M.K. (Mary) Tod has been a great friend and favourite author for a number of years – her dual timelines novel Time and Regret is one I particularly enjoyed. I am so excited to welcome Mary to Author Chats to talk about her newest novel – Paris in Ruins. Next week, I’ll be posting my review, along with an article from Mary about Sarah Bernhardt’s hospital. So, come and join us!
Mary, thanks for coming. First question – does writing energize or exhaust you and how do you wind down / recharge?
When I’m caught up in writing a new novel, the energy boost is enormous. I’m energized by what my characters say, think, or do and by imagining myself and them in a particular setting. At times, I feel as if my characters and I are writing the book together and I can get lost for hours as a scene unfolds in my head and onto the page. If I’m on my own, I often miss meals and eventually discover that the entire house is dark except for the light beside my desk.
Recharging takes various forms: a brisk walk, an afternoon off for a game of golf, a lovely dinner and glass of wine with my husband, a bit of mindless TV.
How important is working with your editor or beta readers, and how would you describe your relationship? I’ve worked with three editors now. Two are freelance editors and one was an editor assigned by Lake Union Publishing. In all cases, doing a ‘big picture’ edit first was essential. Does the story hang together? Are the characters coming across? Does the plot have the right amount of tension, conflict, and unexpected twists? To me, there’s enormous value in an editor who will provide both encouragement and sound critique. It’s a delicate skill to give that kind of feedback. I’m pleased to say that each of my editors have done a wonderful job.
As for beta readers, the only one who is consistent is my husband. Getting input from one’s spouse can be challenging. However, Ian has provided great support ever since I began writing and has carefully managed the delicate task of giving both suggestions and criticisms to me. Beyond that, I’ve asked varied groups of people to be early readers, although I know some authors who always use the same beta readers. For a contemporary novel I’m currently working on, my son proved to be a great source of feedback since he represented the age group of my main characters and, as it turned out, his keen interest in movies added great insights into the dynamics of the plot.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Writing historical fiction requires a huge amount of research. Not only do you have to understand the historical events that took place, but you also have to learn about the culture, religion, social norms, fashion, travel, family life, technologies, and so many more aspects of the time. I tend to do a broad scan first and then dive down deeper into specific topics that are relevant to the story. As I write a scene, I often go back to check a detail or to explore a new topic that has suddenly become relevant.
As an example, Camille, one of the main characters in Paris In Ruins, volunteers at a hospital run by the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt. I made the decision to include Bernhardt in the story, when I happened to leaf through her biography and discovered that she really did set up and run a hospital during the Prussian siege of Paris. Later, as I wrote the scene when Camille offers to volunteer, I looked for details about the Odeon Theatre where Sarah establisher her hospital. And later still, I investigated how amputations were done in 1870.
What one thing would you give up to become a better writer? The more appropriate question for me is how can I become less obsessed with writing!
Tell us more about your latest book:
What did you edit out of this book? I began writing Paris In Ruins in 2016. When it was ‘finished’ in 2017, my then publisher declined to take it on, which was a devastating experience. Later that year, I was able to secure an agent who tried to interest other publishers but was ultimately unsuccessful. In the fall of 2019, with some advice from a new agent, I took a critical look at the manuscript and discarded the first ten or twelve chapters. I’d decided they were ‘fluff’ and gave the story too much of a romance feel, rather than the drama I intended.
More recently, I edited out some scenes that had little action and an unnecessary sex scene—sex scenes should always advance the story and this one didn’t.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones? When a new book comes out, I read all the book reviews. I almost always thank the person for providing a review, even if I didn’t like what they had to say. But as time goes along, I pay less attention to individual reviews and instead keep an eye on my novels’ overall ratings.
What was the most difficult part of your artistic process for this book? Paris In Ruins has been in the works for five years and has so many different versions, I’ve lost track! In retrospect, the most difficult aspect of writing it has been to settle on the heart of the story. It began with a focus on how a friendship develops between two women who are fundamentally different. While friendship remains an important theme, the story is now more about courage and self-discovery and what it takes to protect your home and those you love.
Paris In Ruins is M.K. Tod’s fourth novel. Mary began writing in 2005 while living as an expat in Hong Kong. What started as an interest in her grandparents’ lives turned into a full-time occupation writing historical fiction. Her other novels are Time and Regret, Lies Told in Silence, and Unravelled.
Beyond writing novels, Mary’s award-winning blog www.awriterofhistory.com features the reading and writing of historical fiction. When she’s not writing, or thinking about writing, you can find her hiking, golfing, traveling, or hanging out with friends and family. Mary is married and has two adult children and two delightful grandchildren.
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