Sunday, January 13, 2013


Thank you to Nancy Bilyeau for inviting me to talk about the research I did for my novel, THE PLUM TREE.

When I started working on THE PLUM TREE, a WWII story about a young German women in love with a Jewish man, I knew the setting like the back of my hand—a small village in Germany surrounded by rolling hills, orchards, vineyards and medieval castles. I’d been to Germany numerous times to visit family and could picture the cobblestone streets and stepped alleys because I had walked them myself. I could smell the aroma of pretzels and tortes coming from the village bakery and taste the warm, dark beer being shared at the corner Krone. I could feel the soft cocoon formed by sleeping beneath a deckbed (feather bedcover) and hear the church bells echoing through the narrow streets. I could even get a sense of the fear and claustrophobia caused by wartime air raids, because I’d been inside the bomb shelter where my mother and her family hid in terror for nights on end.

My mother grew up in Nazi Germany, the eldest of five children in a poor, in a working-class family. When I started research for my novel, I asked her to retell the family stories about WWII so I could take notes, going as far as giving her a questionnaire about the details of everyday life. Through her answers, I learned, among other things, how the average German mother kept her children fed and alive during food shortages—domestic practices like making sugar out sugar beets, bartering beechnuts for cooking oil, using vinegar to preserve what little meat they had, keeping chickens safe in the attic, and letting a crock of milk sour on the cellar steps until it was the consistency of pudding, then serving it with boiled potatoes and salt. My mother remembers waking up to find her parents in the kitchen making sausage in the middle of the night because it was illegal to purchase and butcher a pig during the war. They told her they were making tortes and sent her back to bed. Every resource—wood, pigs, flour, church bells, iron gates, scrap metal, paper, bones, rags, empty tubes—was to go towards the war effort. And there were rules about everything, from how often a person was allowed to bathe, to the list of acceptable baby names.

When the war started, my grandfather was drafted and sent to the Russian front. I remember his stories about being captured and sent a POW camp, the deep snow, the freezing cold, the way the prisoners would undress and sleep in a huddle, hoping to freeze the lice off their uniforms. Every morning there would be dead men around the edges of the group, frozen while they slept. Eventually my grandfather escaped, but for two years, my mother and her family had no idea if he was dead or alive until he showed up on their doorstep one day.

During the four years my grandfather was off fighting, my grandmother repaired damaged military uniforms to bring in a small income. She stood in ration lines for hours on end, cooked on a woodstove, made clothes out of cotton sheets, and put blackout paper over the house windows so the enemy wouldn’t see their light. Under the cover of night, she put food out for passing Jewish prisoners and listened to foreign radio broadcasts on an illegal shortwave—both crimes punishable by death.
My uncles told me about seeing planes being built in the forest, beneath the canopy of thick trees, and I even had the chance to talk to an elderly man who was a former SS doctor. He showed me his photo album from the war, pointing out pictures of him standing near Hitler, of him drinking schnapps with other officers in front of a huge Christmas tree. He showed me a letter he’d sent to his wife from the Eastern front, and a hand drawn postcard with the image of a giant officer stepping over mountains into Germany, a bouquet of roses in his arms. I soon realized he was a doctor on the front lines, not in the camps, as I had assumed. He recalled the horrible conditions on the battlefields, operating on the wounded in a tent with mud floors, not having enough bandages and morphine.

In THE PLUM TREE, Lagerkommandant Grünstein is loosely based on Kurt Gerstein, a real SS officer who infiltrated the camps so he could witness first-hand what the Nazis were doing. During my research I found out that Kurt Gerstein tried to tell the world what was happening, but no one would listen. When the war was over, he died in a French prison after giving a detailed account of the camps to the Allies. Twenty days later he was found dead in his cell. Whether he committed suicide or was murdered by the other SS prisoners remains a mystery. His testimony provided the Allies with their most detailed account at Nuremburg.

Along with my family’s history, there were a great many books that were helpful to me while writing THE PLUM TREE. Among the memoirs that mirrored and expanded on my family’s stories were: German Boy by Wolfgang W. E. Samuel, The War of our Childhood; Memories of WWII by Wolfgang W.E. Samuel, and Memoirs of a 1000-Year-Old Woman by Gisela R. McBride. I also relied on Frauen: German Woman Recall the Third Reich by Alison Owings. To understand the Allied bombing campaign, which had become a deliberate, explicit policy to destroy all German cities with populations over 100,000 using a technique called “carpet bombing”—a strategy that treated whole cities and their civilian populations as targets for attacks by high explosives and incendiary bombs—I read: To Destroy a City: Strategic Bombing and its Human Consequences in WWII by Hermann Knell, Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombings of Civilians in Germany and Japan by A.C. Grayling, and The Fire by Jörg Friedrich. Among the many horrific air raid stories in these books were the firebombing of Hamburg in July 1943, dubbed “Operation Gomorrah” which killed 45,000 civilians, and the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, which killed 135,000 civilians. All of these books include some of the most haunting scenes I’ve ever read about what was like to be a German civilian during the war. These books reinforced my belief that this was a story that needed to be told.

To understand what it was like for civilians and POWs after the war I read: Crimes and Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians under Allied Occupation by James Bacque. For information involving persecution of the Jews and the horror of concentrations camps I read: Night by Elie Wiesel, Eyewitness Auschwitz by Filip Müller, and I Will Bear Witness by Victor Klemperer.

Although The Plum Tree is a work of fiction, I strove to be as historically accurate as possible. For the purpose of plot, Dachau was portrayed as an extermination camp, while in reality it was categorized as a work camp. Undoubtedly, tens of thousands of prisoners were murdered, suffered, and died under horrible conditions at Dachau, but the camp was not set up like Auschwitz and other extermination camps, which had a deliberate “euthanasia” system for killing Jews and other undesirables. Also for the purpose of plot, the attempt on Hitler’s life led by Claus von Stauffenburg was moved from July 1944 to the fall of 1944. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Win a copy of Midwife's Tale!

Sorry for the Internet silence of late, but if you're interested in winning a copy of I've got you covered. Click the link below, and you'll be in!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Midwife's Tale by Sam   Thomas

The Midwife's Tale

by Sam Thomas

Giveaway ends February 09, 2013.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Midwife's Tale is now on Sale! (And has a trailer.)

True story: I called a bookstore chain of which you have heard and asked when they thought The Midwife's Tale might come in. (My goal was to stop by and sign whatever copies they had.)

Me: It's called The Midwife's Tale.

Clerk: T-A-L-E?

*Pause while I imagine the plot of The Midwife's T-A-I-L.*

Me: Yes, T-A-L-E.

Anyway, The Midwife's Tale is out today! And here's the Trailer:

Sunday, January 6, 2013


By Nancy Bilyeau

Vampire. Witch. Zombie. Werewolf. In films, books and TV series, it seems as if the supernatural run the show as never before. 

I admit to a weakness for Dracula, whether it's in the hands of the one-and-only Bram Stoker, the gifted Elizabeth Kostova (The Historian) or the audacious Francis Ford Coppola in his adaptation (fantastic soundtrack). Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris and Justin Cronin have taken the vampire myth in fascinating directions. And, yes, I admit it: I'm a Twilight mom.

My favorite "modern" witch has to be the determined  and erudite Diana Bishop in Deborah Harkness's wonderful novels, A Discovery of Magic and Shadow of Night. She's come a long way from "Double, double, toil & trouble."

So perhaps the modern viewer could be forgiven some cynicism when faced with the latest variety of scary being in The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey: the necromancer. What do we have here? Well, something scary for one. The character of The Necromancer takes up very little screen time (especially considering that the movie is a darn 169 minutes long), but it is used to effect. If you don't believe me, check it out for yourself:

Now you see what I mean. 

Long ago, I had decided that in my second novel, The Chalice, which revolves around a dangerous prophecy, my protagonist, Joanna Stafford, would come face to face with a necromancer, a person who purports to see into the future using the "dark arts." I plunged into historical  research, not knowing what to expect. I was aware of the basic job description of the necromancer: i.e., someone who has special contact with the dead. 

The image flitting through popular culture is that of a mysterious yet charismatic spell caster, as in Dungeons and Dragons.

Yet in doing my research, I was shocked to learn that necromancy dates back to antiquity. And just as storytelling that features supernatural creatures such as the vampire tells us something about human fear of aging and sexuality, belief in the necromancer, which shows up in many centuries and many cultures, reveals something of our society's feelings about death and the unknowable future.

The first written references to them were in the 5th century BCE. In ancient Greece necromancers were "evocators of souls," sorcerers who claimed to know how to summon up the spirit of a dead person and, once contacted, glimpse the future. Only they could dissolve the barrier between the living and the dead. Such skills required extensive training; the ceremonies involved drawing circles in the ground, pronouncing incantations, and using such apparatus as water, candles, scepters, swords and wands. Animal sacrifice often played a part in compelling the dead to appear.

In Homer's Odysssey, Book Eleven, Ulysses summons the spirits of dead heroes using the rituals taught him by Circe, knowledgeable of necromantic rites, to learn his fate:

Ulysses journeys to the place of ritual
"When the sun went down and darkness was over all the earth, we got into the deep waters of the river Oceanus, where lie the land and city of the Cimmerians who live enshrouded in mist and darkness which the rays of the sun never pierce neither at his rising nor as hegoes down again out of the heavens, but the poor wretches live in one long melancholy night. When we got there we beached the ship, took the sheep out of her, and went along by the waters of Oceanus till we came to the place of which Circe had told us.
"I made a drink-offering to all the dead, first with honey and milk, then with wine, and thirdly with water, and I sprinkled white barley meal over the whole, praying earnestly to the poor feckless ghosts... When I had prayed sufficiently to the dead, I cut the throats of the two sheep and let the blood run into the trench, whereon the ghosts came trooping up from Erebus--brides, young bachelors, old men worn out with toil, maids who had been crossed in love, and brave men who had been killed in battle, with their armour still smirched with blood; they came from every quarter and flitted round the trench with a strange kind of screaming sound that made me turn pale with fear..."
It is not only Greek culture that yields frightening stories of the dead summoned to tell of the future. In the Old Testament's Book of Samuel, which scholars estimate was first written in 600 BCE, the Woman of Endor clearly has necromancer powers.

King Saul "had put the mediums and the necromancers from the land," but "when Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly." He went to the woman of Endor in disguise to learn what would happen in his battle with the Philistines. At first, interestingly, she refused.
And Saul said, "Divine for me by a spirit and bring up for me whomever I shall name for you." The woman said to him, "Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the necromancers from the land. Why then are you laying a trap for my life to being about my death? 

Saul revealed himself, persisted in his demand for prophecy, saying, "As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing."

Saul may have wished he hadn't pushed so hard. Once the Woman of Endor summoned the dead prophet Samuel, he told the king about the looming battle: "Tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The Lord will give the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines."Sure enough, the next day Saul and his sons perished.

In the centuries of Roman rule, divining the future was more important then ever, whether it was paying visits to oracles, reading the auspices, or seeking out necromancers. Astrology, the white art of prophecy, was all the rage.

When Christianity became the religion of the Empire, and, after the fall of Rome, the popes ruled Christendom, astrology and other pagan practices were officially discouraged. Necromancers were detested above all. The religious authorities did their utmost to stamp them out.

But the dawn of the medieval age was not the end of the necromancers. It was just the beginning.

(Part Two: The Duchess and the Necromancers appears on English Historical Fiction Authors:

To learn more about The Chalice—read excerpt chapters, see a Pinterest board, enter a giveaway—go to: