Escape to an inner world

I read in this morning’s paper (Saturday May 2) an article titled Missing the outside world? Take comfort in your inner life. The  author, Howard Axelrod, had spent two years in solitude after a traumatic accident blinded him in his right eye. He was bringing lessons from that experience to the current Covid-19 crisis. The challenge to take comfort in my inner life struck a chord.

We all have an inner life – the voice that talks to us when we need a talking to; the thought of doing something particularly rash; the unexpressed desires; the cautionary words that come unbidden in unexpected circumstances; the ‘what if’ wonderings that take command from time to time and change the course of our lives; the places in our minds that offer escape.

Howard Axelrod’s article prompted me to consider my inner life as an author.

Like many others, Covid-19 has muffled my brain, turned my normally productive self into a pinball machine with little silver balls ricocheting up and down and here and there, banging and ringing without any focus. Maybe I should check FaceBook? Maybe I should phone my mother? Maybe I should straighten my bookshelves? Maybe I should … maybe I should … maybe I should.

Finally, two weeks ago, I sat down with edits at hand to put the finishing touches on the latest manuscript. Within minutes, I was in a Tae Kwan Do studio with my character and then her New York City loft, my brain engaged in what she might be thinking and what she was saying and why. I’d escaped to another world, a world of my own making. I sent that off to my agent on Wednesday with both excitement and fear and with a great sense of accomplishment.

With that feeling of accomplishment in mind, I cleared my desk, got out another manuscript — this one created three years ago — and recommenced the revision process I’d decided on in January. The book hasn’t sold. My agent’s advise was to ditch the romantic elements and focus on my characters’ experiences with the underlying issues pulling Paris apart: the risks of living in a city under siege; the randomness of death; the devastation of bombardment; the threatening circumstances that pitted one citizen against another.

And now I’m spending my time in 1870 Paris. As I write, I walk the streets of that great city, pass monuments like the Arc de Triomphe and the Pantheon, ride a carriage through the Bois de Boulogne, climb the hill to Montmartre while anticipating the threat of a long siege and the dangers to come.

Imagination provides an amazing escape.


10 thoughts on writing a contemporary novel

Writing historical fiction has been my ‘thing’ since 2006 when I first began a novel based on the lives of my grandparents. I was so enchanted by the challenge of writing and the research required that I’ve now written four more historical novels. Three are published, one is on submission, and the fifth is in limbo while I decide whether to scrap it or do a significant rewrite.

Novel six – working title You Don’t Know Me – is contemporary. The process of writing it has had its own enchantment. What have I learned?

  • the requirement to transport a reader is time and place becomes a requirement to focus on place. In my case this has involved Boston, New York, a lake house, and the dunes along the Atlantic coast near Plymouth MA.
  • dialogue is easier to write
  • getting into the mindset of a character is easier
  • there’s an opportunity to incorporate some of the political, economic, and social happenings of today. For example, I might be reading the newspaper and see something that becomes relevant to one of my characters.
  • research is still involved, but for this novel it has involved researching the world of journalism and the world of political campaigns
  • there is no need to research the intricacies of long ago fashion, the complexities of transportation, the challenges of food preparation, medical practices and so on
  • you don’t need to constantly check for anachronisms – such as when did espresso become commonplace or when was photography invented
  • a timeline of historical events isn’t required
  • it’s much easier to find photos to help you visualize a setting or situation (the featured photo is  of Harvard Yard)
  • and . . . you can complete a first draft much more quickly

I began writing this novel in late February and finished the first draft today – six and a half months. That’s a record for me!

By the way, superb writing and a focus on story remain essential.

PS … I’m not abandoning historical fiction! Ideas are brewing as we speak.


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

Novel 6 is Emerging

As I said on Facebook a few weeks ago, I have a confession to makethe work in progress is contemporary rather than historical fiction. “And how did that happen?” you say.

Last November I went on a writers retreat in Monterery CA. The theory being, if you’re going to go on a retreat, it might as well be an interesting place. While there, I was assigned a mentor, a lively woman named Gina who helped me shape a pitch for novel 5 – The Admiral’s Wife – and pushed me to enhance the conflict within that novel.

Nearing the end of the retreat, I asked Gina for her thoughts on what novel to write next. I had three ideas: one set during WWII as a sort of sequel to Lies Told in Silence; another based on the life of Robert the Bruce from whom I’m descended; and a third featuring twins with a contemporary setting. I sketched a few points about each story and without a moment’s hesitation, Gina said to write the twins story.

So here I am with an outline prepared and seventeen chapters – about 42000 words – written.

I have managed to find a few historical tidbits to include: the setting for one scene is at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (see photo above), originally built in 1903; and the setting for another scene is at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, an English-language bookstore located in a 17th century building (see photo below).

With no requirement to research a particular historical time period in order to effectively capture its culture, values, politics, events, language, fashion and so on, writing contemporary fiction is a more straightforward process. Don’t get me wrong. There is still a need for research but in my case it’s confined to topics like ‘waterfront bars in Boston’, or ‘loft styles in New York city’, or ‘the election cycle for US senators’. (If you’re interested, I’ve writing about the productivity burden of historical fiction.)

Most importantly, I’m having fun and Gina has become my agent. Fingers crossed that she’ll find a publisher for The Admiral’s Wife, the dual timeline novel set in Hong Kong, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned a time or two 🙂

PS – ten years ago I never could have imagined writing a sixth novel!

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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