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  • Cameron M

Book Chat: Jane Smith

Jane Smith is an author of historical fiction for children, as well as fiction and non-fiction for adults. Jane is also a librarian and an editor. I really enjoyed picking Jane's brain about her new book, The Lady with the Lamp – the latest book in the Carly Mills: Pioneer Girl series – as well as her creative processes and research methods.

Hi Jane, and thanks for Book Chatting with us! Congratulations on the publication of the fourth Carly Mills: Pioneer Girl book, The Lady with the Lamp. It’s a real page-turner of a story that teaches the reader a lot about Florence Nightingale and the history of nursing, as well as the history of sanitation and the Crimean War, without ever feeling self-consciously educational. I really admire how you’ve done this with the entire Carly Mills series.

Thanks Cameron – and thanks for the chat.

To begin with, I’d love to know about your journey as an author, and how your experiences as a librarian and editor have contributed to the journey.

I was working as a librarian when I started writing children’s books. I’ve always loved writing, but it was only once I discovered a love of historical research that I found the genre that suited me. It started with a project I worked on through the Toowoomba City Library. With the help of some colleagues who shared the research and did the design, I wrote a children’s book about Toowoomba’s history. That was what sparked my love of historical research and writing. Since then, I’ve written fiction and non-fiction books, all with a historical focus. I now write for children and adults, but I got my first book contract with a publisher when I was working in a school library. Working as a school librarian means you read lots of kids’ books! I was also reviewing books for Magpies magazine, which I think is a great idea for any aspiring writer. Writing reviews helps you identify what works and what doesn’t – and these are lessons you can apply to your own writing. After I’d been writing for a while, I started thinking I’d like to edit as well. I completed some editing studies and have been working as a freelancer for a couple of years. I love it. An added bonus is that critically analysing the writing of others has really improved my own writing. I’m able to self-edit much better these days.

Tell us a little bit about Carly, and where the idea for the Carly Mills: Pioneer Girl series came from.

Carly Mills, Pioneer Girl is a series about a contemporary girl who travels back in time to have adventures with women who changed the world. The hero, Carly, is a country girl from a small town in Queensland. In the first episode, A New World, Carly is visiting Sydney when she and her friend Dora unexpectedly acquire a matching pair of old shawls. Carly discovers that draping the shawl around her shoulders sends her back in time.

The idea came to me when I was writing my other historical fiction series, Tommy Bell, Bushranger Boy. In that series, Tommy is a contemporary boy who goes back to the past to have adventures with bushrangers. Carly was a minor character in one of the Tommy Bell books. I didn’t have her series in mind when I wrote her character back then, but it soon became clear to me that a companion series featuring Carly as a hero would be fun. She’s a strong, no-nonsense girl, so the idea of having her meet female trailblazers seemed a logical next step.

Women didn’t always enjoy the freedom we have in the western world today, and they still don’t in many countries. So that we can value and protect the social advances we’ve achieved so far, I think it’s important to know about history and understand what those changes were and how they came about. I hope that Carly Mills will go some way towards helping children learn this. But mostly, I just hope they’ll enjoy the adventure. I hope that if they like the Carly Mills stories, they’ll keep reading.

In their time travels, your characters encounter a number of incredible women who’ve been ground-breakers in their fields of endeavour. Did you already have these women in mind when you started planning the series, or did any of them catch your attention as you’ve gone along?

Deciding which women to focus on is one of the trickiest tasks! The more I look for inspirational women, the more I find – which is great, but it doesn’t make the job of selecting a few easy! But I wanted to choose women who represent a good cross-section of society. I wanted social reformers, women of science, performers and writers. They needed to be women who had a real impact on society – trailblazers who made a difference. There were many, many women I could have included. However, to make the stories engaging for children, I needed to select women whose lives lent themselves to adventure stories. I started off thinking the series would be about Australian women, but after a few books I changed course and decided to include international women as well.

Please tell us everything you’d like us to know about Carly’s latest adventure, The Lady with the Lamp!

The Lady with the Lamp features Florence Nightingale, who is known as ‘the mother of modern nursing’. Carly and her friends first meet the young Florence in London when she’s struggling against her wealthy family’s expectations that she’ll spend her life just enjoying the pleasures of society as a wife and mother. Florence expected more from herself than that; she felt called to help people – to have real purpose in life. Against her family’s wishes, she became a nurse and served in a military hospital in the Crimea.

In all of these books, Carly goes back and forth in time to meet the historical figure at different phases of her life. In The Lady with the Lamp, Carly and her friends go with Florence to the Crimea to work in the military hospital as nurses. They have to endure some pretty awful conditions. After the war, they meet Florence again, when she has been analysing the statistics of deaths in the military hospitals. (Did you know she was a statistician? She actually wanted to have a career as a mathematician, but her family wouldn’t let her. Nursing was her next choice; they didn’t like that either, but I suppose she wore them down!) Her studies showed her that poor hygiene in the hospitals had caused many of the deaths. So, she spent the rest of her life spreading the word about the importance of fresh air, good drainage, sewerage and sanitation. Her reforms allowed people to live longer, healthier lives. She was most famous for her work in the war, but her best work was actually done afterwards.

Florence cared enough about people to try and make the world a better place. From Florence, Carly and her friends learn the value of kindness and humility, and the importance of being able to admit your mistakes and learn from them. She was a truly inspirational and deeply human role model.

The Carly Mills books are clearly the fruit of a lot of research. Would you mind sharing a little about the research you did to write The Lady with the Lamp?

I read a couple of interesting biographies. I also read some of Florence’s own writing; she wrote several books about nursing and public health. Some of them have been digitised and are freely available online. I work part-time as a hospital archivist, and I was delighted recently to find a 1946 reprint of Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing in our collection. The original was published in 1859. It’s fascinating reading. She didn’t have the benefit of the scientific methods of research we rely on today, so much of her advice is based simply on her observations, and much of it is, obviously, dated – but still there are some snippets of wisdom that show she was ahead of her time.

How do you go about striking the balance between telling a good yarn and enriching the reader with historical knowledge in a way that doesn’t feel like a history lesson? It’s a balance you strike particularly well.

Thanks! That’s the fun bit. I wouldn’t like to read a book that was preaching at me, and I know kids don’t like it either. I try to include plenty of action to keep the pace up. I want kids to see which elements of everyday life were different a century ago and which were the same. There are the obvious differences: clothes, modes of transport, food, toilet facilities. Then there are the attitudes, especially regarding the ‘place’ of women in society (these can be infuriating to research, by the way!) But some things remain the same; there are bullies in any society, for example. On the other hand, a little bit of kindness goes a long way – back then just as much as it does now. This is why I want Carly to have adventures in the present as well as the past – so kids can see the parallels as well as the differences. I think that helps to paint a lively picture without having to resort to lecturing. I do try to keep the history part of it as accurate as possible though. As a librarian, I get very twitchy about reliability of information – even in fiction! I want the historical figures to be true to life.

I’d love to know some details about how you approach the writing of each Carly Mills manuscript. They’re quite substantial in word/page length – I assume they require a lot of planning before you sit down to write the story text?

Yes, I’m very much a planner. First, I read a few biographies and get a good handle on the historical figure’s life. Then I pick out a few pivotal events in their life that Carly can visit. That forms the framework. One of the most important tasks is to work out what could be going on in Carly’s contemporary life that might provide a parallel with the historical figure’s life. Then I need to work out how and why Carly goes back in time to meet the character at those pivotal moments. In The Lady with the Lamp, for example, Carly and Dora are on a holiday in London with their prickly classmate, Simone, whose parents live in London. There are some family issues going on there that provide an opportunity for the girls to step back into Florence Nightingale’s life. In turn, the girls’ adventures with Florence help Simone sort out some of these family problems.

What’s next for Jane Smith?

I’m really looking forward to the release (next year) of the next Carly Mills book: Taking Flight. It features the amazing Amelia Earhart. She packed an enormous amount of adventure into her forty years. The hardest part in that story is picking out which adventures to focus on, because there were so many.

Where can readers find you online? And what’s the best way for readers to get hold of the Carly Mills series, as well as your other books?

My author site, has plenty of information about all of my books. Carly Mills also has a site of her own that readers might like to visit; it contains colouring-in pages, quizzes, teaching notes, links to other child-friendly sites about trailblazing women, and information about the historical figures and the fictional characters in the books. The address is

You can follow the links in either of these sites to Booktopia where you can buy the books, or you could ask at any bookstore – they’ll either have them or order them in.

Thanks very much for sharing so generously about your journey and writing practice, Jane. You've shared such interesting and practical ideas for writers to take on board when approaching historical fiction. I wish you great success for The Lady with the Lamp.

This post is part of a blog tour for The Lady with the Lamp, presented by Books On Tour PR & Marketing. Please follow Jane's journey this week on the fine blogs below.

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