Up until last year I wrote and mantained Sword and Sandal Kids, a blog reviewing historical fiction. It had become too big a project to handle on my own so, when it was hacked into and all the pictures and text deleted, I decided to bring the curtain down on it.
Recently though, I was looking for something in my email inbox and found an interview I’d done with the irrepressible Caroline Lawrence. It was about her book THE CASE OF THE DEADLY DESPERADOS, the first title in what has become the P.K. Pinkerton Series. It got a lot of hits on Sword and Sandal, so I’m reposting it here with a few minor tweeks [to the wording of my questions; Caroline’s answers have been left intact.]
Good morning, Miss Lawerence, Ma’am. Thanks for agreeing to talk to us. You became famous for The Roman Mysteries. Why the leap from Ancient Rome to the Wild West?
Three things together combined to give me a Eureka moment while sipping coffee on beautiful day on the Stanford University campus in California, where my mother lives.
I thought, “After ten years of writing books set the first century AD, I know more about Ancient Rome than I know about American history.”
Then I thought, “I have travelled to more places in the Mediterranean than in my native land.”
And finally, “Why not write a series of books set here in California?”
Also, I had just fallen in love with Westerns again after HBO’s Deadwood revived the genre. I yearned to see some of the amazing landscapes of the old west: Death Valley, Monument Valley Utah, Yellowstone Park, the Black Hills and Arizona. I had never visited any Civil War battlefields or even been to the South.
The frontier world you created for the book sounds very real. Reading it, I felt I really was in Virginia City in 1862. How much research did you do?
I do tons of research. This is my favourite part of writing historical fiction because I am entering another world. I love reading books about the period, meeting re-enactors and especially visiting the places my books are set.
Researching this new series also involves watching a couple of Westerns a week. It’s fascinating to see which are still classics and which seem dated.
P.K. Pinkerton skins a rabbit in the book. Have you ever skinned and cooked a rabbit?
No way! I signed up for a Ray Mears weekend survival course once. But chickened out at the last minute. I get conniptions if I find so much as a bug in my salad. However, I have chewed tobacco, rid in a stagecoach and tried out fast-draw six-shooters.
Pinky, the main character in the series, is a truly fascinating person. Is he a boy or a girl?
I won’t spill the beans on whether P.K. is male or female. But I will say that ever since I read The Towers of Trebizon I fancied the idea of having a first person child narrator whose gender the reader doesn’t know. This is partly because when I was a child I didn’t feel particularly like a girl… I was just ME. P.K.’s gender ambiguity also fits with his/her slight social dysfunctionality.
Will we ever find out what he is?
I am going to keep the mystery going as long as I can. However, I do give clues for those clever enough to spot them!
One of the characters in the book is Sam Clemens, a person who actually lived and became known as the author Mark Twain. Is his dialogue with Pinky taken from real life?
Yes, almost every word Sam Clemens says is taken from his letters or newspaper articles of that period.
It is fascinating to see Sam Clemens before he became Mark Twain. In 1862 he was 27 years old with sideburns but no mustache, dark reddish-brown hair and flashing blue-green eyes. He was not the laid back avuncular white-haired man in white linen but a hot-tempered young blood who carried a Colt’s Navy revolver like everybody else in that place. But still with his genius for wit and witticism.
I loved Belle Donne and her outrageous excuses for her shameful behaviour. Is she based on a real person from the Wild West?
Belle is partly inspired by HBO Deadwood’s depiction of what the life of a saloon girl was really like. But toned down about 500% for kids. My friend Robert Muchamore was the one who suggested I should make her 16 rather than 26. (I don’t ever come right out and say her age, but that is her age in my head.)
Are there going to be more people taken from real life in the series?
Yes, because primary sources are my main source of ideas. I have three categories of characters:
1. Those like Dan De Quille, Joe Goodman, Sam Clemens, William Morris Stewart and Billy Chollar who were real and whose lives were well-documented.
2. Those like Titus Jepson, Rufus E. Arick and Sol Bloomfield who were real people living in Virginia City but about whom we know almost nothing.
3. Those who are complete fabrications, like Belle Donne, Whittlin Walt, Poker Face Jace and Isaiah Coffin. But even they are based on real characters from the Comstock.
Coming up in the next few books we have some real gunslingers, politicians, actors and actresses.
How long did it take you to write the book?
This one took quite a while. About five years from the moment I first conceived of the idea until it was published. But I was working on other things for the earlier years.
The book starts off with Pinky writing his diary in a mine. Is it a real place? Can people visit it?
Yes, the Mexican Mine is a real place, but trust me, you do not want go down there. You can however, make short excursions into a couple of real mine tunnels in Virginia City today. One is reached through a saloon!
What came first, the characters or the story?
The character of Pinky Pinkerton came first. Then I had to decide where he/she would set up as a detective.
Have you any tips for young people wanting to write their own stories?
I have three tips:
1. Read, read, read, but also watch. Some of the best storytellers are filmmakers and TV makers. We shouldn’t be snobbish about them. In my opinion Pixar is the Shakespeare of our time.
2. Learn story structures like The Hero’s Journey, the Three Act Structure, and my favourite: John Truby’s 22 Plot Beats. (www.truby.com) Even if you don’t use them, you should be aware of them.
3. Discipline yourself to write every single day, even if it is only for ten minutes. Make it as regular as brushing your teeth. If you can’t think what to write, just write “I can’t think what to write” over and over for ten minutes!
Who was your favourite author when you were a child, and who is your favourite author now?
I loved the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, by Carolyn Keene, because the told about a clever, independent, empowered girl whose power was not beauty, magic or money, but her brains and desire to find the Truth. In short a Detective. My mother also read us Sherlock Holmes mystery stories and I’m sure that had a big influence, too.
When is the next book in the series out?
Next book comes out next June. The provisional title is The Case of the Petrified Man. I am just finishing the third draft (which is really draft 61!)
Like all of us, Pinky still has lots to learn. But that’s the chief joy of life; learning about people and their curious customs!
Well, thank you for your time, Miss Lawrence, Ma’am. We loved The Case of the Deadly Desperados and can’t wait for the next instalment in the series.
That second book in the series, finally titled The Case of the Good Looking Corpse has since been published to excellent reviews and healthy sales. Caroline also launched a series for younger children called The Roman Mystery Scrolls, which I have reviewed on pirottablog and over at ABBA.
You can read the review of THE SEWER DEMON [THE ROMAN SCROLLS MYSTERIES 1] here.
You can read my post about THE POISONED HONEY CAKE [THE ROMAN SCROLLS MYSTERIES 2] here.