Somewhere in France – 25th March 1916


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Apparently there’s a song: When Verey Lights are Shining to the tun of When Irish Eyes are Smiling

Henry Tod is in the trenches once again …

25th March 1916

I am writing this from the trenches  in a fairly good dug-out, full at the moment with slumbering forms and they make a fine orchestra. We have had a lot more snow and things are as bad as ever. However, things are pretty quiet over the way, [I assume he means the German lines] except for rifle grenades. a comparatively new toy, which are always coming over and find a victim now and again. We of course retaliate in kind, but exact results unknown.

I was out last night with a party putting up a fresh belt of wire in advance of our existing wire, which is too near our trenches and in rather damaged condition. It was quite exciting while it lasted; it always is in the middle of no man’s land. [Henry is such an understated guy.] All went well for the first hour or so and we had done about 30 yards when they heard us and sent up one of their Verey lights [flares]. This was followed by a burst of rifle fire but we got down in time and the shooting moreover was pretty bad. We lay low until they shut up then resumed operations.

Again they spotted us and this time they opened on us with a couple of machine guns. We got down flat as pancakes and those who could rolled into the nearest shell-holes. There they kept us quite a long time while they played up and down our pitch and sending up plenty of flares.

They were firing a shade high and the bullets were splattering the sandbags of our parapet and pinging the wire just inches above us. As long as we didn’t move we were all right as it is difficult to spot immovable objects in the dark, and the light rockets give you some warning before bursting into light. There were fifteen of us and scattered all over the place and the next thing was to get them in when the chance offered.

When they [the Germans] had expended enough ammunition to wipe out an army corps, they ceased firing and after ascertaining we had no casualties, I gave the word to get back into the trench. It was a job in itself to get through our own barbed wire and as pants and puttees ripped the language was something dreadful. I am glad the damage was no worse and so was the captain who was anxiously awaiting us on the forested. I am now second in command of the company but suppose my second star (full loot) will arrive sometime after the war is over.

Our engineers have a mine ready to blow just in front of us and are only waiting for the Germans to resume work in their counter mine before doing the trick. Meantime we have been warned what to do when it does go bang, and that is to occupy the near lip of the crater [I wrote about an action like this in Time and Regret – wish I’d had these letters then]. This is quite an operation as the mine is in enemy territory. Three separate parties will rush out, the first being the bombing party to keep the crater clear of the enemy, followed by two digging parties, one to dig the bombers in and the other to make a communication trench out to the crater. I am to be in charge of the last lot. We are being relieved tomorrow and I think we are all rather hoping the job will be left to our successors! Well, I am for duty now in the cold dark night for a couple of hours, so will close with love to all.

Imagine how vulnerable they would feel working out in no man’s land with flares going up and rifles firing at them.

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

From English teacher to author


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Deb Peterson has been a Facebook friend for quite some time and has been on the blog before as Delaney Green (more about that in a moment). She is the author of the Jem books, about a girl with Second Sight who grows up in the years between the Seven Years’ War and the American War of Independence. Today she shares her path to becoming an author.

You asked why I write under a pseudonym.

I write under a pseudonym because, first, my given name is rather common, and I wanted it to be easier for readers to Google me. Second, I wanted a division between my public and private life, especially on social media, so I could keep writerly stuff on my writer sites and personal stuff on my personal site. Last—and how’s this for hubris?—I assumed I’d be so well known one day that crazy fans would seek me out, and I didn’t want to have to move to a secluded house in the country away from my current neighbors and a neighborhood I enjoy, especially after spending 20 years rehabbing my house until it’s just the way I like it.

What sort of career did you have before becoming a writer?

I’ve had a lot of jobs—newspaper reporter, copy editor, professional actress, Broadway theater concessions manager, adjunct professor, farm laborer—but my career for 25 years was high school English teacher. That job was a privilege. It was a marathon. I didn’t much care for all the grading I had to do (one year of work at home for every year I spent at school, and I’m not even kidding—I did the math), but you do what you have to do so kids learn. Teaching was excellent training for what I do now:

  • You have to be disciplined enough to do your work consistently and well, because you face people every single day who need you to be there for them with your A game.
  • As a teacher, you have to know where you’re going and plan, just as you do with a novel.
  • You have to figure out multiple ways to get a student from point A to point B, as a writer must do with both plot and character development.
  • Teachers have to be able to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing in the classroom to parents, principals, peers, and students—again, an aid to crafting plot.
  • A teacher experiences humans in triumph and in crisis, another aid to character development.
  • On top of that, I taught literature: Dante’s Inferno, The Iliad and The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, Shakespeare—it was a 25-year deep dive into classic literature. Invaluable.

Was there a triggering event that prompted you to begin writing?

Before I knew how to read and write, I was drawing pictures, and every picture had a story. As soon as I learned to read, I read every book on the shelf. I never thought a regular person like me could/would be allowed to write an actual story, but I wrote and illustrated one anyway in grade four. I had a poem published in a national magazine in grade seven. I wrote a ton in high school and started a creative writing magazine. I didn’t really have a triggering event. I have always invented stories. But I will say that I simply could not write when I was a single mom teaching full time, rehabbing our house, and directing the theater program at my school. I had to sleep in my spare time!

Do you now write full time or part time?

Normally, I get up every morning and write for four or five hours, so that’s only 30-ish hours a week—not really full time. I also coach writers at a local college about eight hours a week. And I still sub in the local schools once in a while because I still need a kid fix now and again. Right now, I have been waiting five months for my editor in London to finish editing my latest novel in the Jem series (Jem, a Foreigner in Philadelphia), so I have been working on a mystery novel, a novel about trolls, and on short stories. I’m delighted to report that I just had two stories accepted for publication, one by Black Dandy (New Zealand) and one by New A third story made the long list in an inaugural competition sponsored by The Woolf of Switzerland—I’ll hear about that one in early February.

What parts of the writing career do you enjoy the most/the least?

In the last two years before I retired, I got up two hours before work to write—but I always had to quit and get ready for school. Now, it’s an immense joy to be able to get up and go straight to my desk with a cup of coffee and work without having to stop. Honestly, I don’t dislike anything: I love the research, I love crafting a story, and I love editing. I feel so blessed to be able to do what I do.

What parts of your former career do you miss/not miss?

I miss the kids. As I said, I still sub now and again because kids are refreshing—and I fall right back into “I truly see and appreciate you” mode when I’m with them. Kids know if you really care about them or not. I do care. I always will.

I do not miss the incredible amounts of time I spent grading papers. I do not miss interacting with difficult parents who apparently birthed little gods and goddesses rather than human children. I do not miss being demonized in the press and the resultant political crippling of my profession.

Do you have any regrets?

I regret not getting up at 4 a.m. years earlier.

What advice would you offer other second career writers?

My advice is simple: START. Just start. Don’t spend weeks or months looking for the perfect pen, perfect office chair, perfect time of day, perfect routine, perfect time of life. Don’t say, “I’ll start tomorrow” because you may not get tomorrow. If you want to write, write NOW. I wonder what I might have produced if I had developed those hundreds of story ideas I had over the years that I jotted down on bits of paper I subsequently lost. Or the stories I made up for my son on the fly at bedtime; one year, I made up a 24-chapter story about an elf whose adventures led up to Christmas Day. Oh, how I wish I’d written down that story! What other marvelous stories never got written, and never will get written, because I didn’t put them down on paper? Please, dear reader, pick up one of your slips of paper and WRITE THAT STORY TODAY.

Many thanks, Deb. Wish I had the exposure to classics that you’ve had – although I doubt I could have handled a group of high school students! Wishing you success with your next Jem novel.

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

Engineers really can write


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J.B. Rivard was on the blog in 2017 giving his view on what makes historical fiction tick. He’s back today to share the career he had before becoming an author.

What sort of career did you have before becoming a writer?

My years at Mishawaka High School (Mishawaka, Indiana) were supposed to prepare me for college. But then the North Koreans invaded the South. I was drafted, and opted to serve in the U.S. Navy. I was trained in and then taught radio navigation to cadets trying to earn their wings as Navy pilots.

After the war, I finished college with an engineering degree that enabled me to join the technical staff of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Early on at the Labs I served on a radar crew during Operation Dominic’s test explosions of nuclear weapons off the island of Kiritimati (then known as Christmas) in the central Pacific Ocean. Afterwards my job evolved into research on the safety aspects of nuclear reactors, operational power plants as well as advanced concepts employing, for example, sodium-cooled fast reactors.

Was there a triggering event that prompted you to begin writing?

Not really. During my years at the Labs, the bulk of my work resulted in written reports and technical papers, some of which are still listed on Google Scholar. My almost-daily assignment was stating my findings, technical to be sure, in language that might be understood by my bosses and their bosses at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C.—not an easy task, but one that saw my syntactical abilities tested. After twenty-five years of this often-stressful work, I retired with the title Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff (DMTS).

Seeking broader experience, I created and ran an etching workshop for several years, then moved to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico where I worked as civics and political reporter for the South Jetty newspaper and as a ‘stringer’ writing features for WorkBoat, a New Orleans maritime publication. During this period I also served briefly as a mate on a charter fishing boat and crewed on “Bearcat,” a 65-ft workboat serving offshore drilling rigs and other maritime needs.

Do you now write full time or part time?

In 1990 my late wife read the beginnings of a short story and declared I ‘must’ turn it into a novel. Despite assuring her I didn’t have the needed patience, I soon began writing long-form fiction. For that decade following 1990, I struggled through a number of novels, none of which were better than adequate, and several of which were never finished.

Except for periods devoted to artwork and time spent in nautical activities, most of the past 27 years have been occupied writing—as an employee, freelancing, or speculatively.

Early in the 21st century I was inspired to write an historical novel of Chicago, or as I hoped at the time, THE Chicago novel. After four drafts, I considered The Heedless Spring publishable, but agents were massively indifferent. By 2010, I’d shelved the book and turned to writing music and pop songs.

In 2014, however, Anya Carlson read the Heedless manuscript and said I could do better. I planned a total rewrite without changing the thrust of the story, remedying what I thought were the novel’s weaknesses, including its first-person narration. The rewrite resulted in 2016’s Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago, which I also illustrated.

Currently I write a bimonthly blog on the website  I am also working on another illustrated novel in a different genre.

What parts of the writing career do you enjoy the most/the least?

To me, writing is a very satisfying challenge, with the accent on ‘challenge.’ I also thoroughly enjoy my ability to illustrate my writing.

Unfortunately, although this is the age of the indie author with almost unlimited publishing opportunities, it is also the age of volcanic overproduction of unedited books. Whatever the merits of one’s thoughtfully-conceived, lovingly-written and carefully-edited novel, securing readers for it within this mountainous glut is daunting. Illusions of Magic has earned positive editorial reviews, yet its readership is sparse. What the digital revolution has not changed is that powerhouse publishers are still able to sink millions supporting their selections along the road to massive readership and recognition.

What parts of your former career do you miss/not miss?

Success in technological work largely results from aptitude, study, application, and the high quality of the resulting work product. At the Labs it was not forbiddingly difficult to attain ‘expert’ status, garnering kudos and presenting results throughout the U.S. and overseas at seminars, think tanks and before government bureaucrats.

It’s not the same in the creative arts. In any quest for recognition, whether in writing, painting, poetry, etc., excellence of the product is necessary, but woefully insufficient. One’s efforts are as likely to be ignored as to be honored.

On the other hand, each day I’m excited to attack my latest project—a satisfying emotion that was often absent in my previous, high-tech worlds.

Do you have any regrets?

I think many more readers would enjoy my Illusions novel, but knowledge of its existence, not to say merit, is not widespread. I don’t regret the writing and publishing, but this deficiency is disappointing.

What advice would you offer other second-career writers?

Thanks to improved health, longer lifespans and increased affluence, second- and even third-careers are now common. In considering novel writing, careful consideration should be accorded the path: seeking agents/publishers vs self-publishing. Neither path is simple, easy or lacking in pitfalls for the unwary tyro. If recognition is the goal of a follow-on career, I would not advise choosing novel-writing. A better choice would be an alternative where reaching a nexus between effort and reward is more straightforward. However, if the ability to choose your topic and treatment, and the freedom to pursue them are absolutely paramount, a career as a novelist is very hard to beat.

Many thanks for sharing your story, J.B. I remember when my husband studied engineering, he took a class on technical writing. The implication at the time was that engineers struggled to write well – you’re definitely an exception.

Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago by J.B. Rivard

The withering of vaudeville was bad enough in 1933. Because of the Great Depression, bookings for stage magician Nick Zetner disappeared. With his marriage cracking under the strain, Nick reluctantly accepts a devious banker’s deal: He earns a generous reward if he retrieves photos stolen during a break-in at the bank. Along the way, a love he thought he’d forever lost reappears. Despite his skill in the arts of magic, penetrating the realm of the thieves grows increasingly perilous, especially when it endangers his newfound romance.

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