The Limits of Limelight

I’ve known Margaret Porter for several years and have admired her writing as well as her kindness and support to other writers in the historical fiction community.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of reading her latest novel The Limits of Limelight. Like Margaret’s earlier novel Beautiful Invention, the story of Hedy Lamarr, The Limits of Limelight transports the reader to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a world of glamour and glitter where the stars were beholden to their studio bosses and wannabe stars struggled to be discovered.

I asked Margaret several questions about her novels and her writing.

  • What fascinates you about the golden age of Hollywood?

It’s my father’s fault. He was a massive fan of cinema, and never stopped watching the classic black and white movies of his youth. So I was very familiar with them as well, and all the great stars of the era, female and male. When I took a break from my stage career to earn my M.A. in Radio-Television-Film, my course work included classes and seminars and writing papers on film history. And I was regularly seeing movies at the big city art house cinema and the one on campus. 

But many years went by before my early interest and my later acquired knowledge transferred to my writing career.

  • You’ve chosen women like Hedy Lamarr, Ginger Rogers, and Phyllis Fraser. What is their appeal? Why did they stand out for you?

Their appeal can be summed up in this phrase: “More than meets the eye.” Each one of them had to make their way in a Hollywood that placed a premium on feminine beauty, and a studio system that created stars and controlled them. But these women managed to break through and/or break out of the mold, in different ways. 

Hedy used her intelligence and information about innovations in munitions development, obtained in Austria during her first marriage, to collaborate on the invention of frequency-hopping and spread spectrum technology. Her motivation was to create an undetectable torpedo that could evade Hitler’s U-Boats, which were bombing transport ships carrying children and women across the Atlantic from England to Canada. She wanted the Allies to have a secret advantage in the war.

Ginger left high school at fourteen to become a performer on stage, and eventually the screen. But she wasn’t content to simply dance and sing in musical comedies. A great reader, she educated herself through books, fiction and nonfiction, and she read dictionaries, memorizing words and definitions. As her fame increased, she not only fought for better contract terms and a higher salary, she also insisted on more challenging, dramatic roles. She stepped away from her iconic partnership with Fred Astaire, and by doing so earned her only Oscar for Kitty Foyle. She was also an artist, a sculptor, and an avid photographer.

Phyllis went along with her Cousin Ginger’s plan to turn her into a movie actress. But ultimately realized that her heart wasn’t in it. Her first love was writing. That led to scripting and producing radio drama, then becoming an author of children’s books. And her editorial career reaches its apex in her collaboration with Dr. Seuss as co-founder of Beginner Books. You can thank Phyllis, in part, for The Cat in the Hat, and many of the Seuss books that followed.

  • How does writing in this era affect your research process?

It certainly adds to the research workload! Unlike the centuries I previously inhabited, the 17th and 18th, there is an almost terrifying wealth of information available to the author of 20th century celebrity biographical fiction. Movies, newsreels, newspaper interviews, movie fan magazines, and all the many photographs, candid and promotional. I create multiple timelines: Hollywood history, character history, and fictional storyline. Then I weave it all together into a single unit, selecting and discarding incidents that either serve to create conflict or bust long-held myths or to highlight an unknown aspect of the individual and her life choices and their repercussions.

My mantra is supposed to be “I only need to know what I need to know to write the novel.” But if it weren’t for a rabbit hole I fell into when writing Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr, I wouldn’t have discovered the fascinating story of Ginger Roger’s cousin Phyllis Fraser. So the wide-ranging research process, time-consuming as it can be, often produces buried treasure.

  • Why do you write under two author names?

I don’t, not really. My first eleven novels were published as romantic historical fiction, as Margaret Evans Porter, and those backlist titles are still available and some have been re-published in various formats and languages over the years. But when I finally realized my adolescent ambition of writing historical biographical fiction, I wanted to differentiate from my earlier pen name. So—with my parents’ understanding—I dropped my maiden name. Margaret Porter fits a bit better on a book cover! And whether or not future projects are biographical in nature, I think that’s the one I’ll keep.

  • You’ve written novels in other eras. What different challenges do these eras represent?

I do miss the 17th and 18th centuries, which is why I’m going back in time. I’m starting a wholly fictional story set in 17th century France, in a region familiar to me. I suspect this is a product of nostalgia and longing, stemming from my inability to return there due to restricted travel during the pandemic. Although a significant character happens to be a real historical woman, and an amazing one, the main characters come from a different source, which I’m not ready to reveal. I’m having lots of fun letting my imagination run without having to conform so much to known history. And already in progress is a historical biographical novel set in the theatrical realm of 18th century London. It is extremely research-intensive. Fortunately, I completed all my on-site investigations in England before the pandemic! For quite a long time I had been gathering material from primary sources in the British Library and the Folger Library and other collections. 

Researching people and events and locations from two or three centuries in the past has its own challenges. Tracking down documents, portraits, memoirs and letters (not necessarily in English, which means translating, often in archives or private collections), is a mammoth task. And the more famous the character, especially if he or she inspires diverse opinions, the harder I dig in order to determine the best way to present him or her. In so many cases, the records of female lives are either deeply buried, lost or discarded, or simply nonexistent. That is a curse, in that curiosity can never be completely satisfied. But also a blessing, because it leaves enough of a void to be filled in by the author’s imagination and creativity.

I’m not sure yet exactly how I’ll juggle these two very different books, in terms of my writing schedule. For a little while longer I’ll continue working on them simultaneously.

I’m excited to hear about these future novels, Margaret. And equally excited that The Limits of Limelight is ‘out there’ for readers. Ginger and Phyllis are deeply fascinating characters. The story has wonderful twists and turns, and the world of Hollywood truly comes alive.

The Limits of Limelight by Margaret Porter ~~ Hollywood turned Ginger Rogers into a star. What will it do for her cousin?

Pretty Oklahoma teenager Helen Nichols accepts an invitation from her cousin, rising movie actress Ginger Rogers, and her Aunt Lela, to try her luck in motion pictures. Her relatives, convinced that her looks and personality will ensure success, provide her with a new name and help her land a contract with RKO. As Phyllis Fraser, she swiftly discovers that Depression-era Hollywood’s surface glamor and glitter obscure the ceaseless struggle of the hopeful starlet.

Lela Rogers, intensely devoted to her daughter and her niece, outwardly accepting of her stage mother label, is nonetheless determined to establish her reputation as screenwriter, stage director, and studio talent scout. For Phyllis, she’s an inspiring model of grit and persistence in an industry run by men.

While Ginger soars to the heights of stardom in musicals with Fred Astaire, Phyllis is tempted by a career more fulfilling than the one she was thrust into. Should she continue working in films, or devote herself to the profession she’s dreamed about since childhood? Which choice might lead her to the lasting love that seems so elusive?

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

4 Types of Conflict

Annie Whitehead is a History graduate and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written four novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines and was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017.

Annie’s latest novel, The Sins of the Father, releases today and I’m delighted to have her on the blog – the topic is conflict, an ingredient at the heart of successful novels.

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Conflict is one of the seven elements of historical fiction outlined in Mary’s blog post. It has to be present in any novel, but of course it means many different things. I’ll start with the most obvious, and the one involving the most people, and then reduce the numbers of participants:

War

It’s likely that, if you write historical fiction, you’re going to be writing about a period in which a war or battle was fought. The period I write about has a lot of battles; not outright wars, but every so often one kingdom would turn on another and fights occurred. In the later part of the Anglo-Saxon period, there were Vikings to contend with. War is bloody, brutal, and traumatising and that’s true whether it’s a Viking incursion in the ninth century or a battle in WWI. The thing to do, I feel, when writing about battles, is to make it personal. That might mean showing why it matters so much to certain kings, or tribe leaders, that they win a particular fight and what’s at stake, or it might mean showing the story of individual soldiers at the front, or the stories of those waiting for them at home. I’ve read many books set during the ‘Great War’ and it seems to me that by focusing on one or two individuals and their stories, the tragedy can become more affecting, as they come to represent the millions who were involved.

Conflict within the setting

Not all historical fiction will focus on, or even feature, any kind of pitched battle. Yet conflict will still be present as a major element of the story. Perhaps mill workers are badly treated by the mill owners. Tenants might be evicted, on a small scale – perhaps the family who are the main focus of the story – or on a larger scale, such as the highland clearances. Warring families, such as the Poldarks and the Warleggans in Winston Graham’s novels, who are on a more equal social footing, are still locked in conflict which drives the drama long after Ross Poldark returns from war. The Industrial Revolution era will provide rich seams for such conflicts: businessmen seeking opportunities and coming up against opposition from others like them; the struggles of movements which would eventually become the trades unions. In nineteenth-century America, the conflict does not just come in the form of the civil war which fractured the country, but the tension surrounding slave ownership and the abolitionists where again, focusing on one small group, family, or individual, makes for a powerful drama. 

It’s always worth remembering, too, that conflict among people on the same social stratum can arise from misunderstanding, by one or both parties. In my novel Cometh the Hour, the first in my two book series of which the new novel is Book 2, two kings went to war because they both believed the other was harbouring an enemy. Conflict born of misapprehension can add a level of pathos to the story.

Conflict within the setting would also include those who rail in some way against the status quo, against the accepted thinking of the age, or against their perceived place in society. The pitfall here is that the character might step too completely out of their time period. The historical novelist must think about the mindset of the period, but within that there is scope to have a character trying to step beyond the confines of their prescribed life. In the time in which my latest novel is set, women ran the abbeys, which were sociable places, and were ‘double houses’ where both monks and nuns lived. The religious life was a good one, often readily chosen, but in later periods, this wasn’t necessarily the case. Young women with no protectors, no dowries and/or no great social standing, might find that was the only option for them but it doesn’t mean they welcomed it. A woman seeking to escape this life would be in conflict with the norm, but would not be stepping out of her period and nor would she be introducing modern attitudes to the story.

Conflict Within the Family

A truly universal theme! Inter-generational conflict can be found in any period, and will be recognisable to modern readers: the son who does not wish to follow his father into the family business, or who wants a better life, the daughter who wants to work for her own living where her mother was not able to. There is also conflict between siblings, another familiar aspect to life. In my latest novel, two brothers are extremely close and love each other immensely. They are bound together by the tragedies which befall their family, yet each has a different idea about the path he should follow. One wishes to emulate their father and he is driven by a need to prove himself just as capable and, though he does not admit it, by a fear of failure. The other is more circumspect, feeling that the past should be left alone, and that old mistakes should not be repeated. He is also in awe of his elder brother and feels inadequate, living life in the shadows as it were. Their different approaches to life lead to conflict, made more bitter by the fact that they love each other so dearly. This, I think, hurts so much more than conflict between natural enemies.

Conflict Within

This is a special sub-branch of conflict, which leads to self-doubt, anxiety, and moments in the story where the main character reaches a point of despair, feeling thwarted or hide-bound by an inability to make a decision. My main character in the latest novel, the younger brother mentioned above, has moments where he is frozen by doubt. The youngest of nine children, he feels that his elder siblings have it all figured out, and he constantly questions why he feels differently about the things that matter most to his family. Then, around three-quarters of the way through the novel, there is a nasty twist and he finds himself having to act against his own principles, and in the process alienates himself from several family members. He’s placed on the horns of a particularly troublesome dilemma, where taking one path will hurt those he loves, while the other will also hurt people whom he cares for. Battling with one’s emotions, with a heart versus head scenario, or where duty must come before love, adds deep layers to a character’s story and offers the reader a chance to sympathise and empathise.

Thank you for your take on conflict, Annie. The examples you’ve given are truly universal, and, as Alma Katsu discussed in her recent master class on conflict, ‘upping the ante’ in terms of multiple levels of conflict really adds to a story’s success.

The Sins of the Father by Annie Whitehead ~~ A father’s legacy can be a blessing or a curse…

AD658: The sons of Penda of Mercia have come of age. Ethelred, the youngest, recalls little of past wars while Wulf is determined to emulate their father, whose quest to avenge his betrayed kinswomen drew him to battle three successive Northumbrian kings.
Ecgfrith of Northumbria is more hostile towards the Mercians than his father was. His sister Ositha, thwarted in her marriage plans, seeks to make her mark in other ways, but can she, when called upon, do her brother’s murderous bidding?


Ethelred finds love with a woman who is not involved in the feud, but fate intervenes. Wulf’s actions against Northumbria mean Ethelred must choose duty over love, until he, like his father before him, has cause to avenge the women closest to him. Battle must once more be joined, but the price of victory will be high. This stand-alone novel is the second of the two-book series, Tale of the Iclingas, which began with Cometh the Hour.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Value of Historical Fiction

A couple of weeks ago, a friend, I’ll call her Ruby, and I exchanged thoughts on historical fiction. Ruby was reflecting on an article by Cullen Murphy in The Atlantic titled “No, Really, Are We Rome?” This article talks about how normal life continued even as the Roman empire was deteriorating, drawing parallels with today. The author contends that ‘corrosive change can be hard to see while it’s happening.’

Ruby, who had just finished my latest novel, Paris In Ruins, said: “So, the one aspect of this article that made me think about historical fiction is that you tell a story about normal people, doing mostly normal things during some significant historical period, but also intertwine their experiences with the historical events happening (such as the Franco-Prussian War and so on) … [similarly] normal lives continued during the downfall of the Roman Empire, people continued to work, to run the empire, to make art, etc.”

Ruby continued: “The other aspect of this article is that people during the fall of the Roman Empire didn’t necessarily know what was happening at the time … it was a slow death and by the time the actual ‘fall’ happened, it was too late – everything was in motion.

When you write your books, the protagonists have awareness of what is happening, which is understandable during wars, riots, etc. But then I thought that your protagonists are on the right side of history. That makes them easier to root for. But what about having protagonists who are on the wrong side of history, but not evil people? It might be hard to make them likeable characters, but that’s the challenge! The reason to do this is to explore how good people can get caught up in the wrong side of history.”

I responded:

“You’ve made me think of some recent novels I’ve read showing Germans involved in WWII – some that were unwittingly caught up on the wrong side and even a few who felt that they were doing the right thing, until they ultimately realized where Hitler and his followers were going. It’s a challenge to show those individuals in a sympathetic enough way that readers are prepared to understand their motivations.

Did you read All the Light We Cannot See? One of the main characters is a young German soldier and as readers we become very sympathetic to his plight. Another novel that shows Germans in a more nuanced way is The Ragged Edge of Night by Olivia Hawker. And not long ago, I read The Fortunate Ones by Catherine Hokin as well as A Castle in Wartime by Catherine Bailey (non-fiction that reads like fiction). Or what about Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell who served Henry VIII and facilitated so many of the king’s horrific acts. We see the dilemmas Cromwell faces and how he convinces himself that he must follow the path set out for him.

But you’re right that history is simpler to understand in hindsight. Imagine what future generations will say about our willful inability to take climate action? Imagine the condemnation of big, monopolistic tech that will surely (hopefully) come. History will likely not treat Trump kindly. And as you said, people continue to live their lives even as disaster looms. There are many who shake their heads at how long it took for the US to join WWII … but citizens of the US for the most part were living their lives, buying clothes and cars, listening to the radio, grumbling about local politics or whatever else was going on.

I like to write about ‘ordinary people’ in extraordinary circumstances. It makes me explore the what ifs of life. What if I’d lived in France during WWI or in Paris during the siege? What if I was nineteen and sent off to war? What if I couldn’t face another day of sending my battalion off into battle? Imagining those what ifs help me understand how people think, how they judge themselves and others, what they do to find courage and so on. Our generation has been exceedingly fortunate to have avoided wars of the size and scope of WWI and WWII and although we’re in difficult circumstances with Covid-19, we’re gradually coming through it.

When I look at today’s world, beyond the issue of climate change, I worry about the building tension we’re seeing with Russia, China, Iran, even Turkey. Will that ‘house of cards’ implode? I also worry about the incredible gap between rich and poor – it just keeps getting wider and wider and ultimately people will rebel. Where’s the morality in big corporations or on wall street or in the hedge fund business? A recent article in NYTimes listed the compensation of several CEOs – obscene numbers in my opinion. I worry about the data that is being collected on people and the way that data can be (and is being) manipulated to further the wealth of those who already have so much. And yet, we all continue with our lives, probably because we feel we can’t affect any change. Maybe our Hitler moment is upon us?”

Ruby had the final word:

The reason to have a protagonist who was on the wrong side of history would be to help people understand how that happens – good people who become convinced that their ideas are right. In the US prior to getting into WWII, there were a lot of people supportive of Hitler (eg: Henry Ford), people actively fighting the government to keep us out of WWII – isolationists, America First! Scary about some parallels with today.

You never know where an email exchange will lead!

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.