The Story of a Novel – an idea takes shape

A few weeks ago, I wrote about beginning a new novel. That post – The Story of a Novel – featured four research books and two potential plot ideas. Having now read Double Cross by Ben MacIntyre – unfortunately, not his usual page turner – I’ve dipped into The Paris Game searching for clues about Charles de Gaulle’s whereabouts during WWII, and read several chapters of The Longest Day, which seems to be superbly written. The life of an author has its perks.

All the while, the laptop beckoned.

Two weeks ago, I could no longer resist the temptation to set down some ideas for Claire’s story. Not surprisingly, there’s no title yet. Just a glimmer of how the plot might come together after I realized how many novels feature soldiers, spies, code breakers, and everyday British people involved in World War Two. What if, I thought, Charles de Gaulle and other French leaders were to play a role of some sort in this new novel?

Hmmm. And that prompted more thoughts and more digging around to see if I could construct a timeline of de Gaulle’s whereabouts from 1940 to 1945 and develop an understanding of the role the Free French organization played during the war. I wish I could read French, as I’m certain I could find other sources explaining the French perspective.

Where has all this noodling led?

In one document, I’m building a timeline of de Gaulle’s whereabouts. For example, on November 29, 1940 de Gaulle does a radio broadcast on BBC from London. I don’t know what he said, but I plan to find out. On January 24, 1943, he’s in Casablanca with Churchill and Roosevelt and General Henri Giraud, a fierce rival for leadership of the Free French.

In a second document, I’m jotting plot points for how Claire might get involved with de Gaulle and where all that might lead.

Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

Early days, of course. Just a very rough shape at the moment – like a sculptor making the first strikes on a piece of marble.

I’ll be back with more developments.


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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

The Love for Three Oranges by Mary F. Burns

What roles do serendipity and synchronicity play in writing historical fiction? Mary F. Burns is here to explain her experience. Mary’s second mystery involving John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget is called The Love for Three Oranges.

The Love for Three Oranges by Mary F. Burns

There are at least two things that I experience when I write, especially when I write historical fiction: Serendipity and Synchronicity.

Serendipity does not come from Latin or Greek, but rather was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of an Indian fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not seeking.” It has come to mean “good luck in finding valuable things unintentionally” but I want to emphasize the word “sagacity” in addition to just accident. We’ll get back to this word in a few moments.

Synchronicity is the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection. This term was created by Carl Jung in the 1950s to describe the occurrence and connection between two or more events that cannot be explained as a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity, connected by meaning. A very simple example would be thinking of an old friend one morning, and then later coming across a photograph of that friend stuck in a book you take down at random from the bookshelf, and then getting a phone call from the friend that same day. No one of these events is either a cause or an effect, but they are connected by meaning, Jung would say.

Historical fiction, in its very essence, is a way of falling together in time—a story is set in the past, but it is being written from the present, so, for me, the process of writing such a story is in itself a synchronizing of different times. In the mystery series I am writing that feature John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget, I have structured the stories so that there are two distinct time periods in each book. In the first book, The Spoils of Avalon, the reader can time travel between 1877 Brompton, a northern town, and 1539 Glastonbury, every other chapter, and there’s even a third time reference, in the quotations at the beginning of each chapter from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which is the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, long held to be medieval, but historically, if Arthur lived at all, it was around the year 600 of the Common Era.

In Jung’s terminology, the “meaning” or the synchronicity, that connects these three eras, in my story, concerns the testing of human loyalty, of faith or the lack of it, the mystery of the sacred as it interacts with the secular, and the effects that has on human character and fate. I was very alive to the dramatic contrast between the newly-industrialized, Darwinian, secular Victorian Age of Sargent and Paget—and the still-medieval, agrarian and sacred/seasonal time-in-eternity life of people in Europe in the early 16thcentury. Of course, on the one hand, it’s just a story about a murder and who committed it and why, and how the past is connected to the present through this event—but on the other hand, if you let all the character’s experiences and thoughts and actions roll in and wash over you, I believe you can get a real sense of what it was like to live in both those times, and how understanding the one can help you understand the other, as well as your own present time.

In this second book, The Love for Three Oranges, John and Violet find themselves summoned to Venice in the winter of 1879 to help an artist friend of Singer Sargent’s, whose palazzo is beset with death and ghosts and all sorts of troubling events. The second time period harks back some 140 years to 1739, where we are introduced to a famous Venetian playwright of that time, Carlo Gozzi.

And this is where my other special word—serendipity—played a huge part in the writing of this second mystery. Here’s the definition again: Serendipity is “Making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things one is not seeking.”

Before I even started writing these mystery stories, but after my first book about John Singer Sargent, in which Violet Paget has a very significant presence, Stu and I stayed in Venice for three days or so about seven years ago, with a small group of folks on a tour. We were lodged at a small, former palazzo on the western arm of the Grand Canal, just past the Rialto Bridge, called the Hotel San Cassiano, but also Ca’ Favretto. It had been the home of an Italian artist, Giacomo Favretto, from 1870 to 1887. He was of the Impressionist school, and several of his paintings were hung about the hotel. It was a charming place, and I took a lot of pictures of it.

When I got around to starting The Love for Three Oranges, I knew I was going to set the story in Venice, and I thought of that hotel, and Giacomo Favretto. So, I looked him up and lo and behold, it turns out he and John Sargent were good friends, and that Sargent stayed at the palazzo in Venice occasionally. What a happy discovery! I decided—with great sagacity—that it would be perfect to set the story in that location. Sagacity, for me, is the wisdom that comes from experience combined with the happy faculty of knowing a good thing when you see it.

So then I turned to the issue of the previous time period which would constitute the other half of the story—and you can imagine how hard it was to fasten on one particular century or era in the long, long history of Venice, with all her prominent artists, musicians, and writers! However, upon re-reading a biography of Violet Paget – aka Vernon Lee – I was reminded that in the year 1879 she was finishing up the manuscript for a book that would be published the next year—it was called “Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy”—and a significant amount of the book was concerned with one Carlo Gozzi, a playwright in the mid to late 1700’s in Venice. One thing led to another, and I found a complete copy online of Gozzi’s Memoirs. I read about his youthful days in Venice, living in one of the palazzos his family owned in Venice, his descriptions of its size and structure, its location on the Grand Canal, and its proximity to the Church of San Cassiano, which was his family’s parish, where many of his ancestors were buried. I looked at maps, I studied the streets and sotoportegos and campos of Venice, and I came to the conclusion that Gozzi’s former family home was none other than the Hotel San Cassiano—Giacomo Favretto’s home as well!

So there we had been, on the very spot where Carlo Gozzi had walked and slept and ate and dreamed—and where Sargent had visited his friend Giacomo as he lived and prospered and enjoyed life. And Gozzi the very person that Violet Paget was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about, all right there. Three, or four, or five events in three time periods—all tied together by meaning, by the significance of their existence in relation to each other.

Serendipity and Synchronicity indeed!

Many thanks, Mary. The writing muse can be both strange and capricious!

The Love for Three Oranges: A John Singer Sargent/Violet Paget Mystery by Mary F. Burns

This second mystery finds John Sargent and Violet Paget afloat in murder in the fabled City of Venice during the darkest days of the year. Secrets and long-held grudges surface at Ca’ Favretto, an ancient palazzo on the Grand Canal, which has been recently purchased and refurbished by an Italian artist and good friend of Sargent–but will the ghosts of the past allow the new inhabitants to live in peace?


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

Penelope Lively – still writing at 84

One of my book clubs read The Purple Swamp Hen this year, a collection of short stories by British author Penelope Lively. I’m not a fan of short stories, however, several of these have stuck with me including the one on which the book’s title is based. Lively’s writing is … lively. Her observations of people and situations are insightful and she uses the short story form to advantage.

A New York Times review says: “Lively’s prose is sharp, precise, perfectly pitched, but shrinks from flashiness in a way that has sometimes been mistaken for cozy or middlebrow.” For the record – I don’t think her writing is ‘cozy or middlebrow’ at all!

I found an interview with Penelope Lively published in The Guardian and thought I’d share a few bits with you. After all, someone who is 84, has more than forty books to her credit as well as the Booker Prize (for Moon Tiger) and the Carnegie Medal (for children’s books) must know a thing or two about writing.

Writing a novel is like hacking at the rock face. Somewhere within the daunting but inviting mass of the general idea that you have had, the inspiration, is the careful, sculptured construction of the finished narrative. Two or three years of hacking, usually, for me.


I write in longhand, always have done, then type up later on, which is ideal, to my mind, because that way you make all sorts of corrections and additions in the process; it is an editorial stage.


Writers have to goad themselves throughout a writing life; you are your own employer; there is no one else to see that the job gets done.


The whole thing about stories [she’s referring to short stories] is the idea — once you’ve got that, you’re three-quarters of the way there. Stories arise much more from life lived than the novels do — something overheard, something you’ve seen, which you then sort of mull over and see a way it could become a story.

I’ve now downloaded Moon Tiger so I can experience more of Lively’s writing. I’m sure I’ll learn a thing or two.

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