M. K. Tod is known in the historical fiction community for the extensive surveys of historical fiction readers she conducted in 2012 and 2013. She is also the author of two novels set during the World Wars, UNRAVELLED and LIES TOLD IN SILENCE (both published in 2014). I'm happy to welcome Mary here today to discuss her novels and share her thoughts on the practice and prospects of historical fiction.
1) You have written a novel about World War I, LIES
TOLD IN SILENCE, and one about World War II, UNRAVELLED. What is it about this era in history that fascinates you? How did you become interested in the World Wars?
My obsession with war was totally unexpected. I
hated history at school – far too many facts and dates to memorize – however,
when my husband and I were living in Hong Kong for three years, I had very
little to do and decided to occupy myself by exploring my grandparents’ lives.
Since my grandfather served in both WWI and WWII, these investigations led to
military events of that time. Something about the absolute horror and
devastation of WWI captured my mind and soul. The fact that these wars happened
to people I knew quite well touched me greatly.
2) Out of all the characters you have created,
which is your favorite and why? Which character took you the longest to
I always struggle with questions like this! So
far, one of my – I’m hedging my bets already – favorite characters is Mariele,
Helene Noisette’s grandmother in LIES TOLD IN SILENCE. She’s quietly feisty and a very wise woman – something I
hope to be too. For the one who took me the longest to understand, I have to
designate Edward Jamieson. He’s modeled after my grandfather, but I took a long
time to understand what he went through during the wars. I wish I could have
talked to him about it all.
3) How do you balance research and writing? At
what point do you feel ready to write?
I’m obsessed with research and love the process
involved – probably my analytical nature and consulting background coming out. After
writing my first novel in a totally haphazard fashion mixing research and
writing with little thought to structure, I wrote the second novel much more
quickly by using a chapter outline. With an outline in hand, research became
more purposeful. As I write each chapter, I also note spots that require
further research or facts that need checking with a # and return to them later.
This method helps keep the writing flow going.
4) Can you relate an instance where your
research changed the course of a novel’s plot?
my protagonist, Edward Jamieson, gets involved in Camp X, a Canadian based
training camp for WWII espionage agents. At some time in my research, I
discovered a document outlining the agenda of a meeting between Churchill and
Roosevelt, which took place in Washington, D.C. in 1942. Right away, I knew
that meeting had to be part of the novel and so I constructed a series of
adjunct meetings between US and British espionage groups that took place
alongside the main political and military discussions. In the novel, Edward’s
absence has unexpected consequences for his wife Ann. I call this the
serendipity of research.
5) Did you visit the places you wrote about?
How did those visits enrich your writing? Which place moved you the most?
My husband and I took a trip to northern France
in 2010. Seeing the memorials and cemeteries that mark the dead and the
sacrifice of so many young men, tramping through fields where battles occurred
and alongside trenches and craters, listening to the Last Post at Menin Gate in
Ypres, hearing the names of the dead called out, learning of graves dug before
battle – these experiences generated powerful and lasting emotions that enhance
my writing. The place that moved me most was Vimy Ridge and the memorial to
that seminal Canadian battle. My grandfather fought there and survived. I can
never forget what he and others did for all of us. He was nineteen when he went
and, like so many former soldiers, never spoke of it.
6) You self-published both your novels. What
did you learn from publishing and marketing the first that helped you with the second?
Excellent question, Julianne, and no doubt an
essay all on its own! I’m sure my learnings will be similar to others writing
(1) Don’t be afraid to self-publish. One of my greatest
joys is the people who have told me in person or via emails that they have read
and enjoyed my novels. A euphoric experience.
(2) Build your platform before
(3) Use every opportunity to add to your database of
(4) Hire a great editor.
(5) Figure out where readers of your genre
hang out and stake out a presence there.
(6) One blog tour isn’t enough.
Continued sales require regular marketing.
(7) Don’t expect to be an overnight
(8) Celebrate what you’ve accomplished.
(9) Get busy writing another
7) You’ve conducted two extensive and immensely
helpful surveys of historical fiction readers (the results of which may be found
and here). What information did you glean from these surveys that surprised you the most?
Several insights stand out for me. One that is
uppermost in my mind right now is the dominance of social media as a source of
reading related recommendations and discussions. Another is the demographic
differences: women and men not only read different novels but they also have
very different profiles in terms of reading habits; under 30s are vastly
different from over 50s; American readers are quite different from British or
Canadian. I am also intrigued that those who start reading historical fiction
at a young age continue reading it in much higher proportions throughout adulthood.
8) How important is blogging to a writer’s
career? Is it more important at certain stages than at others?
Blogging is an important part of a writer’s
platform. You should have a purpose for your blog as well as some objectives.
You might decide on purpose and objectives at the outset or you might stumble
upon them several months or even a year later. Once these are in place you need
to adhere to them or else the followers you have cultivated will go elsewhere.
In my opinion, blogging serves other purposes: to write and publish regularly;
to interact with readers; to build participate in a community; to experiment
with voice; to show readers the person behind the stories. My own belief is
that blogging remains important throughout your career as a writer. I’ve had two blogs so far. The first is called
One Writer’s Voice and it was my attempt to get ‘out there’ and to explore the
business of writing. That blog gathered writers as followers not readers and so
I developed another blog called A Writer of History where I planned to post on
topics that would appeal to readers. As it turns out, my biggest group of
followers continues to be other writers. And at this point, that’s fine with
me. Writers I interact with on my blog or on Facebook and Twitter have become
my community. They cheerlead, encourage, offer suggestions and critique, spread
the word about my surveys and novels. What more could I ask for?
9) What do you think is the biggest challenge
facing writers of historical fiction today?
Fortunately, we’re in a period where historical
fiction is very popular so I’m going to say that our biggest challenge is productivity.
As historical fiction writers, we have to both write and research and most
writers of historical fiction will tell you that research takes almost the same
amount of time as writing. Since the best way to sell your novels is to write
another novel, it takes us almost twice as long to do so. Of course, many
writers reduce the research time by staying within a particular era.
10) What are you currently working on?
My third novel is called TIME & REGRET. A
quick synopsis: While cleaning house to eliminate traces of her ex-husband,
Grace Hansen discovers her grandfather's WWI diaries along with a puzzling
note. Surprisingly, the diaries reveal a different man from the beloved
grandfather who raised her. A few months later, Grace follows the path her
grandfather took through the trenches of northern France and discovers a secret
he kept hidden for more than seventy years.
I’m writing this with parallel time periods –
Grace in the early 1990s and Martin Devlin (her grandfather) in WWI. An
blog. Her books are available in paperback and electronic editions from major online outlets.