I am very pleased to announce Margaret George as the second author in the Top Historical Fiction Author Series. Readers rank Ms. George 10th on the list of favourite historical fiction authors.
A few years ago, when I read Mary Called Magdalene, I was captivated by the imaginative story and engaging writing style. Here was a writer breathing excitement into a story I first heard in Sunday school. Margaret has other equally fascinating stories including Helen of Troy, The Memoirs of Cleopatra and Mary Queen of Scotland and The Isles. If you haven’t read any of her books, I urge you to do so.
Please use the comments feature to post your questions.
Why do you write historical fiction? I have always felt I was born in some other era and just ended up here accidently. Writing historical fiction is the way I can parachute back into another time and live there for a while.
You are clearly very skilled at writing historical fiction. What do you think attracts readers to your books? People do say they feel like they are really there. Perhaps that’s because I feel like I am there, too. But it means that in order to recreate that for myself I have to shut out all reminders of where I really am, which means I am not the type to write chapters in a Starbuck’s!
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? Being rather set in a pattern of doing things, I first accumulate books and information about my subject. Then I read them and take notes, starting with the most general books on the subject and gradually getting more and more specific. I find that often children’s books are good at giving an overall and easy to understand picture. (Even the children’s book of the Civil War is detailed and somewhat confusing, though, because the subject is so vast.) After I’ve absorbed all the knowledge I can from reading, I go to the places and try to relive the character’s life as fully as I can. I visit their homes and the places where significant (or maybe not so significant, just everyday) events of their lives took place. Museum exhibits are helpful, too, but I have to go to them when they are on, not when they fit into my schedule. Rome had a spectacular Nero exhibit from April until September 2011 which I made sure to go to, even though it’s early in my research for that book. I came away with wonderful catalogues and videos—all in Italian!
Once I start writing I write from beginning to end as that’s the way the characters lived their lives. Ideally I would do nothing else but write for about 6 weeks and then take a big break. But I have to fit it into my everyday life, so often I can’t follow that schedule. I always print out what I write at the end of the day and save it to read over the next morning, when I make my corrections and enter them into the text. That gets me ‘into’ the next section mentally and I go on from there.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? Gore Vidal—his Julian was a masterpiece and I got the Will Somers/Henry duo idea from it. Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian—her style was poetic but not unrealistic and psychologically true to the Emperor Hadrian. Zoe Oldenbourg—The World is Not Enough singlehandedly got me hooked on the middle ages when I was a teenager. Anya Seton’s Katherine was a model for a biographical novel. Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s We Speak No Treason gave me a standard of evocative prose to live up to.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing? I think the combination of escapism and education is what fuels a top historical fiction author. People want to escape into another time but they want to learn about that time as well. It should not serve as just wallpaper against which the action takes place.
I don’t consciously select or plan for these ingredients but I think they come with the territory once I am into the project.
How do you select new stories to tell? The characters have to reach out to me in some way. Usually they are ‘larger than life’ types, operatic characters who lived tempestuous lives. Also, that their personal emotions and problems changed actual history. Of course you have to go back at least 500 years to find individuals who have that power…before the days of committees and elections and constitutional (if any) monarchs.
What techniques do you employ to write productively? There’s the ideal writing setup: quiet, seclusion, no claims on my time or thoughts outside the room…then there are the somewhat successful attempts to create that. I do try to write when I am most creative, from around 10 am to 3 pm. I screen phone calls but defer talking unless it’s an emergency; ditto for emails. I close the email function on the computer so I won’t be tempted to peek. Unfortunately my best time for writing means I can’t do any midday things so I can’t be a ‘lady who lunches.’
Do you think of yourself as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you reinforce it? I didn’t set out to have a brand but recently a writer friend said, “You’ve got a franchise going!” It wasn’t intentional but since I’ve written six biographical novels and they tend to be about the type of character I described above, I ended up with a brand inadvertently. If I wrote a different sort of book I would have to take a pen name as it would be false advertising at this point if it wasn’t like the others.
What do you do to connect with readers? I like meeting readers and do so whenever I can. I go to book festivals, and do readings and signings. Of course the internet allows me to interact with many more people than I can in person. I have a website and a Facebook page, and try to answer all the correspondence I get through them. I don’t Twitter, though, as I don’t have that much to say every day and frankly, keeping abreast of all that would take more time than I would feel comfortable with.
What do you know about your readers? I don’t know exactly who my readers are, except for the ones who contact me. I have a lot of older readers (one gentleman in his 80s writes me regularly) and a surprising number of teenage readers. They tend to write me a lot and I always enjoy hearing from them. I think the youngest reader was around 12. Often they propose joint projects! They tend to be very creative. One wrote a play about Clytemnestra, Helen of Troy’s sister, after reading about her in my novel. Others have done graphic novels based on my work.
What data do you collect about your readers? I don’t really have any formalized way of doing that. I’m curious so I wish I did.
What strategies guide your writing career? Pace yourself and don’t follow trends. It is so hard to guess what people are really going to want to read about, so select what it is you want to read about, hope others feel the same, and write about it yourself. As for pacing, there’s a certain minimum time I need to make a good product and it can’t be artificially hurried. (Remember Diana Ross singing, “Can’t Hurry Love”?) So I don’t make promises about when I can deliver something that I know I can’t fulfill. I did that once and learned my lesson.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? I’d start earlier so I’d have time to write more books! But seriously, to be fair to myself, I had written other types of books before I discovered that historical fiction was my calling, so it was a necessary learning experience.
I’m tempted to self-publish as e-books some of my earlier works, under another name since they are different genres.
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? Be proud of what you do and gently educate people that real historical fiction is not the same as the potboiler genre.
Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked? I’d just like to offer encouragement to anyone who feels called to try his/her hand at historical novels. Don’t quench the spirit, as the Bible says. Listen to what your inner self is telling you. Do it for yourself, maybe even secretly, lest others discourage you. Then, when it’s ready…send it out into the world and see what happens. You will have had a rich experience in creating it, even if the world doesn’t greet it as a Big Happening. It will have been a Big Happening to you.
Insight on her approach to writing, thoughts about why she writes what she does, intriguing advice for writers – what more can we ask for?
Thank you, Margaret.