Friday 9 March 2012

Day in the Life of a Kidslit Author

Caroline with spittoon at Hay on Wye

by Caroline Lawrence

This month I am hectic with school visits. I try to cram these into the months of March and October to leave the rest of my year free for research and writing. This month I literally have an event every single weekday. It's going to be a marathon.

Friday 2 March was the fifth day out of twenty. Here's how it went:

5.30am - I wake up before the alarm. This is good. Go to computer and do a few quick checks. My American publishers have given me some last-minute changes to the MS of my second Western Mystery which is about to go into production, but I can't faff about with those now. Must get ready.

6.00am - Make myself my special breakfast: scrambled eggs with jalapenos, oregano, sunflower seeds and grated cheddar. Plop in a bowl. This can be eaten in about 5 minutes and it keeps me going for many hours.

6.30am - brush teeth, put on makeup, get dressed in black jeans, buckskin fringed jacket from the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival, cowboy boots from R. Soles on the Kings Road, cowgirl hat from White Stallion Ranch, Arizona.

6.45am - In a suitcase: pack up posters, props (including my antique spittoon), a few extra books to give away on impulse. In my backpack: make sure I have food for the journey back, my iBook, gizmo to connect it to projector, power lead, train tickets, info about school on printed out sheet in case my iPhone dies.

7.05am - I bid my still-sleeping-husband goodbye and walk to Clapham Junction.

7.28am - Board the train to Reading. I was on the same train yesterday when I went to Prince William's old school, Ludgrove Prep, but I today I go to the very front. For an extra £9 I got a first class supplement to Bristol and back. Yay. It's nice and quiet in there.

7.45am - Listening to Pacha Ibiza Chillout Classics on my iPhone, tweeting and flipping through the Metro newspaper when the guard helps a blind man into the first class half-carriage. He sits at the table across the aisle from me. Pats his things to make sure everything is there. After about ten minutes he makes a phone call to wish his 10-year-old grandson Happy Birthday. I can't help listening and gather that the boy is dressing up for World Book Day. I have a brainwave: to offer the man one of my books for his grandson! But is that presumptuous?

one of my books
8.30am - We are only a few stops from the end of the line: Reading. I know the man is getting off there. I take the plunge, tell him I couldn't help overhearing. I am a kidslit author on the way to a school... would his grandson like a signed book for his birthday? Roman or Western? The man is thrilled. It's his nephew and he'd like the Western. It's only after I've signed the copy of The Case of the Deadly Desperados that he tells me his nephew is slightly Aspergers. I get a shiver. "So is the main character of this book," I say.

8.40am - Bid blind man farewell and good luck. Get off train.

8.57am - Get on train to Bristol Temple Meads, bang on time. First class is LOVELY. Nice leather chairs, complimentary copy of the Times newspaper on tables, empty and quiet. Free coffee, fizzy water and oranges, too! I take out my laptop, plug it in and review my talk, tweaking it slightly for a girls' school, though they have invited in kids from at least two other schools.

10.15am - Arrive at Bristol bang on time. Get taxi to school. My iPhone says it should take 12 minutes to get there. I use the timer function because I have to catch a specific train back and I want to know how long it will really take me. My iPhone is almost right. It takes just under 14 minutes to reach the school. I should allow at least 20 minutes for the return journey.

10.30am - Librarian meets me outside reception of the independent girls' school I'm speaking at. She signs me in. Tells me some visiting schools have already arrived. We go to the auditorium. Big screen: yay. A stage to stand on: yay. Working lapel mike: yay. My iBook hooks up with their projector: yay! I get out my sponge-stick, spittoon and a few books and go up on stage. It's now almost 11.00. I'll be talking till 12.00. I have to get a one o'clock train back. I tell the librarian this and say I'll have to leave at 20 minutes to one. She nods.

11.00 Standing on stage in front of 320 kids waiting for the Deputy Head to come an introduce me. I'm never nervous because it's fun and I am the world expert on my books. Everybody is looking at me in silent expectancy. No deputy head. The night before an old friend posted a message on my Facebook page. Apparently her daughter is with one of the visiting schools. "Is Chloe here?" I ask. Girl five rows back shyly raises hand. "I know your mum and promised to give you a free book. Come on up and get it!" "No!" cries Chloe, horrified. So I get someone to pass a free book back to her. Humiliation averted!

Yoda - classic example of the mentor
11.05 Deputy head comes gives brief welcome and I'm away! I talk about how I learned to write and I share my best tips, including images of archetypal characters from films kids would know. It's going well when about two thirds of the way through the talk my Yoda slide won't come up. In fact the whole powerpoint show has frozen! Aha! From up on stage I can see the problem: the power cable to my computer was never plugged in. Poor little critter is almost out of battery. Still talking, I go across the stage, down a few steps and plug it in. Success! Yoda appears to great acclaim to illustrate the "mentor" archetype.

12.00 I finish with my now-famous sponge-stick routine (the spongia was Roman toilet paper) because it is good to go out with a bang. Nice applause and a thank you from the librarian, then I go down to sign books. We sell about 40 which is very good. I give quite a few Western Mysteries posters away.

12.30 I've finished signing, which is just as well. I need to catch that 1.00 o'clock train. "Have you booked me a taxi to the train station?" I ask. "I'll do that now," she says, but eek! She doesn't. She's still fooling around with books and a box. "I've really got to catch that train," I say. "I hate having to run for trains. My train goes from platform 15," I add. "That will add a few minutes." At last she goes to the office to call a taxi.

12.45 The taxi arrives in the long drive of the girls' school. It's going to be cutting it terribly close. The British Rail live departures app on my iPhone says the train is exactly on time. Curse British Rail! How dare the train be on time! Long story short: despite all his efforts, the taxi gets me to Bristol Temple Meads THREE MINUTES TOO LATE. Argh! The three minutes the librarian was faffing about with books in boxes and not ringing my taxi.

Bristol Temple Meads Rail Station
1.03 At Bristol Temple Meads, I know I've missed the train so I don't rush. The driver commiserates. I pay him, get receipt, go to barrier. "Has my train gone?" I show the ticket. "Fraid so. And your ticket was only valid on the one o'clock. You'll have to catch the half past." "Can I buy a ticket on the train?" "No, love, you'll have to buy a new ticket there." He points to the ticket queue. I queue up. Go to the window. Ask the woman if I can at least get part payment for the next train. "Your train hasn't left yet," she says. "WHAT?" "The one o'clock train is slightly delayed. It's still on platform 15." Argggh!

1.07 I rush to the barrier again. "Oh, hey," says the barrier guy, "your train hasn't gone after all." ARGH! No time to throttle him now. I have to run all the way to platform 15. Apparently Bristol Temple Meads is Britain's oldest and LARGEST train station.

1.09 Charge through the ticket barrier, down the ramp, along the underpass, WHERE IS PLATFORM 15? There! Right at the end... up the stairs in my stupid Western outfit, fringe swinging, hat bobbing, boots clonking, struggling with suitcase full of sponge-sticks and spittoons. Argh!

1.12 There's the train on the platform. All the doors firmly closed. The way they do for a taunting 30 seconds before the train departs. "Is it going?" I gasp to nobody in particular. "Not quite yet," replies nobody. I go to the door. Open it. And I get on. Stand there gasping. Can't believe I made it. Heart thudding, feel sick, going to have HEART ATTACK in cowgirl costume.

1.15 Ah! First class. Leather seat. Trolley with black coffee, water, orange. Bliss. Over tannoy the guard gives an explanation. "Because of fatality at Bath, this train is leaving 15 minutes late... but we hope to make up time." Feel bad about fatality, but glad I made the train. Feel happier when driver tells us the person wasn't killed, just hurt and is now in hospital. Have a late lunch on train (I always carry food with me). Some pre-grilled chicken breasts, an orange, almonds and black coffee. Chill out.

Caroline & Hella
2.15 Arrive at Reading on time. I have an appointment to meet Dr Hella Eckardt, ancient bone expert and senior lecturer in Roman Archaeology at the University there. She greets me as I come out of the barrier and takes me to a little ice cream/coffee shop called Tutti Frutti. They make their own ice cream. Famous for miles around. I'm going to treat myself to an ice cream after the near fiasco with the train. And a double espresso. I choose lemon meringue (after sampling a couple of others) and Dr. Hella opts for mango.

2.30 Hella is a forensic archaeologist, her specialty multi-ethnicity in 4th century Roman Britain. She's a detective who uses grave goods, decaying bones, skull measurements and isotopes to build up a CV for the dead person. (Apparently you can tell what a person ate between the ages of 7 -10 by isotopes in enamel of the 3rd molar!) A while ago, I wrote fictionalised accounts of some of Hella's bodies, like the Ivory Bangle Lady, as part of her aim to make the topic to the attention of the public and especially kids. She wants to do a whole website, and we have a good time bouncing ideas back and forth about ways to make the site fun and accessible for kids.

Ivory Bangle Lady by Aaron Watson of the Diaspora Project
3.15 Hella is walking me to the barrier when our way is blocked by a woman with a charity bucket. We bristle until she says the magic word: Rome. She plans to ride a bicycle from Rome to Reading! The three of us stand chatting for a while and I give her a copy of one of my Roman Mysteries actually set in Rome, The Assassins of Rome. She is thrilled. Promises to read it in Rome!

3.42 Catch the train back to Clapham Junction. First class is empty and I doze a little.

4.45 At Richmond a bunch of sullen, testosterone-laden hoodies get in. The guard obviously has on ongoing feud with them. They come into my first class compartment he turfs them out. They snarl at him and give him the we're-only-going-because-WE-want-to look. The guard then LOCKS ME IN. "I'll be right next door," he says. "Just give a thump when you want me to let you out." And thus the last leg of my train journey is spent locked in first class with angry teens glaring in at me, the "stupid woman in a cowboy hat."

5.00pm ish Home to field all the emails waiting in my in-basket, then to have a wonderful dinner of chili con carne and burritos prepared by my husband Richard, who is the cook in our household. Yay!

a selection of my Roman books
Just another Day in the Life of a Kidslit Author.

Books sold: 40+
Books given away: 3
Posters given away: 30+
Trains missed: 0
Heart attacks: 0
Assaults by surly youths: 0
Ice creams consumed: 1
Smiling faces: lots
= a Good Day!


michelle lovric said...

Your blogs are as engaging and enjoyable as your books! Last night I was flicking through the television channels (in Venice) and there was your Flavia detectrix dubbed into Italian and poor Lupus nearly getting drowned. In prime time. On a mainstream station. I DID enjoy it.

Linda B-A said...

Brilliant! Made me laugh out loud. There's nothing like a book tour to make you simultaneously look forward to getting back to the novel and regret that you have to... Good luck with the rest of the month!

adele said...

Made Linda laugh and made me want to go and collapse on my chaise longue and put a dark wet cloth over my eyes. This might be fine for a one off but I'm conscious of your having to do the same kind of thing again and again....YIKES!! YOu're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!!
PS. What happened to LUNCH on First Class? We always had it on Virgin when I lived in Manchester. Though your own food sounds good! COURAGE and STRENGTH is what I wish you!

K.M.Grant said...

Hey, Caroline! You left out the bit when you sat down and blogged your day in prose that looks effortless but seldom is. You're a true professional, and were I wearing a cowboy hat and jacket, I'd shake the tassels in appreciation. To mix a few metaphors - and why not - may your books fly and the trains be with you.

mary hooper said...

Loved this. And marvelled at your organisation and attention to detail. That breakfast! And you carry a ready-picnic of chicken breasts for lunch! Puts my chocolate digestive (kept in pocket with an amount of fluff) to shame. But I hope you really treat yourself when you've finished your cross-country stint.

Juliette said...

I totally sympathise over the train, what a nightmare! I've been driving this term because the train timings were too tight and I have yet to make an indirect train journey at rush hour that wasn't delayed at some point - but I got stuck on the M6 for an hour and a half the other day so the roads aren't much better!

I must look into Ivory Bangle Lady for my Roman archaeology class in a couple of weeks - I've set an essay on what we can tell from funerary sites...

Penny Dolan said...

Brilliant, Caroline! Gives a true idea of what such days are like, time and energy wise. Am amazed at everything involved with this trip, even though the staff and pupils will only be thinking of their "one hour talk" and unaware of all the rest. Glad you had some First Class rest and your Reading meeting sounds fantastic. (Sorry - I daren't go back and check your expert's name for fear of my comments being wiped.)

Msut add that, like Mary above, I am totally impressed by your food pre-planning, at home and on the road.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for positive comments, gals!

One thing I've learned is that carbohydrates and refined sugar are the enemy. I haven't had a sandwich in about three years! But I do allow myself some nice dark chocolate after dinner... especially if it's been a tough day. Nothing like chocolate for reviving your spirits and the will to live. ;-)

Griselda said...

Phew, I feel breathless just reading your mad rush on to the train. No wonder you do it so well in your books. The whole post was a delightful account, how those children must love your visits. And chilli con carne to finish off the day...perfect.

Penny Dolan said...

Additional thought: with all that effort behind the day, it should be 400 books sold!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

What an amazing day. I don't know how you do it!