadwood, it got the look exactly right: grubby, dusty and sweaty. I fell utterly in love with this film. When I went to IMDb viewers ratings, I saw I wasn't alone. Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo -- its original Italian title -- has consistently held a place in the top 5 films of all time.

Around that time a friend gave me a copy of Charles Portiss' True Grit, which I adored. I also started reading Larry McMurtry and Robert B Parker's Appaloosa series. All three authors employ wonderful dialogue and turn of phrase, but use such plain prose and clear vocabulary that a middle school child could easily read any their books, were it not for the content.

Another eureka moment came a few months later when I was visiting my mother in Northern California, sitting in a sunny outdoor cafe on a university campus. I suddenly thought, Why am I not writing a series of books set here? At that moment I resolved to write a new series based in the American West. Like the Roman Mysteries, it would be history-mystery, and like them for the 8 - 12 age group.

The only problem was exactly where and precisely when to set it? The West is so big, and the scope of American history so vast, but for time travel to work you need to be specific.

The following week found me in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles. I went for an early morning walk and discovered a National Park. I didn't have time to do any hiking, but I came away from the ranger station clutching a map dotted with wonderful names like Mt. Disappointment and Hard Luck. An idea was taking shape in my head. As soon as I got back to my room, I wrote the first few pages of what was to be the first Western Mystery. Here is the original first line of those original first pages:

"My name is Pinky, and I was born in Hard Luck, not far from Mount Disappointment. That pretty much sums up my short and miserable life. Which is anyways soon about to end."

That was in October of 2006, five years ago. In that early version the character of P.K. (Pinky) Pinkerton emerged from my subconscious pretty much fully grown. All the essential elements were there: an enigmatic and slightly dysfunctional hero who is half white and half Indian, deadpan humour and an air of excitement and threat.

I had my guide. Now I needed my setting. The San Gabriel Mountains, while beautiful, didnt feel right. I then toyed with the idea of setting the books in San Francisco during the gold rush. Then I discovered something I hadn't known: Samuel Clemens lived in the west for a few years as a young man. His worked as a reporter for a two and a half years in Virginia City, Nevada during its most exciting period: the silver boom years. It was there that he first used the pen-name Mark Twain.

I had my third eureka moment. For my Roman Mysteries, the eruption of Vesuvius had given me a place and a time: 24 August AD 79, and that series lasted for the two and a half year reign of Titus. For my Western Mysteries, the arrival in Virginia City of Mark Twain would gave me not just a place, but a very specific time: Friday 26 September 1862, and my series could last for the two and a half year reign of Twain.

In researching my new series I have been to the Melody Ranch, California where Deadwood was filmed  and also to Virginia City, Nevada. My husband, my sister and I have done a Civil War tour, an Arizona Dude Ranch and a Death Valley road trip. I am learning about 19th century American music, theatre, photography, clothing and tobacco. I'm getting to know Mark Twain and some lesser-known but equally-fascinating sage-brush writers such as Dan De Quille, Joe Goodman and Alf Doten. I've also met some gutsy gals and pioneer kids. Virginia City and the area around it will be a great place to spend the next decade. An interviewer recently asked me this question: If you had a time machine, would you go back to ancient Rome or the Wild West? I couldn't answer her, because I am so passionate about both periods.

Five connections between Ancient Rome and the Wild West:

1. Both were horse-powered societies.
2. The state of medical knowledge was about the same.
3. The best westerns were made by a Roman director, Sergio Leone.
4. David Milch only conceived of the Deadwood after being thwarted in his hopes to do a series about Nero's Rome.
5. Samuel Clemens claims to trace his family line back to Flavius Clemens, a relative of the emperor Titus.

Caroline Lawrence writes historical novels because nobody has invented a Time Machine. She writes for kids 8 - 12 because that is her inner age. Caroline divides her time between 1st century Ostia and 19th century Nevada. In a manner totally befitting a split-personality Gemini, this Californian Londoner has two websites, one for her Roman Mysteries and one for her Western Mysteries.

 There are two more stops left on Caroline's blog tour:

Mon 13 June – Caroline Lawrence on tips for writing historical fiction
Tues 14 June – Inhabiting the West


michelle lovric said...

Wonderful to hear about the genesis of this series. And you absolutely cannot go wrong with Mark Twain as your muse. Love the cover, too!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thank you, Michelle! I was expecting tea & cakes and was shocked to be offered liquor & baccy. I'm afraid I trod dust all over Mary's carpet as well. She was very gracious about it.

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