More writing advice from Margaret George
Published: July 2, 2010
The August 2010 issue of
The Writer presented a feature interview with historical novelist Margaret George by Elfrieda Abbe, the magazine’s publisher. Following are some additional writing insights from George. |
Q: With a book like Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles being such a long novel, how do you divide the writing up? You must have to take breaks.
I get to the end of an emotional cycle in a person’s life. Stopping at the end of when Mary (Queen of Scotland) went to England. Stopping when she left Scotland. Then, of course, life dictates. You may have something happening in your life that means you’re going to be off-duty for a while.
Q: What happens when you start again?
I will reread what I’ve done and go from there. Then you get a running start. When you come back it’s like a standstill; you haven’t been in it for a while. You have to somehow get yourself back in that mode.
Q: With such intense research and writing, how do you pace yourself?
That’s always a tension with the publisher. In the past they were more lenient about somebody taking five or six years to write a book. There was a time they thought they could speed me up just to go with the marketing cycles. But they couldn’t speed me up because the process takes a certain amount of time. It’s like curing leather. You can’t speed it up.
Everything is changing in publishing. I don’t know how you would make the process shorter except to write a shorter book that was about less of a person’s life. In Elizabeth’s case [a reference to her next novel, tentatively titled Queen Elizabeth I: The Last Battle] that’s what I thought I was going to be doing. I thought that by starting after the [Spanish] Armada [in 1588], I’ll only have 15 years. As it turned out, a lot happened after that.
Q: What happens after you do revisions that your editor requests?
[The editors] start doing their line editing. They were supposed to cut some of the manuscript, too [with Queen Elizabeth I]. We will have cut some of the same things, but not all. Then in the last go around the copy editor asks all these questions like: “Was there really a trade route from such and so?” Sometimes they are picky about very strange things and sometimes it isn’t worth bothering with.
For example, I had a reference to white bread because the upper class had this white bread. You’re always reading about it in medieval novels. “My lady took a dainty bite of her manchet bread.” This editor said, “That’s very modern; they didn’t have refined foods then.” But actually they did, but why bother. Maybe other people would read it and say, “Oh, that’s wrong,” so I just put “dainty fare.”
Sometimes you might be right but it’s not worth fighting about. So you change it to keep the peace and speed the process along. If it were really important, I wouldn’t, but you can get the point across just as well another way.
Q: What details do you explore when you travel to the sites of your novels?
In Troy and Sparta [for her novel Helen of Troy], I was trying to get a feel for what Helen’s life was like when she was a Mycenaean princess. What was it like? What was the climate like? I even asked--because you know Zeus came down to Leda in the form of a swan and I was looking around for swans to see if there were any around—I asked several people, “Do you ever get swans here?” “No, no, we don’t ever get swans.”
There was a lot of Troy business going on when I wrote my book, which is kind of bad [timing] because people can have Troy fatigue. First we had the USA mini-series in 2003. Then we had the Brad Pitt movie Troy [in 2004].
The good thing about it was it sparked all kinds of college courses and specials on The History Channel. There was an archeologist [at the University of Wisconsin] who was teaching a course on Troy because the movie got students interested. He was a big help to me. I could ask him questions like, “Does it snow in Troy?” How cold does it get in Troy?” “How far is the spring?” “Could somebody make it in a day?” That was a big help. I never would have known him if it hadn’t been for the Troy movie. And he only gave the course that one year.
I was very happy because he took my German copy of Helen of Troy and the American version to a special library at Troy for the Friends of Troy, so I feel like Helen is back in Troy.
Q: From the perspective of writing your novels, what’s the best way to explore a site?
Going to the historical site is really important. I found I do much better if I’m there on my own. I have been somewhere where some expert has opened something and taken me through. He’ll say, “We’ll open it for 30 minutes,” and is there with me. Then I have to talk to him--or her. I end up paying more attention to the person I’m with, so it’s better to go through as just a general tourist incognito, take your time, take as long as you want. Go back and see stuff. You won’t get to see as much as maybe the special tour, but the site is all yours.
Q: You mentioned that your husband helps you on the trips. What is his role?
He loves to take these trips. It’s his Indiana Jones thing. He’ll drive. He’ll read the maps--although we sometimes fight about the maps. He’ll tote things around and do the logistics and take the photographs. If it weren’t for him there wouldn’t be any photographs of me at these sites because who’s going to take them?
Q: Do you use photos for your writing?
If you take a picture of a building, you’re taking it for yourself so you know how it’s situated. OK, how near is it to the cliff? How big were the rooms? Sometimes I’ll have a person in it for scale. The only ones I have for publicity my husband takes--“Let’s take a picture of you in front of the walls of Troy.” But most of them are just for me. [You can find Margaret George’s photo album at www.margaretgeorge.com photo galleries. ]
Q: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since your wrote your first novel?
The publishing landscape has changed so much since I first entered it [in the late 1970s] that I’ve learned that nothing is forever! The first time I saw my novel in print it was so exciting. I never fail to feel that excitement again when I first see the cover of a new novel, or hold the advance copy in my hands. The miracle of giving birth to a book never fades.
But I would also caution that the lows come along, too. Not everyone will be as madly in love with your work as you are. The sad day may come when the book goes out of print. Bad reviews always hurt. But after six books, I now know that the highs and the lows are just part of the life cycle of a book, and I don’t get derailed by them.
Q: What advice do you have for writers?
I would say to discover what you do best and try to develop that, even if it is not currently in style. I remember when science fiction and fantasy were considered dead and now look! Everything comes around again but in a different form. So polish your specialty.
Also, that no one does everything well but we can become passable even in our weak spots. You may never write brilliant dialogue but you can get better at writing it, so don’t shy away from it. That will elevate the whole, and show the sparkle in the things you do well.