The Mystery of a Mystery – M.K. Tod

M.K. Tod wrote and indie-published two successful historical novels set during World War I. Her newest novel Time and Regret – published this month by Lake Union Publishing – stays true to Tod’s historical expertise while branching into new territory – mystery.TodMK-TimeandRegret-22790-CV-FT

Writing in a new genre stretches an author, and as a fan of her historical writing, I’m pleased to report that Tod not only stays true to her historical fiction core but also does a fine job weaving in a mystery. To read my review, click here.

I asked her to share her thoughts on why mysteries are so appealing and how she worked that into her new novel. This is what she said.

The Mystery of a Mystery
by M.K. Tod

Attracted by the front cover, you take the book off the shelf, peruse the brief description on the back and decide, yes, this is my type of book. A mystery.

Mysteries conjure excitement, the thrill of danger, the nail-biting question of will they or won’t they solve it in time. And then there’s the thrill of sleuthing as you become the detective, the cop, or the amateur accidentally stuck in the midst of a crime.

My new novel – Time and Regret – is a mystery with multiple timelines and a romance to sweeten the deal. In writing it – my first mystery – I’ve had to think a lot about this genre’s enduring appeal.

What is it about mysteries that makes them so satisfying? Why do some people read almost nothing else? Author Melissa Bourbon Ramirez offers this opinion: “I think one reason people love reading mysteries is because they are a safe thrill, kind of like roller coasters when you’re a kid.  They’re a safe adventure, as well.  Just as in any other type of book, we get to visit exotic or interesting places.  You can see the dark side of people, but you know that justice will prevail.  Good will overcome evil.”

Author Nancy Curteman has a different take: “Mystery readers are intelligent people. The mystery story appeals to their sense of curiosity. They enjoy action. They love to analyze the psychological makeup and motivational drives of characters. Most mystery readers are as interested in how and why a crime is committed as they are in who committed it. Sifting through clues and red herrings as the story progresses adds challenge.”

Other reasons have been put forward: to understand the behavior of criminals and the criminal mind; to live the intense emotions involved in crime; to vicariously experience a world of suspense, secrets, excitement and danger; to create order out of disorder and justice out of crime.

And then there’s the detective—typically a flawed but heroic figure who overcomes major obstacles while often making a mess of his or her own life. We can see ourselves in this individual and we root for them to successfully solve the crime while resolving some of their own life problems.

Here’s the premise of Time and Regret.

Time and Regret: A cryptic letter. A family secret. A search for answers.
When Grace Hansen finds a box belonging to her beloved grandfather, she has no idea it holds the key to his past—and to long buried secrets. In the box are his World War I diaries and a cryptic note addressed to her. Determine to solve her grandfather’s puzzle, Grace follows his diary entries across towns and battle sites in northern France, where she becomes increasingly drawn to a charming French man—and is suddenly aware that someone is following her.

When I set out to write Time and Regret, I didn’t fully appreciate the expectations involved. Gradually, I added more to the story: more subtle clues, more plot twists, more danger, more violence, more dead ends. I made my heroine more conflicted and gave her a difficult childhood and I added flaws to my other characters. I wrote and rewrote and rewrote the ending.

Does it work? Will it satisfy the needs of mystery readers? Readers will be the judge because another thing I’ve discovered is that no two readers are the same—and that is the biggest part of the mystery of writing.

Find Time and Regret on Amazon:

Amazon US 

Amazon Canada 

Amazon UK 

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, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Courage – Would you have enough?

Harriet Tubman – abolitionist who liberated more than 700 slaves.

Harriet Tubman. Oskar Shindler. Esther. People iconic for their courage and the bold actions they took to save the lives of others, actions that put their own lives at risk.

Every time I hear a story about someone who stands up to society, their peers, their family – someone who goes against the norm – to right an injustice, I wonder if I would be so brave. Fortunately, I have never had to put my own life on the line; fortunately, most of us never have to.

But most of us do encounter events in our daily lives when we see something happening that we know is wrong. Then we face the choice: engage or walk away, speak up or remain silent.

I confess, I have failed the test more often than I like to admit. One time in particular sticks in my mind.

For 30 years I worked in the public relations business, a job that sent me all over the United States interviewing farmers, veterinarians, and scientists who used my clients’ products. One trip to a North Carolina tobacco farm in 1977 opened my eyes to race relations as I’d never experienced it before, while leaving life-long scars on my heart.

As the interview wound down, the farmer and I were standing in the yard, exchanging pleasantries about the weather and local sports teams. Just then a young black boy, maybe eight or nine years old, came out of the barn.

“Hey, Joseph.” The farmer waved him over. “You need to dance for this lady.”

The boy stood, his arms limp at his sides, his bare feet covered in the soft dust of the lane.

I blanched. Dance for the lady? “Oh, no,” I excused myself. “I need to be going.”

“He likes to do it. He’s a real good dancer,” the farmer insisted.

The boy looked at me. I cannot recall if I smiled or even met his eyes.

Dance for the lady? All I could think about was slave owners forcing their slaves to entertain visitors. Sweat poured down my neck. Thunder roared in my ears. My eyes swam. I wanted no part of this. Yet I could see no way out.

The boy danced for me. And I said nothing.

Why? Out of some misguided sense that I would offend the farmer, my client’s customer? Because I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say? Because I was a coward? I really don’t know. What I do know is that I will always wear the shame of not stopping that demeaning act.

Confronted with a blatant injustice today, I hope I would do better, that I would have the courage to act. But who knows for sure? The circumstances are seldom simple, the decisions seldom clearcut.

The question of if, when, and how to engage in the face of injustice is at the heart of the novel I’m writing now. In the course of her work as a consultant, my main character must face her own biases and decide how long she can remain on the ‘it’s not my job’ fence.

The story is autobiographical only in that the issue is one I’ve always thought about. Like me, my main character doesn’t always get it right.

What has your experience been in speaking up – or not – when you saw something that seemed unfair?

How important is the frame?

A few years ago, as I walked the Crystal Bridges Art Museum grounds, I spotted a single picture frame set on posts in the middle of a soccer-sized field. Intrigued, I walked out to look closer, reasoning that this frame must be quite important to command such a space.

Framing nature at Chrystal Bridges Museum

Framing nature at Crystal Bridges Museum

As I circled the nondescript structure, I realized that the frame gave form to whatever you saw through it. The frame and what it held were equally important.

My friend Mary recently enclosed an open air deck with windows. She found that the window frames focused the way she looked at the trees, buildings, and landscape beyond, causing her to appreciate the views from her deck in ways she hadn’t before.

Framed for drama and impact. Photo courtesy of

Framed for impact. Photo courtesy of

Frames are, of course, nothing new. They show up everywhere in everyday life – movies, TV, computers, pictures on the walls, windows – each one encouraging us to focus on, to look at, something in a particular way.

As writers we make decisions daily on what story to tell. We choose the frames with purposeful intention.

Memoirists choose what parts of their life to share. In my memoir Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, I picked stories from those formative years when I was between 8 and 12. Years when the values my parents taught us kids came into focus (and conflict) in my young mind. The very same events depicted in my childhood memoir could have told a much different story if I’d used them to frame a look into the sometimes unhealthy ways I existed in my first marriage.

As I wrote my novel Go Away Home, deciding the time(frame) was one challenge. If the story began in 1900 and the main character Liddie was 10, the story would be entirely different than if the story were set in 1913 and Liddie were 16. The technological, political, and social differences between 1900 and 1913 change what might be included in the frame, not to mention the differences between how a 10-year-old and a 16-year-old would view herself and her actions.

In my work in progress, literary fiction set in Iowa, the main character is forced to face her own prejudices when she sees life through the frame of immigrants working in a meat packing plant.

Recently, I joined several authors at a retreat where I read a paragraph synopsis of my latest work. Because I mentioned one relationship in this synopsis, the listeners jumped to the conclusion the novel is a love story. It is not. Clearly, the frame I had chosen for my story was wrong.

In the wrong frame, a beautiful tree is blah. In the right frame, something mundane comes into compelling focus. Change the frame, change the story.

Readers make novel launch possible

It’s launch day for the new edition of my novel GO AWAY HOME. If you haven’t read it yet, this is an excellent time to snag a copy. GO AWAY HOME is available on Amazon (at a very attractive introductory price) in print or Kindle versions and can be ordered anywhere books are sold.

Go Away Home, a novel

Go Away Home, a novel

If you’ve already read this story of independence, choices and love, set in pre-WWI Iowa, thank you.

Were it not for readers, my novel would not be here today. Here’s how readers played a role in my writing journey.

My writing partner patiently and thoughtfully critiqued each scene draft. Workshop leaders and participants read and encouraged me as I learned the craft of novel writing. Beta readers offered honest feedback as I fleshed out the manuscript. Editors read and helped me polish the final draft. Reader reviews of the first edition attracted the attention of Lake Union Publishing, leading to this second edition.

Readers mean the world to writers. I am grateful for each and every of you.

If you haven’t read GO AWAY HOME yet, now could be the time. Should you choose to read, I will be honored. Readers make my day.

Seven questions about publishing with Amazon

Ever since Lake Union Publishing acquired my novel Go Away Home (re-launch on July 7), I get questions. Lots of them. About how it works, the advantages, the disadvantages. Jane Friedman invited me to answer the top seven most frequently asked questions on her blog. If you haven’t connected with Jane yet, take time to look around her blog; she offers a deep well of information on the writing and publishing world.

If you’re curious about how it all worked, too, hop over and read my answers to such questions as:

  • How did Lake Union find my book?
  • Why did I sign with them?
  • What happens when a book is acquired?
  • And four more …

My Experience Working with Amazon Publishing

Amazon Publishing

Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is from Carol Bodensteiner (@CABodensteiner), author of the self-published memoir Growing Up Country and the upcoming Go Away Home via Lake Union Publishing, an imprint of Amazon Publishing.

Unable to land a publisher after I wrote my first book, a memoir, I cast my lot with the indie world. I enjoyed the control, and good sales put money in my pocket. So when I completed my pre-WWI-era novel, Go Away Home, in July 2014, I didn’t even look for a traditional publisher.

Imagine my surprise when six months later an email arrived in my inbox from an acquisition editor at Lake Union Publishing, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. I felt like the average teenage girl sitting at the soda fountain counter who is spotted by a director and cast in a major motion picture.

Click to read more.

Have more questions about publishing with Lake Union and Amazon? Leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer.

Dressed up in a new cover – Go Away Home

A drum roll, please … When my novel Go Away Home re-launches on July 7, it will sport this brand new cover.


As an indie author responsible for all aspects of publishing, I have to say cover design caused me the most anxiety. Still, I felt I found great designers for both my memoir Growing Up Country and for Go Away Home. Booksellers and readers told me in both cases I’d made right decisions.

So when Lake Union Publishing picked up Go Away Home, I asked, “What about the cover? Will we keep it?”

“We think we can do more to convey the time period and sense of the story,” they said.

I put my faith in their knowledge of what would appeal to readers, and we went to work. As with editing, cover design with Lake Union Publishing is a team effort. I worked with my editor and the designer to find the right clothing, landscape, and color. The right “feel.”

In addition to the images, size of elements came into play. The larger title on a light background ensures the title will show well in digital thumbnails. Smaller elements – the scissors and sewing machine, stitching and buttons – are surprises hinting at story elements for those who look closer. We went through several rounds to come to a decision we all liked.

Getting the right cover – one that grabs a reader’s attention and makes her want to read the blurb, then open the book and keep on reading is critical. As a marketer, I know there are generally several right answers. I liked the first edition cover, and I like this one, too.

I’m excited to see how readers respond. What do you think?

Are You a Book Reviewer? – Advance review copies of Go Away Home are available. If you are a blogger or journalist who reviews books, let me know so I can get you a copy.

Are you aging like the prairie?

As I walk my prairie this year, I’m struck by how it’s maturing. I was aware that flowers predominate in a newly established prairie while grasses take over in later years. This year, I’m seeing that reality. The contrast between new and mature prairie is clear and dramatic because this spring I let the prairie expand to another section of lawn.

The flashy exuberance of youth.

The flashy exuberance of youth.

The new section is awash in yellow – delicate partridge peas, profuse sweet black-eyed Susans, gangly maxmilian sunflowers, The young plants could hardly wait for me to stop mowing the lawn so they could take over. Their exuberance exciting, the brilliant colors irresistible.

Meanwhile, in the mature prairie, the brilliant flowers of youth have been replaced by graceful fronts of prairie grass. These grasses are strong and tall, able to withstand the winds of summer and winter blizzards. It took longer for grasses to appear in the prairie because they sent down deep roots that nurture them and provide a foundation for the future.

Subtle color in a mature prairie.

Subtle color in a mature prairie.

The mature prairie has not given up on color though you have to look more closely to see it. Mixed in with the grasses are spots of blue and purple: wild bergamot, blue vervain, a few purple coneflowers.

As I move into the second half of my sixth decade, I think how the maturing I see in the prairie is similar to the maturing I see in my own life.

I long ago eschewed the bright colors of the psychedelic 60s for the grays, blues and browns of the business world. These days I’m still more comfortable in muted tones but I augment those muted hues with brighter colors in smaller doses. They brighten my attitude as well as my look.

Though not so flashy, the mature prairie is still capable of surprises and trying something new. This prairie put forth the first butterfly milkweed this year, the orange blossoms a bold statement that though it may take time, it’s never too late to bring out something new.

I felt bold as I ventured into writing and publishing my first novel. Do I say I took this up “late in life”? No. I prefer to say I took up novel writing when the time was right, when my roots were deep and my life experience ready to tackle this new adventure.

Things happen in their own time – in the prairie and in life. The prairie is aging gracefully. I hope to do likewise.

What connects the short stories in a collection?

As I delve into the art of short story writing, I’m also looking at how authors make the stories in a collection cohesive.

SEWING_CAN_BE_DANGEROUS_largeS.R. Mallery wove together the stories in her book Sewing Can Be Dangerous and Other Small Threads using historical events and the fabric arts. Because she tied together history and short stories – two of my current interests, I’ve invited Sarah to tell us more about her approach.

What inspired you to write these stories?

My father had told me about the catastrophic Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire; not only how horrendous it was, but also in time, how important it became as the stimulus for changing factory labor practices. So years later when I started writing fiction that was the very first story to pop into my head. Besides loving history, I also began to think thematically. What about creating other stories that included sewing and crafts as well?

Do you sew? How much of your own sewing experience came into play in writing these stories?

After having been a quilt designer, quilt teacher, and quilt writer for over twenty years and surrounded by fabrics, sewing machines, and my crafts, it wasn’t a huge stretch to incorporate sewing and crafts into these stories. I had already experienced first hand how the aches and pains of intense sewing can wreak havoc on your neck and shoulders, the inherent danger of certain sewing accessories, and how viewing vibrant fabrics up close can be mind-blowing.

Your stories span centuries. How did you choose the points in time to write about?

As I recall, I simply started reading mostly coffee table books of various time periods. Then, if something caught my interest, I would try to envision how a craft or sewing project could fit into that period for a story. For example, I thought of the Salem witchcraft story because I had read in a quilt book how certain quilt patterns were seen as curses. My medieval story evolved from reading how great manors would have a separate sewing wing constructed just so local girls could stitch exquisite embroidery items 24-7.

How did you approach the research to allow you to accurately represent so many different places in time?

So much of how I do research just seems to fall into place from something I’ve read. For example, I might be thinking about an era or a story I want to follow up on and as I investigate further, I might come across one tiny fact about a person or event. That leads me to looking up more about that person or event, which often leads me to even more details attached to the subject, a plot devise, and/or a character development. These discoveries don’t necessarily happen in rapid-fire sequence, either—a shower, movie, book, gardening, teaching, or discussions with family and friends often comes in-between.

Which is your favorite story and why?

Actually, I have two favorites. The Triangle shirtwaist story and the slave quilt story. The former because I totally got swept up with those poor, poor girls dying on that fateful day, and the latter because I loved doing research and writing about how smart the U.S. slaves were, when they would do their ‘Puttin’ on the Massah’.

You also write novel-length works. How do you compare the task/challenge of writing short stories and novels?

I wrote these stories before I attempted to write my novel. So, when I began to seriously think about and dig into Unexpected Gifts I was terrified. How was I going to do a complete novel having only written short stories? Then I had an epiphany. I pretended that after I made my outline, each chapter was going to be like a short story. That calmed me down enough to continue!

I can relate to that, Sarah. I tackled my novel in much the same way. The final story in your collection is different than the others, because it includes a craft but not thread/fabric. How do you see that story fitting into the collection?

Well, actually, there are two other stories besides the one you mentioned, “Nightmare at Four Corners,” which are not really about sewing: “Lyla’s Summer of Love” involves a macramé artist, and “Border Windfalls incorporates the weaving process of making blanket like pieces. I had originally thought of doing more crafts, but decided to stick with what I had. I also liked the title Sewing Can Be Dangerous from the Triangle Shirtwaist story, so that governed my product.

What’s next for you?

I’m hoping to publish another shorter collection of stories, ranging from flash fiction to longer stories, and in the wings, lies a very general outline and characters for a Civil War book but that will undoubtedly take quite a while to write! The joy AND the pitfalls of historical fiction…

Yes – history gives us endless possibilities to explore. Anything else you’d like to share?
Just a hearty thanks for interviewing me with such interesting questions!

It’s been a pleasure to have you here today, Sarah.

Join the discussion: Which would you rather read? A short story or a novel? When you pick up a short story collection, how do you expect them to tie together?

S.R. Mallery, author

S.R. Mallery, author

Author Bio: S.R. Mallery has worn various hats in her life. Starting as a classical/pop singer/composer, she moved on into the professional world of production art and calligraphy. Next came a long career as an award winning quilt artist/teacher and an ESL/Reading instructor. Her short stories have been published in descant 2008, Snowy Egret, Transcendent Visions, The Storyteller, and Down In the Dirt. She also has had quilt articles published in Traditional Quiltworks and Quilt World.

Where to find S.R. Mallery:
Twitter: @SarahMallery1
Facebook: S.R. Mallery (Sarah Mallery)

Where to find her books:


How can writing short stories work for you? Six ways

What’s next for my writing? With my novel Go Away Home set to publish in July, I’ve been thinking more and more about where to turn my writing energy next. Short stories have come up with increasing frequency. As if to urge me along, Julie Glover offered “6 Reasons to Write a Short Story” over at Writers in the Storm.

If you’re already writing short stories, what has your experience been? What are the benefits? Have they been a gateway to longer works? Or are the shorter genres your destination?

If you’re a short story reader, I’d like to know what you look for in a short – what works and what doesn’t?

Here’s what Julie says:

6 Reasons to Write a Short Story

*  *  *  *  *  *

My Sister's Demon, paranormal fiction by Julie Glover, @julie_glover

As a novel reader, I always believed I was meant to write full-length books. Yet I find myself entering the self-published market with a collection of short stories instead.

I wrote the first one on a lark—merely a story premise I wanted to get out of my system. But I liked the result so much, I started another. And then I got hooked, eventually completing six young adult paranormal shorts.

6 reasons you might consider writing a short story:

1. Writing short stories hones your skill for writing lean—a skill that will help you craft more effective scenes in a novel.

 Click to read the rest of Julie’s reasons.

And I’d love to hear your thoughts on short stories here. Comments?

What to do with 30,000 “excess” kids?

Dealing with homeless children 100 years ago

In the 1800s, boatloads of immigrants arrived in U.S. port cities. They came seeking the American dream; the reality they faced was often more a nightmare.  Large families, poverty, and untimely deaths from childbirth or disease, left thousands of children on the streets. These children survived as pickpockets, beggars, or prostitutes. By the mid-1850s, it’s estimated that 30,000 children lived on New York streets.

What became of those children is a lesser-known part of American history that became known as the Orphan Train Movement.

The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) was a New York agency formed to help care for these “excess” children. Not all of the children were orphaned. Some were abandoned. Some were given over to the CAS because the parents simply couldn’t take care of them.

Orphan Train Riders

Orphan Train Riders

Workers at the CAS and another charity institution, The New York Foundling Hospital, sought better lives for the children, looking for homes with families in rural areas of the country.  The Orphan Train Movement transported children–ranging in age from infants to 16–by rail to new homes. Between 1854 and the early 1930s, the two organizations placed between 200,000 and 250,000 children in homes across 47 states and several Canadian provinces. Some 10,000 of those children came to Iowa.

I learned about the Orphan Train riders in the course of researching an article on the subject for The Iowan magazine. The topic fascinated me so much that I’ve included an Orphan Train thread in my upcoming novel Go Away Home.

By the time I was doing my research, Iowa’s Orphan Train riders had all passed away. My interviews included the children of riders, and the stories they tell are both poignant and powerful. Mary McLain is one of those I interviewed.

Mary McLain’s favorite story when she was growing up was Little Orphan Annie.  As a kindergartner, she dressed up as Annie for Halloween, wearing a dress her mother took out of a box tucked away in the back of a closet.  It would be many years–long after her mother passed away–before McLain learned the story behind that dress, before she learned how closely her mother’s life mirrored that of Little Orphan Annie.

McLain’s mother, Viola Volkert, was born in New York in 1907. When Viola was three, her mother contracted tuberculosis and was placed in a sanitarium.  Viola’s father could not care for his three daughters and one son, so he placed the girls with the CAS.

When Viola and her sisters entered that orphanage, they took the first step on a journey into this unique part of American history. Viola and her sisters rode the Orphan Train to Clear Lake, Iowa. The girls were all sent to separate homes.

In 1958, Viola handed a box to her daughter, Mary McLain, by then an adult. “She said, ‘I want you to have these; I know you’ll take good care of them,'” McLain remembers, “but I didn’t ask ‘Whose are these?'” Only after Viola died in 1977 did McLain begin to uncover her mother’s story.

McLain discovered that the three dresses in the box, plus three pair of underwear and a pair of shoes, were everything her mother owned when she came to Iowa.

Many Orphan Train riders did not talk easily about that part of their lives. Being an orphan was considered shameful. Speaking about it might be seen as disrespectful to the people who took you in. This was a generation that did not talk about private things. For some, their experience was not positive.

Bill Nelson was eight years old when he came to Iowa. His father gave Bill up to the orphanage, but kept Bill’s older brother, Arthur. Bill’s first family wanted him only for the hard work. The CAS matron who checked up on the placement removed him from that home. Ultimately, he was taken in by a woman whose children were all grown. But when the Depression hit, she could no longer afford to keep him. Bill was on his own at age fifteen.

All his life, Bill carried a picture of his brother and himself–the one connection he had to his former family. His daughter did the research to find her father’s brother, still living in New Jersey. When the brothers finally met, they were both in their 80s. Arthur carried the same picture with him.

All his life, Bill had carried the hurt of being rejected by his father. It was only after telling his story at an Orphan Train reunion, a story that he’d kept inside most of his life, that he was finally able to say with some pride, “I’m part of American history.”


The Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital continue in operation today. The National Orphan Train Complex is dedicated to saving the stories of Orphan Train riders.

Two excellent novels center on Orphan Train riders: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty and Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline.