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.

An Invitation Into a World Gone By

Kathleen Shoop has stopped by the blog today to share her thoughts on balancing fact and story in historical fiction. Her latest novel, The Magician, part of her Donora story collection, illustrates the difficult choices brought about by following your dreams. Over to you, Kathleen.

Kathleen Shoop has stopped by the blog today to share her thoughts on balancing fact and story in historical fiction. Her latest novel, The Magician, part of her Donora story collection, illustrates the difficult choices brought about by following your dreams. Over to you, Kathleen.

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Writers, scholars, and even readers argue about Historical Fiction’s obligation to story versus the expectation of historical fact. Somewhere in between is the fine line that splits these worlds. Historical stories seek to express some truth about a particular place, time or people and use elements of fact and narrative to accomplish it. 

For the years that I’ve been writing The Magician—Book Three in the Donora Story CollectionI’ve revisited these concerns repeatedly. Because the novel is inspired by the childhood of baseball Hall of Famer, Stan Musial, the work was thrilling yet worrisome. I wanted to portray Stan Musial’s magical rise to baseball royalty accurately, sensitively, and truthfully. I’m still not sure what exactly that means or whether I’ve accidentally on purpose achieved it, but I definitely committed to the work that it takes to get an author there. Still, at times I panicked that what I was writing wasn’t true enough. 

For example, in Musial’s autobiography he tells a family story related to him sneaking sips of sweetened milk as a child and that his sisters were tasked with keeping him from doing that. They didn’t always succeed. I thought this one Musial sentiment was so illustrative of the life and times of a blue collar family living in Donora, Pennsylvania in the 1920’s and 30’s that I worked out a scene depicting this event. 

It gave me a chance to invite the reader into the female dominated kitchens of early 20th century America. This, a time when friends and grandmas who lived a few doors down stopped for morning coffee. They did this in between dropping off care baskets for families whose fathers got injured in the mill and getting supper ready for when their own husbands rolled through the door after a scorching shift in the zinc mill. Musial’s notation of his milk swiping habit overflowed with the trappings of the story behind the story—the very stuff that props up every historical fiction piece ever written.

Moments like this casually mentioned in autobiographies, articles and a half a dozen biographies were the things I latched on to in order to give Stan Musial’s childhood a heartbeat. Because the purpose of most of those other writings was to show some aspect of Musial’s adult baseball life, I reveled in teasing out these gems that called to mind a time long gone. These little story stones evoked events specific to Musial’s rise to baseball greatness but were also universal in meaning to anyone who’s lived in a small factory, mill, or mining town in post WW1 and Pre WW2 America.

Not only was the tale of the milk theft a cool detail about Stan’s life, a possible “economic calamity” (phrasing I borrowed), there was a world behind the idea that canned milk was precious enough to ration it for the adults. This allowed me to develop Musial’s character, the family dynamic, the male head of household concept, and so much more that marked American life in the 20s and 30s in delicious, unique ways. That one mention was a gold mine in my eyes.

But was creating a scene around this milk pilfering factual? In moments of panic, I’d be drawn away from drafting to figure out yet again what I was doing, what my goals were. I would remind myself that if I was worried about fictionalizing scenes I could simply write another biography. But of course biographies have been done beautifully and many times before. And besides, that wasn’t what I was attempting to do. In writing about a revered and renowned man I was using narrative to get at the essence of what built him into a person who embodied greatness in a variety of ways. A list of facts wouldn’t suffice. 

I wanted readers who love a good story, but maybe had no idea who Stan Musial was, who didn’t even like baseball, to love The Magician despite all that. I wanted to provide an opening for readers to slip into another time and place and get an idea of how a spectacular athlete and person was shaped by a town, his family and the times. And the only way to do that was to walk the center rope, pulling factual threads from the left as I went, weaving them into the narrative on the right, finishing with a tightly woven fabric depicting a world long gone, a person laid to rest. 

What I found was that the mythology of Stan Musial needed the facts of his life as much as the opposite was true. Now, as The Magician is soon to be released, I hope that the combination of fact and story reveal something very close to what was the heart of a boy and his dream to make a living playing baseball. And so much more than that.

Many thanks, Kathleen. You’ve shown us the delicate balance required of fictional biography. Sending best wishes for the launch of The Magician.

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 for pre-order 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.

3 Challenges to writing historical fiction – by Margaret Skea

Margaret Skea  has written several historical novels – her most recent being Katharina: Fortitude, a sequel to Katharina: Deliverance, both based on the life of Martin Luther’s wife. She grew up in Ulster at the height of the ‘Troubles’, but now lives with her husband in the Scottish Borders. Thanks for being on the blog, Margaret.

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The Katharina books have been the most challenging of any I have written to date, on several counts.

Firstly, my passion is for historical authenticity – providing a ‘you are there’ experience for the reader.  Now, of course, they aren’t there and neither am I, but I want readers to be so immersed in the period and the story that for a time they forget the 21stcentury and feel as if they are. One of the keys to that is extensive and rigorous research. Along with lively and cinematic writing.

(Note: I use the term authenticity because I don’t believe historical fiction can ever claim to be accurate, except in terms of names and dates and so on, and even they can sometimes be a matter of debate.)

So what should we do when sources disagree, or even worse don’t say anything at all? Which was exactly the case when I started researching Katharina von Bora, the subject of the two books set in the heart of the Reformation in Saxony, Germany.

She was clearly an influential character – she is the only reformer’s wife of whom we have a portrait, in fact a famous painter of the day, Lucas Cranach the Elder, painted her numerous times and many museums across Europe still hold portraits of her to this day.

And yet there is debate over her parentage and place of birth, and no concrete evidence of the reason why she was placed in a convent at the age of 5, nor why she was moved again at around 10.  There is no verified information, although it is possible to make an educated guess, but no more than that, of how Luther’s writings were smuggled into the convent, triggering her desire to escape, along with eleven others, in the first mass break-out following his teaching.

Even after her marriage, when we have lots of information on what she did, we have no direct information as to why. So how did I go about the task of writing a credible account of Katharina, in the face of such shadowy and insubstantial evidence?

As regards her character, I had to work backwards, both from comments that are made about her by others, and via thinking through what kind of person she must have been to act as she did.  Fairly early on in my research into the Luther marriage, I began to make connections between the interaction of Martin and Katharina, as evidenced in the one-sided correspondence that has survived – we have many of `Martin’s letters, but very few of Katharina’s – and what I remember of the relationship between my maternal grandparents. That felt like a break-through – I now had a model for Katharina that gave me a basis from which to work.

The second, critically important challenge, was how to develop a ‘voice’ for her, that would be both distinctive and in keeping with the little we did know. Normally I write in 3rd person past tense and I started out with that intention here too. But in an attempt to ‘find’ her voice I started to write random snippets in 1stperson present, fully intending to discard them once I felt she was comfortably lodged in my head. Instead, I found that once started, it seemed appropriate to continue.

1st person present is a difficult pov and tense to sustain over the course of a novel, it is very easy to make mistakes and so one entire edit was devoted to checking for pov slippage and any lapses into the past tense. But it gave an immediacy and a vibrancy to the text that helped to breathe life into Katharina and a sense that the novel is her story.

As a result, I now think of it almost as Fictionalised Autobiography, if there can be such a category, though, of course, what readers experience can never be anything other than my version of her. I hope I have done her justice.

And finally, because of the scant and fragmentary nature of the evidence that did exist in relation to her early life, I knew I needed to find a structure for the first novel that would hold it all together. And so, again in a first for me, I wrote a dual time-frame novel introducing key points in her life through flash-forwards to her last three months. That worked easily in Katharina Deliverance when large periods of time required to be bridged, but became much harder to sustain in Fortitude, not least in the decisions of where and when to break up the more coherent narrative.

So, three main challenges and each of them a steep learning curve. I hope I am a better writer as a result.

In honour of the release of Katharina Fortitude, it is on offer at 99p / 99c Now’s the time to grab a copy – or if you’re in KU you can read it for free, but please, please can you do so before the end of August as I’ve entered it in the Kindle Storyteller competition and would love to make the shortlist and get it on Mariella Frostrup’s desk (BBC Radio 4 presenter of book programmes). You would all help to make me a very happy camper if I could get there.

At the moment I am at #11 in Christian Historical Fiction and 12 / 15 in 2 other sub-genres. I think I need to get into single figures in the rankings, so any purchases or pages read will be immensely valuable, as will reviews – also an important part of the algorithm.

Katharina: Fortitude by Margaret Skea ~~ Eagerly-awaited conclusion to Katharina Deliverance – Runner-up in the Historical Novel Society New Novel Award 2018.

‘We are none of us perfect, and a streak of stubbornness is what is needed in dealing with a household such as yours, Kat… and with Martin.’

Wittenberg 1525. The unexpected marriage of Martin Luther to Katharina von Bora has no fairytale ending. A sign of apostasy to their enemies, and a source of consternation to their friends, it sends shock waves throughout Europe. Yet, as they face persecution, poverty, war, plague and family tragedy, Katharina’s resilience and strength of character shines through.

While this book can be read as a standalone, it is also the powerful conclusion to her story, begun in Katharina: Deliverance.

‘Beautifully written and meticulously researched – historical fiction at its best.’ BooksPlease

If you like your historical Fiction to be authentic, immersive and packed with drama, this book is for you. Grab a copy today at the introductory price of 0.99

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.