Sisters of the Great War – Women in WWI

Suzanne Feldman and I connected during an animated discussion of the World Wars at this year’s historical novel society conference. With Suzanne’s new novel set during WWI and my three novels set during that time period, we immediately had a common bond.

Here’s Suzanne to talk about the inspiration for her latest novel Sisters of the Great War.


In the fall of 2016, I was looking for my next writing project. My debut novel, Absalom’s Daughters, had come out in July, and I was casting around for The Next Thing. I was in my last year of teaching high school, and as I walked into my empty classroom at about seven in the morning, it came to me that I wanted to write something epic, yet intimate, and what could be a better topic than war?

I knew I didn’t want to write about WWII. My father was a Holocaust survivor, and I’d heard all the stories I ever wanted to hear, from him, around the dinner table when I was growing up. Which left me wondering about WWI. As I looked for source material, I noticed that the vast majority of novels about the Great War were about men. An exception, by Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, is an outstanding memoir about women in the war, but in general, it took place outside the field of battle. The more I researched, the more I realized the battle was what I wanted to write about. 

But how does one go about writing about a war that’s been so beautifully summed up in All Quiet on the Western Front? The answer to that, I discovered, was to write about the women. 

When I started writing Sisters of the Great War, I knew I wanted to explore the lives of the women on the front lines. This led me to look more closely at the medical corps—the nurses and ambulance drivers. The drivers, I discovered, were mostly women, transporting the wounded away from the chaos of the front lines. The nurses, of course, were right there beside them, elbow deep in the conflict.

To keep the book intimate and personal, I began my research with the memoirs and diaries of women who served in the medical corps. Some of the diaries were incredibly compelling. Anne Powell’s Women in the War Zone: Hospital Service in the First World War, is a compilation of the diaries and journals of women from all over the wartime map. I found narratives from the European theater as well as from Serbia and Poland. The ones I was looking for, from France, Belgium and other locations along the Western Front, were there as well, in vivid detail. 

One book in particular, really informed my novel, and that was a slender volume entitled ‘Not So Quiet…Stepdaughters of War,’ by Helen Zenna Smith (Feminist Press 1989). The author, a British woman and a veteran of the Ambulance Corps, outlines the day-by-day horrors of picking up wounded soldiers and transporting them to the Casualty Clearing Stations (Hospitals). Her story is unwavering, blunt, and gripping, but what really struck me was the ending. The war, having been won, was over. Everyone was sent home, and Ms. Smith went home to London where her experiences and contributions were unacknowledged. Despite the celebrations, victory touched the women who had been at the Front differently than the men. The men were hailed as returning heroes—survivors. The women, as made obvious in Ms. Smith’s final passages, were left out in the cold to mull the differences in their roles in war and society, and to reach their own conclusions about each. Ms. Smith’s own conclusions are made evident in her title. 

Unlike Ms. Smith’s memoir, my novel, Sisters of the Great War returns the main characters to lives transformed. The two naïve young women from Baltimore, who fled their controlling father and their limited futures to volunteer in a war zone, find that their wartime roles provide them with an independence rarely granted to women. In the midst of bombings, heartache, and loss, they come to understand their own capabilities and worth. This hard-won sense of self will guide them through the challenges yet to come. 

Sisters of the Great War by Suzanne Feldman ~~ August 1914. While Europe enters a brutal conflict unlike any waged before, the Duncan household in Baltimore, Maryland, is the setting for a different struggle. Ruth and Elise Duncan long to escape the roles that society, and their controlling father, demand they play. Together, the sisters volunteer for the war effort—Ruth as a nurse, Elise as a driver.

Stationed at a makeshift hospital in Ypres, Belgium, Ruth soon confronts war’s harshest lesson: not everyone can be saved. Rising above the appalling conditions, she seizes an opportunity to realize her dream to practice medicine as a doctor. Elise, an accomplished mechanic, finds purpose and an unexpected kinship within the all-female Ambulance Corps. Through bombings, heartache and loss, Ruth and Elise cherish an independence rarely granted to women, unaware that their greatest challenges are still to come.

Sisters of the Great War releases today! Many thanks for sharing the story behind Sisters of the Great War, Suzanne. I love WWI novels and have already added yours to my TBR list. Best wishes for success.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

The Plot Thickens

Plot is one of the 7 elements of historical fiction. In the original post outlining these seven elements, I wrote:

… the plot has to make sense for the time period. And plot will often be shaped around or by the historical events taking place at that time. This is particularly true when writing about famous historical figures. When considering those historical events, remember that you are telling a story not writing history.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

When you’re plotting, you are essentially devising the sequence of events that link your scenes and chapters and your character arcs into a compelling story for readers. Christopher Booker took 34 years to write his book The Seven Basic Plots. Wikipedia describes each plot type briefly and, if you’re interested, the New York Times has reviewed Booker’s book.

Booker’s seven plots are:

  • Overcoming the monster
  • Rags to riches
  • The quest
  • Voyage and return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

Which of these plots fits the story you want to tell and its historical context?

According to Elizabeth George in her book Write Away (a resource I consult frequently), “plot is what the characters do [George’s emphasis] to deal with the situation they’re in.” Elizabeth George builds on this:

  • “To have a plot … you must have characters … you also must have conflict.”
  • “But you must also have events that occur as the conflict unfolds, and these events must be organized with an emphasis on causality.”
  • As she explores causality, George introduces the notion of “dramatic dominoes” – essentially scenes that trigger an event that follows.
  • To this she adds: “… your plot has to have high points of drama” that deeply involve your readers.

So, what does this mean for historical fiction? I’m sure someone could write a thesis on this topic, but let me offer two points:

If you’re writing historical fiction based on a real person’s life, then history provides all – well, almost all – the details you will need. The challenges are (1) to pick the true events in that persona’s life that will actually make a story worth reading bearing in mind the need for tension, conflict, causality, dramatic dominoes, and high points of drama, (2) to leave out the bits that are tedious or don’t advance the plot, and (3) to judiciously insert the scenes and characters that are plausible and will add those extra bits of drama and sparkle. Remember, you’re writing fiction not biography.

Do we know what Eleanor of Aquitaine said to Henry II on their wedding night? No, but with the right research a good author can imagine it.

Do we know whether J. P. Morgan had an affair with his personal librarian Belle da Costa Greene? No, but Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray do a wonderful job of imagining the dynamic between these two individuals in their novel The Personal Librarian.

If you’re writing historical fiction with fictional characters, then choose the historical events that frame the story, drive the plot, are inherently dramatic, and can realistically involve your characters. If your character is a captain in the British army during WWI, choose a suitable regiment and research where that regiment was during the war and therefore what battles, what losses, what victories and so on could have shaped your captain’s life. If you need your fictional captain to have met Winston Churchill, there has to be a plausible reason and accurate regimental specifics for him to have done so. More than that, the meeting with Churchill should advance the main character’s arc while adding tension and conflict and laying down another dramatic domino for the story.

In Robert McKee’s book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, he also defines plot:

To PLOT means to navigate through the dangerous terrain of story and when confronted with a dozen branching possibilities to choose the correct path. Plot is the writer’s choice of events and their design in time.

What are the branching possibilities your plot faces? What events will you choose? How will they unfold in the timeline you’ve chosen?

McKee’s notion of navigating the correct path makes me thing of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken:

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I should keep that in mind as I devise my next plot.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

When God turned his face away – by Anna Belfrage

Anna Belfrage and I have been ‘hanging out’ both in person and virtually for a number of years. Anna is the author of a time travelling series The Graham Saga, set in 17th century Scotland and Maryland, as well as a medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy which is set in 14th century England. Anna tells me that if she had been allowed to choose, she’d have become a time-traveller. Instead, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests: history and writing.

Anna’s latest novel is The Castilian Pomegranate, the second in her “Castilian” series, a stand-alone sequel to her September 2020 release, His Castilian Hawk. Welcome, Anna!

When God turned his face away – of an ill-fated crusade by Anna Belfrage

Late in 1284, Philippe III of France mustered a huge army and set off south on a crusade. Not, as one would think, against the Muslim infidel crusades were generally directed at, no this venture was aimed at the king of Aragon, whom the pope had excommunicated. 

Before we move further into the story, best we explain why King Pedro had been excommunicated. Some years earlier Pedro had launched a campaign to conquer Sicily. 
“Perfidy!” exclaimed the pope, while Pedro calmy stated he was merely reclaiming what should be his—or rather his wife’s. Pedro was married to Constanza of Sicily, the sole surviving whole child of Manfred of Hohenstaufen who had been killed in battle by a pope-backed campaign led by Charles d’Anjou, uncle of Philippe III. (Her brothers had all been blinded by d’Anjou before being locked up for life)

Obviously, Philippe III felt entitled to defend his family interests, which was why he “took the cross”. Plus, other than his eldest son and heir, he had a strapping second son, Charles de Valois, who would make an excellent king of Aragon, especially since he had blood ties to the royal House of Aragon. You see, from a family perspective this was quite the tangled mess, seeing as Philippe III had once been wed to Pedro’s sister, Isabel. But by now Isabel was long dead and Philippe clearly felt little affection or respect for his erstwhile brother-in-law. No, he was incensed at having his dear uncle chased off to cower in Naples when he should be lording it in Palermo.

The French host marched south and were warmly welcomed by Pedro’s younger brother, Jaume, who was king of Mallorca and the previous Aragonese lands in southern France. His capital was in Perpignan, and supposedly he was delighted at welcoming Philippe III and most eager to support this crusade against his excommunicated brother. 

Jaume’s subjects were not necessarily of the same opinion, and some of them offered the French quite some resistance as they made for the mountain passes over the Pyrenees. One of these resistance fighters was the “anonymous bastard of Roussillon” who managed to hold the French off for quite some time but who was ultimately overcome by the sheer size of the French army. The French exacted a horrible price from these resistance fighters. They herded men, women and children into the cathedral of Elne and set it on fire, obliging the devastated anonymous bastard to watch as his people died. The papal legates who accompanied the crusade voiced no objection – but I do believe God was not pleased. At all. Which may explain what happened next…

The victorious French army entered Aragon, and settled down to besiege Girona. After two months or so, Girona fell in early September of 1285. The young Charles de Valois was crowned at Girona – and in lieu of a crown, a hat was set atop his head. Yay, Aragon had a new king—except the people of Aragon weren’t having it, and King Pedro had by now assembled his forces and was marching towards the French. Not that Philippe seemed unduly concerned, plus he had just requested additional reinforcements that were to arrive by ship. 

Having anyone attempt to land anything along the Aragonese coast without Aragonese approval was very, very foolish. Aragon was a nation with oversea interests and was therefore in possession of a good navy—and a remarkably capable admiral to command it. Enter Roger de Lauria, who not only was Pedro’s admiral, he was also a foster-brother to Queen Constanza, as his mother had nursed them both. 

The French galleys were attacked at night, which was totally unexpected as no one fought naval battles at night—well, except for de Lauria. The galleys were destroyed and legend has it that the French survivors were  stripped, put in chains and blinded before they were sent off to walk back to France, led by the few lucky bastards who’d been allowed to keep one eye. Personally, I don’t think things happened that way—mainly because maiming three hundred odd men takes time, and Pedro was rearing to go after the French ASAP.

Meanwhile, the French were fighting a new enemy: dysentery. Plus, with close to 30 000 men to feed, foraging was becoming a problem. Philippe decided on a strategic retreat, hoping to rendezvous with his ships at Rosas, a small town along the coast. Except, of course, that there were no French ships anymore.  For the more devout among the French it was becoming evident this venture was not blessed by God, and I dare say some worried that it all came back to burning the cathedral in Elne.

The king fell ill, as did his younger son. The French moved slowly towards Col de Panissars, a pass over the mountains. They hoped to reach it before the pursuing troops of King Pedro, but with so many men sick it was a slow process, and sure enough, by the time they camped in sight of the pass, the armies of Aragon were at their heels.

King Pedro at the Battle of Col de Panissars

Prince Philippe, the heir to the throne of France, begged for an audience with his uncle, King Pedro, and begged him to let them all leave. Pedro refused. He did, however, agree to allow the royal family and a small entourage to leave, but the main host would not be crossing the mountain, not unless they fought their way there.  

The French king was utterly humiliated—but by now he was too sick to care. His son reluctantly agreed to Pedro’s offer, promising himself that he would never allow himself to be as manipulated by the pope as his father had been. (Not that I’m entirely sure the pope had to be all that manipulating…) True to his word, Philippe IV would endeavour to gain control over the church rather than have the church control him, which is how he more or less murdered one pope, forced the conclave to elect a French pope, and then suggested to said pope that he move the See of Peter to Avignon. 

Anyway: the sick French king and his closest men departed the camp, navigating the slope up to the pass. Below, the French army prepared for battle. When King Pedro gave the command, his men charged, and by the time the sun set on the Battle of Col de Panissars, the French army had been brutally decimated. The Aragonese Crusade had failed: Pedro remained king of Aragon, and what better sign could there be that God approved of him, no matter that a bitter and vengeful pope had excommunicated him? 

Not that Pedro was to live long enough to truly enjoy his victory. A month or so later he passed, dying of some sort of pulmonary disease. He made his peace with the church on his death bed, but it would take several more years before the Kingdom of Aragon and the Holy See reached a formal accord. By then, of course, neither Pedro or Philippe III were in a position to care.

The Aragonese Crusade forms part of the historical background of The Castilian Pomegranate. Not that Robert FitzStephan wants to join the Aragonese war effort, but he really has no choice, which is how he comes to be present at the major events, all the while very worried about how his wife, Noor, may be faring when they are so far apart in a foreign land! 

Such a tangle of relationships, greed, and bloodthirsty power! Many thanks for sharing this historical perspective, Anna.

The Castilian Pomegranate by Anna Belfrage ~~ An enraged and grieving queen commands them to retrieve her exquisite jewel and abandon their foundling brat overseas–or never return.

Robert FitzStephan and his wife, Noor, have been temporarily exiled. Officially, they are to travel to the courts of Aragon and Castile as emissaries of Queen Eleanor of England. Unofficially, the queen demands two things: that they abandon Lionel, their foster son, in foreign lands and that they bring back a precious jewel – the Castilian Pomegranate.

Noor would rather chop off a foot than leave Lionel in a foreign land—especially as he’s been entrusted to her by his dead father, the last true prince of Wales. And as to the jewel, stealing it would mean immediate execution. . . 

Spain in 1285 is a complicated place. France has launched a crusade against Aragon and soon enough Robert is embroiled in the conflict, standing side by side with their Aragonese hosts. Once in Castile, it is the fearsome Moors that must be fought, with Robert facing weeks separated from his young wife, a wife who is enthralled by the Castilian court—and a particular Castilian gallant. 

Jealousy, betrayal and a thirst for revenge plunge Noor and Robert into life-threatening danger. Will they emerge unscathed or will savage but beautiful Castile leave them permanently scarred and damaged? 

The Castilian Pomegranate is the second in her “Castilian” series, a stand-alone sequel to her September 2020 release, His Castilian Hawk. Set against the complications of Edward I’s invasion of Wales, His Castilian Hawk is a story of loyalty, integrity—and love. In The Castilian Pomegranate, we travel with the protagonists to the complex political world of medieval Spain, a world of intrigue and back-stabbing.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website