Worldbuilding the Past

Mike Kanner and I connected a few months ago over the topic of WWI trenches. Yes, connections can come from all sorts of places! With a military career behind him, Mike entered academia and ended with a Ph.D. in political psychology and a job as a lecturer in security and international relations. But he’s always been drawn to historical fiction and has contributed a number of stories to various anthologies and considers himself a student of WWI – hence the trenches.

Today, Mike discusses world building – one of the seven elements of historical fiction.


World building is associated with science fiction and fantasy, but writing historical fiction, I have the task of rebuilding a world that existed one hundred years ago. For that, I reached back to the people that lived during that period. 

My interest in soldier’s diaries started when I wrote doctrine for the US Army Infantry School back in the 1980s. After reviewing a tactical manual, our general called me in and asked the question, “What happens in the last 100 yards of battle?” He said he had his own experience, but he was interested in any general lessons to be learned. This sent me to the Infantry School Libraries collection of first-person accounts from World War 1 to the Grenada Invasion. Unfortunately, I couldn’t answer the general’s question since soldiers could only account for what happened in front of them and to them. However, I was fascinated with the detail that some of these accounts had about the conditions on the battlefield. So, over the years, I collected diaries, first-person accounts and photographs from World War 1. 

Once I retired from the service and started to write historical fiction, I found these accounts to be both inspiration and information. The best way to illustrate this is by describing the research supporting a specific story. 

“White Feather” was recently published in Chiaroscuro: An Anthology of Virtue and Vice and was inspired by a presentation by the Western Front Association on conscientious objectors in World War 1. I knew I wanted to write a story of a pacifist that became an objector yet served on the front as their alternate service. The presentation and links provided gave me information on the process of asking for objector status, but what I wanted to focus on was what that would have meant for my main character. I got the technical aspects of being a stretcher bearer from my copy of the 1917 Service Manual for Sanitation Troops; however, I was more interested in what that duty would involve. For that, I turned to my copy of Ambulancing on the French Front by Edward Coyle.

Coyle was an American who, in 1917, decided to join the American Red Cross in France. In 1918, he published his diaries so Americans could know about the ‘true conditions’ in the war. Although this has been republished, I had an original copy including pictures of conditions at the front. This, and my collection of postcards of the period, provided the story’s visual elements. While the Sanitation Troops Manual told me how evacuation was supposed to be done, Coyle’s story told me how it occurred on the battlefield. In addition, the incident he related in the “Kamerad” chapter was the basis for one of the significant scenes in the story. 

Having set the plot and the visual framework, I wanted to evoke other senses. For these, I went to other accounts. Some, like Graves’ Goodbye to All That, are classics; others that I have were less known. Rereading their accounts of trenches, two conditions were evident – the noise and the smell. Common to all accounts was the constant background of artillery, even when a sector was not in combat. Based on my time in the service (especially at gunnery training), I knew my main character would also hear sounds from the troops in the trench. The result was the line, “There was nothing quiet about this ‘quiet sector.’ Distant artillery echoed off the clouds while the trenches were filled with conversations, snores, and the groans of the men in the Aid Post awaiting evacuation.” 

Next, I wanted to give a sense of the smells. Since trench warfare is not common, I could not call on my experience, so I again referred to the contemporary accounts in diaries. Officer accounts, such as Graves’, tended not to include descriptions of the smells; however, ordinary soldiers did. Typical to their descriptions was the presence of mud, rot, and rats. These were also present in sewers inspired me to write, “The trench smelled like the open sewer it resembled.” 

So while history gave me the skeleton of events, it was the personal accounts that let me add flesh and sinew to the body of the work

Many thanks, Mike. You’ve highlighted an important source for world building along with the significance of portraying each one of the senses.

Mike is a contributor to Chiaroscuro: An Anthology of Virtue and Vice

In art, chiaroscuro is a technique that explores the interplay of light and dark through stark contrasts. In the same way, this anthology explores virtue and vice and the interconnectedness between these two ends of the morality spectrum. A virtue taken to excess transforms into vice; a vice in the right circumstances becomes virtuous. Via poetry and prose, Chiaroscuro will take you on a journey through light and dark, right and wrong, good and evil, and the spaces in between.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier 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

From Family to Fiction

David O. Stewart is writing a series of novels called the Overstreet Saga, and I had the pleasure of endorsing the first of those novels, The New Land, with this comment:

“An engrossing saga of hope, determination, and bravery in a new world called America. Seeking land and opportunity, Johann and his wife Christiane risk everything to cross the Atlantic. Upon arrival in Broad Bay, they are devastated by the false promises of charlatans, the harsh land, and the ever-present threat of native attacks. Only through faith, grit, and the power of love do they secure a future and build a legacy for their family. David O. Stewart’s action-filled prose creates an unforgettable story.” 

Today, David shares the experience of writing historical fiction inspired by family stories, especially when you knew and cared for some of the figures. Many thanks, David.

From Family to Fiction by David O. Stewart

Writers are magpies of experience.  Whatever we seem to be doing, we also are gathering material: ideas, events, settings, phrases, facial expressions, actions, and feelings.  Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, we dredge through that inventory of random observations to meet the writing challenge of the moment.  

Mostly we don’t get in trouble for scavenging bits of life from the world’s vault of experience, so we do it unblushingly.  And we get away with it.

The risks from such scavenging rise dramatically, however, if the source is family.  Family members know things that others don’t.  Family members are more likely to remember at least their version of an event.  They’re (at least slightly) more likely to read what you write.  And the cost of offending them can be high.  Some writers produce long books – multiple volumes, even – about themselves and their close relations, often settling long-simmering scores.  I, however, have written nonfiction about the long dead, or novels featuring characters I’ve only imagined.  Until now.

Now I have a fictional trilogy coming out with stories inspired by the experiences of my mother’s family in America.  The first installment has launched as The New Land The next two will be released next year.  The novels follow stories that have been in my head for as long as sixty years.

Gratifying, yes.  But, maybe, a bit risky?  

Not very risky, it turned out, for The New LandBook One of the modestly-titled Overstreet Saga.  The story unfolds on the Maine coast in the eighteenth-century.  Not much information has survived about the ancestors who blundered into dangerous place, so the story is mostly made up – that is, fiction!  Anyway, those long-gone ancestors are in no position to kick up a fuss.

Book Two, The Burning Land, launches next May.  Picking up family descendants in the Civil War and Reconstruction years, I remain on safe ground.  I know more about those ancestors (census records, military records) but they’ve also been dead for more than a century, along with anyone who knew them.

The forecast is less clear with Book Three, The Resolute Land, which will release next autumn.  Scrounging around for an idea for Book Three (publishing loves trilogies), I had a slap-my-forehead moment.  During World War II, my mother worked for Mrs. Roosevelt in the White House.  Her brothers served in the Army Air Forces.  One flew in Europe and the other in Asia.  And their father was Midwest regional director of the War Production Board. Those four figures provided a stout structure for capturing much of that gigantic war: two on the home front plus one in each major theater of the fighting.

Then a small interior voice whispered. Did I want to write stories inspired by family I actually knew? I immediately began to rationalize. That grandfather died before I was born.  I never spent much time with my uncles, never speaking with them about their war experiences.  So I would just borrow the outlines of their lives, not their actual personalities.

I resolved to eschew research about the three men.  I wouldn’t quiz my cousins.  Nor would I seek records of their military and public service.  The characters they inspired would be fictional creations with fictional exploits, fictional friends, and fictional lovers.  Any offending passages would be the result of my twisted imagination, not malice.

But that left the fourth character, the one inspired by my mother.  She was pivotal to the tale, offering a backstairs look inside the Roosevelt White House, the center of the war, and also functioning as the hub of the fictional family.  The problem, of course, was that I knew Mom really well, for a lot of years. Her voice in my head wasn’t going to be quiet while I wrote this book.  

Parts of the real person seeped into the fictional character.  I still had to imagine dialogue, scenes and other people in her life.  But some of the personality is her: highly verbal, socially ept, quick to judge, strong yet unpredictably vulnerable, resilient, coaxing fun from unpromising circumstances.  The fictional character is not my mother, but then again. . ..

The experience leaves me on edge.  I think I’m glad to share some of her with readers.  I hope they are drawn into the character’s challenges and how she deals with them.  Then again, I also hope I’ve been fair to the real person who inspired the story. We’ll see.

David O. Stewart is the author of five non-fiction books and six novels, counting the three books in The Overstreet Saga. For more about his writing, check out the post on his recent non-fiction about George Washington and his mystery series, specifically The Paris Deception. He’s way more productive than me!

The New Land by David O. Stewart ~~ Lose yourself in the challenges and emotions of eighteenth-century Maine. 

In 1753, Johann Oberstrasse’s wife, Christianne, announces that their infant sons will never soldier for the Landgraf of Hesse like their father, hired out to serve King George of England. In search of a new life, Johann and the family join an expedition to the New World, lured by the promise of land on the Maine coast. A grinding voyage deposits them on the edge of a continent filled with dangers and disease. Expecting to till the soil, Johann finds that opportunity on the rocky coast comes from the forest, not land, so he learns carpentry and trapping. To advance in an English world, Johann adapts their name to Overstreet.

But war follows them. The French and their Indian allies mount attacks on the English settlements of New England. To protect their growing family and Broad Bay neighbors, Johann accepts the captaincy of the settlement’s militia and leads the company through the British assault on the citadel of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. Left behind in Broad Bay, Christianne, their small children, and the old and young stave off Indian attacks, hunger, and cruel privations.

Peace brings Johann success as a carpenter, but also searing personal losses. When the fever for American independence reaches Broad Bay in 1774, Johann is torn, then resolves to kill no more…unlike his son, Franklin, who leaves to stand with the Americans on Bunker Hill. At the same time, Johann faces old demons and a new crisis when an escaped prisoner—a hired Hessian soldier, just as he had been—arrives at his door.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier 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 Role of Politics in Historical Fiction

I had the pleasure of listening to Samantha Rajaram and Carrie Callaghan‘s talk The Fictional is Political during the 2021 HNS North America conference. The premise of their presentation is that every story is political given the power dynamics behind its characters and their world, and that those writing historical fiction must delve into and interpret the complex politics of the past. Definitely a topic of interest for the seven elements of historical fiction – so I invited Carrie and Samantha to answer a few questions.

Can you start us off with a definition of politics that provided a foundation for the presentation you gave at HNS 2021?

Carrie: Politics is the pursuit or exercise of power. So what’s power? In college, my professor defined power as the ability to force others to do as you will. I think that coercive element is unnecessary and distracting; rather, power should be the ability to do as you will – power is agency.

Samantha: I love Carrie’s definition of politics from our presentation for the Historical Novel Society, which is better than what I could come up with! In a generalized way, I think of politics as interlocking systems of power and how those systems affect my characters

When you think of politics in the context of historical fiction, what aspects do you consider to inform the stories you tell?

Samantha: We live in a time where people often feel so disenfranchised and disempowered that we begin to believe we have very little effect on these larger systems at play. Through my fiction, I hope to demonstrate how marginalized people are, in fact, the people who most interrogate, challenge, and change these systems that we tend to believe are immutable and entrenched. Perhaps it’s an aspirational inclination, but the historical record is full of “regular people” who radically changed the world. 

Carrie: I adore Samantha’s empowering view of politics in fiction. Likewise, I feel passionately that all lives are intertwined with politics, whether it’s a nun’s pursuit of independence in a 13th century convent or a young woman’s efforts to liberate her enslaved relatives or a female artist’s efforts to establish herself as a working painter in male-dominated 17th century Holland. I want our readers today to see how the threads of power and politics have always formed the weft and weave of human lives.

What research do you do to understand the political dynamics of a particular era?

Carrie: For both my novels, I read widely about the historical moment (17th century Holland or early 20th century Russia). Because history is founded on history, I always research what came before the moment I’m writing about. I also look for the wars. You don’t have to search far to find a war at nearly any moment in history, and understanding those wars helps illuminate the political conflicts of that time.

Samantha: I usually begin by reading books about the subject matter and then go deeper into scholarship. I’m fortunate to have access to some excellent research databases and an incredible public library system with very helpful librarians! For The Company Daughters, I also reached out to some scholars in the field of Dutch slavery in Indonesia and I traveled to Amsterdam as well. 

Do you look for parallels between the politics of then versus now?

Samantha: Those parallels are an inevitable part of writing historical fiction for me—otherwise, what’s the point? Personally, I’m not very interested in the human stories behind famous people in history—monarchs and such. As someone who grew up reading European history until I took an Indian History class in college (taught by a non-Indian professor), I’m more interested in unearthing the stories of the oppressed and colonized. And we live in such a time of social and economic upheaval, that I’m continually surprised and aware that the stories I’m writing, and the dynamics shaping them, are still relevant. 

Carrie: As Samantha said, it’s almost impossible not to find the parallels. As writers we are interested in moments of history precisely because we see something that resonates with us at the moment, and we are offering stories to readers who will become immersed because they too see echoes. Yes, that parallel might be as simple as a common humanity, but that is based in an understanding that our struggles today are similar to those before us. In my first novel, A Light of Her Own, I wondered how Judith Leyster felt about her female ambition in a patriarchal world. Today we’re still not sure what to do with women’s ambitions.

How does the political dimension enrich character development, add to plot and conflict, become part of the world you build for readers.

Carrie: Ah, so much! In my second novel, Salt the Snow, real-life American journalist Milly Bennett is trying to figure out what to make of early 1930s Moscow — when the Depression is ravaging the United States and the Soviet Union seems to be finding its economic footing. Politics at that moment were integral to her personal conflict. As a journalist, she was exploring how to be truthful in a world where it felt like everyone had an agenda. It became personal when her opera-dancer husband was arrested by the secret police. The struggle to exercise power affected every step of her life.

Samantha: In The Company Daughters, I saw so many concentric circles of power/politics. There was the issue of class between Jana and Sontje, exacerbated by the Dutch colonial project at that time and the establishment of what’s now considered the first multinational corporation (The Dutch East India Company). Then there were the gender politics requiring the trafficking policy imposed by the Company. And of course the political realm of religion and how religious dogma further removed women from their sexuality. Finally, there’s just the political dynamic between these two women who fall in love on this awful ten-month journey to the colonies and must constantly navigate shifting systems of power through marriage, sickness, pregnancy, and class when they arrive in Batavia.

Perhaps you could both also answer the question: What novel are you working on now?

Samantha: I’m working on a multi-POV novel set in the 1930s about three young people in India, France, and Vietnam who find their way into anti-colonial activism around a specific historical event in French India.

Carrie: I’m also working on a story set in the 1930s! It’s such a rich era for political uncertainty and drama. My story is about a Spanish woman exiled from her home when her father catches her kissing another woman. It doesn’t get easier from there.

Carrie Callaghan is the author of the novels Salt the Snow and A Light of Her Own. She lives in Maryland with her family and three ridiculous cats. She’s something of a political junky, though she hates to admit it.

Samantha Rajaram is the author of The Company Daughters. Her essays and short fiction have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and India Currents, and she was a contributor to Our Feet Walk the Sky, the first South Asian-American anthology published in the US.

Many thanks to Samantha and Carrie for illuminating the topic of politics in historical fiction. You’ve certainly given me new perspective on the topic along with the notion that politics is (almost) always a source of conflict.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier 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