Did I ever tell you the story about how I met Charlotte Corday? How she came to be the narrator for Time Traveler Tours’ first title: Beware Madame la Guillotine?
Did we ever disclose how Mary Hoffman came to choose Michelangelo as her guide for In the Footsteps of Giants when she thought that job would fall to the model that stood for the David?
These stories are core to our burgeoning media company for they form the foundation of our model and Voice. They also both stem from potential failures that – were it not for our tenacious spirit and a willingness to pivot – resulted in twin successes.
First the story of my discovering Charlotte Corday…
It was a rainy day in Paris, 2009. I’d been working on an interactive history of the City of Lights for teens and tweens for more than three years. At that point I had written three sample chapters that took readers to
Versailles in the era of Absolute Monarchy;
Paris in the throes of Revolution; and
Underground Paris in the age of Napoleon.
I had researched the market and competition and crafted a 70-page book proposal expounding on all the reasons why every editor would be crazy NOT to produce my book. That's what you have to do to sell a book of nonfiction.
My family loved my sample chapters, as did the members of my critique group. But I wanted the validation of my future target readers – youth – before seeking the agent and/or editor of my dreams. As Lily and her friends were then 13 and 14, beta readers were not too hard to find.
“It was great,” they told me, handing the manuscript back just pages after cracking it, well before reaching the end. That, and their body language, betrayed the truth:
They did not find the story compelling.
I tried adding more gruesome details. That didn’t work.
I cut the story down to half its original size, making the writing as economical as I possibly could. That didn’t work either.
Now on my 100th revision, literally, I was on the brink of despair, convinced it was time to put the MS in a locked drawer and throw away the key; certain I’d wasted three years of my life, that it was all a failed experiment and that I should give up writing all together.
I grabbed my umbrella and headed out to one of my favorite Paris places: the Palais Royal, birthplace of the Revolution and where Charlotte Corday bought the knife she used to murder Jean-Paul Marat. I walked to the location of the infamous cutler that sold her weapon and there, on a stone pillar dating to 1784, I found a chalk picture portrait of the murderess herself, just at the point of being washed away by the rain.
As I stood there watching it disappear, it was as if Charlotte reached through the ages and shouted in my ear: “Let me tell the story,” she said. "Let me speak through you as I was never able to speak in life.”
I ran right home, pulled the story out of the proverbial drawer, and dusted it off again. I had not yet thrown away the key, thank goodness, because out of my 3rd person nonfiction tale emerged the 1st person tale of historical fiction you know today: the one that went on to win industry accolades. The one still being discovered by teachers and parents today.
It took me three days to re-write the entire story from Charlotte’s point of view. It was easy, as if the story wrote itself. As if, indeed, Charlotte spoke through me as I wrote.
As it turned out, the problem had not been with the content or the writing. The problem had been with the voice. Like most historians, I'd resorted to the 3rd person, which creates a distant point of view, when I'd needed to get right up close and personal.
This time, when I asked the same teen readers to review the manuscript once more, they refused to give it back until they reached the end. I observed as each and every one of them was hooked and drawn in from the earliest paragraphs. They loved Charlotte, flawed though she may be. Her story resonated with them at last.
“Great!” they said, handing the paper draft back to me. And this time I knew that they meant it.
That’s why we’ve made a commitment to 1st person storytelling voice for our Time Traveler Tours & Tales. We given the job of turning history on to the historical characters themselves.
But Mary’s challenge was a different one. She began her process in the right voice, but she’d picked the wrong narrator. Stay tuned for that story next week as we continue to reveal the foundational pillars of the Time Traveler Tours mission and model.