From Chef to Author

I’m always intrigued by the paths that spark an author’s first novel. For me, it was being an expat in Hong Kong with no job, no family, and almost no friends. For Laura Morelli, it was the conventions of academic scholarship that made the history of art dull and inaccessible. For accomplished chef, Cathy Lewis, it was the discovery of a tattered suitcase containing a worn red journal that belonged to her father and mementos from his six-week trek in 1933 through Europe with his Boy Scout Troop on their way to the 4th World Scout Jamboree held in Godollo, Hungary. Her father documented in his journal that while on the way to the Jamboree, in Vienna he met a 16-year-old German Hitler Youth, a former Boy Scout. After conversing with the young man her father wrote, “I found him to be a fine fellow.”

That discovery made Cathy wonder: did this young man turn out to be one of Hitler’s Wehrmacht responsible for the death of millions, including her own relatives? Ultimately it sparked Cathy to write The Road We Took.

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With the rise of anti-Semitism around the globe, I am reminded of my mom’s journey to Panama. That sojourn led to a new life in the U.S., one she had never foreseen. Her life began in South America.  My mom’s father was a bit of a nomad, relocating their family around South America during the early years of her life. 

My grandparents escaped Poland in March 1919, leaving all of their families behind. The Polish border town of Baranovichi had suffered occupations by Russian and German troops, causing political upheaval and instability. Anti-Semitism was on the rise there as the constant presence of German or Russian troops contributed to the atmosphere of biased hatred.

My mom’s parents had family living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and it was there that they married and began their family in 1924 with the birth of my mother, Matilda. In January of 1944, at age nineteen, my mother moved from Quito, Ecuador, to just outside of the canal zone in Colón, Panama.  She moved into a simple Panamanian flat and began her new life.

She found gainful employment as a translator teaching Spanish to officers at Ft. Sherman, the U.S. Army base there. Ft. Sherman was located on the (northern) end of the Panama Canal, directly opposite Colón. Matilda Silverstone met Captain Raymond D. Lewis of Rochester, New York, at the officers club on base.  It was there that their courtship unfolded.

After a whirlwind romance, they married in July of 1944, while the war in Europe raged. Both my parents confessed to “love at first sight,” and it was kismet.

The U.S. Army granted my father and his bride a two-week leave after their wedding. 

My dad decided the best way to celebrate their marriage was to bring my mom home to Rochester to meet his family, but the trip was delayed by a few months due to government red tape. Once cleared to travel, the newlyweds boarded a U.S. Naval ship, anchoring at the port of New Orleans, Louisiana, where my mom set foot on American soil for the first time. The U.S. Army provided transportation to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and from there, a train took them all the way home to Rochester.

Unbeknownst to my father, his father published a wedding announcement in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle stating that the captain had a whirlwind marriage to a “Matilde Perla,” the daughter of an Englishman and a Spanish-American woman,” which was an outright lie. My mother’s maiden name was originally Zilberstein, but at some point, her father anglicized it to Silverstone. 

The intention seemed evident to my parents, rightfully outraged by this willful obfuscation.  My grandfather was ashamed that not only did his firstborn marry an immigrant but a Jewish immigrant. My mother’s family was orthodox and furious that she married a “goyim.” The marriage did not get off to a good start, having neither in-law’s blessing.

That was just the beginning. My mother was beautiful. My father was under the assumption that his family would receive his new bride with open arms. They would love her as he did and be kind to her in his absence once he returned to the base at Colón. As it turns out, that was a false hope. 

My father’s sisters resented my mother’s beauty and “power” over my father. They discounted my parents’ love for each other, believing that my father made a gigantic, ill-informed mistake. The expression of animosity came in the form of a letter written by my dad’s younger sister.  She accused my mother of using her beauty to charm my father, labeling their relationship “juvenile,” based solely on physical attraction.

His family warned my father to remind his wife not to speak of her background or history.

My father returned to the base at Colón, while my mother lived on the top floor of her in-law’s home. Imagine being barely twenty years old, married, without her husband, in a new country, away from her family, while living with a family that despised her.  Those wounds never healed; they were a specter, haunting her throughout her life.

Mom was naïve as to why her new family was rejecting her, but they were cowards at heart like most bullies. They ignored her, eschewing her very existence.

My grandfather was put in charge of the finances to be doled out to her, as she had no bank account, my father thinking it would be easier to have his father handle the money. How embarrassing for her to ask for money for personal items-my grandfather expected a detailed account of how she spent every penny. Mom lived with her new family for a year and a half. Not once did my father’s two sisters or brother ever ask her to go to a movie, shopping, or a meal. Eventually, my grandmother warmed to my mom, but she was the only family member who did. 

My mom busied herself with language classes and American history lessons at a local high school. It was there that she heard the pejorative sentiment of hatred toward Jews, blaming them for the world’s many ills, even World War I. Jewish jokes were a daily staple spoken by students and faculty.  Despite that, she tutored students in Spanish, making money to keep her from having to beg her father-in-law.

She wrote her husband every day, never speaking of her ill-treatment. She did not complain to my dad, but that suppression came at a cost to her health and emotional well-being. Until my father returned home from the war in January 1946, my mother lived a solitary life, lonely and skeptical of her supposed family and new country.

Honoring my mom through writing has helped me to grapple with the reality of anguish and pain she endured. On her behalf, I press on to sound the battle cry illuminating the message of how senseless hatred can destroy a life, a family, a world.

Thank you, Cathy, for sharing your family’s story. Prejudice and hatred based on differences such as religion, ethnicity, or skin colour should have no place in civilized society. I hope The Road We Took will illuminate many hearts and minds.

The Road We Took by Cathy A. Lewis ~~ In 1933, before World War II, and the Holocaust, the world was unaware of Hitler’s plans to exterminate millions.

Author Cathy A. Lewis discovered a tattered leather suitcase containing her deceased father’s journal documenting his six-week trek through Europe in 1933 while on his way to the 4th Boy Scout World Jamboree.

Inspired by her father’s historical recount, The Road We Took is the four-day epic tale of a desperate group of Jewish citizens attempting to escape Nazi-occupied Germany.

Fascinating characters come together in a narrative of extreme courage, budding adolescent love, and their fight for survival.

Life in Germany will never be the same as Hitler and the Nazis advance their propaganda campaign, to systematically murder the Jewish population.

And this was only the beginning.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order 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 www.mktod.com.

A Year of Reading

For 6 years, I’ve chronicled the books I’ve read offering a summary and my own rating scheme to identify favourite reads, non-fiction read for research purposes, light reads, and so on. This year’s reading was a little muddled — I’m not even sure I can find them all — so I thought I would take a different approach and highlight a few books that stand out and why.

The group includes two non-fiction, four novels about the Kennedy family and a wide range of time periods.

Indian in the Cabinet by Jody Wilson-Raybould ~~ Jody Wilson-Raybould was Canada’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice for almost four years and a member of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s cabinet. Being a woman in this role is impressive enough, being an indigenous woman is uniquely impressive. This memoir offers great insights into the indigenous experience as well as their hopes for a new sovereign relationship between our First Nations people and the Government of Canada. It is very critical of the way politics runs in today’s Canadian government.

Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad ~~ a powerful and inspiring memoir of a young woman who was diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of 22, battled cancer for three years, and then had to find her way back to a life without cancer. Suleika Jaouad inspired many with her blog Life Interrupted and her columns in the New York Times.

Red Widow by Alma Katsu ~~ I attended Alma Katsu’s workshop on conflict at the 2021 Historical Novel Society Conference – titled Upping the Ante. Impressed by Alma’s ideas, I read her recent novel Red Widow to see conflict in action. Trust me, she knows what she’s talking about. It’s a novel I frequently recommend.

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn ~~ I’m a fan of the women who worked at Bletchley Park during WWII. Kate Quinn’s latest dual-timeline novel is a wonderful page-turner.

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict ~~ I discovered Marie Benedict’s novels with The Other Einstein. Benedict has a knack for writing about the lives of unique women of history. Who knew that Albert Einstein’s wife – Mitza Maric – was an incredibly clever scientist and mathematician in her own right and whose contribution to the special theory of relativity is hotly debated?

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray ~~ The true story of Belle da Costa Greene, J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian who helps him build a world-class library of rare manuscripts, books and artwork. Belle does all this while passing for white. And it’s seamlessly written by two authors!

Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell ~~ I stepped way back in time to read of fifteen-year-old Emma of Normandy who crosses the English Channel in 1002 to wed the much older King Athelred of England, whom she meets for the first time at the church door. Fascinating story, and guess what? It’s book one of a trilogy.

One of the panels I moderated during the June HNS conference was on writing about the Kennedy family and the challenges of doing so. I decided to read all the novels these panelists featured: The Summer I met Jack by Michelle Gable; Jackie and Maria by Gill Paul; The Editor by Steven Rowley; The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Mahon. I can enthusiastically recommend each one of them.

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See ~~ Lisa See was guest of honour at the 2021 HNS conference. Since I’d only read her novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I decided to read her latest. Powerful prose and a unique story about Korea.

Drake: Tudor Corsair by Tony Riches; Essex: Tudor Rebel by Tony Riches ~~ Tony Riches has made the Tudors his specialty. These two novels are from his new Elizabethan series about the men who served the Queen in unique ways.

The Sea Gate by Jane Johnson ~~ another wonderful dual-timeline novel by Jane Johnson. This one is set in Cornwall which makes it special as I’ve been to several of the places mentioned. And it features a foul-mouthed parrot!

Birds Eye View by Elinor Florence ~~ the heroine of this story joins the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as an aerial photographic interpreter, someone who spies on the enemy from the sky, watching the war unfold through her magnifying glass. The author does a wonderful job of explaining the technology involved in this little known aspect of WWII in a way that is easily understood and of presenting a great story featuring women who served in the war.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order 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 www.mktod.com.

Worldbuilding the Past

Mike Kanner and I connected a few months ago over the topic of WWI trenches. Yes, connections can come from all sorts of places! With a military career behind him, Mike entered academia and ended with a Ph.D. in political psychology and a job as a lecturer in security and international relations. But he’s always been drawn to historical fiction and has contributed a number of stories to various anthologies and considers himself a student of WWI – hence the trenches.

Today, Mike discusses world building – one of the seven elements of historical fiction.

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World building is associated with science fiction and fantasy, but writing historical fiction, I have the task of rebuilding a world that existed one hundred years ago. For that, I reached back to the people that lived during that period. 

My interest in soldier’s diaries started when I wrote doctrine for the US Army Infantry School back in the 1980s. After reviewing a tactical manual, our general called me in and asked the question, “What happens in the last 100 yards of battle?” He said he had his own experience, but he was interested in any general lessons to be learned. This sent me to the Infantry School Libraries collection of first-person accounts from World War 1 to the Grenada Invasion. Unfortunately, I couldn’t answer the general’s question since soldiers could only account for what happened in front of them and to them. However, I was fascinated with the detail that some of these accounts had about the conditions on the battlefield. So, over the years, I collected diaries, first-person accounts and photographs from World War 1. 

Once I retired from the service and started to write historical fiction, I found these accounts to be both inspiration and information. The best way to illustrate this is by describing the research supporting a specific story. 

“White Feather” was recently published in Chiaroscuro: An Anthology of Virtue and Vice and was inspired by a presentation by the Western Front Association on conscientious objectors in World War 1. I knew I wanted to write a story of a pacifist that became an objector yet served on the front as their alternate service. The presentation and links provided gave me information on the process of asking for objector status, but what I wanted to focus on was what that would have meant for my main character. I got the technical aspects of being a stretcher bearer from my copy of the 1917 Service Manual for Sanitation Troops; however, I was more interested in what that duty would involve. For that, I turned to my copy of Ambulancing on the French Front by Edward Coyle.

Coyle was an American who, in 1917, decided to join the American Red Cross in France. In 1918, he published his diaries so Americans could know about the ‘true conditions’ in the war. Although this has been republished, I had an original copy including pictures of conditions at the front. This, and my collection of postcards of the period, provided the story’s visual elements. While the Sanitation Troops Manual told me how evacuation was supposed to be done, Coyle’s story told me how it occurred on the battlefield. In addition, the incident he related in the “Kamerad” chapter was the basis for one of the significant scenes in the story. 

Having set the plot and the visual framework, I wanted to evoke other senses. For these, I went to other accounts. Some, like Graves’ Goodbye to All That, are classics; others that I have were less known. Rereading their accounts of trenches, two conditions were evident – the noise and the smell. Common to all accounts was the constant background of artillery, even when a sector was not in combat. Based on my time in the service (especially at gunnery training), I knew my main character would also hear sounds from the troops in the trench. The result was the line, “There was nothing quiet about this ‘quiet sector.’ Distant artillery echoed off the clouds while the trenches were filled with conversations, snores, and the groans of the men in the Aid Post awaiting evacuation.” 

Next, I wanted to give a sense of the smells. Since trench warfare is not common, I could not call on my experience, so I again referred to the contemporary accounts in diaries. Officer accounts, such as Graves’, tended not to include descriptions of the smells; however, ordinary soldiers did. Typical to their descriptions was the presence of mud, rot, and rats. These were also present in sewers inspired me to write, “The trench smelled like the open sewer it resembled.” 

So while history gave me the skeleton of events, it was the personal accounts that let me add flesh and sinew to the body of the work

Many thanks, Mike. You’ve highlighted an important source for world building along with the significance of portraying each one of the senses.

Mike is a contributor to Chiaroscuro: An Anthology of Virtue and Vice

In art, chiaroscuro is a technique that explores the interplay of light and dark through stark contrasts. In the same way, this anthology explores virtue and vice and the interconnectedness between these two ends of the morality spectrum. A virtue taken to excess transforms into vice; a vice in the right circumstances becomes virtuous. Via poetry and prose, Chiaroscuro will take you on a journey through light and dark, right and wrong, good and evil, and the spaces in between.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW  A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order 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 www.mktod.com.