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.

10 Books to Recommend

A Writer of History is NOT a book blog – however, I have written reviews from time to time on books I’ve chosen to read or books selected by one of my book clubs. Below are ten to recommend with links to each more detailed review.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate – I powered through this novel in two and a half very satisfying days. The story is “based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country.”

Educated by Tara Westover – Book club unanimously endorsed Tara Westover’s well-received novel of growing up in a survivalist Mormon home in the hills of Idaho.The words used to describe it included: compelling, horrifying, unbelievable, shocking, inspiring, and head shaking.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan – author Patti Callahan has written a poignant and clear-eyed story about these two well-known writers and I had the pleasure of reading the novel for an article published by the Historical Novel Society.

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin – This compelling look at two famous women – actor Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion – entertains and informs while transporting readers to the magical kingdom of the movie industry. Highly recommended.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng – the verdict at book club was resoundingly in favour of this powerful novel of memory and forgetting, war and peace, love and hate, which was nominated for the Man Booker prize.

The Splendor Before the Dark by Margaret George 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.

My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie Beginning in 1777 with a victory against the British at Saratoga, My Dear Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton through the eyes of his wife Eliza. Superb historical fiction.

Mary – Tudor Princess by Tony Riches – I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Mary Tudor, sister to Henry VIII. The history is fascinating and Tony’s superb writing brings Mary’s character to life with a strong and sympathetic voice.

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson – This work of non-fiction “chronicles a glorious English summer a century ago when the world was on the cusp of irrevocable change … That summer of 1911 a new king was crowned and the aristocracy was at play, bounding from one house party to the next. But perfection was not for all. Cracks in the social fabric were showing.”

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn – In the two years since reading The Alice Network, I’ve recommended it to dozens of people. Why? Because it grabbed me from the very start and wouldn’t let go. And what special ingredients does it have? Flawed, heroic, and intriguing characters – check. Tension that builds and builds – check. A superb sense of history and setting – check. Strong writing – check. An immersive experience – check. A flawless weaving of two timelines – check. What more could you ask for?

I hope some of these add to your reading piles! If you have feedback on any of them, please add your voice to the comments.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

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.

A Year of Reading 2018 (Part 2)

Following up on Tuesday’s post – here’s the second half of 2018. If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear your impressions.

Here’s the legend: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type.

Jul The Splendor Before the Dark (my review) Margaret George OR Superb writing that immerses the reader in time and place.
Resistance Agnes Humbert ER A French woman’s story of WWII resistance and prisoner of war camps
Aug The Beach Club Elin Hilderbrand LR Holiday reading.
I’ll Keep You Safe Peter May LR Holiday reading.
The Winter Crown Elizabeth Chadwick OR Books 2 and 3 of the author’s trilogy on Eleanor of Aquitaine. Highly recommended.
The Autumn Throne Elizabeth Chadwick OR
Sep The Summer Wives Beatriz Williams ER Characters that come alive – a setting that captivates – and a very satisfying ending.
Oct Women of the Dunes Sarah Maine LR Three timelines can be a little confusing.
The Gravity of Birds Tracy Guzeman ER A page turner.
Nov The Clockmaker’s Daughter Kate Morton GR Not as satisfying as her previous novels.
Victoria Daisy Goodwin GR The TV series was more captivating.
Dec The Girls in the Picture Melanie Benjamin GR Two main characters – one is more engaging than the other.
Becoming Mrs. Lewis Patti Callahan ER Loved it.
Edward VIII: An American Life Ted Powell GR Edward VIII’s life, American influences, and his struggle with destiny.

I spent many enjoyable hours reading during 2018 and enjoyed the mix of genres. What were your favourite books from this past year?

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.