I’d like to welcome MARGARET PORTER to Layered Pages today to talk with me about Historical Fiction and what it means to her and the importance of such a fascinating genre. Margaret is the author of A Pledge of Better Times and eleven more British-set historical novels for multiple publishers, in both hardcover and paperback, including several bestsellers and award-winners. Many foreign language editions have been published.
She studied British history in the U.K. and returned to the U.S. to complete her theatre training, and after earning her M.A. in Radio-Television-Film worked as a freelance writer and producer for film and video projects. She worked on location for three feature films and a television series.
An occasional newspaper columnist and book reviewer, she has also written for lifestyle magazines. She contributes articles on British history and travel to numerous publications and blogs, and her photographs (travel, architectural, and nature) appear in a variety of print media and on websites. At national and regional writers’ conferences she presents workshops on historical research and writing techniques. A member of the Authors Guild, Novelists, Inc., Historical Novel Society, London Historians, and other organizations, she is listed in Who’s Who in America; Who’s Who in Authors, Editors and Poets; and Who’s Who in Entertainment.
Margaret returns to Great Britain annually to research her books, and is an avid world traveler. She and her husband live in New England with their two lively dogs, dividing their time between a book-filled house in a small city and a waterfront cottage located on one of the region’s largest lakes.
Margaret, what are the periods of history that you focus on for your writing?
My first eleven novels were all set in the second half of the Georgian era, late 18th or early 19th centuries. A Pledge of Better Times, my twelfth novel, takes place in the late Stuart era, from 1684 till about 1704, with a brief glimpse at the opening year of the George I’s reign. My historical work in progress (biographical) covers the individuals’ lives from 1770s to 1790s. The one following that is 1740s to 1760s.
Why Historical Fiction?
Because I’ve been reading it all my life, almost since I learned how to read. I enjoyed children’s stories set in the past, and I devoured YA historical biographical fiction. My first attempts at fiction, as a very young person, were all historical. Later, as an undergraduate, I studied Tudor and Stuart history in Britain—never realising that I would one day write a novel of the Stuart era. Later I became a specialist in the Georgian era as well, and the Regency.
When did you know you wanted be a Historical Fiction writer?
I think I must have been 10 years old or thereabouts. Some of my relatives were writers—scholars and academics and historians and biographers—so becoming a writer didn’t seem that far-fetched. I was the first novelist in our family, but now there are others.
How much time do you spend on research? What sources do you use?
I spend great quantities of time and effort on research. It can take years to thoroughly research my novels. Sometimes when in the process of writing one, I will research for a future one. Most of my sources are primary, many of them are in manuscript form (letters, memoirs, diaries, newspapers) and located in the great libraries of the world—the British Library in London, the library at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and various local history or institutional or private collections.
What do you feel is the importance of historical fiction?
First and foremost, a novel should entertain. It should also enlighten—about the human condition, about historical events, about the lives lived in the past and the choices individuals made based upon their circumstances in life and their needs. Immersion in past times is the reason I write and read historical fiction. Often historical events have a resonance with current events, and though the parallels might not be overtly drawn in a book, as writer and reader I am often aware of them.
How much fiction (in your opinion) is best blended with historical facts?
I inevitably follow the historical timeline. To me, it’s not constraining. Within it—for conversations, incidents, motivations—I use my imagination to the fullest. Because of my intensive study of history, I don’t particularly enjoy novels that mess about with past realities, with or without an Author’s Note explaining what was altered. (Unless it’s intended and marketed as alternate history—although I don’t really read in that genre.) I can’t begin to say what’s optimal, I just know what I prefer and I tend to seek out authors who basically do as I do.
How do you feel the genre has progressed in the last ten years?
There’s more selection. Still not enough choice in certain time periods. The emergence of many wonderful contemporary authors of historical fiction—my peers and friends and colleagues—has been a great gift. I appreciate the attention to subgenres—historical mystery, biographical historical fiction, military historical fiction—which is helpful from a reader perspective. Good marketing is key, and though for historical fiction it’s not fantastic (yet), certain publishers have tried hard to reach out to what is still a niche readership.
What are the important steps in writing Historical Fiction?
Determining what the writer most likes to read, because that’s where her or his enthusiasm will be greatest, and storytelling most effective. Choose an era that you love and understand, not just because it’s popular. Do the necessary research to make your novel reflective of the times, with regard to social history and lifestyles. Create characters—real or imagined—who are dynamic, conflicted, sympathetic, or the love-to-hate kind. Make them relatable to a modern readership without being anachronistic.
What must you not do when writing in this genre?
If you want to please this reader, your novel doesn’t have 21st century characters in historic costume. If you are writing about Tudors, don’t give them a Victorian sense of morality. Don’t neglect research. Don’t rely on cardboard characters. Don’t write down to your reader—those who seek out historical fiction are some of the smartest readers out there. They want to be immersed and swept away, so don’t disappoint them!
Do you use visuals to give you inspiration when writing? Such as historical pictures of people, castles, towns and such? What about historical objects?
Whether or not I am writing real people, I rely on portraits of people and places as they were at that time. When I visit locations featured in my books, I take hundreds of detailed photographs. I study maps of locations, floor plans of castles and houses and cottages. When I’m able, I try to find objects connected with my real-life characters, I study types of clothing worn by them. My theatrical training was helpful, I have performed in the costumes of every era I’ve written about. Sometimes I will re-create dishes or drinks they would have consumed. I listen to music of their time, discover what songs were popular, which poets and authors they would’ve read. My process is more than visual!
Who are your influences?
Any number of historical novelists. Anya Seton, Norah Lofts, Diana Norman, Jean Plaidy, Ken Follett, Georgette Heyer. I wouldn’t exactly say I’ve been influenced by Hilary Mantel, but I admired her work well before Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I don’t think I’m directly influenced by any current authors of historical fiction, but I certainly enjoy reading their books!
A Pledge of Better Times (Purchase links)