Behind the Scenes: “Parallel Paths” by Caroline Starr Rose

When a historical fiction or narrative nonfiction story features two characters, such as An Inconvenient Alphabet, the task of researching becomes more complex. But when your two characters are going around the world in opposite directions, the challenge of connecting them is even more difficult. Here, Caroline Starr Rose shares her research and organization process for her picture book, A RACE AROUND THE WORLD: THE TRUE STORY OF NELLIE BLY AND ELIZABETH BISLAND.

Parallel Paths: Researching and Connecting Two Characters 

fullsizeoutput_1515In January 2017, I happened to read an online list of women who’d made their mark on the world. Included was journalist Nellie Bly. At the time I was on the hunt for a new picture book idea, and Nellie felt like a perfect fit. I’d grown up with a book about her undercover work and daring round-the-world race. What a remarkable person she was! How fun it would be to share her story with a new generation of readers!

I sent an excited note to my agent, asking what she thought. This would be a perfect follow up to my historical fiction picture book, Ride On, Will Cody!, I told her. Could I approach my Will Cody editor and try to gauge her interest? My agent said absolutely.

My email to Wendy, my editor, got a quick response. She’d also grown up with a Nellie book. Wendy ended her message with one word all in caps: INTRIGUED.

Many of my projects start with a whiff of an idea, a provocative question, or an interest in a particular place. I don’t know how things will turn out, but I trust if I read broadly and think and think and think, a story will start to surface. I requested as many Nellie books as I could find and dug in.

It was Matthew Goodman’s Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World that showed me the story I wanted to tell. While I’d known since childhood about Nellie’s trip, I had no idea another lady journalist had raced against her, leaving by train less than ten hours after Nellie set sail and traveling west to Nellie’s east. Elizabeth was quiet and reserved, a world away from Nellie, who was plucky and quick. The more I read, the more fascinated I became with each woman’s story.


To keep straight all that I was learning, I created an enormous chart showing where each traveler was on any given day. I made note of weather conditions and the names of steamships. I recorded arrival and departure times. I mapped out key moments in each woman’s journey — when Nellie learned of Elizabeth 39 days in (!), when Elizabeth missed three steamships in a row — and looked for parallels in their stories, such as seasickness, loneliness, extreme changes in weather, and moments when they both embraced the new world around them (in the midst of their hurried pace).

My first draft came rather easily. Like almost everything I’d written up to that point, I was sure what I’d written was historical fiction. But my critique group showed me that wasn’t the case.

Have you invented scenes? one member asked.


How about dialogue?

None of that either. I’d only used conversations I’d found in my research. I’d only ascribed emotions I knew Nellie and Elizabeth had themselves expressed. All facts I included were absolutely true.

Then you’re writing non-fiction, my friend said.RaceAroundtheWorld_CVR

While the draft I’d brought for critique was accurate, it didn’t yet sing. One of the best takeaways my group gave me in our weeks working together was the reminder that I’m a storyteller. That story is just as essential to non-fiction as it is fiction. That now that I’d done my research, it was time to set it aside and get down to weaving a tale — one that was true but not weighed down or worried with every last detail.

I sent my manuscript to my agent in June. By mid-July it had sold to Wendy, who I learned had also read Matthew Goodman’s book, who picked it up a second time in preparation for our work together, and who pored over the chart I’d created as a guidepost to show us the way.

This book has been a labor of love, an adventure, a true collaboration — first with my critique group and then with my editor, who shared the same enthusiasm I did for the story of these two incredible women. It’s my hope young readers can’t help but feel the same wonder I did with my Nellie book those many years ago.

** The photo is a simplified version of my chart that I used for quick reference.

You can visit Caroline Rose HERE.

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