When I was living in Paris, I got in contact with the Parisian chapter of SCBWI and found a group of like-minded, English-speaking writers who lived in the city. We started meeting in cafes to write and discuss our various projects, and I had the pleasure of reading chapters from what was a novel — or traditional book — by Sarah Towle, the developer of an innovative and creative app called Time Traveler Tours, a journey through Paris and back to the heart of the French Revolution with murderess Charlotte Corday.
It’s been fun to see how the pages I fell in love with have transformed into an accessible and fun application. Charlotte’s story comes to life via the app and Sarah broadened the way to tell a story. We caught up with Sarah about this endeavor and how she took a story for children and merged it with digital media.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself (bio) and how you became a writer and developer of this special app? What did you do before you “officially” became a writer? Do you write/create full-time now?
Once upon a time, right out of college, I worked at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the development office. Those were fun years. I learned a lot and met a lot of very talented people and experienced a lot of great performance art for free! But the summer I took an extended holiday to Central America there was no turning back. I was bitten by wanderlust and smitten with the experience of learning and communicating in a language other than my native tongue. I decided to get my Masters in Linguistics and use it to work my way around the world. And that’s what I did for the next 15 years. In 2004 I landed in Paris with my husband and 8-year-old daughter after living in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, China, Hong Kong and New York. But in Paris, I was the trailing spouse and the French government wouldn’t grant me the right to work. So I took up language study and writing full time. I had been chewing on an idea to create a travel guide for youth that would bring history and culture to life through story. This was my chance.
2. Can you tell us exactly how TIME TRAVELER TOURS works?
Each tour is a journey back in time to a specific historical era in the company of a character who lived at that time and whose actions helped shape that time. As my narrators spin their personal yarns, taking you to the museums and monuments of relevance along the way, the story of their age is also revealed, but from the storyteller’s (not historian’s) point of view. Woven through each story are hunts for historical treasure, trivia challenges and orientation games, making them fun and highly interactive. This is now possible thanks to digital mobile formats, which allow us to combine audio with visual and gaming elements. History through story – enhanced by archival images, treasure hunts and other context-driven games – in the palm of your hand. I call it a new generation of travel guide for the next generation of traveler.
It happened sort of by accident, to be honest. The project, in its original conception, was to be a book, actually a series of booklets, what the French pochettes, small enough to fit in a daypack or pocket. They would be sold separately or in groups of three and if you wanted all 12 tours, spanning the Roman era to the period between the two World Wars, they would sell together in a decorated box no bigger than a traditional guidebook. But just as I began the query process of finding an agent to editor, the global economy crumbled and the publishing industry as we knew it was turned on its head by advancements in digital technology. Though many industry professionals loved the concept and admired the execution, they did not want to take a risk with a project that didn’t have one obvious place on a bookstore shelf in such an unstable environment.
Buoyed by their positive responses, I thought about self-publishing. But I wanted to test it first. I chose one among the three sample chapters, took some time to learn graphic layout and set up Beware Madame la Guillotine: A Journey to the French Revolution with Charlotte Corday, Murderess as an A5 book. I then organized a group of 48 13 -14 year olds – 8th graders from the International School of Paris – to pilot the tour. (They were studying the Revolution at that time, so their teacher was happy to complement her classroom curricula and the kids were happy to have a learning day outside school.) Through a follow up questionnaire and focus group I learned that students and teachers alike appreciated learning history through story; they loved Charlotte and found the interactive elements and optional sidebars both enjoyable and educative. But they didn’t like having to stop at each location in the itinerary to read aloud. It bogged the story down. It was “too much like school”.
That was just about the time, spring of 2009, that I got my hands on an iPhone for the first time.
“Do you think it would make a good app?” I asked the kids. Their answer was unanimous: “Yes!”
So that’s how the idea to publish the project as an app was born. And that’s when I first understood that some projects lend themselves better to print, while others may be better as digital products.
4. What’s your writing process? What does a typical writing day look like? Where/when do you write? Where does your inspiration come from?
Well, to be honest, I haven’t had a “typical” writing day since propelling myself into development, submission and launch of Beware Mme la Guillotine. But now that it’s finally in the App Store and I’m preparing a second StoryTour for production as an app, I’m thrilled to be getting back into my old, familiar writing habits once again!
My process generally reflects whatever phase of a project I happen to be in. The early stages of developing a story for the Time Traveler Tours involves as much, if not more, reading and research. I devour anything and everything of relevance to the historical period of focus – books, movies, archives, guided visits to museums and monuments, online resources – keeping always on the look out for my narrator. I search for the characters lurking in the shadows, the ones who are there but not typically heard from. Once I’ve found the right voice, the writing comes more easily.
In this middle phase, the time I spend writing and researching is about equal. I write best in the morning when I’m fresh and clear-headed, so afternoons are for research and/or chores, exercise and appointments. I start the day in my journal, at my desk at home, writing by hand. Sometimes I just talk to myself, exorcise demons or tether all those ideas floating around in my head or play with plotting details. Other times I talk to my characters, flesh out descriptions or work through transitions. After about 2-3 pages of journal writing, I’m usually ready to go back to the computer and pick up where I left off the day before.
If I’m in drafting mode, I don’t write for very long: one hour, maybe two, before I run out of gas. If I’m revising, however, I can sometimes be in my chair all day without noticing the time pass. Of course, by the time I’m revising, I’m usually pretty well finished with research so I don’t need to set aside as much time for that. So my process tends to really go with the flow.
5. What has your path to launching the application been like? What’s been the most surprising part of the process for you?
I’d say my path was pretty herky-jerky, reflecting both the newness of the mobile format as well as the huge learning curve I brought to the endeavor. Having decided that my story tours would make better apps, I went to the Bologna Book Fair in 2009 to look for someone to publish them. It was clear right away that the children’s book industry was not then ready to start paving that road. Though we are seeing more and more apps coming to market today, mostly using tried-and-true content, in 2009 children’s publishers were resisting the coming digital revolution with all their might. At the entire Fair (some say it’s football five fields wide but I think they mean European football), I found only one person talking digital: Stephen Roxburgh of Namelos. I approached him with my project idea and he loved it. But his focus is not in app production. He offered Namelos’ to edit my content, to help me make it the best it could be, but if I wanted to realize my content as an app, I would have to publish it myself. That was surprise #1.
Surprise #2 was coming to find that while there are a lot of app programmers out there, there are not a lot of good ones. I went through two before I found the team capable of grappling with the challenges posed by my particular project. You really have to take your time to vet and select the right programmer for your budget and your needs.
I was also slow to realize, surprise #3, that neither a programmer nor I was capable of making my app something worth looking at. I needed an Art Designer, of course, to round out the team. It took a full year and a lot of trial and error that cost me both time and money, unfortunately, but by March 2010, I had finally pulled together a good working collaboration.
From that point, the process went very quickly. But it turns out that one’s work is not done with submission and approval. Now you have to market the thing! Surprise #4.
But the biggest surprise of all: Beware Mme la Guillotine: A Revolutionary Tour of Paris (revised title) is a hit! Folks now want more story tours of more cities. And I’m in a position to deliver. So through this process, I went from a writer of creative non-fiction cum app developer to a small business entrepreneur as well.
6. What was your favorite book when you were a kid/teenager? What are you reading now? Does what you read affect your creation of interactive media?
Oh, I never had a favorite book, but I went through phases of loving different genre. Mostly I loved stories that transported me to other worlds, places and times. In early middle school I couldn’t get enough of King Arthur stories. Then I discovered the Narnia Chronicles; then the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In high school I was really into dystopian science fiction like Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. But when I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that was it. I still love the sensibility, the odd mixture of pathos, humor and the grotesque, that you find in southern fiction. I still re-read Mockingbird and Huck Finn every two or three years, both of which I discovered as a teen.
I always have a stack of books by my bedside. Right now it consists of Fever, by Laurie Halse Anderson, Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet, Enchanted by Guy Kawasaki, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes our Lives by Steven Levy and Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt (recommended by my 15 year old) by Beth Hoffman. What I choose to read is very much influenced by what I’m working on as a writer, and now as a newbie entrepreneur. Likewise, what I read both informs my stories as well as enables my understanding of interactive media.
7. What’s next for you media-wise (and otherwise!)? What else is coming from Time Traveler Tours?
Next for the Time Traveler Tours is the release of the French-English bilingual version of Beware Mme la Guillotine in early November. We’re recording and editing the audio now. When that is complete, we will have established our publishing prototype upon which to base future iOS apps (at least until the technology changes again!). Then production can move more quickly. We hope to produce four more StoryTours in 2012: two additional Paris stories, to the ancièn regime and the Napoleonic era; and two London stories. As I have my hands full revising and storyboarding the Paris stories, I will be soliciting manuscripts for the London StoryTours.
You’re the first to know: I seek children’s writers with an intimate knowledge of London history and geography to create the first TTT London StoryApp Tours. Send queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
8. Do you believe in being part of a “bloc” of writers as you create your written content? Are critique groups and writing communities helpful to you? Were they helpful to you as you envisioned your interactive media application?
Oh, yes! Essential! Beware Mme la Guillotine is the result of one of the best writers’ critique groups I’ve ever been a part of. Unfortunately, that group has since broken up. If any of you have room in your crit group, let me know. I may like to join! Only problem: I live in Paris.
9. How does the TIME TRAVELERS TOURS blend writing for children with an interactive application?
Well, I believe that the central and most important aspect of any StoryApp, just as with a traditional book, must be the story. The interactive elements are secondary and, in my opinion, should act only to enhance the story, to deepen understanding or offer a gateway into a broader perspective. There are a lot of apps out there that are little more than bling, wherein interactivity is defined as bells and whistles that may even detract from the story. That’s fun and interesting for a minute. But just as with good books, the apps that will endure, the ones that people will keep going back to, and that kids will continue to ask for, are the ones that contain great story content.
I’m thrilled that reviewers of Beware Mme la Guillotine have focused first on the value of Charlotte’s story and second on the interactive elements that serve her story. Check out this great review from School Library Journal’s Touch and Go here and this one from Kirkus Reviews here.
10. In your opinion, how do you think APPS will change or affect the children’s book market?
The App Store is now a very noisy place, in part because it grew faster than Apple ever imagined and is not terribly well organized as a result; in part because more apps come to market everyday. Where children’s StoryApps are concerned, most have been developed outside the children’s publishing industry and have not been vetted by the traditional gatekeepers, agents and editors, and quite honestly, it shows.
This has forced the major publishing houses to finally get with the program. Many are now “experimenting” by creating apps using tried-and-true content. But things are moving fast. Remember that in April 2009, at Bologna, I found no one even talking about apps. Now, two years later you have Frankfurt Sparks and Digital Book World and other conferences dedicated to nothing but. So publishing apps from original content is right around the corner. Indeed, more and more publishing houses are adding departments to oversee digital acquisitions and production. This should bring greater quality to the App Store over time, I hope, as well as compel the most widely read and authoritative reviewers, like SLJ and Kirkus, to critique apps alongside their print cousins.
I personally think it’s a very exciting time for writers and illustrators. The book is not in jeopardy, not at all. We all love our books, but there’s no shame in admitting we love our eReaders as well. It’s so nice not to have to lug around a bunch of books when I travel! Digital media have opened up myriad news ways to create and communicate – consider the storyworld of a gaming environment: it took a writer to come up with that. As the possibilities for story creation expand, so too will we realize that some projects should become books while others, like mine, should never be. And thanks to mobile applications, everyone, even children, can consume written content more often – waiting in line at the grocery store, riding in the train or car – and at a greater rate than ever before.
The key, as always, is to expose children and youth to the best content possible. That is the fundamental intention behind my Time Traveler Tours: to deliver great creative non-fiction to teens, tweens and the young at heart via mobile device while making history and culture come to life. I can only hope that I have achieved that goal.