historical fiction books | historical romance books

Words with a Wordsmith Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

By Jonathan Posner
May 26, 2023

Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger writes historical fiction with strong women characters.

What was the inspiration for your most recent book?

The Diplomat’s Wife series follows Kitty Larsson, the daughter of a (fictional) U.S. Senator at the dawn of WW2. With her sights set on becoming the first female Foreign Service Officer, she arrives in Vienna as a secretary to the head of the consulate. She also falls in love with an Austrian lawyer, heading for a top diplomat’s job. And then the Anschluss happens, and Kitty discovers the man she thought was of one mind with her, might not be at all. And the friends she has made are now desperate to escape Nazi tyranny. With the Americans setting bureaucratic hurdles, and her husband quite possibly a sympathizer—enough that he’s rising to the top—Kitty takes matters into her own hands and attempts to get her friends out of the country, even if it means betraying the man she loves.

Kitty’s premise was sparked by a discussion I had with my editor. I pitched about 13 ideas I’d had bubbling on the back burner after completing my last contract with them. Of the 13, there were three novels I really, really wanted to do next. None of the three were greenlighted.

One of my other ideas was to write about Chiune Sugihara from his wife’s perspective. Sugihara was the Japanese ambassador to Lithuania when Germany began deporting Jews. Although Japan was not taking any Jewish refugees, he went with his conscience and provided them stamped visas, including on the back of any sheet of paper, and sealed it with his signature. Japan marked him persona non grata until he was awarded Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 2000. So, that was one of the stories on my list, and that did not get a go.

Another story I was very keen to write was the story of Edda Mussolini, Il Duce’s “favorite” daughter, whose husband, Count Ciano, was murdered by Mussolini’s henchmen. I really wanted to explore the conflict and moral dilemmas in that story. The problem with both of those pieces was that my editor did not think either would be marketable. (Plus, Edda Mussolini was not an especially nice person.) My editor asked me to come up with something new.

“Why don’t you take ideas 5, 7 and 9 and mix them up into a 14th idea?”

I happened to be on vacation during this online meeting. I was frustrated. Nothing that I really wanted to write was what they wanted to publish. But not an hour later, when I was out swimming, I was struck by lightning (figuratively). It was a name. That was it. I stopped and floated on my back, looked up at the sky, and said, “All right, Kitty Larsson. What’s your story?”

By that evening, my husband (who is my sounding board) and I had hatched a rough plot. I love writing complex stories that make each character search themselves deeply when confronted by conflict. And I truly could combine the elements of those stories I wanted to write into a wholly new idea. My publisher said to run with it and come back with a full concept. The research began. All I knew was that it would take place in Vienna because it was easiest to get to during COVID lockdowns for me (I live in western Austria), and my American protagonist would be married to an Austrian during the Anschluss. I had no idea what I was about to discover. I was propelled into the relatively unknown world of the Vienna resistance and wow! Suddenly I had enough material for an entire series. My publisher signed me up.

What do you worry about in your work?

Of getting it wrong. Of taking too much fictional license. I am so meticulous that my rough drafts have thousands of highlights, footnotes and comments like “HOW DID A DOORBELL WORK IN PARIS IN 1937??!!” or “Did they even have ginger ale then?” “Something, something, something and then the details from that article about the freak letters”.

In subsequent drafts I go back, I pull it all in or delete entire chunks that are just making things worse. “Where would she be travelling through on her way to Semperit in Istanbul?” “Temperature of Bosphorus in October??” What I don’t research and drop in as I go, I finalize by the last draft, or take it out entirely. By that time, it’s probably no longer important. I do, however, fudge dates. I’ll compress time and shift historical events to real characters to fit the plot and pace as necessary, then admit it in my Author’s Note so that nobody thinks I didn’t actually do research. For example, the curators of my spy ring in Vienna were actually arrested in early spring 1944, but I make it in June. Otherwise I have a lot of space to fill to get to October/November when I need Kitty arrested, and then witness the last battles for Vienna.

Do you speak a second language? Do you think differently in that language? Does it influence your writing?

I am fluent in three languages (Ukrainian, English and German) and deal with a whole lot more (Spanish/Italian/Russian). I am also a business communications coach, specializing in communicating across cultures. So I have loads of tools for playing with languages. I use communication to build up conflict, misunderstandings, codes, or finding common ground between characters. My books have foreign words peppered through them because language is simply essential for authenticity. My locations are in foreign countries, I write in English, and it would just be silly not to use some of the local terms and expressions.

What’s the best compliment a reader has ever given you?

“I had no idea!” Every time I hear that or read that, I think, “Score!” I am a student first, and love to discover new things and then the teacher in me gets all excited and wants to share it. My motto for my writing is “Where the journeys lead to stories and the stories lead to journeys” and that is exactly how it works. I want my stories to broaden horizons.

If you could write any other genre, what would it be?

Well, last spring, this happened: Scholastic USA asked me whether I would like to write a middle grade novel about the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. So, now, suddenly I’m writing novels for kids! And I like it so much, I’m already thinking about adjusting a few of those stories on that “13-books-list” for a younger audience. Swimming with Spies will be released in Fall 2024 and is the story of Sofiya, a 12-year-old firecracker with blond knots and marine-biologist-in-the-making. Her father is a dolphin trainer at the Sevastopol dolphinarium when the Russian military seizes the animals to repurpose them for spying and mine detection. Unfortunately for the Russians, Sofiya is not about to abandon her dolphins.

My editor at Scholastic told me to write it how I want to, and it’s turned into a complex, deeply-layered story, like all of my books are, but I love that it’s set in a modern time (Sofiya can just look things up on the Internet!!), and I am throwing in so much humor to balance it out, which is something I really, really miss in my writing. I write dramatic stories, but I am actually a huge goofball. So, the humor balances out a very heart-wrenching and deep story about identity, family and finding compassion.

And I’m excited about the third book in The Diplomat’s Wife series, which I’m still working on. It’s a doozy of a story; one of those novels that if you don’t read the last book in the series, you’re going to really miss out. Kitty Larsson is going out with quite a bang! It will be out in October this year.

Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger is a multiple award-winning Ukrainian-American author who transplanted to Austria. She started her writing career with short stories, travel narratives, and worked as a journalist and managing magazine editor, before jumping the desk and pursuing her own writing and traveling.

Her books tackle David-vs.-Goliath themes with strong women battling for the Underdogs against a system; be it political, geographical or industrial. Sometimes all three.

You can find out more about her books on her website or on her social and book blogging sites.


Jonathan Posner

Written by Jonathan Posner

Jonathan writes action and adventure novels set in Tudor England, with fiesty female heroines. He has a trilogy that starts with a modern-day girl time-travelling back to the 16th century, as well as a spin-off series (one book so far, with the next due in 2023), and also a prequel.

View Jonathan’s PLW Profile

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1 Comment

  1. Anne Beggs

    So many exciting stories! Great interview.


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