MK Tod began as many of us do – researching her grandfather’s involvement in two World Wars without any thought of where it might lead, and discovered herself as an author who now has three historic novels published and more on the way.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- The shocking family event that led to her first novel
- Why going to Hong Kong jump started her writing career
- The three things you need to be a successful writer
- Robert Harris and other writers who inspire her
- Why hearing the Last Post at Ypres gives her goosebumps
- The secret camp for Canadian spies to infiltrate Nazi France
Where to find MK Tod:
Hi there: I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today Mary Tod talks about how starting some family history research ended up with her writing stories that unravel the secrets of love and war.
And now here’s Mary. Hello there Mary, and Welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Mary: Oh thank you so much Jenny, I have been looking forward to this for weeks, so I’m thrilled to be here.
Jenny: It’s lovely to call you Mary. Obviously your writing name is MK Tod, so let’s clear this up at the beginning. Why did you decide to write under the name of MK Tod?
Mary: Oh I’m so glad you asked! Here in North America there is a very famous woman called Mary Todd Lincoln, President Lincoln’s wife, and when you Google Mary Tod first of all it corrects my name and adds on an extra “d” and then it finds several million references to Mary Todd Lincoln. So when I decided I was going to write seriously and try and get my books out there I thought it would be good to have a name that people could type in and not get so many references to Mary Todd Lincoln. so I took the initials of my first two names Mary Kathleen MK and now people can find me.
Jenny: Yes the surname Tod with one “d” is unusual enough in itself isn’t it?
Mary: Yes My husband’s family – it is my husband’s name – always said “If it’s good enough for God its good enough for Tod.”
Jenny: Oh great, we’ve settled that one. I wondered if it was because you wanted a gender neutral name – sometimes people writing thrillers or mysteries want to choose a gender neutral name, but the sort of books you write that doesn’t apply so much… OK, so great to have that cleared up. Let’s get on the road here. . . .
Jenny: Was there a “Once Upon a Time” moment when you decided you wanted to write fiction? What was the catalyst?
Mary: Yes, there was a Once Upon A Time moment – and unlike a lot of people I wasn’t one who could say I’ve always wanted to write. In fact I worked in the technology and consulting world for quite a few years I’m a math and computer science graduate, I didn’t do much English past high school and I wasn’t very fond of history.
So that will tell people right away that I’m not your usual kind of writer. However we were asked – my husband was asked in particular – to go to Hong Kong for three years – his company asked him to go and we hardly hesitated for a moment before we went. The problem about Hong Kong for me anyway was that is was almost impossible to find a job. . .Hong Kong was having economic difficulties and it was hard to get work as an ex pat spouse.
So I didn’t have much to do . . . OK you can walk the streets and go shopping and have your nails done, but for someone who has worked her whole life it was really challenging to figure out what I would do. I can remember spending a lot of time on my laptop sending emails to friends and so forth trying to stay connected.
I conceived the idea of writing a story about my grandmother. That was how I started. The reason I wanted to start writing about my grandmother was that she died on her way to her second wedding. And I thought Oh that would make a great ending to a story . . . She was 75 at the time and of course it was very sad, for the poor 80 year old man who was left at the altar because she was literally in the car on the way to the wedding.
So what I did, I started to do the research on my grandparents and in my particular case I went back to my grandfather and discovered he had gone off to World War I at the age of 19. Its pretty shocking when You think about it. . . And so I started researching World War I and then I became obsessed with World War I.
I couldn’t believe what the men – especially the men in the trenches – had to put up with, it makes me emotional to talk about it Jenny but I just kept going at this research – reading novels, non fiction books Google searches – all sorts of things like that.
And so then I said to myself I can write this story but it is going to be a different kind of story . . . I went from there to making changes to “spice it up” into a more interesting story.
Jenny: That story about your grandmother! I have never heard of a story like that in real life and of course it is tragic but you also can’t help laughing at the slightly macabre side of it. It hasn’t yet appeared in any of your work yet has it, but it would be a great starting point for a story wouldn’t it?
Mary: Exactly, well in fact she doesn’t die in the story. I end the story in 1944 when she is still very much alive, but I did have the background of their lives to work with.
Jenny: Yes, so it turned into three novels, they are loosely linked not a series in the traditional sense. The first two tell a wartime love story, the first one from the point of view of the Canadian soldier, the other from the point of view of his French sweetheart. And then the third one is slightly more of a mystery. Did you start out with the idea of three books.
Mary: I started with the idea of amusing myself and when my husband and I came back from Hong Kong to Toronto which is our permanent home I went back to consulting. I had a good career in consulting, with clients and so forth, but the thing was that story was always in the back of my mind. The story that is now called Unravelled. It just wouldn’t let me go.
It’s quite phenomenal you know Jenny how people say characters take over, and I thought it was nonsense but I found it was really true. so after eighteen months I said “Nope I am going to throw away all those consulting files and write full time.” I spoke to my husband of course – so I just had the idea of one story. And people enjoyed the story – and the first question they would ask is “So what happened to Helene?”
Helene was the World War I lover of my grandfather and it became clear to me I could tell the story of Helene. She starts as a fifteen year old girl thrust into war in France and that story goes from there. And then she and the rest of the characters were born and the second story was born.
The third story Time And Regret has a totally different origin – can I tell you about that Jenny?
Jenny: Please do.
Mary: So Time and Regret came about when my husband and I were having dinner in a little restaurant in the French town of Honfleur at the mouth of the Seine, close to the port of Le Havre on the Normandy coast. In World War I a lot of the ships came into Le Havre. We were on a tour of World War 1 monuments and memorials and we visited Honfleur.
We were eating in the charming little bistro with a bottle of red wine.and I took out the tiny little notebook I carry in my purse and wrote something down. And my husband said “What are you writing down?” – he’s curious you know – and I said “Well I am writing an idea for a story.” And he said “What’s the idea for a story?” And I said “Well you know this woman is going to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps in World War I she’s going to follow in his footsteps in World War I France and find out more about him.”
And my husband said “Oh, well you should have a mystery” – my husband absolutely loves mysteries – and in fact 95 per cent of what he reads are mysteries – so we spent the rest of dinner, me with this notebook, writing things down about how this story would unfold and the mystery it would involved and so on… it actually had nothing to do with the first two books.
Jenny: And how closely did the first two books align with your grandfather’s character?
Mary: Yes his character came through. He passed away when I was about 21, 22, but I spent a lot of the story remembering what sort of character he was, and likewise what sort of woman my grandmother was, and I spent a lot of time talking to my Mum. She is still alive at the age of 91, so she was able to give me some great information.
Part of the story includes World War II activities and the things that happen definitely parallel the things that happened to him in World War II. Same with the things that happened in World War I – like he was at the Battle for Vimy Ridge in World War I and he was in signals and communications in World War I and then you embellish it from there.
Jenny: Yes the World War II history fascinated me as well because I had no idea that Canada had trained spies to work within Nazi held France and I’m sure it wasn’t generally known at the time – was it one of the things that came out when the secrecy laws were relaxed a little bit.
Mary: Good question. The family story was that my grandfather was involved in this place called Camp X. And I don’t think it was under such severe secrecy rules – maybe for 25 years after the war. There are some vestiges of the Camp still standing, it was located in a small town outside of Toronto, so that’s all accurate. My grand father never spoke about it and my grandmother told Mum my grandfather knew a man called William Stevenson and he was with a group in the British Secret Service and he was instrumental in forming Camp X back in I think 1941, so there was just that little hint that there was truth in the story about my grandfather being involved.
And there is a Canadian gentleman – I can’t remember his name and unfortunately I don’t have his books with me – but he made it his passion to find out as much about Camp X as he could, to track down some of the people who worked there and so forth so there is actually quite a lot written about what went on. How it came into being and so on
Jenny: That film guru guy Robert McKee has talked about how historical stories need to have something applicable and relevant to contemporary life. I’m wondering, how do you see the framing of World War I and II – what is their fascination for contemporary readers?
Mary: World War I or World War II?
Jenny: Either one really, do you see a difference between them?
Mary: You know it’s interesting on this side of the world there is more interest in World War II than World War I and that’s because the Americans really celebrate their participation in World War II. So that gives more of a sense of involvement and engagement in World War II. In fact I’ve been told by agents that they’d be really interested in a story about World War II.
To me thought, the more I know about World War I (and II) the more I find parallels to today which I find quite striking. You mention about this fellow McKee saying stories should be applicable to contemporary life and I see it now – the notion of fighting against the evil in the world and so forth. I suppose that’s what we always think we are doing when we go to war – but also and how unfortunate circumstances can catapult us into war and we don’t really want to think about that sort of thing generally speaking.
The other thing I think about history is that people are people so regardless of the time they live in the social norms and the restrictions of the time vary but the humanity doesn’t vary and I think that is one of the appeals of historical fiction . . . Sorry about the phone ringing.
Jenny: Just rounding out this section talking about specific books what do you hope readers take away from your books. Is there a deeper message than sheer entertainment?
Mary: I want people to understand war is just such an inhuman activity. I really do want them to understand that. And that is why I have war scenes in the books. I don’t want gratuitous violence but you really can’t understand war unless you see it and feel it and smell it so I do try and make it come to life. I also like the notion that women discover how strong they are when faced with the struggles and challenges particularly those which involve war but more generally than that. I like to create strong female characters and have my readers see themselves in those characters.
And you know I think there is another theme that I keep returning to, and that is that love is never a fairy tale. Love requires hard work and to survive you have to be very deliberate about not falling in love but staying in love.
Jenny: Yes I’ve seen comments about the Unravelled book that readers found the evolution of the marriage relationship very touching. It wasn’t all roses but they did manage to find their way through the difficulties.
In more general terms (moving away from specific book focus)
Jenny: Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success?
Mary: Thanks for calling me a success Jenny, that’s nice to hear!
Jenny: three books for starters Mary – that has to be seen as a success!
Mary: Thank you. It’s always difficult to pin down just one thing so indulge me. there are three things
Firstly you have to work at it. You have to treat writing like a job. It’s not something you dabble at, I really do treat it like a job, I usually am at my desk every day and that includes weekends. That would be one thing.
A second thing is to listen to your readers. Readers will tell you things, whether its a beta reader or someone who puts up a review on Amazon. They tell you things and if you listen carefully you can glean things that will make your writing stronger.
And the third thing, when I’ve thought about it, is to be part of the community of writers that is an amazing privilege to be part of that community that I’ve discovered in the last seven or eight years, because they are very supportive, they are very encouraging, they help out when you are stuck with something or when you are trying to figure out how to market your book – so those are the things I think are important.
Jenny: If you were going to organise a magical mystery literary tour for your any of books, where would you suggest readers go?
Mary: World War I took place in northern France and its a place that most people don’t go there. There’s lots and lots of history there. Lots of lovely towns, and beautiful museums and memorials devoted to World War I. If you want to have a good cry sometime you should go to Ypres which is in Belgium and listen to the playing of the Last Post – you can hear it in my voice I am already getting emotional – it is the most compelling thing when I was over there. Anyway I will stop talking about that.
Jenny: You gave me goose bumps just hearing you talking about it.
Mary: Anyway France is my magical mystery tour place I just love being in France I love the stories set there whether they are contemporary or historical.
Then – Mary as reader:
Turning to Mary as a reader, this podcast is called The Joys of Binge Reading and discusses books people like to series read . . . Have you authors that you’ve binge read – either now or in the past If so who – any recommendations for listeners?
Mary: Favourites – such a difficult thing…. In the past Diana Gabaldon and the Outlander I probably read three or four of hers before stopping another one closer to home home for you – is Colleen MCullough also Elizabeth Chadwick, Philippa Gregory these are all favourites of mine and I read almost every book they write. Another one who is a little bit more recent to me anyway is Geraldine Brooks and then Robert Harris and Ken Follett is another.
Jenny: I suppose quite a lot of your reading at the moment is non fiction research is it?
Mary: Yes. Right now I am steeped in the history Hong Kong, last year it was into the history of 1870s Paris where there was a siege and uprising known as the Commune . . .
Jenny: Is the Commune going to be appearing in a book?
Mary: Yes. Just finished Acts of Rebellion, set in 1870s Paris – the time of the siege and the Commune It’s a time I don’t think a lot of people know much about but I found it fascinating
Circling around from the beginning to the end
Jenny: At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all over again, what, if anything would you change?
Mary: I’ve only been writing full time since 2009, so its a little difficult to say what I’d change – but not much actually. I am thrilled to be writing, I love what I am doing, One of the things I probably should have done is taken more formal course. As it turns out I am self taught. I learn from the things I write and the free lance editor I work with. I have taken a couple of courses but I think a little bit more formal training in terms of getting me to the goal line a little bit faster.
Jenny: So are you self published or working with an agent and a publisher – I wasn’t sure.
Mary: The first two books – Unravelled and Lies Told in Silence – I self published both those. The Third novel Time and Regret it is published by Lake Union Publishing. It came out in 2016 and its sold quite successfully – as far as I am concerned its sold successfully – and I now have an agent and she is trying to secure a publisher for the Paris book.
Jenny: So you’ve got the thing people talk about – the hybrid career?
Mary: Yes – and the second career Jenny I’m not doing any consulting any more:
Jenny: What is next for MK Tod? You’ve blogged about your next book being set in Hong Kong – a departure for you? Is that historical as well?
Mary: I started it as a contemporary – an ex-pat woman living in Hong Kong and how she copes and the people she meets – it had a little more drama than that – and I approached Lake Union with the idea and they said “Well send us a synopsis.”
And then they came back and said “We’d really like to see a historical time line woven into that, so what would you think about doing another dual time line novel with some history?” So now it is partly set in 1912 and partly 2015 and another mystery – so surprise surprise.
Jenny: Having had three years living there you would have had a chance to get quite a sense of the place . .
Mary: Yes exactly. You know what its a little bit like going home in my brain each time I sit down to write.
Jenny: Coming to a conclusion – Where can people find you and your books online?
Mary: Alright. So books – on Amazon and the self published novels on the other electronic retailers like Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Google Books etc,.
In terms of finding me on Facebook as Mary Tod or MK Tod. You can find me on Twitter and on my blog, The Writer of History,.com check
Jenny: And your blog – Writer of History was chosen as one of the best blogs for writers in 2016 – that must have pleased you.
Mary: As one of my nannies would have said, I was “chuffed” It was an amazing thrill. when I got the email from them I kind of thought it might have been a scam anyway I was very thrilled. I went to a couple of historical writer’s conferences and a couple of people came up to me and said “Oh you’re the survey lady” because I do surveys on my blog and I publish the results so it seems I am getting to be part of the writing community.
Jenny: Thanks so much for your time . . . .Looking forward to the Hong Kong book. Has it got a name?
Mary: At present it’s World’s Apart but there are seven or eight other possibilities!! Lake Union has most of its 2018 publishing programme totally full but there is a possibility of it squeaking in late in the year.
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