by Jennifer Falkner
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and soon on iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.
She has generously agreed to answer a few questions on her latest book and on some of the challenges in writing historical fiction.
What was your original inspiration for Lies Told in Silence?
When friends read early drafts of my first novel Unravelled, the story of Edward and Ann Jamieson, many asked me what happened to Helene Noisette, Edward’s WWI lover. While I originally had a different idea for a sequel to Unravelled, the fact the people kept asking this question made me appreciate the obvious choice for my second novel. Happily, it allowed me to write about France, a country I love, and Paris, a city with endless possibilities. Given my obsession with WWI, I chose to craft Helene’s story by setting it at the beginning of that dreadful conflict. I refer to the novel that emerged as an intersecting story rather than a sequel.
What, if any, are the challenges for you as a fiction writer in depicting historical figures as opposed to your own invented characters? How do you overcome these challenges?
I love historical fiction whether the stories centre on well-known figures or not, however, researching WWI made me see the power of exploring ordinary people coping with extraordinary times, finding the strength to be heroes in their own small or large ways. My grandfather fought in WWI and the more I understood of those four years or horror, the more profound were my feelings of awe, outrage and sadness.
When it comes to researching the period, what are your main sources? Do you have any sources that might be considered unusual or surprising?
Because WWI is relatively recent, sources abound. Fiction, non-fiction, photos, museums, dedicated websites, government sites are easily discovered. However, having set Lies Told in Silence in France but having only high school French, I was unable to access sites written in French. With a bit of Google serendipity, I ultimately discovered several journals written by individuals living in France during the war: Charles Inman Barnard’s Paris War Days; Edith Wharton’s Fighting France; and Mildred Aldrich’s A Hilltop on the Marne became prime sources for understanding everyday life during WWI.
Do you do the bulk of your research before you begin writing the story or do you research as you go along?
Every author of historical fiction should have a sign on his or her desk saying ‘Research doesn’t get the story written’. And perhaps another sign saying ‘Your research should be invisible’. My own process is to research enough to flesh out the story then write the story noting places where I need further information as I write. Based on a tip from another writer, I mark those places with # and some sort of comment, for example, #need to know where the battalion was in June 1916. Later I return to those comments and find the details required. In terms of research time, this approach works out to about a 50/50 split: 50% before I write and 50% during the writing process.
It is a truism that historical fiction has more to say about the contemporary world than about the period in which the work is set. Nevertheless, do you see any meaningful parallels between the first quarter of the 20th century and the present?
The situations in the Ukraine and Iraq worry me. We shouldn’t forget that a relatively small incident in Sarajevo set off WWI. Ancient feuds (east vs west, Christian vs Muslim), power-hungry leaders (Putin, Erdogan, al-Maliki), religious fanatics (ISIS) and rising nationalism (Russia) could tip the world into chaos as could artificial borders created by or sanctioned by external powers (Iraq, Israel, Kurdistan).
What do you think is the biggest misconception among readers about historical fiction?
Many people equate historical fiction with romance. Others dismiss historical fiction as insufficiently literary. A serious look at historical fiction shows how mainstream this type of fiction has become cutting across all other genres and a very wide spectrum of interests.
What other writers inspire you, in terms of genre, craft or both?
Such a difficult question to answer. Since conducting two international surveys of historical fiction readers, I have made a point of reading those authors who ranked in the top ten to twenty authors. Every one of them offers inspiration in terms of technique and writing style. Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick for superb characterization, Bernard Cornwell for incredible battle scenes, Philippa Gregory for drama, Diana Gabaldon for spinning out a series that continues to captivate readers, Ken Follett for sweeping sagas, CW Gortner for lush descriptions and powerful women, Alison Weir for writing non-fiction that reads like fiction, Margaret George for intricate detail and vivid scenes, Hilary Mantel for beautiful prose, Deanna Raybourn for feisty characters and plots that keep a reader guessing, Jacqueline Winspear for deep emotion. So many authors to appreciate.
Readers and aspiring writers are always interested: what was your path to publication?
In 2010 I secured an agent for Lies Told in Silence. I remember that day so clearly: a cup of coffee at Starbucks that I almost dropped when he said he would take me on. Three years later, and with my agent’s blessing, we parted company so that I could publish the novel myself. While Lies Told in Silence had received some very positive comments from publishers, no one had agreed to publish it. I now have two novels available in e-book and print from a range of retailers.
Are there other historical periods that you want to write about someday?
This is a great question and one that I am seriously considering. My current work-in-progress, Time & Regret, is set in WWI and the 1990s. After it is finished I plan to explore another era – possibly the late 19th century although I also have an idea about a wandering female minstrel, which would definitely require a serious investment in researching medieval times.
What question do you wish I had asked but didn’t?
Readers might be interested to know that I began writing while living as an expat spouse in Hong Kong. Prior to my time in Hong Kong, I had a successful career in technology and management consulting. I think of writing as my second career – and an obsessive passion.
Thank you very much, M. K. Tod, for this peek into your writing life. Best of luck with all your future projects!