Favourite WWI Novels

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Not long ago I posted Favourite WWI Novels – A Teaser, which included just a few of the novels readers mentioned in a survey of WWI fiction. I’ve now tabulated all 296 responses (over 600 books cited) to discover that readers mentioned 223 different books!

Drumroll please … the top six books are:

  1. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (43 mentions)
  2. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (42)
  3. Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker (36)
  4. Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear (29)
  5. Fall of Giants by Ken Follett (23)
  6. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (19)

In addition, Charles Todd’s various novels from the Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford series were mentioned 29 times.

After A Farewell to Arms, numbers fall off to 9 mentions for each of Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery and War Horse by Michael Morpurgo.

When time permits, I’ll publish a complete list of novels recommended by readers.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

 

All in the Name of Research by Claire Scobie

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Ah, India! Who can resist the lure of that magical country? I’ve had the privilege of visiting India on three separate occasions so when I discovered that Claire Scobie was prepared to guest post on the topic of researching for her novel The Pagoda Tree, I leapt at the chance.

All in the name of research by Claire Scobie

You never know what you’re going to do when you research a book but for The Pagoda Tree, I’ve shared my hotel room with a large rat; drove all night from Delhi to Pushkar in search of the perfect crumbling palace; trespassed and was chased by an Indian security guard; had a parrot read my fortune and most enjoyable of all, wore a sari.

I also met a prince in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu where much of the novel is set. I expected pomp and ceremony but Babaji Rajah Bhonsle is a modern prince – he’s on LinkedIn – and he arrived in beige slacks and a pressed white shirt.

As we sipped a cup of sweet Indian chai, he mentioned we were sitting in the wood-panelled harem where my character Palani, based on the real courtesan and poet, Muddulpalani, would have written her bold, sexy poetry. It was a wonderful art-meets-life moment.

A few days later I found myself on the back of a bullock cart heading to an outlying village to celebrate the spring festival of Pongal, Tamil New Year. The following morning I got a call from one of the prince’s aides to say my picture was in The Hindu on page three.

‘Madam,’ the aide said, ‘you are most elegant on the back of a bullock cart.’ Only in India would you hear that combination of words!

English novelist Sarah Waters once described how her characters seemed to ‘come out of the mist’ of the historical material once she’d done enough. But how much is enough?

Through my four years research and several trips back and forth to the region, I coined the phrase ‘doing history with my feet’ as a way to piece together the lives of my characters.

The novel is largely told through the eyes of a temple dancing girl, or devadasi, named Maya. It is expected that the young Maya will have an extraordinary career as a royal courtesan for the Prince of Thanjavur himself. But the year is 1765 and India is on the cusp of change as British power rises to new heights. I deliberately chose to set my novel in this period because there was a possibility of exchange between East and West. The cross-cultural relations and conflicts also provided great tension for the plot.

I started in all the obvious places: online and in libraries. But from the outset I knew that the India Office Records in the British Library in London would only provide part of my story.

In general, archives are written by the victors – usually men. In my novel I was trying to show the slant of history and give a little known perspective from Indian women of the period.

To get a sense of how my characters lived and breathed, I retraced the steps that my fictional character Maya would have walked. I saw the inscription on the walls of the eleventh-century ‘Big Temple’ in Thanjavur detailing the names and addresses of 400 devadasis brought there for its inauguration.

I also sat in on classical dance classes; interviewed a Tollywood – the Tamil version of Bollywood – star and hung out with the ‘Queen of Higginbotham’s’. With her smeared black-kohl eyes, this lady had worked for decades at Higginbotham’s bookshop, a Chennai institution. She loaded me up with books and sent me to Adyar Library across the other side of the city.

Even though the rules changed each time I visited the library – I was allowed in as long as I was barefoot and didn’t plug in my laptop – it was worth it for the discovery of some rare eighteenth-century Tamil texts.

In Chennai I also visited Fort St George where the East India Company first established their base and my character Thomas Pearce arrived as a young clerk. I also located one of the few eighteenth-century ‘garden houses’ that hadn’t been demolished for redevelopment.

As I criss-crossed the chaotic city, each rickshaw ride became more terrifying than the last. On my last night, an early monsoonal downpour hit as we were crossing a flyover. There were no windscreen wipers and the rickshaw driver could see nothing ahead. All around the water levels rose. The man revved up the engine and hammered it home, squeezing between buses, bumping through potholes. As he pulled up outside my guesthouse, I cheered. In India it pays to be grateful for the small things.

Wow, Claire, you’ve had such fascinating experiences. Thanks for sharing them. You are way more adventurous than I am!! I’m sure readers will be enchanted by The Pagoda Tree.

The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie – Love, loss, fate, and exile: a tale of two cultures colliding in 18th-century India

Maya plays among the towering granite temples in the ancient city of Tanjore. Like her mother before her, she is destined to become a devadasi, a dancer for the temple, and her family all expect that the prince himself will choose her as a courtesan. On the day of her initiation, a stranger arrives in town. Walter Sutcliffe, a black-frocked English clergyman, strives to offer moral guidance to the British troops stationed in Tanjore. But he is beset by his own demons.

As the British tear apart the princely kingdoms of India, Maya flees her ancestral home and heads to the steamy port city of Madras.

When the shrieks of parrots fill the skies at dusk, Maya bows to the earth and starts to dance. Thomas Pearce, an ambitious young Englishman, is entranced from the moment he first sees her. But their love is forbidden and the consequences are devastating.

Unfolding amid war and famine, The Pagoda Tree takes us deep into the heart of India as the country struggles under brutal occupation. As cultures collide, Walter Sutcliffe unknowingly plays the decisive card in Maya’s destiny.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Alice Network with Kate Quinn

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What book am I recommending these days when friends ask? The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Why? Because it grabbed me from the very start and wouldn’t let go. And what special ingredients does it have? Flawed, heroic, and intriguing characters – check. Tension that builds and builds – check. A superb sense of history and setting – check. Strong writing – check. An immersive experience – check. A flawless weaving of two timelines – check. What more could you ask for?

Better still, Kate Quinn has graciously agreed to answer a few questions about The Alice Network and her writing.

Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for The Alice Network?

I first came across the historic Alice Network in a fantastic non-fiction book called “Women Heroes of WWI” by Kathryn J. Atwood, and was astounded that I’d never heard of this spy network or its brave operatives before. It was a story that begged to be told.

Eve and Charlie are powerful characters – do you use any special techniques to outline your characters in advance? And if so, how did you decide on the attributes for these two women?

I do a lot of outlining with Scrivener in advance, tracing character arcs, background, inner wounds, etc. I knew I wanted Charlie to be pregnant and unmarried, because that was an effective catalyst to get her to Europe and because it gave her story emotional ballast–being an unwed mother is a huge problem to overcome in the 40s! And it was my husband’s idea to give Eve a stammer; he has a similar speech impediment, and has faced many of the same struggles Eve does. I loved the idea of having a heroine with a speech problem–taking what could be a weakness, and weaponizing it into an advantage as she lets people underestimate her.

Writing a dual-timeline novel is challenging. How did you keep your plot organized and ensure that the pacing flowed effectively back and forth?

I plotted out each timeline separately first, A-Z, then intercut them as I wrote, going back and forth from chapter to chapter. Plotting each timeline out separately kept them organized, and then going back and forth as I wrote made it easier to tease out the parallels between plotlines.

What did you leave out of the novel – scenes that went by the wayside? Characters you discarded?

Quite late in the editing process, I came across some wonderful information about real life members of the Alice Network–all through letters discovered in family archives by their modern-day descendants. These real-life figures make tiny cameos in the book, but I’d have loved to make them bigger characters with more story and plot. If I hadn’t been 5/6 finished with final edits, I would have!

You’ve previously written about ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance – what made you change time periods? Were WWI and WWII easier eras to tackle?

I’ve never been a one-era-only writer; I’ve always had potential story ideas set all the way from the ancient world to the 20th century. So when I saw the recent boom in 20th century war fiction, it made sense to revisit some of those ideas (“Book about a female spy…? Use a real spy…?”) and see if anything took off in my imagination once I started researching. And it did!

Many thanks for answering my questions, Kate. I’m sure both readers and writers will find your experiences fascinating.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, code name Alice, the “queen of spies,” who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. That is until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth . . . no matter where it leads.

 

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.