Through the eyes of a historical fiction author by M.K. Tod
Just as reading has become a new venture for me as I scrutinize every paragraph, sentence and word for effectiveness and historical authenticity, so too have travel and the everyday activities of living in the world. Indeed, there are times when I feel as though there’s a ‘before-writing Mary’ and an ‘after-writing Mary’. Let me explain.
In 2010, my husband and I went to northern France for the purpose of visiting the battlefields and memorials of World War One. At the time, I had written one novel on WWI and was working on a second and it had become increasingly important for me to have the visceral experience of being in the places my characters inhabited. But I wasn’t prepared for the profound emotional impact of being there, being where thousands upon thousands of soldiers had fought and died for their countries.
Vimy Ridge was particularly stunning. The memorial to one of Canada’s seminal battles, a battle that has gone down in history as the making of the Canadian nation, stands on a ridge with a commanding view of the French countryside. The statue of a woman with bowed head represents a country mourning her dead. Undulations still mark the fields that spread out from the memorial and nearby is a replica of the trenches and a preserved portion of the tunnels used by troops as they prepared and then assembled for battle.
That visit alone has prompted several passages in my novels.
“Martin and his men assembled in Zivy Cave, a vast space where brigade and battalion staff waited along with humdres of soldiers. Equipped with electric lights, running water, tables, kitchens, and telephones, the cave had been a hub for the Nineteenth Battalion, its spokes connected with all other battalions through a maze of trenches and tunnels. With so much snow and rain, the roof dribbled in sections, coating the floor with gray slime. The air reeked of tobacco and sweat.” Time and Regret
“Wherever she looked, troops moved forward, less thsn thirty metres behind exploding bombs launched by their own artillery. This barrage was their shield, a curtain of steel protecting them from German counterattacks. Step by step they advanced, scrambling across uneven ground, thick clumps of earth flying through the air around them.” Lies Told in Silence
“At five thirty, the ripple of light was strangely beautiful, spreading like an endless wave in that instant of calm before the fury of one thousand guns erupted. Though Lieutenant Burke had described the battle plan in detail, no words could have prepared them for such brutal vibration. Shockwaves compressed Edward’s chest, his ears distinguished nothing but pain, his legs braced to remain upright while he fought for breath. Death crooked its finger.” Unravelled
During that same trip, we took a tour through the fields around Passchendaele where another horrific battle took place. Our guide stopped at one point, reached down and pulled a small handful of dirt from the ground. He wiped the dirt away and revealed bits of shrapnel from World War One and I could almost feel them tearing into my flesh.
I don’t just write war scenes – far from it, in fact. My novels include romance and other aspects of life during both WWI and WWII. As we toured, I took photos of small villages, farms and the surrounding countryside. I had no idea which ones might inspire a scene or help describe a particular setting. Here’s one from Lies Told in Silence:
“Beneath the bridge, Lise saw a row of narrow skiffs waiting to pole passengers up and down the river, and flower sellers packing up for the day, hauling large wicker baskets onto wooden carts or into one of the skiffs and tossing remnants of brightly coloured flowers into large metal cans. They were mainly women in jobs previously done by men, and they talked constantly to one another, occasionally calling out to passing friends, smiling wide, raw-boned smiles as if momentarily released from the day’s burdens.”
I look at the sweep of land, the flowers and shrubs that border the roads, the rivers that meander or rush, the cows huddled beneath a tree; I watch the people, noting gestures and the rhythm of speech, facial features, colouring, the slope of someone’s brow, the way their eyes flash or their chins lift. I wander through markets imagining similar cheeses and meats, flowers and vegetables on narrow stalls crammed one against the other in the town squares of one hundred years ago. A small cat twitches her tail, a dog barks, church bells ring, a cock crows. Sounds too are important, as are smells. The intent is to immerse myself as completely as possible in the world that will become my story.
The magic is bringing it all together into a novel that will transport readers in place and time.
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.
About M.K. Tod: Time and Regret is M.K. Tod’s third novel. She began writing 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 novel Unravelled was awarded Indie Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society. In addition to writing historical novels, she blogs about reading and writing historical fiction at www.awriterofhistory.com.
Praise for Time and Regret:
“With fluid prose and a keen eye for detail, M.K. Tod takes readers on a decades-spanning journey of wartime loss, family secrets, and, ultimately, redemption.”
— Holly Smith, Managing Editor, Washington Independent Review of Books
Amazon Canada https://www.amazon.ca/Time-Regret-M-K-Tod/dp/1503938409/