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.

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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.

Top Historical Fiction Sites – The History Girls

Running the data from the historical fiction survey resulted in four top digital sites however, restricting the data to UK participants resulted in two additional favourites and today I am pleased to welcome The History Girls to the blog.

They describe themselves as “a group of best-selling, award-winning writers of historical fiction. Some of us write for young adults, some for fully fledged adults, some for younger readers.” Mary Hoffman the originator of the blog tells us about their philosophy, how they came together, and other interesting insights about historical fiction. Mary has written over ninety books for children and teenagers – a very impressive body of work.

Why did you start blogging? Did your group come together to create the blog or did you add folks as time progressed?

To be brutally frank, I had the idea for The History Girls blog as part of a campaign to raise awareness about my own historical novel, DAVID – the story of the young man who posed for Michelangelo’s famous statue. (published by Bloomsbury in July 2011) But it soon became so much more.

We did start with 28 bloggers but several have left and been replaced as the year progressed.

What is your philosophy for the blog?

My personal philosophy is to raise awareness of the richness of historical fiction for adults and for younger readers. Each History Girl probably has her own philosophy and this is reflected in the richness and variety of the blogposts.

We have contributors who write historical fantasy, those who write about battles and war. Some who cover the ancient world, Dark Ages, Medieval and Renaissance history, others who write about World War One or Queen Victoria. French Revolution, American Wild West – it’s pretty much all there.

What trends have you seen in historical fiction in the past? What new trends are emerging?

It seems to have suddenly become more respectable with the emergence of more “literary” writers such as Hilary Mantel. (She was our guest blogger on 10th May, publication day of BRING UP THE BODIES – something of which I am extremely proud!). An unwelcome trend, not just in Historical fiction, is for “adult” authors to start writing for a YA audience, such as Philippa Gregory. I can assure you it doesn’t work the other way round, at least not in the UK.

Is historical fiction growing in popularity? If so, why?

It certainly seems to be and there are a lot of fine historical novels for teenagers too though not all British publishers will take them. (And I have been told that the only periods American readers are interested in are Tudor, Elizabethan and World War 2!)

I don’t really know. Perhaps because readers find it a good way in to historical fact. Or perhaps because there are such good stories there.

Who are your readers? What do you know about them? Do you collect specific data about them?

Yes, we have a Statistics page that Admins like myself can see. We have almost as many readers in the US as in the UK but 79 in Russia and 77 in India! Our aim is to conquer the world.

What features does your blog include? What features are most popular? Your blog has pages for Reviews and Interviews – do you plan to activate these in the future?

We do plan to put links to our Reviews and Interviews (already carried) in the future. It just requires a bit more time (even more time) from me or one of the other Admins. We do interviews and reviews, run competitions and give away prizes at the end of each month and have occasional series like The Historical Character I Just Don’t Get.

Sometimes a month’s posts might have a loose theme. This July it was our favourite historical characters but we have also featured Cross-dressing and Ghosts.

Do you think of the blog as having a brand? If so, what is it?

Female (though not necessarily feminist) writers of historical fiction explaining their work or exploring a fascinating aspect of History. I have not thought of us as having a brand until answering this question, though.

What are your marketing strategies for the blog?

We have a Twitter account: @history_girls and a Facebook page. Each time a new post goes up they are flagged in those two places. I sent out a Press Release to British magazines and organisations when we began but have not done much since. I wanted to see how the blog bedded down after its first year.

Why do you think so many people blog about historical fiction or participate in blogs about historical fiction? What are the implications for writers, agents and publishers?

I don’t think I realised they did!  Your site and Historical Tapestry’s has opened my eyes. I must look some up. For us, and I can only talk about writers, I think it has given us a sense of community in a world where you can often feel isolated. We email each other regularly and arrange meetings several times in the year – although not everyone can attend, since some HGs live in Devon, others in Scotland. For your American readers, that means a long distance to travel to London.

What do you see writers doing differently to market their books and build their platforms? What about publishers?

I’m sure that people in publishers’ Marketing Departments work very hard in order to get “their” books noticed in a crowded marketplace. But after publication day they are marketing the next book and then it is very much up to writers to keep public interest in their work alive. Blogs can help with that as can Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest etc.

What advice do you have for writers?

We don’t have joint advice and I can’t speak for the other HGs. My own writing advice can be found on www.maryhoffman.co.uk (Writing Tips) but that is very personal. On the About Us Page of the HGs there are  links to all our websites and I’m sure that is something most of us have addressed.

Is there a question I should have asked?

I can’t think of one. We are very happy that you have decided to feature us on your blog and hope we will acquire more North American followers as a result.

Many thanks from one Mary to another! The History Girls is on my RSS feed. I dip into it frequently for inspiration or sometimes just for a change of pace from the era of WWI and WWII.

Top Historical Fiction Sites – English Historical Fiction Authors

Running the data from the historical fiction survey resulted in four top digital sites however, restricting the data to UK participants resulted in two additional favourites and today I am pleased to welcome English Historical Fiction Authors to the blog.

This lively site is run by a well-known group of authors writing historical fiction set in England. As their home page says they have “come together to share our historical work and to reach out to our much appreciated readers”. Have a read as Debra Brown, Nancy Bilyeau, Sam Thomas, Judith Arnopp and Sherry Jones talk about their passion.

Why did you start blogging? Did your group come together to create the blog or did you add authors as time progressed?

Debra Brown: In today’s publishing world, authors and readers are much more in contact than they ever were before. Social media and book sites have opened up a whole new way of interacting. To be found on the internet authors must have some kind of presence. Blogging provides one means, and we felt that those who love British history could meet together in one place to learn and share with each other. Authors write a daily post and readers can discuss them via their comments. We launched the blog on Sept. 23rd, 2011 with thirty authors. A few have been added over time as life and/or genre changed for some authors and we saw the need for others to keep things running smoothly.

Nancy Bilyeau: In the months before my first novel, THE CROWN, was published, I explored blogging and read all sorts of philosophies. Some people wrote a lot about the experience of being published or writing fiction, others focused on sharing original content. Because my book is set in the Tudor age and during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, I felt there was a wealth of material to write about. I knew I found it all extremely interesting, and I hoped readers would too. Just at the time I decided to do this, I found out about English Historical Fiction Authors, formed by Debbie Brown so that writers could take turns posting on the same site. The theory was that readers would have a lot of posts and a rich variety in historical periods to choose from and so would come back regularly. I think Debbie’s original idea was proven correct!

Sam Thomas: For me, blogging has been an extension of the other writing I’ve done. Before writing fiction, I wrote academic history, and in each case, my goal is to talk about the past in a way that the reader will find both entertaining and informative.

Judith Arnopp: Regarding my personal blog. I was advised to blog when I first published and found I really enjoyed it. I’m not the most regular of bloggers, I have to be inspired and not too busy working on a novel. I stumbled on the EHFA blog by accident and thought it was great and asked to join. It has put me in touch with a lot of other historical authors and I’ve learned a lot through them. I also enjoy promoting their work, not just my own. Debbie Brown should have a medal I think for all the hard work she puts in to the blog.

What is your philosophy for the blog? Why did you choose that philosophy?

Nancy Bilyeau: My background is magazine journalism, so I’m comfortable with nonfiction narrative. I enjoy writing about people who pass through my novel, which is a mix of fictional characters and people from history. But also I wonder if anyone besides fellow writers wants to read all the blogs about getting published. I really like writers but I want to find readers.

Debra Brown: I feel that readers of historical fiction are fascinated with the past, as I am. Yet most of us have questions about the eras we are reading – the customs, the people and the locations. The blog posts greatly enrich my knowledge of Britain – past putting context to the stories and helping them to make more sense to me. I hope that they do the same for others.

What trends have you seen in historical fiction in the past? What new trends are emerging?

Sherry Jones: It seems to me that literary authors, seeing the popularity of historical fiction with readers, are now jumping on the bandwagon and writing their own historical fiction novels in greater numbers. I’ve also heard that interest in the Tudors is waning — could it be that Hilary Mantel has finally tapped them out?

Is historical fiction growing in popularity? If so, why?

Nancy Bilyeau: Unfortunately, I have been told the opposite, that it has peaked in sales. But I see so much interest out there in the books by authors who contribute to English Historical Fiction Authors, and there are always new historicals coming out that are so rich and interesting to read. So I think the market is thriving.

Judith Arnopp: It doesn’t make much difference to me as an author, I would still write historicals. I think, like everything, popularity fluctuates and if it declines for a while it will soon perk up again. TV series like The Tudors and The Borgias seem to affect popularity of historical fiction so with the BBC running The Hollow Crown, who knows we might see a flood of Plantagenet interest. That should keep us busy.

Who are your readers? What do you know about them? Do you collect specific data about them?

Debra Brown: On our blog we do not keep track of much other than the locations that Blogger provides. We get most of our visits from Commonwealth and English-speaking countries, and interestingly, Russia. We also have a Facebook group by the same name as the blog, and many of our readers are members there, so we get to know them in person.

Nancy Bilyeau: I’m not aware of any method to collect data about my readers. On my own website blog I have a “contact” feature and I do get emails from readers. I reply to all of them, and I learn a lot from their comments.

Judith Arnopp: I only know the readers who contact me. I respond to them because they are the reason I write and I value their feedback. Each time someone bothers to contact me to say how much they’ve enjoyed one of my books it makes my day.

What features does your blog include? What features or topics are most popular? Do you plan to add other features in the future?

Debra Brown: Besides a daily post on a historical topic, we have a weekly book giveaway on a separate page. We have a page to introduce our authors and a page listing many of our books. We also have a Guestbook and enjoy comments that people leave there. We have a contact page and I reply to email or ask if others wish to at times if it is relevant to do so.

Sam Thomas: Based on what I’ve seen (which could be wrong), it’s violence, sex and death. If memory serves, our top post last year was about lingerie, and posts about murders also do well. It’s many of the same things that make books sell!

Do you think of the blog as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it?

Debra Brown: I understand the importance of branding, and we have a picture that perhaps people recognize and think of us, but to be perfectly honest, I am so busy with keeping things going and doing some writing that I have not put much time into worrying about branding for the blog. It does not seem to have hurt us as we have had to date nearly 56,000 unique visitors and we have about 1000 page views per day.  We do have our Twitter hashtag #EHFA!

What are your marketing strategies for the blog?

Debra Brown: Authors that join the blog agree to share the daily post and the weekly giveaway via Twitter, Facebook and/or whatever means they prefer to use for marketing. They have been very cooperative and successful at that. For quite some time, now, we are usually found on page one of Google for most relevant search terms, so it seems to have taken on a much-appreciated life of its own.

Nancy Bilyeau: Whenever I write a new blog post, I link it to my facebook, twitter and linked-in feeds with a little topic phrase or some way to entice people to read. Then I just hope it gets picked up! I am not good at marketing, it is a totally different skill so I just try to engage my readers in something interesting and hope it prompts them to look at my books.

Why do you think so many people blog about historical fiction or participate in blogs about historical fiction? What are the implications for writers, agents and publishers?

Sherry Jones: Historical fiction readers tend to be history buffs. They read for pleasure but also for education. And, recognizing the “fiction” in historical fiction, they want to know the history behind that. A lot of historical fiction bloggers are discussing their research in their blog posts, giving readers the history in their books in a form that is not only informational, but also well written — something a lot of academic history is not.

Judith Arnopp: It is such a vast subject that most people will have some sort of interest in the past even if it is as recent as the 1970’s. There are also many different types of historical reader; there are those who require deadly serious, very accurate books and those who like to read about a more colourful past, see the blood and taste the tainted meat, if you like. Personally, I like them all, so long as they are well written. The ‘past’ is expanding all the time so this guaranteed continued areas of interest can only be a good thing. Of course, everyone has a pet theory and this can make for some pretty heated exchanges on the blogs. I’m not sure if this draws people in or drives them away but with so much past to write about, so many different styles of historical writing and such a variety of reader, the long term future of historical fiction can only be a good one.

What do you see writers doing differently to market their books and build their platforms? What about publishers?

Sherry Jones: One new trend is the release of a short story or novella in e-book form before the release of a long novel, as a prequel. I did this, releasing WHITE HEART, telling the story of the early life of Blanche de Castille, the White Queen of France in the 13th century, before the debut of FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS, in which Blanche is a mother-in-law and antagonist to the eldest sister, Marguerite. Anne O’Brien has most recently released THE UNCROWNED QUEEN, a short story prequel to her THE KING’s CONCUBINE, and I expect others will follow.

Sam Thomas: It’s become cliche that more and more responsibility for marketing is laid at the author’s doorstep and in the author’s wallet. We have to put up our own websites, arrange our own signings, etc.

Judith Arnopp: Some authors are doing lovely book trailers and things on youtube etc. but personally I stick to blogging and discussing my work on social networking sites. I don’t enjoy marketing but we have to do it. It wastes an awful lot of writing time.

What advice do you have for writers?

Sherry Jones: Historical accuracy is a must for readers, but historical detail should add to the story. It is not the story. The emotional lives of the characters is paramount; all else is subservient.

Judith Arnopp: Stick to your guns, write for yourself, don’t try to follow trends or be something you aren’t. Also never believe you are good enough, never stop striving for improvement.

I love Sam Thomas’ comment on “violence, sex and death” being popular with readers just as it is in any genre. Another aspect that strikes a chord for me is the group’s desire to appeal to readers. I am very impressed that a site launched only eleven months ago already has so many followers! Many thanks for doing the interview. Best wishes as you continue to flourish.