M.J.Porter discusses historical fiction and her writing.
Home » Author interviews » M.J.Porter

What prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?

I studied history at University and fell in love with the period before 1066 in Britain and the wider Scandinavian world. But I discovered my first historical character, Ealdorman Leofwine (from the Earls of Mercia books), when I was studying for my MA. I think it was destiny because I really shouldn’t have been in that part of the library. Prior to discovering Ealdorman Leofwine my intention had been to write fantasy with a historical basis.  

What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?

My approach very much depends on how much is known about the character or event I’m writing about. So, I might have to research them, or, if they’re unknown apart from the odd reference, I research events around them. What I’ve found is that I now research more and more, I’ve spent a lot of time with the Ninth Century books looking into the geography of the time, determining which settlements were and weren’t yet there, and tracing the road and river systems of England at the time. It’s surprising how much information is available for some places, such as Winchester, and how little for others.

Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?

There are a number of go-to books that I rely on when researching, but these can quite often be weighty tomes and not at all appealing to a more general reader. I would however, recommend, the books by Max Adams, he’s written two, The Kings in the North about Northumberland during it’s ‘Golden Age’ of the seventh century, and Ælfred’s Britain, which is an account of the ninth century and not just King Alfred. They are eminently readable, and he doesn’t adopt the same approach as more academic historians. He makes it very clear which parts of the narrative are his opinions. I note he’s also about to release a book on the Arthurian period, which I’m excited to read.

I would also recommend books by Nick Higham. He is an academic, but again, his books are readable and relatable.

I would also advise any one serious about the time period to take time to learn about the source material. It can be quite a surprise to realise how complex it is, and that nothing should ever be taken at face value, even when it is the Venerable Bede telling us.

What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?

Write it

Believe in it

Be prepared for the knock backs, even from close friends and family, because they can be the hardest to take.

If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?

Now, that’s a question. There are a few. So, who would it be? I think I would have to say Ealdorman Leofwine of Mercia (who was active from c.993-c.1023) because without him I’d never had tried my hand at historical fiction. I would have many questions for him and I’d be curious to know if he was anything like I’ve made my character. What I really want to know if he’s been written into the historical record after the fact because his son became so powerful (his son was the Earl of Mercia who bumped heads with Earl Godwine), or if he was at the king’s side during the traumas of the Second Viking Age.

Which other historical novelists do you admire?

I have a few. Elizabeth Chadwick, Anne O’Brien, Alison Weir as well as Bernard Cornwell, and not just for his Uhtred books. I blame Bernard Cornwell for choosing to research the Arthurian Legends for my dissertation at Uni.

I’m also slowly being brought round to the idea of Roman historical fiction. I don’t have a favourite yet, but I love the scope for political stories as well as for war and battle, and so much the better when they’re combined.

In my time period, aside from Bernard Cornwell, I would mention Giles Kristian (Lancelot and Camelot – which is a bit early, but still relevant), Matthew Harffy (especially for Wolf of Wessex), and Christine Hancock for her Byrhtnoth Chronicles. I enjoy how other authors portray the same characters that I write about.

When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first – the protagonist, plot or history?

The history. I always want to highlight some unknown event or historical person, when I write. This often means that I have a vague idea of the plot as well, and then I build my characters as I write. I am not a planner. For me, the final novel comes together through a series of edits, which are painful, but very much needed to make my novels tighter, and accomplish what I hope.

Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?

I have various routines depending on what stage of a project I’m on. When I’m ‘writing,’ I aim to write 5000 words a day (it doesn’t always happen.) I write in short bursts of 1000 words (unless the story is really flowing, and then I allow it to just flow), and intersperse it with other tasks, such as research or social media needs. I tend to be better at writing in the morning than the afternoon.

If I’m at an editing stage, I set aside a few days where I will edit all day. I set a target in the morning of how many pages I wish to edit, and aim to get through them. It can be a quick process or it can be painfully slow depending on how much I’ve changed my story as I’ve written it.

At the spelling and grammar check stage, I again set aside a few days to drill through the manuscript quite quickly, because otherwise, I lose the thread of what I’m trying to accomplish and forget things, which can be frustrating.

I also have stages where I write cast lists, and produce maps and family trees.

So yes, I have a routine, but it changes depending on the stage I’m at in writing. I also try to only write Monday-Friday, but again, if a character is niggling at me, I might break my rules.

I am not very good at having a ‘writing’ support group, but I am trying to build one, but I would also say it’s important to have a group of trusted beta readers, and they will come from unexpected places.

Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?

I am currently working on a few projects, the one I’m going to share with you is The Custard Corpses, which is a 1940s murder-mystery. It’s not at all my ‘time period’ but I’m enjoying playing around with the plot and cast. If it ‘works’ I have plans to write some similar stories, but my heart will always belong to Early England.