Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction – Margaret George

Today, Margaret George reflects on over 35 years of writing historical fiction and looks back on how the industry used to work …

In 1986, my first novel, The Autobiography of Henry VIII, was published by St. Martin’s Press. Hope Dellon, the woman who later became a legendary editor, was just starting out, as was I.  In those days there were no ‘marketing committees’ at a publishing house; the editor had the freedom to act on his/her own judgment and hunches.  Ms.Dellon bought Henry VIII because she liked it, not because anyone thought it would be huge success.  Its success came as a surprise to all of us. At the time I was just grateful that it saw its way into print.  I did not have any expectations for it—but it ended up on the bestseller list of the London Sunday Times for several weeks.  I think, because of my name, they didn’t realize I was an American telling their British history story!

There were no MFA’s at the time (although there were always a few renowned writing programs, like the Iowa Writers’s Workshop) no ‘writers support groups’, no alpha and beta readers.  There were agents, of course.  At the time the prescribed course to publication was “first you write magazine short stories” and then an agent might take you on.  Those were the days of flourishing magazines—Redbook, Mademosielle, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Saturday Evening Post—that featured short stories every month.

But short stories were not my natural type of story telling, and so my first novel was a 936 page whopper.  Also, back then, such large books were not at all unusual.  The Thorn Birds, Lord of the Rings, Exodus, and many others, including James Michener, were quite long.  This was all before cable TV and the internet.  People spent more time reading.  In fact our only entertainment was either network TV, movies in the theater, and books.

Since then I’ve written biographical novels on six other historical characters:  Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy, Elizabeth I, and Nero, all of them still in print.  These are straight life stories, birth to after death, with my goal of never going against a known fact.  So they exist in the twilight zone between fiction and non fiction, and were often included on university reading lists for history. Today this format is considered old fashioned and people like dual timeline stories or mixed genre stories, like mystery/historical, thriller/historical. Reading fashions evolve!

My other goal, though, was to bring these people back to life.  I was recently in the National Portrait Gallery in London, passing through rooms hung with paintings of people who have exited the stage of life.  It was rather overwhelming, being in the presence of so many people who are no more, but once were. If I looked into their eyes, they seemed so alive, so ready to talk to me. The words of the 1708 Isaac Watts hymn,

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

came to me in all its sadness.  It seemed so unfair that they were silenced forever.  Only through art can they live again, and that is what a movie or play or historical novel can do.

In order to write such a novel, though, I had to immerse myself in the time, the place, and the facts.  So I have never had a research assistant, because only if those facts are already in my own head can I use them in a scene as I come to it.  Sometimes the times and the people I was writing about seemed more real than what was around me.  I am sure other writers have had this experience.  I especially feel that connecting with objects the person owned or saw or handled has a way of bringing their ghosts back.  So going to the places where they lived or visited is very helpful.  The challenge is that many may not exist anymore, or if they do, have been spiffed up and turned into tourist attractions, e.g, the Tower of London.  You really cannot experience that in the full light of day with swarming tourists; you have to be there at night when they have left.

I don’t have any test readers beyond a couple of friends, but my true alpha and beta readers are my subjects.  I have to ask myself:  would Henry VIII be satisfied that I have portrayed him truly? How does he feel about what is in the book?  I feel he is looking over my shoulder, either nodding or shaking his head.

Richard Matheson’s novel Bid Time Return, filmed as Somewhere in Time, portrayed a writer who willed himself back in time, and it captures very well the longing to go there, the process of getting there, and the shock of returning to your own time. This is a recurring cycle in the life of a historical novelist.

As for other projects at present, I had written a children’s book about tortoises, called Lucille Lost, in 2006, with a co-author.  I am currently working with my 10 year old granddaughter on another children’s book called The Quest of the Platypus.  I am also attempting to write two one-act plays about Nero for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer and am finding that play writing is a whole different world than novel writing.  And for the next novel, I am thinking of one that would be the biography, not of a person, but of a historic house in Washington DC that was there from the beginning of our nation’s capitol.  This would be a bit of a departure but writers evolve, too, and we all like new artistic challenges.

I am so grateful for the years I have had the privilege of writing about such pivotal characters in time, and being able to share them with readers.

Margaret and I met in 2014 at the London Historical Novel Society meeting. One evening, with our husbands in tow, we shared a wonderful dinner and became friends. Many thanks, Margaret, for sharing your experience on A Writer of History.

I’ve read four of Margaret’s novels. Her story telling is superb, her characters live and breathe through the pages, and the history of the time is vividly portrayed.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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13 Responses

  1. How different the 1980’s for publishing and just about everything else. Thanks so much for reminding us how quickly institutions evolve in an era of rapidly expanding technologies. Thanks also for holding to a high standard in research. Chris

    1. I really like the way Margaret asks herself whether her characters would approve. Hadn’t thought of that for my writing, but will in future.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I hadn’t heard of Margaret previously, but will certainly read at least one of her works soon. I very much resonate with that sense of being in conversation with the subject of my work. My fellow, a legal official in early 17th century Dublin who lived till 1668, was an aggressive player during an aggressive time in Irish history. But I have the sense that he doesn’t mind me portraying him as he was – he just wants to get his story out there. I live on what would have been his estate lands and am working on the history first before I get to the novel.

    1. Sounds fascinating, Therese. The first of Margaret’s novels that I read is the one about Mary Magdalene. If you enjoy stories set in biblical times, it’s wonderful. Of course, I can also endorse the one about Elizabeth, her latest which is about Nero, and the one based on Helen of Troy 🙂

  3. Margaret George is an inspiration, and I’m so glad you shared this! I was encouraged to read that she is working on one-act plays–something on my list to help my husband with, for him to use in some George Washington presentations. Thanks, Mary.

  4. What a very special lady Margaret George is. Her insights into the book industry are valuable and full of wisdom. There is no author I respect more.

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