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.

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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.

The Splendor Before the Dark by Margaret George

Margaret George is a superb writer of historical fiction. Her novels are deep character studies, and she has tackled people from Elizabeth I to Mary of Magdalene. I had the pleasure of an early copy of her second and concluding novel about Emperor Nero.

Margaret introduces Nero and the novel:

The Splendor Before the Dark closes the life story of Nero, one of the most remarkable emperors Rome ever saw.  The era was indeed one of splendor, as well as passions, conspiracies, and outsized characters, none more so than the emperor Nero himself.   He was a complicated person, though, with many contradictory traits, and strangely modern in that he put self-fulfillment as his highest value.  In that way, I think readers of today will find him fascinating, and familiar.

My Review: Following The Confessions of Young Nero, Margaret George concludes her tale of Emperor Nero with an insightful and passionate novel of the final four years of Nero’s life. On every dimension – superb writing, feeling immersed in time and place, characters both heroic and human, authenticity, and compelling plot – The Splendor Before the Dark is a winner.

Politics and power. Throughout the novel, these two are tangled in an intricate dance where one false step can lead to tragic consequences. Despite the warnings of those who know him best, Nero is unaware of, or willfully blind to, the false steps he takes. The people of Rome are fickle. Although Nero understands that “The crowd. They can turn to beasts in an instant,” he remains convinced of his people’s love far beyond the time when popular opinion begins to shift. And with his far-flung empire at relative peace, Nero fails to appreciate the fissures that threaten his leadership and Rome’s stature: religious unrest; rebellious territories; ambitious commanders; betrayals; and resentment of the costly and extravagant rebuilding of Rome.

Underlying all this complexity—and making crucial decisions more difficult—are Nero’s conflicting personas: the dutiful emperor, the idealistic artist, and the man who allows his dark side to take over. As the novel gathers momentum and urgency, I found myself wanting to whisper in Nero’s ear, to warn him before he stumbled into further danger; before it was too late.

Margaret George tells the story through three voices: the voice of Nero; that of Acte, a woman he has always loved; and that of Locusta, a woman who specializes in herbal medicine and poisons. Through Acte we see the young Nero and his idealist and artistic side, while through Locusta we see Nero’s dark side. The author’s research and interpretation of Nero has such depth that as the novel progressed, I felt I understood Nero on an intimate level.

Here’s Locusta reflecting on Nero:

“If, all those years ago when the prospect of being emperor was a poison mushroom away, did he have any comprehension of what was waiting on the other side? … Now he had entered fully into another kind of bondage, with no deliverance as long as he lived. Emperors did not retire into private life, like philosophers. There was only one retirement for an emperor—the grave. And if he is lucky, a natural descent into it at an advanced age.”

Near the end of the novel, Nero broods on what has happened:

“There is none so blind as he who will not see.”

The Splendor Before the Dark is historical fiction at its most powerful. Highly recommended.

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.