How the Ideas for My New WW2 Series Came to Fruition
Did you know that most publishers rely on their authors to come to the table with new ideas and for at least two more books?
In September 2021, Bookouture published my novel set in WW2 Ukraine. They had already invested much in marketing me in my specific niche. So, when I told them that I was interested in writing something completely different—maybe even something modern—my editors were open to it…as long as I also wrote something for the market I’d been writing for.
So, I hit my notes and developed three very detailed book proposals as well as a list of fourteen other ideas that I could consider if it spoke to them. But I had a burning 16th century Ottoman empire story I wanted to write, and a modern story, and…
They wanted more WW2 from me.
The only other story that really, really interested me was one about Edda Mussolini, the Italian fascist’s “favorite” daughter. Her husband, Count Ciano, was murdered by the regime. I get intrigued by situations like this, my question being, “What would it be like to have your husband—the love of your life and father to your children—working for the Fascist regime and then murdered by the father you have adored and were devoted to since you were a little girl?”
As intriguing as the question was, as I read her biography, I discovered that Edda Mussolini is unfortunately not a likable character, and my editors sensed that it could be too risky. However, I also had another idea inspired by a movie I saw about the deserters of the German Wehrmacht at the end of the war. It was a two-line pitch: woman discovers German Wehrmacht soldier hiding in her home; does she help him and what are the risks and consequences of her actions?
What my editor picked up on was that I was interested in the moral dilemmas associated with “sleeping with the enemy”, so to speak. And she wasn’t wrong. So she told me to go back to the drawing board and think about an American protagonist. Plus, I had to choose settings that I could get to, at least by car, even if there was another COVID Lockdown. I live in Austria, so this essentially limited my sphere to Vienna.
I was on holiday in Spain with my husband during this meeting with my editor. I closed my computer, frustrated that I was not going to be writing any of the stories that I really wanted to, but eager to get some more titles under my belt asap. (A colleague of mine assured me that there would be a time when I could write what I wanted; it just wasn’t now.) I threw in the towel—literally—and went for a swim in the sea.
As I was crawling through that gorgeous water, a name suddenly zapped into my head. Kitty Larsson. I stopped and floated for a second, repeating the name, over and over. Then kicked forward, thinking, “Okay, Kitty, talk to me. What’s your story?”
By that evening, over dinner with my husband at the beach-side restaurant, I’d hatched a very rough concept. I knew this: Kitty is married to an Austrian diplomat, lives in Vienna, comes from a privileged family, and after the Anschluss, discovers her husband is not who he says he is. So what does she do then?
I had no intention of writing three books about her at that time, but when I threw the idea to my editor, she said, “And the second book?”
I had no idea. I told her to give me some time. It was my friend who said, “Kitty sounds like she could have a sequel…” By the time I finished putting the details together for the first book, I knew I had at least three books. We ran with it.
My cast of characters are all fictional, so I started researching for inspiration. Which American socialites were hanging out in Europe around this time? Were they married to Germans? Or were they lovers of such? Did they work for some form of resistance? Boy, did those questions send me down a rabbit hole!
I started researching in September and by April 2022, I finally had the story I wanted to tell, and all the elements I’d wanted to throw in. I’d found the answers and the inspirations. I had ten weeks to bring it all to life.
The joy of doing what I do is discovering the depth of location I set my books in. I had visited Vienna so many times, but never really to study it in WW2. I assumed I understood what the city’s role was and what the leaders’ roles were, but I was very wrong. What I discovered was that nothing was as it seemed on the surface, which was doubly intriguing for me, because I knew this was going to be Kitty’s theme in the first book.
Vienna was full of secrets, intrigues, was a hotbed for espionage, has a whole city of tunnels beneath its streets, and a subculture comparable to Berlin during the time the book is set in. Here are a just a few choice bits that I will be presenting in the coming months:
“Red Vienna” leading up to the fall of Dollfuss: Under a Socialist government, the Vienna city council had managed to build tons of new apartment buildings, civic pools, libraries, theaters, and daycare facilities for the workers and their children. Comparably, after the Anschluss, the Nazi regime expanded Vienna’s districts and boroughs, all the way into Lower Austria. The development of Vienna was massive but conflicts exacted a heavy toll on the classes.
Several resistance groups formed right after the Anschluss and worked on bringing down the Nazi regime. I was shocked to discover how many throughout Austria and, in Vienna alone, there were dozens of small cells, some banding together.
As in most cases with this series, I first came up with the idea and then searched for the historical relevance and anecdotes for inspiration. I was not disappointed. Vienna, like Berlin, had a very healthy nightlife, including a gay population that was later as targeted as the city’s Jews were during the pogroms. Eager to create a well-rounded picture of the city during this time, I immediately knew that I would have members of Kitty’s “gang” come from these worlds.
Vienna was a multi-cultural and vibrant city despite the poor economy. A melting pot of cultures and languages, political and religious influences played large roles after the Anschluss. I hope to bring this city to life by incorporating many of these flavors and layers.
The Nazi party was an illegal, underground organization in Austria between 1933 and 1938, and continued growing despite it. In fact, in a telegram from a U.S. diplomat in Germany, he reported that a German ambassador warned him that the Austrian Nazis were only waiting for their time in the sun. Neither he nor America took the warning seriously.
And that leads me to the greatest discovery of all: I put Kitty Larsson—an American socialite—into a position at the U.S. consulate in Vienna, working with the Foreign Service Office. And when I began researching that, I uncovered a whole story about the Vienna legation and how it eventually became a consulate. How did the Americans and Roosevelt’s administration view and deal with the Jewish population looking to flee from Austria? What role did the Brits and other Allies have? When I began researching those questions, I discovered I had even a more interesting story for Kitty Larsson and her Austrian diplomat husband.
And that’s what I’ll be covering—or uncovering, per se—over the months to come and leading up to the release of the first book in the series. Because this is a three-book series, there are hundreds of stories I can share about my characters, their lives, their vocations, and the settings.
For example, my cast of characters includes a Jewish fashion designer, so I’ll be writing about the fashion industry in Vienna and how the Nazis used fashion to oppress the population. I have an Olympic wrestler whose Jewish sports club—popular for training and preparing Olympic-level athletes—was shut down in 1938. Kitty’s friends include a family originally from Kazakhstan, who fled to Vienna to escape Communism. I’ll be profiling Vienna’s high society and their political polarizations. And I’ll be peeling back and revealing some of the subculture’s culture.
All three books of The Diplomat’s Wife (working title of the series) will be released in 2023.