Interview with JoAnn Smith Ainsworth

JoAnn Smith Ainsworth experienced food ration books, Victory Gardens, and black-out sirens as a child in WWII. These memories create vivid descriptions of time and place and have enabled JoAnn to write a WWII suspense series that combine fast-paced mystery and paranormal realms as U.S. psychics hunt down Nazi spies. Sounds intriguing doesn’t it?

Why do you write historical fiction? 

To write a contemporary novel would take entirely too much research for me. I am 78 years old. I grew up with grandparents born in the 1880’s, and I have lived a lot of the experiences in my novels. Historical settings are an easy fit for me.

What do you think attracts readers to your books?

Readers tell me they are attracted by my skill in crafting a novel which invokes nail biting suspense.

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?

I am a plotter, not a pantzer. A story does not flow out of me. I craft it bit by bit, starting with the story question set in an historical time and place. This decides the kinds of characters I will create and the problem/crises these characters will face.

How do you select new stories to tell?

I’m writing a series set in WWII wherein the U.S. govt. recruits psychics to find Nazi spies. Expect Trouble, Book 1 of the series, needed a lot of thinking to create a storyline and characters that would logically change and transform over time. Once that work was done, the new stories evolve out of the ones told.

For example, in Book 2 of the series, Expect Deception, the psychics are beginning to work as a team. The Nazi spy is a magician skilled in the black arts so they do need all their skills combined to fight this villain on a paranormal realm. In Expect Betrayal, which I’m writing now, the action moves to war torn England and a British psychic joins the spy search.

What advantages do you think come from concentrating on a period of time or creating a series like you have done?  Any disadvantages?

The advantage of concentrating on WWII is that I was six years old and starting first grade at that time. I remember the feel of the fear when air raid sirens sounded. We turned out all electric lights, covered the windows in the dining room with blankets, sat around the dining room table with a dimmed kerosene lantern for light, and listened to the radio to learn what was going on and when the sirens would sound the all clear.

I remember the food rationing and how the town was drained of young and middle-aged men. Three of my uncles went to war and one didn’t return. All these experiences give historical accuracy of time and place that reviewers notice in my novels.

On the paranormal side, I attended the Berkeley Psychic Institute from 1974-1978. This experience gave me a foundation for creating a variety of characters with psychic talents.

What techniques do you employ to write productively?

I wake each morning without aches and pains, thank God. I exercise over an hour, which includes breathing and meditation exercises, as well as various physical exercises. I then start to write. Because of how focused and intense writing is, I can only write for 3-4 hours. The rest of the day is for admin, marketing, and chores.

Do you think of yourself as having a brand?

I branded myself before I ever submitted a manuscript to a publisher – by colors, fonts, photo, and tag lines ( Although I experimented with genres/sub-genres, my author Voice – how I choose my words, the novel’s pacing and tension – remains the same over all six published novels and that is also my brand. 

What do you do to connect to readers?

For a personal meet-and-greet with readers, I try to get out a couple of times each month to be at book fairs, or do panels and booksignings, or give talks to reader groups and community organizations. I also tweet daily. These tweets feed into Facebook, my website, and a number of social media pages. I put a blog post up on Goodreads each month and do a Goodreads giveaway each quarter.

What do you know about your readers?

My readers enjoy nail-biting suspense wrapped in other worldly experiences at the pace of a thriller, but with the feel of a cozy.

Many thanks for visiting A Writer of History, JoAnn. And best wishes for your WWII series. JoAnn will return with a guest post on combining historical fiction with paranormal elements.

EXPECT DECEPTION – Just when U.S. WAVE Live Delacourt things she and her team of psychic Nazi hunters are ready for whatever the Reich can throw at them, Hitler adds to the mix a spy who also happens to be a wizard. Now, dark magic is being used to attach U.S. facilities and Livvy must match wits with an evil wizard, whose objective is to destroy operation Delphi and all her team. If she fails to ramp up her psychic powers, she may perish–and perhaps cause the U.S. to lose the war with Germany while she’s at it.

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

Inside Historical Fiction with Mary Fillmore

an-address-in-amsterdamMary Fillmore is the author of An Address in Amsterdam, a novel set during WWII. She is neither Dutch nor Jewish and yet has written a story about the Holocaust and the resistance in the Netherlands. Let’s hear what she has to say about historical fiction.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

Historical fiction sparkles and makes magic when it has the usual elements of a good story – the compelling narrative and characters – PLUS a setting that is lifted as completely and accurately as possible from the past. The best historical fiction writers attend to every detail: not just geography and architecture, but what people ate, drank and wore, their sanitary habits or the lack thereof, the kind of social relationships they engaged in.

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

One of the biggest challenges in writing historical fiction is to walk a line between the fallacy of believing that people and their motivations were fundamentally different in the past that they are now – and the fallacy of projecting our own world views backward. I expect contemporary fiction to be situated here and now, to present me with dilemmas I easily recognize from my daily life, to speak in a vernacular that is spoken around me. Historical fiction is much more challenging in that way, because we are trying to reconstruct another world, yet make it recognizable.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

I tried to write a wonderful story that people can learn from, so that, if “the past is prologue,” we can gain courage and strength for our own times by reading about others. In the case of An Address in Amsterdam, I wanted to highlight both how fast a civilized society can deteriorate as it did under the Nazis, and the courage that ordinary people, especially women, showed in resisting that.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

I spent 13 years researching my novel. In addition to reading straight history and going to innumerable museum exhibits, I read many memoirs and had deep conversations with the person I knew who was closest to the experiences of my characters. I asked for feedback from the Dr. Laureen Nussbaum, a friend and contemporary of Margot Frank’s who is also a scholar of this period, and she generously reviewed the manuscript twice. In many long visits to Amsterdam, I wandered the canals and looked for addresses just as my heroine, Rachel Klein, does in her work as a messenger for the underground. I searched out all kinds of places – the headquarters of the bounty hunters who turned in hidden Jews for money, the original home of the Franks before they hid, the Diamond Workers’ Union Headquarters.

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

First, the daily aspects of living the way humans always do: what we eat, what we wear, how we interact, the physical world around us, how we relate to the weather and the other great forces which are around us. But it has to start with the mundane and tangible things a reader can relate to, and identify with or contrast with her or his experience.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

I see more and more excellent books which educate the reader about another time, but which also hold up as “novel novels.” There will always be a strong market for historical romance and other cross-genre books, but I think the more important trend is toward good novels that are also historical. I think of Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, one of my favorites, about brave women working during the Blitz in London, and their lives after the war.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

An Address in Amsterdam is about a young Jewish woman who risks her life in the anti-Nazi underground. Initially, she is a naïve 18 year old who is falling in love with a Gentile university student. After a complex romance, he must disappear because of his political activities, and Rachel herself witnesses the first roundup of 425 Jewish men, and participates in a city-wide strike to protest it. That spark ignites her desire to “do something,” and for the next year and a half she delivers ever more dangerous papers all over the city. When the situation becomes too dangerous, she and her parents hide in a dank basement, where much is revealed.

Many people are interested in the book now because it depicts how swiftly a civilized society can change – and how an ordinary woman who is afraid can still resist.

Thank you for your thoughts on historical fiction, Mary. Wishing you great success with An Address in Amsterdam. As Mary Fillmore said in an email to me, she has always wondered whether she would have colluded passively, collaborated, or resisted. Food for thought on many counts!

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 and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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

Guest post – Jane Bow author of Cally’s Way

Cally's WayJane Bow’s novel Cally’s Way was released in March 2014. She’s here to tell us a bit about the background to the novel Many thanks for being on A Writer of History, Jane.

Living on Crete’s south coast with a rambunctious seventeen-year old daughter for six weeks inspired my novel, Cally’s Way, about a woman in the Cretan Resistance during the Germans‘ brutal occupation in WWII.

Girls all over Greece overcame amazing odds, including their own families‘ ideas about the roles of women, to fight for their country’s freedom. On Crete, in the eastern Mediterranean, they helped save the lives of trapped Allied soldiers. My daughter and I read about the student who carried food past German patrols to two Australians hiding in the Koutaliotis Gorge, and about the girl who rowed a British soldier fifty miles out to Gavdos, an uninhabited island off the coast. Machine gun fire, strafing the boat from the air, opened the soldier’s side. The girl made him lie in the sea water flooding into the boat, to stop the bleeding and keep the wound clean.

Plakias BaySixty years later, hiking on Crete’s mountainsides, we’d see old women dressed in black filling bags tied to their aprons with horta, edible greens. These women had been young during the Second World War. What was it like for them, we wondered?

Inevitably, my daughter met a young, handsome Cretan. Heart in my mouth, I had to watch her ride off into the evening with him on his motorcycle. She came home full of amazement about the mountaintop cemetery he had showed her, where oil-lit lamps on the tombs twinkled under the stars.Cemetery Tomb

And one morning, while I was meditating, the plot line for Cally’s Way dropped into my head. The novel, which took the next twelve years to write, interweaves the 2002 story of Cally with that of her grandmother Callisto in 1941 – 1947. Cally’s Way was published by Iguana Books last March and is available at your favorite online retailer including Amazon.

What a lovely personal story, Jane. And gorgeous photos to inspire us all.