Children love Caroline Lawrence. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise as, in her own words, she is still a child herself. The children’s book author held the elementary and middle school students of The American International School of Muscat (TAISM) in a spell as she told them how to spin a few tales themselves. “Good writers borrow, great writers steal,” she said as the school’s performance hall reso-unded with the amused laughter of the children.
She led them through a seven-step process of story-writing, making it seem like no big deal to the young, imaginative minds in the audience. Soon they were milling around for an autograph. On her first trip to the sultanate, she hoped the Arabian winds would inspire her for a new series. “I’m a big fan of Islamic architecture and dress. I love the food. And I love the desert as I grew up in Bakersfield, California,” she said.
Caroline now calls London home, a city she has grown to love for its cosmopolitan culture. She has been prolific, with 17 books to her credit in The Roman Mysteries series alone, the two-part Roman Mystery Scrolls, the first two instalments of the Flavian Trilogy, two books in the Western Mysteries/PK Pinkerton Mysteries, short stories and non-fiction books.
Her Roman Mysteries series is popular in London owing to the fact that it is part of school curriculum, but are yet to find a big readership in the US, she noted. For the PK Pinkerton stories in the West-ern Mysteries series, Caroline went location-scouting in the US and found inspiration in photographs and music from the Wild West.
“A plot structure helps you write very fast. I took several writing classes and realised that I didn’t know how to write a plot. Call it serendipity, but that’s when someone lent me a set of tapes by a Hollywood script doctor. They served as a road map,” she said. But writing was never part of the initial plan. She grew up adoring Nancy Drew, her ambitions changing from astronaut to anthropologist (Jane Goodall was another hero).
While travelling in Europe hoping to go to Greece in her gap year, she found herself stuck working in Switzerland. But being left with little money to afford any fun activities there, her parents sent her two books - The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault and Homer’s Iliad. “I read about goddesses gossiping on Mt Olympus which sounded like women in the hairdressing salon around the corner. I thought this couldn’t have been written 2,000 years ago. This is so similar to what is happening now.” Fascinated, she enrolled to study Greek classics at Cambridge.
Her heroes are not entirely the stuff of fairytales. “Flavia is quite annoying, even bossy actually,” she said of her teen girl sleuth from the Roman Mysteries series. “I don’t like heroes who are perfect though a lot of children’s heroes are. I’m more attracted to characters with flaws, whose weaknesses are their strengths. For example, PK Pinke-rton is a weirdo.” Children’s books no longer come with characters who are pure good or evil. Children in the past were not as flawed then as they are now, she explained.
Caroline believes it is essential to have a children’s mentality to write for them. “I don’t write for children, I write for me. Like children, I still expect everything to be fine.” Writing stories which progress on conflict, she said, makes one believe that perhaps some good can come out of it. “Animals have instincts, but people have stories to tell them how the world works.”
In an age when bedtime storytelling is slowly disappearing as a tradition, Caroline said it is one of the most unconditional ways of loving a child. “My mother used to read to me and my siblings even when we were 12-13 years old. Only, by then it was Sherlock Holmes. The detective genre is probably the most popular in the world,” she said adding that anyone trying to figure out how the world works is a detective. “I like to think I revived historical fiction for children in England, combined with my love of detective stories.”
Her books have been translated into 20 languages. Caroline is now working on the next PK Pinkerton story. “I’m waiting to be inspired. I’ll probably set it in the 1960s during the Flower Power era on a movies set.”
Her books have already resulted in a BBC series. She writes the books in a way that they can be easily adapted into film. “Screenplay writing is like writing haiku when compared to an epic poem. My unfulfilled ambition is to win an Oscar for screenplay writing,” she said. Forever the optimist, Caroline is certain that children will never give up books no matter what substitutes technology brings their way.