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.


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.


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

Writing for Young Adults

Vali Benson had her first novel, Blood and Silver, published in 2020. The book has won awards at the San Francisco Book Festival, the New York Book Festival, the Arizona Literary Awards, the Paris Book Festival, the Moonbeam Book Awards, and the 2021 American Fiction Awards. Phew – that’s a lot of awards! Blood and Silver is young adult fiction and I invited Vali to chat about writing for young adults.


As a lifelong reader, I often thought, “I could do better than that”. So, I decided to finally do something about it. The problem was I wasn’t sure what demographic I wanted to pursue. Then I remembered how important reading was to me as a teenager. It provided acceptance when I couldn’t find any in the real world. So, I decided to craft a story that featured a resilient young character who is forced to deal with issues that far surpass her age. And since I have always loved period pieces, I decided to set my story in the old west. It is called Blood and Silver.  

Blood and Silver is my first book. It is a young adult historical fiction novel about a twelve-year-old girl in 1880’s Tombstone, AZ who runs into all kinds of trouble trying to save her mother’s life. I like to think it has an entertaining combination of history and heart. The inspiration for Blood and Silver was formed from family outings. When our boys were little, my husband and I used to take them to Tombstone for the Wild West show. I was amazed when I learned that this little town of just over thirteen hundred residents had once been a boomtown of fifteen thousand. I couldn’t imagine it, but I knew there had to be a great story there.   

I was shocked when my book started winning awards. I’ve won several in the “young adult” category which confounded me a bit because I was not sure if it fit the traditional definition of the genre. I wrote Blood and Silver thinking of a twelve-year-old girl because that is the age of my heroine. I thought about myself at twelve. I had just finished reading Gone with the Wind for the third time (I was obsessed!). My mother had not thought it appropriate for a twelve-year-old due to the subject manner. I fell into the same quandary with Blood and Silver.     

My twelve-year-old heroine lives in a brothel with her mother, who is addicted to opium. Sadly, many children these days are facing a challenge similar to this, especially teenagers.  When I thought about my demographic with that perspective, it eased my reservations. Like my heroine, Carissa, many children today are living lives where they are forced to be the adults. Their parents are drug addicted or alcoholic, or simply unable to raise their children. Yes, there are young people who might be confused about Carissa’s situation, but I  think that most teens today know much more than we adults did at that age.  

I was concerned at first about the “young adult” label. However, I have received numerous comments praising my handling of very delicate subjects. I remember one early review in particular which stated, “Blood and Silver by Vali Benson is entertaining and heartbreaking. This is the kind of young adult fiction that needs to become more popular.” Feedback like this helped validate my belief that my story fits nicely within the young adult category. The main reason I believe is because Blood and Silver grants the young adult reader the respect to deal with mature issues while not subjecting them to the explicit details.      

It is very important to write with your audience in mind. Writing for young adults can be tricky because certain concepts and notions will not resonate although they can be vaguely understood. The author must remember that the readers are not fully formed individuals yet. But they are not kids either. Give them credit for knowing what’s what in the world. The genre of young adult does not have to be dumbed down simply because the target demographic does not have as much life experience.

Many thanks, Vali and congratulations for writing this award-winning novel. Hopefully, you will soon have another one ‘out there’.

Blood and Silver by Vali Benson ~~ What is a twelve year old girl to do when she finds herself in the silver boom town of Tombstone, Arizona, in 1880, and her only home is a brothel and her only parent is a drug-addicted mother? If she is Carissa Beaumont, she outsmarts the evil madam and figures a way out.

“Blood and Silver” is a clever page turner with a witty young heroine set against an actual place and time in history. Dripping with suspense, charm and perseverance, it has been described as “both heartbreaking and heartwarming”. The narrative also features very identifiable issues. As opposed to so much Y/A fiction, “Blood and Silver”  is entertaining in a very relatable way with the benefit of a historically accurate perspective. According to Rabia Tanveer of Readers’ Favorite, it “is the kind of young adult fiction that needs to become more popular”. With a host of colorful characters and meticulous attention to period detail, “Blood and Silver” is a story of the best and worst of human nature, the passion for survival and the beauty of true friendship.

Buy Links:
Barnes & Noble:


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

The Seeds of Exiled South

Author Harriet Cannon and I connect during an author talk I gave last October. Harriet’s latest novel EXILED SOUTH released January 3rd, 2022. Exiled South is a dual time-line story of a twenty first century woman’s reckoning with Civil War era events that split her family for generations. The story features nursing during the late American Civil war and in particular during the Siege of Charleston South Carolina.


The seeds of Exiled South, a dual time-line contemporary-nineteenth century novel, germinated for years. I grew up in a history loving, storytelling family. My mother inherited a bundle of family Civil War era letters. My father’s mother told and re-told her grandmother’s story of sacrificing wedding pearls and a ring in 1864 to save her fourteen- year-old son from the draft and certain death. Her son departed Charleston harbor on a ship headed for the Bahama Islands and was never heard from again. Years later, while living in South America, I learned the obscure story of the Confederados; Former blockade runners, skilled Black tradesmen, and others with reasons to flee the South immigrated to Brazil after the Civil War. I was hooked. I decided to write a novel about far-reaching consequences for civilians reeled into in a war they may not have agreed with. 

It was a challenge to write a mid-nineteenth century character like my protagonist Laurette, keeping her true to the mind-set of the era while concurrently creating a forward-thinking woman with gumption. I read a plethora of fascinating nineteenth century diaries and collections of letters written by well-educated Southern White women; tutored at home or allowed to attend the new academies for girls. While some women had strong social reform or political opinions, the freedom to speak out or act independently was heavily restricted by the rigid Victorian rules of gender comportment. Rare exceptions such as the famous, Grimke Sisters, overt suffragettes, and abolitionists, with wealth and social status behind them could step outside the boundary of homemaking and childrearing. 

An additional challenge creating Laurette’s character was the fact, in the South, in the 1860’s, female ‘nurses’ were widows or older married women who had experienced death and dying in the family and knew The Ladies Indispensable Assistant inside out. Younger single women visited hospitals to write letters and read to patients but it could ruin a unmarried woman’s reputation to physically minister to unrelated men. 

When the siege of Charleston began, people of means fled the city in the ‘grand skedaddle’ of July 1863. The remaining women, children, old or disabled White and Black men lived through Federal bombardment from Morris Island for 567 days. Food insecurity became the norm. Life threatening random rockets exploding on the peninsula kept farmers from supplying Charleston with fresh food with any regularity. Making matters worse, as the South was desperate for military supplies from Great Britain, fewer blockade runners could justify adding civilian necessities like muslin for clothing, thread, medicines, and kerosine for lamps to their cargo. 

However, the Siege relaxed social rules giving my protagonist Laurette the opportunity to work at the hospital nursing male patients. I created a backstory that would make sense when she knew to use snapdragon for skin rashes, tea of slippery elm for whopping cough and the inner bark of the dogwood tree as a replacement for quinine when it became unavailable. Laurette acquired knowledge of herbs and plants because her father had been a no nonsense practical Scottish immigrant with a chronically ill wife. When Laurette showed interest in the healing arts, he gave her permission to study ‘Hoodoo Medicine’ from a free Black woman and local midwife. 

Although racism was exceptionally cruel in the nineteenth century, it was not unusual for Black and White women to assist each other in childbirth, caretaking of sick children and to share herbal remedies. In her book, Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies, Faith Mitchell discusses not only the medicinal knowledge enslaved women brought to North America, but she also compares the similarity between European, Native American, and African plants and trees used for healing various ailments.

Serendipitously, in the mid nineteenth century, native flora and fauna had become popular additions to the fashionable home garden. The naturalist, Dr. Francis Porcher, published Resources of Southern Fields and Forests in 1863. His book became a go to medical guide in the late Civil War when opium for pain, quinine for fevers and chloroform for surgery were impossible to come by. 

But finding the plants and herbs needed wasn’t easy during the siege of Charleston. Laurette’s diary entries tell how she and another herbalist, risked rape by deserters hiding in bombed out buildings as they sought out plants they needed in abandoned gardens. 

Dr. Porcher’s book became a bonding vehicle for Laurette and her brother-in-law, John, who considered himself a modern scientific physician. In his mind, Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, written by a doctor, justified using herbs and elevated his unmarried sister-in-law to the position of a colleague making her plant-based recipes legitimate treatments not old fashion folk medicine. Although Laurette’s skill as a nurse herbalist brought her respect, the consequences for the choices she made on behalf of her patients forced her to join the diaspora of Southerners who immigrate to Brazil at the war’s end.

Read more about Exiled South at

A few interesting books on the practice of medicine during the Civil War Era:

  • Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies, Faith Mitchell
  • Kate: The Journal of a Confederate Nurse, Kate Cummins edited by Richard Harwell
  • The Ladies Indispensable Assistant, E. Hutchinson (1851)
  • Motherhood in the Old South: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infant Rearing, by Sally G. McMillen
  • Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Dr. Francis Porcher (1863)
  • Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex and the Civil War, Thomas P. Lowry
  • Unvanquished: How Confederate Women Survived the Civil War, Pippa Pralen

It’s fascinating that there are so many untold stories out there waiting to be discovered. Many thanks for sharing the backstory for Exiled South, Harriet. I know your audience will enjoy the way you’ve brought authenticity and inspiration to the novel.

Exiled South by Harriet Cannon ~~ Lizbeth Gordon, a school counselor and master at facilitating conflict resolution in everyone’s life but her own, returns home to South Carolina after her husband’s sudden death. An elderly aunt has troubling stories of ancestors who disappeared during Civil War Reconstruction. Curiosity drives Lizbeth into roots research that dead ends. 

But tentacles of family history reach across the continents when Lizbeth takes a job at an international school in Rio de Janeiro. She meets multiethnic descendants of Confederate exiles with her surname and nineteenth-century documents. Robert Gordon’s letters describe bold escapes from Federal blockaders and Civil War intrigue in Scotland. His sister, Laurette Gordon, left a diary that shares a heart-wrenching story of sacrifice that insured her daughter’s life would be free of shame. Will the keys to family secrets help Lizbeth open a door to family reconciliation?

A story of family identity and second chances.


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