Tag Archives: historical fiction

M.K. Tod—Author of Historical Fiction, Blogger, and Reader Surveyor

I met Mary Tod, pen name M.K. Tod, through Lake Union’s Facebook group, a supportive online author collective who welcomes readers into their ethereal coffee klatch. She writes historical fiction novels, blogs about history, and creates reader surveys. Her fourth novel “Paris in Ruins,” set in 1870s Paris during the Franco-Prussian war, should be coming out soon! I’m fortunate that she agreed to an interview on my little blogblogblog. I’ll let her take it away…..

First of all, many thanks for inviting me onto your blog today, Lael. It’s a pleasure to spend time with you and your readers.

Tell me about your artistic / writing process, including schedule, environment, and inspirations.

Writing is a second career for me. After thirty years in sales, technology and consulting, I went with my husband to Hong Kong for three years—a fascinating but dislocating experience. There I was, half way around the world with no job, no family, and no close friends. On a whim, I began researching my grandparents’ lives which ultimately led to my first novel, Unravelled. Thirteen years and almost five novels later, I find that the genesis of a story typically hits me unexpectedly. I jot the idea down and let it ruminate for a while, then bring it up one day with my husband—could be over dinner or while we’re out somewhere or even on a road trip. That conversation puts a little more flesh on the idea. From there, I develop a chapter outline. Once I have an outline that makes sense along with several characters fleshed out as to desires, circumstances, backstory, and conflicts, I begin chapter one.

I work at my desk situated in an alcove in our bedroom almost every day, if not on the latest novel then on marketing, blogging, keeping up with social media, and connecting with readers. I love hearing from readers!

For me, just like most other authors I’ve met, writing is a passionate pursuit. Once I’m in the grip of a story, I get lost in that world with photos of people, places, maps, landscape, homes, clothing, and various articles and fiction and non-fiction books for inspiration. It can be a messy process and, of course, the first draft is only a beginning!

Why does historical fiction intrigue you? Describe your research—elaborate all you wish.

I’ve always loved historical fiction from my first exposure to the novels of authors like Mary Renault, Rosemary Sutcliff, and Jean Plaidy. There was something about travelling back in time that sparked my imagination and perhaps those stories helped with the transition from childhood to gawky teenager with hormones that had no home. Historical fiction has dominated my reading ever since. And then, while in Hong Kong researching the wars and depression my grandparents went through, I became obsessed with World War One.

What I now realize is how much research goes into well-crafted historical fiction. You need to intimately understand the world of your characters—the political, cultural, religious, social, and other beliefs and norms that governed life in whatever time period they live in. You need to appreciate how they thought, what they had for breakfast, the clothes they wore and how long it took to get dressed, the books they might have read, the restrictions governing their lives, how long it took to travel to the next town—the list is endless. To write stories set during WWI, I also had to immerse myself in the tools, techniques, and strategies of war and understand the horrific experience of trench warfare.

Research is a complex, time-consuming process and as a writer you can then select only a few details to paint the picture for your readers just like the deft brush strokes of a Chinese painting can suggest a flower or a mountain or the face of a woman. Over the years, I’ve found sources I return to again and again as well as techniques to make the research more effective.

For example, I love maps. Maps suggest worlds. Whether it’s a map depicting troop movements in northern France, or a map of a small village showing roads radiating out from a central square, or a map of 1871 Paris, each creates an imaginary world and the people within it. When I find a map from long ago, I’m like a kid in a candy store.

I think I spend almost as much time researching as I do writing. Fortunately, I love doing both!

Walk me through your publishing timeline—who does what when, and your responsibilities.

I’ve taken two publishing paths—self-publishing and more traditional publishing. My husband and I published the first two novels, Unravelled and Lies Told in Silence. I worked with a freelance editor who also designed the covers for these novels. Then my husband did the page layout, figured out how to create MOBI and EPUB files for Amazon and other e-book retailers, and worked with a printer to create paperback versions. My role was marketing, which included virtual book tours, all sorts of guest posts, lots of social media activities and so on to get the word out.

I was delighted when Time and Regret was taken on by Lake Union Publishing (one of Amazon’s publishing imprints). The team there guided me through a smooth, professional process from developmental edit, to cover design, and on to production. On release day, I was ready to go with a round of marketing activities to complement those of Amazon. More than eighteen months since publication, Amazon continues to offer marketing support for Time and Regret.

Talk about your support system: beta readers, ARC reviewers, publishing team, readers, etc.

Beta readers and ARC reviewers are treasured colleagues. Beta readers give the gift of honesty by answering the questions: Does this story work for you? And if not, why not? They aren’t editors, they’re test readers. ARC reviewers give the precious gift of the first reviews on influential places like reading blogs, Goodreads, Amazon, Kobo and so on. I’m fortunate to have discovered several people who are so generous with their time and effort.

And readers? I can’t say enough about how wonderful it is to have readers who’ve taken the time to read my novels, give their feedback, post reviews, send me notes, leave comments on a blog, encourage me to write another story, and ask when the next novel is going to be available. I’ve had some great jobs over the years but writing is unique. In many ways, it’s a lonely profession, one full of self-doubt and intense periods of what-the-hell-am-I-doing. Readers complete the story, giving it life, breath, and feeling. Without readers, novels are merely words on a page.

What is your favorite thing about your creativity?

This is such a difficult question! I always struggle with the word favorite. But let me answer it this way: the best thing about writing fiction has been discovering that I can. I’m a mathematics and computer science grad who disliked both English and History. To discover the excitement of creating stories and have them read and enjoyed has been both awesome—in the full sense of the word—and fulfilling. I only wish there were more hours in the day.

Author Extra: Reader Surveys

In addition to writing novels and blogging and all the work that goes along with those activities, I also conduct reader surveys. In 2012, I went looking for an answer to the question: Why do people read historical fiction? Finding almost nothing out there in the Google-Sphere, I conceived the notion of conducting a survey. With the help of Sarah Johnson of Reading the Past and a few other authors and bloggers, word of the survey spread. In 2013 and 2015, I also surveyed readers for answers to a range of questions like how many books do you read each year, where do you find recommendations, what’s your favorite type of story, and so on. In 2017, I did a smaller survey focused on WWI fiction. This year, the reader survey will go beyond historical fiction to ask about other genre preferences and topics like the influence of social media. Lael Braday has kindly agreed to publish the survey link when it comes out and I hope you will take a few minutes to respond. Results from past surveys are available on my blog.

Lael, it’s been great fun talking to you and your readers. Many thanks for your questions. You’ve made me think again about how fortunate I am to have discovered a passion for writing stories.

Connect with M.K. Tod:

M. K. Tod’s website

Although I have a website, the best place to find me is on my blog.

M.K. Tod’s blog

M.K. Tod’s Twitter

M.K. Tod’s Facebook Author page

M.K. Tod’s Goodreads Author page

The Italian Party by Christina Lynch

Scottie married Michael and they moved to Siena, Italy, both bringing secrets and gathering more, so that they appear to be a happily married couple, he selling American tractors to Italians and she his adoring housewife. Showing Italians the American Dream fulfills a larger agenda for Michael, while Scottie tries to look behind the curtain and see his true self. She seems to have a lot more freedom than expected for a woman in the mid-50s, and Italian men are portrayed as oversexed political creatures. Homosexuality is handled in a sensitive, if somewhat stereotypical, manner considering the times—adultery is inexplicably given more tolerance. When the couple open up and confess all, they become a team, and Michael learns that political secrets are larger than his own agenda, gobsmacked by his own company. This is a great historical fiction, with Siennese culture, the fallout from being overshadowed by Florence, and the political turmoil of Communism versus pro-Western leaders vividly portrayed. It shows the complexities of the world players’ motives and relationships, and how this plays out in the individual lives of the Italian people.

I was fortunate to receive a digital copy of this wonderful book from the publisher through NetGalley.

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes, and Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood

The diversity in these stories is impressive, from girls facing internal and external religious challenges, to girls pretending to be something they’re not to make their way in a man’s world. These are tales of young women refusing to be a product of their time, yearning to be free of society’s mores. The authors refrain from a black and white picture, with a young Mormon girl questioning her religion, yet continuing to fight her community’s detractors. Secrets abound, as an orphaned girl lives life as a boy to take care of herself, and a young boy trades his secret of being a transgender with a Hispanic girl putting in tremendous effort to pass as white for Hollywood. One story had magical elements that didn’t seem to contribute to the plot, but as a whole, this book offers up a dozen girls as unintentional heroines who fought against patriarchy, misogyny, and other obstacles they intended to overcome.

I was fortunate to receive a digital copy of this wonderful book through NetGalley.

Echo Moon (Ghost Gifts #3) by my favorite ghost writer Laura Spinella

Echo Moon finishes the Ghost Gifts trilogy, beginning with Aubrey and her souvenirs from ghosts she helps that she calls “ghost gifts,” through her marriage to journalist Levi St. John, to their son’s story of his past life, wherein he envisions shooting his true love Esmerelda Moon—Esme. Spinella pulls the reader into an early 20th-century culture of supper clubs and amusement parks, showcasing Luna Park of Coney Island, with its rides, performers and customers. We even witness the shadier “rides,” “performers,” and “customers” of the Elephant Hotel, a brothel set on the edge of the park. The hotel is real, but turned brothel after the heyday of the family-oriented park, and pulls Spinella’s story into the historical fiction genre as she carefully blends it into her novel.

In Ghost Gifts, Aubrey solves the mystery of Missy Flannigan’s decades old, cold-case murder with a recalcitrant Levi St. John, and they reluctantly fall for each other. In Foretold (Ghost Gifts #2), Aubrey and Levi are raising their son Pete, who suffers nightmares that are actually visions of his previous life as a photojournalist in WWI. The investigation of a John Doe (who turns out to be Aubrey’s friend Zeke) murder in which Levi is assisting culminates in the kidnapping of Pete, who is of course rescued by his parents. In Echo Moon, Pete finally solves the murder of Esme, with the help of Zeke’s niece Emerald—Em. Spinella spins coincidences into relevant evidence and drops the solution out of nowhere, but it all makes perfect sense. She has a way of surprising the reader without making the reader feel dumb for missing clues, and her characters are colorful and complex.

I received an early copy of Echo Moon from the publisher in a giveaway. Thank you, Laura! I love it! Visit her website to follow her on social media and purchase her books. Tell me a personal experience with the paranormal in the comments, and I’ll choose a random winner to send my ARC of Echo Moon!

The Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown

Secrets are Held Closely in the Mountains

Click on cover to go to Taylor Brown’s website, where you can purchase this book and his others.

Granny May Docherty lost her daughter Bonni to Dix Hill 30 years ago when nightriders killed her boyfriend, the mill owner’s son Conner, silencing her voice. Her grandson Rory lost his leg to Korea, limiting his employment opportunities on his return home, leaving him little choice but to become a whiskey runner for Eustace Uptree, his best friend’s uncle and Granny May’s lover. Brown takes readers through the rabbit hole away from Mad Men and the American dream of a white picket fence to the colorful and dangerous world of Appalachia, where reigned illegal whiskey and wannabe drivers for the newly founded NASCAR.

A middle-aged wood witch and former prostitute, Granny May longs to know who hurt her girl, but fear of consequences prevents her from pursuing it with Rory. Brown’s subtle backstory of Bonni and Conner’s romance contrasts with the rawness and graphic depiction of mountain life in the 50s. Flooding of mountain valleys for “progress” disrupted Appalachian culture and forced a reluctant relationship with those living in towns and cities. Amy Greene’s “Long Man” shows the resistance of one woman against such flooding by the government. In Brown’s story, the event is long-reaching, since the main road literally heads straight into the man-made lake. As in Amy Greene’s debut novel “Bloodroot,” a body part is used as symbolism of a South yet alive with Pagan ways while tightly holding its secrets.

Taylor Brown digs out niches in his historical fiction—last vestiges of whiskey runners and nascent NASCAR, river kings, the lawlessness at the end of the civil war—getting down to the nitty-gritty of hard-living, developing complex characters who maintain their integrity in impossible situations. He gets a bit too “real” sometimes; for instance, there’s a lot of spitting in this book, some of it from Granny May—so much spitting. In one scene, Eustace flicks his nephew in the nuts. Graphic details can overwhelm the reader, such as when Rory’s rival purposely hits a deer and Brown describes the specifics of the deer’s physical suffering. Having said that, the reader leaves the novel with a sense of having learned history not found in textbooks, such as exactly what someone who drives illegal booze through the mountains does to his car to outrun the revenuers. It’s a definite must-read.

Memories of My Future by Ammar Habib and Anil Sinha

Surgeon Avinash Singh loses a child during surgery to heart failure caused by a new virus. Having accepted always being the best at everything he does, this harsh reality devastates him. His nurse Martha, a second mother in his adopted country, tells him to find a way to deal with it and get back to work. He seeks resolution in the journal of his ancestry given to him by his grandfather. He reads of Khau, the Lion of Bihar, a 13th-century warrior ancestor, who must find a way to save Bihar from the Mongols. Those barbarians destroy everything in their path, because they are unbeatable archers on horseback. Khau determines their weakness and defeats them. The inspirational story motivates Avinash to develop a cure. From this breakthrough, Avinash receives two offers: a position at a coveted medical center in NYC and a chance to offer his skills to a humanitarian effort. He returns to the journal to learn about Veeresh, the leader of his people who did not break under torture by the East India Company’s best “negotiator.” From this lesson, Avi knows he must follow his heart. On this path, he finds true love and faces a challenge that calls out to his warrior blood.

This historical fiction carries more than one lesson within it’s dual timeline. It reads like folklore with a moral to the story. Told alternately through the contemporary life of a brilliant surgeon and a journal of his ancestry, it weaves from one to the other seamlessly. The authors repeatedly mention the diversity of religions in the stories of Avi and his ancestors, and they use the different religious lingo interchangeably to emphasize tolerance. The main takeaway seems to be, however, that you should be yourself and keep moving forward in service to others, using your god-given talents without fear.

I received a digital copy of this wonderful story from one of the authors.

Hour Glass by Michelle Rene

The pa of the Glass children, Jimmy and Flower, dies of smallpox in a pestilent tent hospital in Deadwood, South Dakota. They had pulled him into town from their shack on his gold claim, proving their mettle. Madame Dora DuFran takes charge, and Calamity Jane, who’d followed Wild Bill Hickok to Deadwood, works in the pest tent, caring for their pa, watching him slowly fade. Jimmy and Flower, who goes by Hour, sleep in DuFran’s storage room, which previously housed Jane, who prefers to sleep off her routine drunks outside under the stars, anyway. Hour’s mom, a Lakota, visits Jimmy in his dreams to offer wisdom as he confronts challenges (one of which is first love) in their few weeks at DuFran’s brothel, until their pa passes. Jane holds a fundraiser for her “daughter” Hour’s education, receiving enough to send both children to a convent school, giving them a good start in life. Jimmy channels Jane in a life of constant travel, but Hour marries and raises a family in Kansas City. While working as a storyteller in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, Jane meets up with Jimmy and they catch each other up on their lives. Jimmy sees her only once more, in a small town where she was put off the train, at a hotel on her deathbed. The happily ever after comes to Jimmy when his first love finally leaves prostitution for marriage.

This is an interesting view of Calamity Jane’s life, from the perspective of a child she and Dora DuFran rescued. Rene kept the integrity of a pre-teen boy’s point of view, while filling the cast of characters with real life colleagues of Jane: Wild Bill, Dora DuFran, Charlie Utter, and a passing reference to Buffalo Bill. A fictionalized account of Calamity Jane is likely more appropriate than a biography, as her tall tales live on. Rene gave a noble account of the fundraiser given for Jane’s “daughter,” interspersed her best tall tales throughout the story, and followed the chronology of Jane’s life that is accepted as true, or the truest. It’s a raucous story, such as Jane’s own life.

I was fortunate to receive a digital copy through NetGalley.

White Houses by Amy Bloom

The times were not conducive for a lesbian love affair. In this fictional version of Eleanor Roosevelt’s lifelong love affair with journalist Lorena Hickok, President Roosevelt is “in on the joke” and takes advantage with his blatant womanizing. Told from the perspective of Hickok, it’s a softly rendered portrait of Eleanor, all the loveliness of her and the imperfections softened. Readers also get a peek into Bloom’s perspective of the Roosevelt clan, with snarky remarks on cousins from Hickok, Eleanor, and FDR. Throughout the story, Hickok announces character flaws and strengths of the powerful people surrounding her, ever aware of her precarious position. Readers follow her career choices, through various relationships and friendships, and her ins and outs with Eleanor, who always chooses her as an add-on to her public, political life, even after her husband’s death.

This is a nicely written story of a highly speculative affair of a First Lady, politically powerful for her time, representing her with dignity and compassion, while displaying her passions, political and personal. With satirical leanings, it’s an interesting place to start an exploration of Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as learning about her “other half,” Lorena Hickok. Telling the story from the lesser known partner brilliantly brings her to life. It’s a little history lesson in a big love story.

I was fortunate to receive a digital copy through NetGalley.

The Secret Life of Mrs. London

Charmian London took care of Jack London, typing as he dictated, editing his work, catering to his need for constant attention from “the crowd,” and picking up the pieces of his alcoholic binges. Products of their time, the Londons settled into a routine where Charmian sacrificed her life to Jack’s success, much as her friend Bessie Houdini did for her husband. Although Jack’s dalliances are often referenced, Charmian and Houdini’s affair is only hinted at throughout the story, before being stated outright only after Jack’s death.

Small contradictions in this book had me going back for clarity so many times that I stopped keeping track of them, accepting them as a minor annoyance of the writing. The story begins well after the London’s greatest adventures, a shame, since they’re referred to so much that I really wanted to read about them. I know this is considered historical fiction, but I researched as I read, and everything I found agreed with Rosenberg’s version, including Bessie’s condition, which prevented her having children.

The writing didn’t flow well for me, as I was more interested in things other than all the titillating details of adultery. Near the end, two events stood out that distracted me from the story. When Houdini tends to Charmian after she’s drenched in the rain, he “lifts” her magically from the bed. We all know the floating woman is a trick, so this seemed superfluously silly in this scene. Later, after Bessie acknowledges the affair of her husband and best friend, grants her acceptance of it to Charmian, and shows her friend her secret room of dolls, she passes out and stops breathing. Charmian brings her back to life by calling her name and touching her face. Although the book was nearly over, I almost stopped reading here.

I received this book through NetGalley for an honest review. I enjoyed reading about Charmian London, but the secret life of her affair with Houdini was more melodramatic than intriguing. Still, it was interesting to learn more about the Londons and the Houdinis in general, and it sparked my interest enough to do a bit more research as I read.

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin—pub date January 16, 2018

Mary Pickford and Frances Marion helped build the foundation of the movie industry, or Hollywood, as referred to today. Melanie Benjamin explores their friendship and intertwining careers in this lush historical fiction, speculating on each women’s hidden agenda, demonstrating their jealousies and joys. Mary Pickford was the darling of silent movies and Frances Marion a lauded screenwriter of the era, navigating a perilous pathway through a man’s world. By alternating viewpoints of these icons, Benjamin has provided insight into their characters and woven a wonderfully complex vision of their complicated friendship. Pickford feels she must maintain her veneer of innocent waif, and Marion carefully balances her relationship with Pickford with the need to advance her own career. As the two evolve away from each other professionally, they remind themselves of obligations bestowed upon them by the other’s influence and talent. Benjamin leads the reader through Mary’s agonizing decision to leave her husband for her “true love,” and along with Frances into the Great War, where she meets her fourth and last husband. There’s a softness to the portrayal of Mary’s descent into alcoholism, and the ending displays the inherent kindness of her lifelong friend.

This fictionalized version of the friendship of two of Hollywood’s most influential women offers much more than salacious speculation and name dropping—many famous individuals are mentioned based on their relevance to the story. Rather, it depicts the nuances, unspoken feelings, and misunderstandings of the relationship between two strong, independent women who are very different individuals with a similar goal of making it in an industry run by men.

I’m grateful to have received an advanced digital copy of this wonderful story from NetGalley.