I’m so delighted to be spending time with Margaret Porter on Author Chats today. We share a love of England, the Seventeenth Century, gardens and dogs, and always manage to find time to catch up at the Historical Novel Society Conferences. Today I managed to sit her down and hear about her inspiration for her writing, along with some great travel stories. Margaret, over to you!
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
It’s more like which ones haven’t I gone on? The first I can recall, from my youth, was Stratford-upon-Avon, for all the Shakespeare sites. To commune with Jane Austen, I’ve frequently gone to Chawton, Bath, Steventon, and her burial place in Winchester Cathedral. I’ve followed Dickens to Rochester, as well as visiting his London house. I’m fortunate in spending plenty of time in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. Dante drew me to Florence, so I could stand on the Ponte Vecchio where he reportedly met Beatrice. I’ve sought James Joyce’s spirit—and admittedly, imbibed spirits—all round Dublin. Also in Ireland, I meandered through Yeats Country in Sligo. Time slips away from me when I’m in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner, a premier literary pilgrimage. I’ve been inside Mrs. Gaskell’s lovely Manchester house.
In New England, I’ve wandered through Emily Dickinson’s house. And Mark Twain’s. I’ve toured Orchard Place in Concord, Massachusetts, where Louisa May Alcott grew up, and in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery paid my respects to her and all the other Alcotts, plus Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. Oh, and I went to Walden Pond! I can easily reach Robert Frost’s farmstead by car—and have done. In the southern U.S, I’ve explored Flannery O’Connor’s homes, and the incredible writer’s retreat in rural Florida where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings became a novelist.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I cherish my friendships with other authors, and I have many, dating from all periods of my career. I would hate to leave out anyone, so I’m including those I know so well that I’ve often been in their homes and they in mine. Virginia Macgregor, an English author of adult and young adult contemporary fiction, is a dear friend, a writing companion, and a near neighbour. When not hampered by our deadlines, we participate in our private two-person book group. She expands my reading horizons by suggesting books I might not have delved into otherwise, and I’ve recommended historical fiction and historical writing resources as she ventures into that territory. I became acquainted with Tess Gerritsen before she achieved her incredible success in books and television—her novels always remind me of the power of suspense in storytelling. And I must mention the late Edith Layton, author of Regency and historical romances and historical fiction—I was a fan for several years before we became close friends, and eventually we were colleagues at the same publishing house.
Talking about your extensive body of work, Margaret, what kind of research did you do, and how long did it take you?
For the three books that make up The Islanders trilogy, set during the last years of the 18th century, I conducted research on the Isle of Man (multiple trips) and in England—especially London—and elsewhere. These books required my typical close examinations of current events, fashion, money, food, social activities, and travel—especially to and from the island.
Each novel had specific topics and locations that demanded intensive investigation. For Kissing a Stranger, I wandered round Maughold parish to find the right site for the seaside Castle Cashin. I needed to know about London debtors’ prisons, legal and criminal activities (and penalties, for the latter), and attorney-client relationships. In order to determine the fate of the largest diamonds from Marie Antoinette’s infamous necklace, I consulted renowned jewellery historians. For The Seducer, I wanted additional Manx locations, in and around Port Cornaa (it helped having friends who lived in the area). I had to choose which elements of Manx tradition and folklore would affect my story and characters. Flax cultivation, spinning, and linen weaving, and the linen-making process are all crucial to the plot. As is the complex process of printing patterns onto linen fabrics—that research took me to the vaults of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I was able to inspect and handle extant fabrics and garments. For Improper Advances, I learned a lot about geology on the Isle of Man, the London opera scene, Vauxhall performance schedules, and the Liverpool theatre. I also visited Newmarket’s Horseracing Museum, when Tattersall’s autumn sales were underway. I managed to escape without buying a racehorse!
Improper Advances was another welcome opportunity to explore the history of the Beauclerk family, descendants of actress Nell Gwyn, whose son by King Charles II was the 1st Duke of St Albans (and protagonist of a novel of mine.) The 3rd duke was famously—or infamously—enamoured of opera dancers and singers. Oriana, my opera singer heroine, is his fictional illegitimate daughter. Conveniently, for my purposes, he sired an unknown number of offspring—and like his great-grandfather Charles II, had no lawful male heir. Oriana’s friend, the actress Harriot Mellon, one of many real-life characters in the book, eventually married the much younger 9th Duke of St Albans as her second husband. I like to imagine that Oriana introduced them.
I have something in common with each of the three heroines in this trilogy. But I suppose I feel closest to Oriana—partly because if she weren’t a fictional creation, we’d be distantly related. And mostly because we shared a career on the stage. For the Manx portion of her story, I borrowed a friend’s Glen Auldyn cottage for the one she occupies temporarily. I owe thanks to Oriana for inspiring me to pick up a new skill—she plays the mandolin. A few years after writing her story, I bought my own instrument and took lessons, thereby fulfilling my longtime ambition to become a mandolinist.
I’ve no idea how long the research took for the three novels. I’ve forgotten. I do recall that each was written under contract, to a strict deadline. So I only had a certain amount of time allowed for researching, incorporating necessary travel, and writing the books.
Quick Q & A
Tea or Coffee
Weekdays, tea. All day. Weekends, coffee in the morning (my husband brews it, I don’t know how), then tea.
Dark or Milk Chocolate
As dark as possible. Preferably Belgian.
When were you the happiest?
Identifying a single moment is quite difficult. My most recent, very memorable happiest time was last year when my husband and I were spending time in Chester, where some of my family are from, and we day-tripped over to the place in the Welsh hills where my 17th century Evans ancestors lived. It was a glorious sunny day, and despite spending lots of time all over Wales, I hadn’t quite made it to that specific location. I look forward to returning. I think it stands out so starkly because I was deprived of so many of my planned 2020 trips!
Favourite Children’s Book
Probably Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. My mother, a rose gardener, gave it to me. It’s one reason I was so keen to go to school in Yorkshire, as an undergrad. And for a time, I did. And now I’ve got a rose garden of my own, containing 160-ish specimens—not hidden, but very visible from the street.
Favourite Adult Novel
One of my most-loved novels is A Chance to Sit Down by Meredith Daneman, who is also Margot Fonteyn’s biographer. Her protagonist is a ballet dancer in London, wrestling with questions of art, career, life, and love. I discovered it when I was making the transition from actress (and former dancer) to full time writer, so it really struck a chord. Still does. Always will.
Thanks so much for visiting, Margaret. It’s been fascinating chatting! Here’s where you can find Margaret and her books online:
Kindle Purchase: https://www.amazon.com/Islanders-Complete-Margaret-Evans-Porter-ebook/dp/B08MZJKGPW/
Websites: www.margaretporter.com, www.margaretevansporter.com