Spotlight on Author Margaret George

During the recent – June 21-27 – Historical Novel Society North America conference, one of the authors spotlighted in the program was Margaret George. Margaret is a well-known and highly regarded author and I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know her over the years. Her novels can be classified as fictional biographies and she’s tackled famous people like Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Emperor Nero, and Mary Magdalene. So, she knows a thing or two about historical fiction.

On Trends

  • The popularity of dual timelines as a window into the past that is still anchored in the present.
  • Margaret feels that WWII fiction will be around for a long time, especially given the relative recency of the time period which means that many readers know of parents or grandparents involved in the war.
  • Westerns may make a comeback with fresh insights into the settling of America, which American readers consider ‘our story’.
  • Medieval stories are in hiatus right now.

On Writing Male Characters

  • Margaret’s two novels featuring Emperor Nero are an example of male protagonists. But in general readers look for female characters (not surprising since a huge percentage of novels are purchased by women.)
  • At a presentation put on during the conference by the publisher Berkley, no novels about men were mentioned in their spotlight session.

On Writing Historical Fiction

  • With non-fiction an author has to give all the facts. With fiction an author can make choices as long as she/he is consistent.
  • Historical fiction authors have an obligation to be true to a certain point to the person and his/her voice.

On Shifts Since the 1980s

  • Books were ‘big’ in the 1980s.
  • The rise of historical romance gave historical fiction a bad name.
  • There is now so much cross-pollination between historical fiction and other genres like mystery and thriller, instead of the “more straightforward historical novels’ of Jean Plaidy and others.
  • Many versions of historical fiction now compared with the past.

How Does Margaret Choose her Subjects?

  • For Margaret, it’s not the time period, it’s the person.
  • She looks for people with “operatic lives” and “tragic deaths”. Choosing these people for her fiction allows her to live their lives vicariously. While she writes, she feels like she is that person.

The conference was an amazing experience – I was on the board and hence very directly involved. I’ll be posting more about it over the next while.

Margaret was on the blog about a year ago talking about her career. You can read that post here.

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.

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.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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 www.mktod.com.

Looking Back on 2017

With over 900 posts (!!), A Writer of History now contains a lot of topics that have interested readers. During 2017, some posts stood out. The topics varied from WWI Fiction to creating historical characters. I hope you find a few that interest you.

Pictures = Thousands of Words

I’m in edit mode on my newest manuscript called variously Camille and Mariele, Acts of Rebellion, or A Time of Rebellion [MKT: now called Paris in Ruins]. As I go through the pages with the usual angst about whether my writing is any good, whether my publisher will like it, and whether the structure hangs together, I’ve been identifying photos that have provided inspiration …

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

In an earlier post Books Books Books, I included a long list of award-winning historical fiction. This post takes a look at what readers say about Life After Life by Kate Atkinson as an example of successful historical fiction.

Fatal Attraction – Margaret George Talks about Nero

Margaret George spoke about her novel The Confessions of Young Nero. I asked her: What does it take to write such a novel? How does an author feel about her very real character? 

Davide Mana on Successful Historical Fiction

Author Davide Mana generated a lot of interest with his guest post on successful historical fiction – a theme for 2017.

Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

This post features a quote from Anne Morrow Lindbergh that struck a chord with me and with readers: “the answer is not in the feverish pursuit of centrifugal activities which only lead in the end to fragmentation. On the contrary, woman must consciously encourage those pursuits which oppose the centrifugal forces of today. Quiet time alone, contemplation, prayer, music, a centering line of thought of reading, of study or work.”

Dynamic Pacing 

A summary of a talk given by agent Irene Goodman and author Selden Edwards on pacing which is the speed and intensity at which events of the plot unfold. This post contains 17 tips which were summarized at the end of the talk.

Mess, Mess, Mess, Mess – Art

Geraldine Brooks was one of two keynote speakers at the Historical Novel Society conference in 2017. She spoke about her writing process.

Weaving the Twin-Stranded Storyline

Dual timeline novels – something Susanna Kearsley excels at – was the subject of her workshop at the Historical Novel Society conference in 2017.

WWI Fiction – Readers Have Their Say

In 2017, I conducted a survey of WWI fiction. This post shows the results.

Historical Perspective – Appealing to Modern Readers

Author Cryssa Bazos talks about creating historical characters: Character is the bridge to the distant past. Exploring the nature of a character from the past, whether fictional or historical, requires embracing what makes them different, even if that means showing how their perspective differs from how we think today. It’s only through balancing this with the commonality of human nature that we can appeal to modern audiences.

The Alice Network with Kate Quinn

After reading The Alice Network – loved it! – I spoke with the author, Kate Quinn

Book Titles – What’s Their Purpose?

What does a book title do for you? Does it entice? Does it hint at the novel’s story? Does it reflect your personal circumstances? Does it confuse? A post about choosing a title for one of my novels.

Characters – You Need to Know What They Look Like

Writing any kind of fiction involves an intense relationship with your characters. I’ve read of other authors creating a bulletin board with photos of their characters so they can easily bring them to mind. In this post, I’ve shared pictures of two characters – the admiral and the wife – in my as-yet-unpublished novel The Admiral’s Wife.

You can also check popular posts from other years: 2012, 20132014, 2015, 2016

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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 www.mktod.com.