Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The Naked Historical Novelist


by Caroline Lawrence

In the History Girls post below, H.M. Castor enthusiastically blogged about dressing up in Tudor costume – from smock to partlet – for the benefit of schoolchildren.

I say: "Don't do it, Harriet! Run, History Girl. Run!"

Many misadventures can occur when you are an historical author who dresses up in period costume for school events. This is a rod I have self-applied to my own back in order to better promote my Roman Mysteries series of historical adventures for kids. (Don't even ask about my demonstration of the Roman bottom-wiper. Talk about a self-applied rod!)

I remember one time at a posh independent school in Worcester. I had to change into my costume in almost pitch darkness on stage before assembly. There was nothing shielding me and my modesty from 400 kids except that heavy curtain. You can bet I was praying hard that the head teacher would not open it too soon.

And then there was that other time, at a Famous Literary Festival. For some reason they didn't have a room for me to change in, or a more important author was using it. And the ladies' room was miles away.

"Just change in here", they said. "The school won't arrive for at least half an hour." The school (a group of gum-chomping inner-city year 9s, forty years too old for my books) arrived three minutes later and caught me in medias res behind a pillar, frantically trying to get into my stola. Thankfully they were so busy chatting and texting that none of them even noticed the half-naked author crouching a few feet away. I felt like the famous statue of Venus from the British Museum (above). When I emerged, fully attired in my Roman regalia, they almost looked impressed.

And then there was the time I completely forgot my costume.  

photo by Claire Craig
I was doing an event in Newcastle in November, a thing I now try to avoid. (November, that is). Disaster struck when I realised that not only had I forgotten my costume, but I'd forgotten my back-up costume, too. Everything except my sandals and belt. And I couldn't very well go on wearing just those. D'oh! (As they never said in ancient Rome.)

Thankfully, one of the volunteers – a resourceful librarian named Ann Key – came to my rescue. As the driver, she had the option of taking a slight detour past her house on the way to the venue. Channelling Dirty Harry, she sped through the streets of a Newcastle suburb, screeched to halt in a very un-librarian-like manner, ran up the driveway, yanked a single topsheet out of her airing cupboard and rushed back to resume her position as driver.

As we drove on through the pouring rain, I rummaged around in my backpack and found one of those little sewing kits you get in hotels and – right then and there in the back of the car – I whipped up a stola. (You can see the recipe HERE). Thanks to a greasy Newcastle rain and four separate accidents (none serious) I actual finished before we arrived. Granted, creating a stola only entails sewing the two side edges together to make a long tube, but hey! I'm an author, not a seamstress. 

The next challenge was how to make my white-sheet-sewn-into-a-tube look like a Roman stola. Luckily I had brought an ethnic-looking necklace to wear with my normal clothes. And remember: I had my Roman belt and sandals. My then-publicity-manager, Rowan, generously loaned me her sparkly blue scarf. I put them all together and grasping my sponge-on-a-stick bottom-wiper (I told you not to ask) I was ready for anything. Even inner-city year 9s.

Still, the ever-present threat of potential costume malfunction is one of the reasons I am now writing The Western Mysteries. To promote those, all I really need to remember is my fringed buckskin jacket and cowboy hat, and if I forget those, it's not a huge tragedy. After all, I still have my plaid shirt, jeans and boots on underneath.

Now, if they would only let me carry a replica six-shooter instead of making me use my naked forefinger and thumb...

Caroline Lawrence's new Western Mysteries series launched in June 2011 with The Case of the Deadly Desperados. Check it out on her website: www.carolinelawrence.com She also blogs at Roman Mysteries & Western Mysteries and tweets promiscuously: @CarolineLawrenc (no E)
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13 comments:

Lucy Coats said...

Hmmn--your embarrassing author misadventures beat mine hands down, Caroline. Mind you, there was the time I lost my voice (not my stola) before one of those Famous Festival events, and spent the whole session squeaking up and down like an Ancient Greek mouse. And the time I roared and gestured like a Cyclops rather too enthusiastically, tripped and fell on my ample posterior.... An author's (school visit) lot is sometimes not a happy one!

Sue Purkiss said...

Brilliant! What a resourceful heroine you are!

Katherine Langrish said...

I'm full on admiration. The way I do it is to get the KIDS to dress up. In horned helmets (yes, I know -and frequently so do they - thatthe vikings never wore horned helmets); bearded masks and axes. (Plastic: schools don't seem to mind these.)

Then they enact a viking massacre under my direction, and all the laughs are directed at the kids by their friends, and everyone is happy...

Book Maven said...

Hilarious! Should I re-think my 16th century Venetian outfit plan?

adele said...

This blog is rapidly becoming a parade of lovelies! Wonderful stuff. I find it hard enough to organize interesting earrings for the children to look at if they get bored during one of my sessions. You look great, Caroline, in all your outfits. And Harriet looked great yesterday. The bar is being set very high!

Linda B-A said...

Caroline, your description of your school adventures did make me laugh. And, as Adele comments, you and Harriet do look great in your costumes. Being less brave on school visits (but wanting to bring along historical costume to relieve the monotony of my own voice) I've sometimes brought along eighteenth-century hats, waistcoats, shawls and reticules for the children to try on and they always seem to love it.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Enjoyed this very much!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for all these great comments. I think I will try the method Kath and Linda use and get the KIDS to dress up. (But maybe without the re-enacted massacre!)

alberridge said...

Utterly brilliant post! I think you also get the prize for the best tags, though I can't but wonder who else is going to need the tag 'bottom-wiper'...

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Yes too true, on the labels. If one only saw the labels and not the post... the mind would boggle as to what these History Girls are up to! Clearly it's stripping on school stages.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Great post, Caroline. Brave, brave, brave! I've always taken the cowardly way out and got children to dress up. This presents the problem of carrying all the stuff whichis OK if I'm driving but a nightmare on British Rail or worse - the tube.
By the way, I love the thought of those cowboys being friendly.

Julia Jarman said...

I remember that day in Newcastle well as I was on the back seat with you. You were awesome!

Caroline Lawrence said...

How could I forget the fab Julia Jarman was with me! Makes the story even better. :-)