Romancing the Word: Madeline Martin on the Power of Books in Historical Fiction


Madeline Martin’s love for books and her love for history stem from a peripatetic childhood as an “army brat.” Thanks to her father’s career in the military, Martin traveled all over Europe while growing up. She explains that she was shy as a child, and often the first friend she made in a new place was the school librarian. “I always found a friend in books,” she said as we sat outside a cafe in Saint Augustine, Florida, where she now lives. “There is always someone to connect with in a book.”

Not only did she love reading books as a child, she also created her own. “I’ve always been a reader, and I had so many stories in my head. As a little girl I used to make my own books. I even illustrated them,” she said with a laugh. “I was quite proud of myself.”

However, when Martin went to college, she did not major in literature or writing. Instead, she got a degree in Business Administration with minors in Economics, Accounting and Political Science from the historic Flagler College. But her love of books stayed with her, and Martin began writing while working full time and raising two children. In 2020, she switched to writing full time.

Martin has written 37 romances — set in medieval times, the seventeenth century, and Regency England — and two works of historical fiction set during the Second World War. She is currently working on a third historical novel, also set in WWII. While the prolific author wrote seven to eight romances a year, historical novels take more time, she said. “I generally spend nine months researching a historical novel and creating a detailed outline. I’m very much a plotter. Then I write the book in about three months,” she explained.

Her research often involves travel to the places which will figure in her books. However, her first historical novel, The Last Bookshop in London (Hanover Square Press, 2021), was written during the pandemic, so she had to rely on her memories and textual resources. The sense of isolation and uncertainty, the hoarding, and the reliance on masks that many of us experienced helped her create an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear for her characters as they hoarded sugar, carried gas masks everywhere, and endured nightly bombings.

Martin applied a twist to the romance trope in her first historical novel. The main character of The Last Bookshop in London is a young woman who never had the time to develop a love for books until she gets a job in a bookshop. She does fall in love with a man, but the deeper and more important story is how she falls in love with reading. “So many of us fell in love with reading early on,” Martin said. “You take it for granted. I started thinking about all of the things about reading that I really love. As I wrote the book, I got to fall in love with reading all over again.” In the novel, Grace shares this passion with frightened Londoners as they wait out the destruction of their city in air raid shelters by reading aloud to them, showing that literature can be a source of comfort in the midst of terror.

Her most recent historical novel, The Librarian Spy (Hanover Square Press, 2022), follows two trajectories: Ava, an American librarian in neutral Portugal who parses European publications for clues to help the allies; and Elaine, who creates pamphlets and newspapers for the French Resistance. Here, the written word helps the heroines save lives.

Using alternating points of view gave Martin the opportunity to show the dichotomy between neutral Portugal and occupied France during the Second World War. “This was integral to the story,” Martin said. “In Lyon, Elaine is starving. Her stomach is growling while in Lisbon Ava’s delicious meals make the mouth water.” An advantage of this alternating approach for the reader is to provide relief from the bleakness of Elaine’s situation while Ava helps refugees and also manages to fall in love.

Even though bookstores are inundated with tales from World War II, Martin has been able to find fresh, untold aspects of the era. “There are still so many stories to be unearthed,” she said. “It’s one of the darkest times in history, but people could still hope. It’s so inspiring.” The idea for The Librarian Spy came after she learned about a woman who saved another woman’s life during the German occupation by giving away her identity cards. When Martin discovered that Lyon was the printing capital of France, the story took off. The result is a thrilling page turner, delving into a fascinating aspect of history.

Martin’s current project continues to explore the role of literature in times of upheaval. Her third historical novel, The Keeper of Hidden Books, set in Warsaw from 1939 through 1944, is also told from two points of view: best friends, one in the ghetto and one on the Polish side. “The Nazis intended to eradicate the Poles,” Martin said. “They saw them as being substandard, but they first had to get rid of their culture. So the libraries and schools were closed.”

With about sixty books on hand, Martin is currently immersed in her research, but she plans to go to Warsaw to continue learning about the Polish experience during wartime. While there, she will also engage in the effort to help Ukrainian refugees.

“Walking in the shoes of people’s experiences through horrifying first-hand accounts has given me a profound awareness of the importance of helping others through catastrophic events,” Martin said. “With the bombings in Ukraine, I am reminded of what people in London suffered during the Blitz and what the people of Warsaw went through during that horrific siege at the beginning of World War II. My research for The Librarian Spy opened my eyes to what refugees sacrifice in their escape – not only clothes, homes, and keepsakes, but also careers and that sense of identity as to what makes them who they are.”

About the contributor: Trish MacEnulty is the author of four novels, a short story collection, and a memoir. She is currently working on a series of historical novels.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 101 (August 2022)

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