I met Sarah Towle in an on-line class last year. We were quick to realize that we had interests in common beyond the scope of the class: history, story, travel, and the place where all three meet. At the time, Sarah was in the process of developing an intriguing form of e-history*: an interactive travel/story app she called Time Traveler Tours and Tales.
As those of you who hang out here in the Margins** know, I’m a big fan of traveling through history, so I’ve watched the birth of her idea and new company with great interest. Now that she’s up and running, she took some time to answer questions for fellow history fans.
Pull up a chair and give Sarah a time-traveler’s welcome.
You describe the apps and books you produce at Time Traveler Tours & Tales as as “mash-up” of the American Girl books, “Horrible Histories” and “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” That’s quite a combination. What’s the element that brings them all together?
Story. It all starts with story. That’s the common, and most important, ingredient of each TTT&T mash up. History told through story, and interactive games. Because that’s what history is: a collection of wonderful stories, many still yearning to be told.
What inspired you to take the leap from author/educator to publishing interactive history apps and books?
It was 2010 when a US editor I admire very much – and to whom I was pitching the TTT&T concept for publication – told me that I was 5-10 years ahead of the publishing industry. He said that I could either wait for it to catch up or produce my stories myself. I bridled at the suggestion; self-publishing was then still very much anathema. But he offered me the services of his editorial team, and therefore provided me both validation that my debut story was ready to be launched into the world, as well as legitimacy when it did.
I then hoped that the success of the story, Beware Madame la Guillotine, A Revolutionary Tour of Paris, would land me a multi-story deal with a publisher or, even better, a job bringing my concept to life for a major publisher. As I waited for either of these dreams to come true, authors started pitching me their ideas for historic Tours and Tales. Then a development firm offered to partner up with me to build a publishing engine. Art design, editorial, and marketing professionals started to coalesce around me. Then a curriculum developer came on board. So before I knew it, I had added ‘digital publisher’ to the various hats I now wear on a daily basis.
I never imagined myself in this role, but I’m strapped in and thoroughly enjoying the ride!
Your first product is an interactive historical tour of Paris during the French Revolution, told from the viewpoint of Charlotte Corday. How does that work? Do you need to be in Paris to enjoy it?
You don’t. Plenty of teachers and librarians have downloaded the app for use with their students in the classroom. But it does work best as originally conceived: A site-based tour of a seminal moment in history through the lens of one who lived it.
The way it works is that you follow Charlotte through Paris of 1793, during the Reign of Terror, as she explains her motives for stalking, and eventually murdering, Jean-Paul Marat. The Tour begins at the Palais Royal, the birthplace of the Revolution and the place where Charlotte bought her murder weapon. As her story unfolds, you progress from the Palais Royal to the scene of the crime to Charlotte’s prison. Each stop in the walking tour begins a new chapter, which you can read and/or listen to in English or French. Plus, each story segment is enhanced with some sort of interactive game: a hunt for existing historic artifacts that relate to Charlotte’s; a Q&A prompt that extends your higher-level understanding of the Revolution; or a map-reading challenge to advance you to the next location.
Charlotte’s StoryApp Tour is intended for use by family and educational tour groups. It compels them to interact with each other as well as historic Paris in a meaningful way. When I learned that teachers and librarians were using the app in the classroom, and just skipping over the site-based activities, I re-published the story for them as an interactive book. It’s now available for iPad as well as print.
Then, to enhance the classroom experience further, I brought in author/curriculum developer Marcie Colleen to create a curriculum handbook complement to the interactive book. Her work guides teachers and students in recreating the streets of Paris during the Revolution within the classroom walls.
Charlotte Corday is famous for stabbing Jean Paul Marat in his bath. What about her story caught your imagination?
I was looking for a way to bring the history of the French Revolution to life for young readers. It’s a very dense and very complicated period. Yet its historical significance cannot be disputed. Its social and political ramifications rippled around the globe for centuries. Even today, we continue to be influenced by humankind’s first definitions of universal human rights.
But my early attempts at telling the story were… well… boring. It clearly wasn’t working with my teenaged beta-readers. They’d say, “Nice. I like it.” But I could tell they didn’t. That I still hadn’t nailed it.
Then one day I fled my desk and computer in frustration. I decided to wander the Palais Royal gardens. It was raining. I’ll never forget it. And for some reason I drifted over to the address where Charlotte bought her knife.
There, on a 300+-year-old stone pillar, about to be washed away by the weather, was a crude chalk picture portrait of Charlotte. Suddenly, it felt as if Charlotte had reached through the ages. She grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “Let me tell the story. Give me a voice in death that I never had in life.”
So I went back into research mode to learn everything I could about Charlotte. And I was thrilled to discover that her story’s arc coincided with the tale I was trying to tell. Her voice became be the perfect vehicle through which to convey a broader big idea.
To that point, I’d been writing in the 3rd person, historian’s voice. But 1st person is a much more compelling voice for young readers. And who can resist a murderer? And a 24-year-old woman at that!
What other projects are in the works?
At the moment I’m working on a Time Traveler Tour & Tale to the Versailles gardens. There are so many discoveries to be made in the gardens, yet most people miss them as they head straight to the Chateau. They wait for hours to get into the building; then they fight the crowds to get through the rooms and into the Hall of Mirrors. Once they’ve finished, the palace spits them out into the gardens. But they’re too exhausted to go beyond the initial terraces before their sore feet drive them into the cafés or back to Paris.
But the gardens tell the final 100 years of the French Monarchy, the era that begins with the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and ends with the Revolution and the death of feudalism in France.
This story is the prequel to Charlotte’s. I’ve got the sequel to Charlotte’s story in the works as well, and I’m researching the tale to follow that: the story of Paris as we know it today. I hope to eventually publish the Time Traveler Paris Tours & Tales as a series.
Is there anything else you wish I had asked you about?
I’d rather end with a question for you and for your readers: Do you have a Time Traveler Tour and Tale to tell?
I’m only one author and Paris is only one city and even I can’t exhaust all the Paris stories. Do you have a story to the American Revolution? Or to medieval London? How about Rome during the Romans? Or San Francisco during the gold rush? Do you happen to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Berlin Wall? Do you live near a local museum whose collection begs to be brought to life through story and games?
If so, Team TTT&T and I are looking forward to your pitches and submissions. Let’s make history together!
Thanks so much for inviting me to participate on History at the Margins, Pamela. I really appreciate it!
*If that’s not a word it should be.
**What should I call you? Margin-ers? Marginalia? Any suggestions?
Sarah Towle is a teacher turned author, digital media developer, and indie publishing entrepreneur. Her mission is to Turn History On. She writes and produces digital-first creative nonfiction stories that bring history to life through first-person storytelling and interactive games. Her concept marries the traditional power of narrative with the latest in digital technology and represents a new model in publishing. Find out more about her innovative concept and submissions policy at www.timetravelertours.com.
Sarah blogs about the writing craft, app development, digital publishing, and technology in education on her author blog at www.sarahtowle.com. She presents at industry events in Europe and North America (O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing, SCBWI-LA, NESCBWI, SCBWI-Europolitan, SCBWI-FR). She can be found regularly in schools around the globe as a visiting author, guest teacher, and lecturer. A US expatriate, Sarah splits her time between Paris and London where she time travels in the company of her husband and devoted four-legged friend, Gryffindog.