Inside Historical Fiction with Mark Sullivan

Some time ago, I created a theme called Inside Historical Fiction. The idea was to develop insights into what makes historical fiction unique through interviews with authors and some of my own analysis. To my delight, Mark Sullivan – the author of the very well received novel, Beneath a Scarlet Sky – was one of those authors. Ever since, his interview has been a perennially popular post.

Mark Sullivan, author of the newly released WWII novel Beneath a Scarlet Sky, has graciously agreed to give his perspective on writing historical fiction. Mark is the bestselling author of 18 novels – imagine that 18 novels! – including the popular Private series. His works have been named a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year.

Q: What are the magic ingredients that make historical novels so unforgettable and irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical writers do to “get it right”?

A: The best historical novels transport the reader to another time and place so convincingly that it is like being swept away. If it’s done right, a historical novel can be an unforgettable experience, truly magical. There’s the sheer novelty of the setting and characters, and you can feel that the author understands her world cold. But that alone won’t do it. The best historical writers get in the minds of their characters in accordance with their times and then plumb the human emotions that are timeless.

Q: Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

A: I don’t think they are inherently different. All novels function as dramas no matter the setting. The key in either historical or contemporary novels is to show the characters being active in the context of their culture. Now, one author’s book might take place in the long ago, and another’s might unfold the day after tomorrow, but the challenge for both is to illuminate the human spirit in ways we have never seen before.

Q: In writing Beneath a Scarlet Sky, what research and techniques did you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters were true to the time period? Do you have any particularly memorable anecdotes from the research you did for this book?

A: I was lucky that Beneath a Scarlet Sky is based on a true, untold story of World War II Italy. I was also blessed that Pino Lella, the hero, was still alive.

I first went to Milan to hear his tale in late March 2006. I spent nearly three weeks with Pino, who was 79 at the time. We went all over northern Italy so I could see where many of the incidents he described had occurred. We drove high into the Alps and visited the site of a Catholic boys’ school that served as a staging facility for Jews escaping Nazi-occupied Italy. Pino was the guide who led them over the Alps into Switzerland during the winter of 1943-44. I climbed and skied the escape routes myself. In Milan, we met with a retired priest who’d been a forger in the underground railroad that led Jews out of Italy, and we walked the streets of the fashion district where Pino had grown up. We talked to Holocaust historians, war historians, and old men who’d been part of the partisan resistance.

Over the course of the next nine years, I spent two weeks in the German war archives in Berlin and Friedrichsburg, a week in the U.S. National Archives, and three more weeks in Germany and Italy trying to get it right. The culmination of that effort took place in 2015, when I was able to interview the dying daughter of the powerful Nazi general who complicates the heart of Pino’s story, and I understood for the first time why the general was not tried for war crimes at Nuremberg.

Q: When writing a novel based on a true story, what aspects of the past do you feel the need to remain faithful to when you are building that world for your readers, and what aspects of the truth are you allowed to stretch?

A: Again, in my case, I had the spine of the story Pino Lella laid out for me. And I was able to put in years of research before I started to write. Still, so many people had died by the time I heard the story, and the Nazis had been so efficient in burning their documents in the last days of the war, that I realized that there were certain events that I would never fully understand. In those instances, I relied on my informed suspicions to imagine events as they were likely to have occurred in order to give the book more narrative coherence.

Above all, I focused on the emotional experience of the story. I wanted readers to be moved in the same way I was hearing Pino’s tale for the first time. To that end, I used every skill in my possession to make the story even more compelling and moving.

Q: Can you tell us a little about Beneath a Scarlet Sky and what you find so compelling about the WWII era?

A: Beneath a Scarlet Sky is based on the true story of Pino Lella, a 17-year-old Italian boy who led Jews escaping the Nazis over the Alps, became a spy inside the German High Command, and fell in love with a woman who would haunt him the rest of his life.

The WWII era was a time when courage was common. There were also clear and defined enemies who forced one person after another to decide who they were going to be and how they were going to act in the face of evil. That, to me, is what makes it so compelling.

I was also fascinated by the story of the war in Italy and how little you hear about it. The more I learned, the more I was convinced I had to write this book.

Mark, you’ve given us a fascinating look at your writing process. Clearly, you are passionate about Pino Lella’s story. Thank you for sharing some of it with us.

PS from August 2022 … I have now read Beneath a Scarlet Sky and it is truly one of those stories that takes your breath away with its characters, the reality of their time, the heroism of individuals, and the brutality of others.

BENEATH A SCARLET SKY is #1 New York Times bestseller Mark Sullivan’s riveting new tale of extraordinary courage and tragic star-crossed love during the Nazi occupation of Italy—“The Forgotten Front” of World War II.

New York Times bestselling author James Patterson raves that this novel is “an incredible story, beautifully-written, and a fine and noble book.”

Based on the true story of the unlikeliest of heroes, BENEATH A SCARLET SKY follows 17-year-old Pino Lella as he helps lead Jews out of Italy along an underground railroad through the Alps and, later, when he is recruited to become a spy for the Italian Resistance. Working undercover, Pino gains access to some of the most powerful men in Germany but also witnesses the atrocities of the war firsthand.

Mark Sullivan conducted hours of interviews with the real Pino Lella while researching this novel, and the two became dear friends in the process. Mark is the bestselling author of 18 novels, including the wildly popular Private series. His works have been named a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, 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

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Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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