Today, I’m thrilled to bring you an interview with historical fiction, mystery and thriller author Margarita Morris. We talk about the inspiration behind her novels, her unique approach of mixing historical and present-day timelines in her narratives, and her plans for 2017. If you like the sound of her novels, be sure to check out Scarborough Fair and its sequel, Scarborough Ball (which releases today!). At the time of writing, both are on sale for $0.99 and £0.99!
1. Tell us a little about yourself and your fiction!
I grew up in the Victorian spa town of Harrogate, and then went to Oxford to study Modern Languages. For years I was a voracious reader whilst secretly harbouring a desire to write my own books, finally making a start in 2008. Many unfinished manuscripts later, I published Oranges for Christmas, a novel about a family escaping from East Berlin, in 2013. I have now published four novels and the main thing they have in common is that I write about what interests me whether that’s Berlin, Highgate Cemetery, Victorian fairs etc. I also try to make my books page turners because I don’t want to be bored writing them and I don’t want my readers to be bored reading them. My books are suitable for a young adult audience, but adults seem to really enjoy them too.
When I’m not writing I enjoy singing in a chamber choir in Oxford, swimming and yoga. I’m married with two teenage boys.
2. Your new novel, Scarborough Ball, releases today. What can you share about it and the Scarborough Fair series?
The inspiration for the first novel in the series, Scarborough Fair, grew from the idea that Scarborough (a seaside town on the north east coast of England) is a place where layers of history are all visible. You can stand on the beach and see the medieval castle, the Victorian hotels and esplanade, the old fishing village and the 20th-century amusement arcades. So it seemed like the perfect setting for a split-time novel encompassing the Victorian period and the present day.
Scarborough Fair is a mystery-thriller with characters from the town’s Victorian heyday and contemporary characters who find themselves caught up in the town’s grittier modern world. There’s a family connection between Rose in the contemporary setting and her great-great-grandmother, Mary, in the Victorian setting.
Moving on to Scarborough Ball, I decided to stick with the same contemporary characters, introducing a few new ones, but move the historical setting forward a generation. So the historical story in Scarborough Ball is set in 1923 to 1924 and the protagonist is Rose’s great-grandmother, Lilian.
3. What inspired you to mix historical and present-day action in your fiction?
I like the way the historical and contemporary time settings play off each other. The contemporary setting stops the novel from becoming pure pastiche and the historical setting hopefully provides more depth and resonance than would be possible with a straight contemporary setting. History is all around us, particularly in the UK. The Victorians left us a huge legacy in their buildings and railways and cemeteries, but we also have many older buildings, some dating back to medieval times. It’s fun to imagine characters from different time periods exploring the same locations. The locations themselves might have fallen into disrepair or changed in other ways. Scarborough Fair and Scarborough Ball both feature Scarborough’s Grand Hotel. In the Victorian period it was a posh hotel, and it was easy to imagine it as the venue for a ball in the 1920s. Nowadays it targets the mass market, the management have installed slot machines in the elegant lounge, and Bingo sessions are held in the ballroom.
4. What other themes feature in your novels?
The central theme of Scarborough Fair is fortune or luck. I liked the way it tied in with the idea of going to a fair and Dan’s family runs an amusement arcade on the sea-front. The conclusion from the novel is that you have to make your own luck in this world. Scarborough Ball explores ideas of justice, revenge and redemption.
In The Sleeping Angel I wanted to look at Victorian ideas of death, burial and spiritualism, hence the Highgate Cemetery setting. Highgate Cemetery is an inspirational place, with its Gothic and Egyptian-influenced architecture and hundreds of Pre-Raphaelite-inspired angels, set amongst a forest of trees and overgrown ivy. Highgate Cemetery was the scene of the exhumation of Lizzie Siddal (wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti) and also the scene, in 1970, of a vampire hunt (seriously!) so I found a way of weaving those particular gems into the novel.
Oranges for Christmas is, quite simply, a story about the dangers in a communist dictatorship and the quest for freedom from oppression. In 1961 Berlin was a real-life dystopia. The communists built a wall around West Berlin, effectively cutting off the route that so many East Germans had been using to escape to the West. They then implemented a shoot-to-kill policy on anyone attempting to escape from East Berlin. This was perfect material for a novel.
5. Do you take most of your inspiration from history and travel? What else inspires you?
Yes, a lot of my inspiration comes from history and travel. I’ve visited Berlin quite a few times, initially when the Berlin Wall was still standing. I also made a point of taking a tour of Highgate Cemetery in the early stages of writing The Sleeping Angel. Scarborough is a place that I know very well from family holidays.
I find research is a good way to get ideas. I had to do a lot of research about Berlin to get my facts right, but it also gave me concrete ideas for the story. The same was true of my reading about Victorian cemeteries and spiritualism when researching for The Sleeping Angel.
My other main source of inspiration is the literary world itself. Books inspire books. I’ve been greatly influenced by Dickens, the historical novels of Sarah Waters and the split-time novels of Kate Mosse. I also love Helen Grant’s young adult thrillers which feature contemporary characters but are also full of historical resonance.
6. Of your four novels, which is your personal favorite and why?
Scarborough Fair and Scarborough Ball were probably the most fun to write and I hope that there’s a joy in reading them.
The Sleeping Angel was definitely the most complicated because of having to intertwine the present day, the Victorian period and the 1970s, but I love its dark, haunting atmosphere.
Oranges for Christmas is the one that came from my own experience of visiting Berlin in 1987 and seeing the wall for myself. I also went to East Berlin for one day and saw the stark contrast in living standards between the East and the West. I feel very strongly that the story of the Berlin wall is one that should not be forgotten.
7. On your author website, you mention that you spent 11 years in computer programming and project management. How did that experience influence your writing?
It was during those years that I learned project management and time management, two skills that are invaluable for an indie author. Writing and publishing a novel is a long-haul process, akin to developing and installing a large computer project. You have to manage your time and plan your tasks. Progress on a day-to-day basis can seem agonisingly slow but you have to keep plodding onwards, even if it’s only a few hundred words a day. It soon starts to add up.
8. Do you have any particular writing habits or special rituals?
I don’t have any special rituals, but I’m disciplined about my time. I have two boys, now aged 17 and 13, so my working day revolves around the school day. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I drive the boys to school, go swimming and then go home and start work at ten o’clock. On Tuesdays and Thursdays my husband takes the boys to school so on those days I can be at my desk by nine. I work till twelve thirty when we stop for lunch (my husband works from home too.) Then I continue working in the afternoon, either till three o’clock if it’s my turn to collect the boys, or until about four or five. Evenings are for reading and watching good drama on television. During the school holidays I try to make sure I get my work done in the mornings.
I divide my time between writing (which can mean researching, planning, writing or editing) and other tasks, such as writing blog posts, running The Good Writer website and marketing activities.
I find it very helpful to record my progress at the end of each week in a writing diary – just an excel spreadsheet where I fill in my word count and make a note of how things have gone that week. When I’m stuck with a project, it’s very useful to look back and see that I was having similar problems around the same time on a previous book.
9. On your business website, thegoodwriter.com, you share writing and self-publishing advice. What are your three top tips for aspiring independent authors?
Hah, this is a good question for me! After three years of writing unusual, standalone novels aimed mainly at young adults I am now going to attempt something slightly different. So this advice is for me as much as anyone else. These are my new goals for 2017 (you heard it here first folks):
1) Write for adults.
Most indie sales come from ebooks. This means the buyer needs to be shopping online. This means the buyer needs to have a credit card. Teenagers do not have credit cards, therefore it’s very difficult to sell to them as an indie author.
2) Write in a popular genre.
Genre is key when it comes to marketing. You have to be able to position your book comfortably inside one of Amazon’s categories. If you can’t do that then you’re hampering your marketing efforts from the get go. It might also help with getting reviews from bloggers because you can be specific about what sort of book you’re offering them.
3) Write a series.
Standalone novels are a tough sell. I’ve had most success with Oranges for Christmas which is arguably the easiest of my novels to define. Nevertheless, series seem to work well. And making the first in series free is a popular marketing strategy.
In addition to the above, I would add that you should put in a lot of time learning about the business. I do household chores listening to podcasts like The Creative Penn and the Self-Publishing Podcast. Also, make sure you get a professional cover, editing and have a budget, no matter how small, for some advertising and promotion.
10. What do you hope readers take away from your books?
Most importantly, I want people to enjoy reading them. I try to explore themes of freedom, fortune, revenge etc. but that makes the books sound rather philosophical. I think literary fiction greatly underrates the value of a good plot – something that will keep the readers turning the pages. I hope my readers will always want to keep turning the pages.