Skip directly to content

Author Interview: Margaret Porter

on Wed, 04/15/2015 - 02:20

Margaret Porter discusses writing historical fiction, and her new book, A Pledge of Better Times

By Lisa Allard

Historical fiction is a hybrid literary genre located somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. By venturing into the past, authors take a risk from the comfort of the present in order to find the facts they crave, while crafting a story that holds enough modern concepts to appeal to a reader. 

To learn more about the process of writing historical fiction, I decided to interview Margaret Porter, award winning and bestselling novelist. She recently published her twelfth novel, A Pledge of Better Times.

The novel incorporates 17th century historical figures, royalty, and events to explore the political and religious upheavals of the time period. Porter is fascinated by similarities and differences between that era and the present day: disputes over church and state, questions of loyalty and personal liberty, and evolving gender roles.

LISA ALLARD: Have you always been passionate about history? How does this passion translate into your writing?

MARGARET PORTER : So many of my family members were either academic or armchair historians that history has always been a part of my life. The young adult fiction I preferred was usually historical and often biographical in nature, and obviously influenced the direction of my future career. That's not to say I haven't strayed into contemporary fiction at times, but stories set in the past are my primary focus. My research skills are now frighteningly highly developed. I always aspire to depict the people and the events as accurately as possible, while at the same time seeking parallels between past eras and our own times.

LISA: A Pledge of Better Times is set in 17th century England. What makes this setting and time period so interesting to you?

MARGARET: Coincidentally I was a student of the 16th and 17th century, studying in England, as an undergraduate. So I've been a specialist in the period for quite some time. But when I first sought publication as a fiction writer, I made a detour into late the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Jane Austen era. Having moved backwards in time returned me to a place of familiarity. The years following the death of King Charles II are some of the most fascinating to me, from a social, political, and religious perspective. So many factions, striving for ascendancy! What is today known as the Glorious Revolution--which brought William and Mary to England's throne--planted the small seeds of democratic progress that sprouted more fully during the American Revolution a hundred years later.

LISA: How do you go about collecting necessary research for your books?

MARGARET: I consult as many primary sources as I possibly can--the letters, diaries, memoirs, and newspapers of that time. This requires travel and admission to some of the great libraries of the world. Over time more and more material has been made available online, which is a great help. But nothing can replace sitting in a reference room reading the actual handwriting of a real-life character from my story. And I want to do that whenever I'm able. I also rely heavily on secondary sources--biographies and social and political history books--and I read multitudes of those. The perspectives on history and on historic figures changes over time, so a 19th century historian views the Glorious Revolution and its participants rather differently than a 21st century historian. And the modern-day historian or biographer has access to materials that were unknown or undiscoverable to historians of prior generations--who had the advantage, or disadvantage, or living closer in time to the actual events. I need to compare and contrast in order to form my own views. And all the while, I must bear in mind that I am writing for a modern readership, with a primary     purpose of entertaining.

LISA: What have you discovered in your findings? What kind of information have you found to fascinate you the most?

MARGARET: The roles and responsibilities of the courtiers who served the monarchy were very specific, and I delved into who did what, and how, and what their stipend might be, and where they were lodged in the palaces, and how they were expected to behave in the presence of the royal family--that sort of thing. Not all the information shows up in the finished novel, but it definitely informed my portrayal of life at court. I made a great effort to follow the Duke's military career and researched his battles. I think I could write an entire novel about that aspect of his life, but what's included in this one is merely the tip of a massive research iceberg! I was able to track down a portrait of Duchess Diana--briefly referenced in the story--which had been misidentified and was therefore "lost." For all the years I was working on the book, I wondered what became of it, and last year I stumbled on the truth. My most recent discovery occurred just as the novel was about to go into copy editing. I located a pair of portraits of both the Duke and Duchess that even their own descendants were unaware of, and I was able to view and photograph them. A huge thrill, even though it didn't affect the novel in any way. My sideline to writing their story was playing art sleuth, and eventually my perseverance paid off.

LISA: The characters in A Pledge of Better Times are inspired by the lives of Lady Diana de Vere and her family. How have you used their stories to build the plot of your novel?

MARGARET: That old expression, "May you live in interesting times" comes to mind--and my characters most definitely did! The de Vere family, and its various branches, served the royal court from the time of William the Conqueror onwards. Whether male or female, their livelihoods largely depended on maintaining the favor of the queen or king, or both. There was a lot of risk with at the onset of each new reign. My novel opens with the unexpected death of King Charles II in 1685. The accession of his brother James II brought about a renewal of Protestant-Catholic disputes. Tracing the de Vere family's activities in a time of uncertainty was a wonderful way of charting the events of their era, and the differences between older and the younger generations. And not only does Diana serve in the royal household, she eventually marries King Charles II's illegitimate son--a cousin of the King and Queen. And though her husband is half-royal, his mother was the scandalous actress Nell Gwyn. He feels far more at home in an army regiment than he does at court, which turns out to be problematic.

LISA: What do you find most enjoyable about writing historical fiction? What do you find most difficult?

MARGARET: It's a way to combine my appreciation of history and my mania for fact-finding with my creative drive to make up stories. It enables me to view the past through my own particular lens, not only as a 21st century writer and historian, but as an interpreter. I must develop my own thoughts and opinions about what really happened--and more importantly, what might have happened. The most difficult part, to be perfectly honest, is the length of time it takes to write a historical novel. I do preliminary research to frame the story and develop the characters. I research the places I want to visit, and determine which primary sources are essential for my work. As I'm writing, burning questions obtrude, and must be answered. Or ignored, if obtaining the answer is impossible. When the manuscript is complete, the revision begins--my favorite part of the process. I do many, many drafts before agent or editor ever sees it. Time-consuming doesn't begin to describe the effort. It's all worthwhile, in the midst of it and most especially at the end. That's what keeps me going.

LISA: What advice can you give to aspiring writers or those interested in writing historical fiction?

MARGARET: My usual preamble when asked for advice is, "What works for me might not work for you." Aspiring writers will benefit from quickly figuring out what their own particular writing process is, and what their own best work habits might be. I'm a great proponent of attending workshops and conferences and classes, and studying the art and craft of writing. And while advice from the experienced professional writer can be useful or illuminating--or, on occasion, positively maddening--nobody has all the answers. One learns best from one's own experience. There are many varieties and flavors of historical fiction, many methods of writing it. I suspect that whatever an aspiring writer most likes to read is probably the type of fiction that he or she will best understand and appreciate, and has the best chance of succeeding with. Goal-setting is important, it helps having benchmarks of progress. But not if being overly-disciplined slays creativity and transforms the inherent joy of writing into a chore.  A Pledge of Better Times is my 12th published novel. But with every next novel I'm starting all over again--because each one presents different challenges, different demands, different expectations.

LISA: What do you hope readers will gain by reading A Pledge of Better Times?

MARGARET:  For a good long while the Tudors have dominated the historical fiction market. My novel unfolds during the reigns of the later Stuart monarchs. I can only hope to spark interest in their era--which is filled with characters just as fascinating and as flawed as their predecessors. Naturally I hope my readers will be entertained, and that I'm opening a window onto a world that will appeal to them as much as it does to me.

Margaret Porter will be having a book signing on April 30th at 7pm at Gibson’s Book Store in Concord.

Margaret Porter studied British History in the U.K. and has worked in theatre, film, and television as a writer and producer. She contributes articles on British history and travel to many publications and special-interest blogs. Her poetry has been featured in the Granite Review and she is listed in Who’s in America; Who’s Who in Author’s, Editors, and Poets and Who’s who in Entertainment. She returns to Great Britian annually to research her books.

For more information, please visit http://margaretporter.com/index.html and http://margaretevansporter.com.

Lisa Allard is a student at Southern New Hampshire University. She is working as a literary editor for the New Hampshire Writers' Project under the terms of the Community Service Work Study program.