Interview with Mark Sullivan author of Beneath a Scarlet Sky

beneath a scarlet sky by mark sullivanMark 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.

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.

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

Exploring Actual Locations for Historical Fiction with Tony Riches

Tony Riches has written a superb trilogy telling the stories of Owen (click here for an earlier post on Owen Tudor), Jasper, and Henry Tudor, King of England. He’s also been on the blog talking about writing a trilogy and the unique attributes of historical fiction. I’m delighted that he’s here today discussing his research process.

Exploring Actual Locations During Research for the Tudor Trilogy – by Tony Riches

When I set out to write the Tudor Trilogy I wanted to dig deeper and uncover new insights and details that would bring the early Tudors to life. For the first book, OWEN, I visited several locations including the beautiful island of Anglesey in North Wales, home of the first Tudors, as well as Pembroke Castle, where Owen spent his last years. (It helped that I was born in Pembroke, within sight of the castle, birthplace of Henry Tudor, and have now returned to live in West Wales.)

I had to piece together the details of Owen’s life by cross-checking different sources and ‘fill in the gaps’ from scarce records of the period. For the second book, JASPER, I continued his story in the third-person and was able to begin meaningful primary research, investigating events by visiting more actual locations.

There is only space here to provide a few examples, but one of the most interesting was when I investigated Jasper and the young Henry Tudor’s escape to exile. Pursued by the Yorkists, they had to flee for their lives through a secret tunnel to reach the harbour in the costal Welsh town of Tenby. Amazingly, the tunnel still exists, so I was able to gain access to see it for myself and walk in their footsteps deep under the streets.

Secret Tunnel Under Tenby


I was interested to see an ancient fireplace, littered with primitive glass bottles, and had a real sense of what it must have been like for the Tudors. I’ve sailed from the small harbour in Tenby many times, including at night, so have a good understanding of how they might have felt as they slipped away on the perilous voyage to Brittany.

I’d read that little happened during those fourteen years in exile – but of course Brittany was where Henry would come of age and begin to plan his return. Starting at the impressive palace of Duke Francis of Brittany in Vannes, I followed the Tudors to the Château de Suscinio on the coast. Luckily the château has been restored to look much as it might have when Jasper and Henry were there, and the surrounding countryside and coastline is largely unchanged.

Chateau de Suscinio in Brittany

Duke Francis of Brittany, began to worry when Yorkist agents began plotting to capture the Tudors, so he moved them to different fortresses further inland. I stayed by the river within sight of the magnificent Château de Josselin, were Jasper was effectively held prisoner. Although the inside has been updated over the years, the tower where Jasper lived survives and I was even able to identify Tudor period houses in the medieval town which he would have seen from his window.

Chateau de Josselin

Henry’s château was harder to find but worth the effort. The Forteresse de Largoët is deep in the forest outside of the town of Elven. His custodian, Marshall of Brittany, Jean IV, Lord of Rieux and Rochefort, had two sons of similar age to Henry and it is thought they continued their education together.

The Forteresse de Largoët

Entering the Dungeon Tower through a dark corridor, I regretted not bringing a torch, as the high stairway is lit only by the small window openings. Interestingly, the lower level is octagonal, with the second hexagonal and the rest square. Cautiously feeling my way up the staircase I was aware that, yet again, I walked in the footsteps of the young Henry Tudor, who would also have steadied himself by placing his hand against the cold stone walls, more than five centuries before.

When I returned to Wales I made the journey to remote Mill Bay, where Henry and Jasper landed with their small invasion fleet. A bronze plaque records the event and it was easy to imagine how they might have felt as they began the long march to confront King Richard at Bosworth. On the anniversary of the battle I walked across Bosworth field and watched hundreds of re-enactors recreate the battle, complete with cavalry and cannon fire.

Re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth

The challenge I faced for the final book of the trilogy, HENRY, was too much information. Henry left a wealth of detailed records, often initialling every line in his ledgers, which still survive. At the same time, I had to deal with the contradictions, myths and legends that cloud interpretation of the facts. I decided the only way was to immerse myself in Henry’s world and explore events as they might have appeared from his point of view.

As I reached the end of Henry’s story I decided to visit his Tomb in Westminster Abbey. There is something quite surreal about making your way through Westminster Abbey. I stood on the spot where Henry was crowned and married before reaching his magnificent tomb in the Lady Chapel. His effigy is raised too high to see, so I climbed a convenient step and peered through the holes in the grille. There lay Henry with his wife, Elizabeth of York, their gilded hands clasped in prayer.

I’d like to think all this work and so many miles of travelling will help readers begin to understand the early Tudors – and see beyond the shallow ‘caricature’ of Henry as a miserly and soulless king. I’m pleased to say that all three books of the trilogy have become international best sellers, so I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the readers around the world who have been on this journey with me.

As a wonderful postscript, on the 10th of June we are unveiling a life-sized bronze statue of Henry on the bridge outside Pembroke Castle, to ensure he is always remembered. Although this is the end of the Tudor trilogy, I am now researching the life of Henry’s daughter Mary and her adventurous husband Charles Brandon, so the story of the Tudors is far from over.

Many thanks for being on the blog, Tony, and for the support and encouragement you’ve given me. Wishing you great success with your latest novel.

Tony Riches is a full time author of best-selling fiction and non-fiction books. He lives by the sea in Pembrokeshire, West Wales with his wife and enjoys sailing and river kayaking in his spare time. For more information about Tony’s other books please visit his popular blog, The Writing Desk and website and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches. The Tudor Trilogy is available on Amazon UK  Amazon US and Amazon AU.

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

Research in Historical Fiction by Lucille Turner

HOW DO YOU BEGIN — and more importantly, when do you stop?

Lucille Turner, author of The Sultan, The Vampyr and the Soothsayer, offers her thoughts on the hows and whys of researching for historical fiction. Lucille has been on the blog before talking about the Mona Lisa and the fall of Constantinople. Over to you, Lucille.


For a writer of historical fiction, it can be hard to know when to put down the research and pick up the pen. Do you read absolutely everything you can lay your hands on about your historical period, to the point that there is no stone left unturned — or can you do too much research, so that you end up with a stack of facts but no actual story? I would say you can; I would even venture to add that if at some point you don’t turn away from those fascinating facts, they will swallow you whole along with your story (or what you thought you had of one) because the real substance of historical fiction lies in between the lines, not on them; it lies with what drives history rather than what dates it: people.

In historical fiction, character is everything. It is character that helps a writer understand events and interpret them, simply because every historical event, with the exception of natural disasters, is man-made. History is a consequence of human nature, and it is individuals that make history happen. Even if there may be an entire social and geographical context to a battle or a war, it often takes just one individual to set the flame to the tinder, one act to set history in motion. The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire sparked World War I, even if the seeds for conflict had already been sown. Hilter was uniquely able to tap into public opinion and gain the unconditional support he needed to enter into conflict with the rest of Europe two decades later. These are examples of major historical upheavals, but the same applies to the smaller ones. There is always one individual who tips the apple cart, opens up Pandora’s box and sets off a chain of events that will define the lives of hundreds of people for years to come. Conversely, there are also individuals who have had a positive, rather than a negative effect on the course of history. Think of Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, and politicians such as Gorbachev, who ended Communism and made the world a safer place, if only for a while. Those who claim that one person, man or woman, cannot change the world are patently wrong. History tells us that much.

In researching an idea for an historical novel, there are known facts you can’t change, such as dates, battles, outcomes etc. And if you are using real historical figures in your novel, there are certain things there too that you cannot alter, such as what they did, and how they were perceived as individuals by those around them. But that doesn’t mean it’s an open and shut case. On the contrary, the case is wide open and always will be, because history never tells the absolute truth. It can’t, because the facts are never enough. They have to be interpreted to be understood, and particularly at the level of the individual. This is where the writer of historical fiction makes a mark, delivering story through history.

What history tells us about the individuals that made it may often be read in biographies, many of them excellent. An historical fiction writer will always read a biography if there is one available to them. Sometimes, if the historical figure lived too long ago, there may be very little in the way of written records. Go even further back in time and all you might have is archaeology. But even if biographies do exist, the role of the historical fiction writer is not the same as the role of the biographer or the historian. A writer of historical fiction aims to bring the historical figure back to life as a living, breathing person. The historian or biographer usually aims to place the individual in the context of their time, not necessarily in the context of their skin. What was going on in the head of a particular individual in a particular context of time or moment of history is mostly about detective work. Sometimes even guesswork. The historical fiction writer must be a bit of a detective.

In my own historical novel, The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer, Vlad Dracula’s father (Dracula and his family were all real historical figures) puts his sons’ lives at risk in a political game of cat and mouse with the Ottoman Sultan Murad II. At first sight, it seems like a case of paternal negligence or even betrayal, but what it represents is the meat of characterisation. Look into the depths of such actions and you find conflict at the heart of it. Use that conflict to build your character and you have a flesh and bone person, complete with dilemmas, motivations and baggage.

There are other examples of character building in historical fiction, which are geographically closer to home for a British writer. Thomas Cromwell for instance, has provided Hilary Mantel and others with a golden opportunity to re-create a fictional character of great complexity, a man who bends himself to the will of notorious English monarch King Henry VIII only to find himself betrayed in turn by the king he served so devotedly. The beauty of characters like Cromwell, is that the complexity is almost a given. The contradictions of Cromwell’s own life provide it in abundance. As the king’s henchman, Cromwell was renown for his cruelty. Mantel presents him as a man hardened by an early life of struggle. Cromwell the boy became Cromwell the killer because he was a survivor. His father beat him as a child. To escape his father he went to war young. To survive he had to be resourceful, ruthless, and these were the characteristics that made him so indispensable to the king. Why then, did he end up on Tower Hill with a blade to his throat? To find that out, the writer would have to look more closely at the character of the one who sent him to the block, King Henry. And so it goes on. There is a good deal of detective work involved, and inevitably a certain amount of guesswork, but once the characters start to move, almost of their own accord, towards the destiny that history has assigned them, you know you’re on the right track.

Many thanks as always, Lucille. And best wishes for your latest novel!

The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer – 1442: The Ottoman Turks are advancing through the Balkans with Vienna in their sights and Constantinople, the Orthodox Greek capital, within their grasp. Dracul, ruler of Wallachia (present-day Romania), will pay almost any price to save his country, but he will not surrender to the blackmail of the cardinals of Rome; he will not betray the Greeks.

When Vlad, his middle son, begins to show signs of the ancestral sickness, Dracul vows to deliver him into safety. But time is running short. To some, Vlad Dracula is a strigoi, the worst of all evils; to others, he is the son of a righteous man. Confrontational, charismatic and manipulative, he tests family and enemy alike. Surely he is destined for power, but of what kind?

As the Ottomans plot to take Constantinople, the future of Vlad Dracula becomes a weapon for those who would preserve the Golden City of the Eastern Church. The Catholics are afraid of him; the Greeks hold the scrolls that tell of his past. And when the Sultan calls for the services of a soothsayer, even the shrewd teller of fortunes is unprepared for what he learns.

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