Historical novelist Margaret Skea on how she freed herself from the tyranny of truth

In the second in our series of posts on the theme of Unchained, we’re welcoming award-winning historical novelist Margaret Skea.  I really love how Margaret creates absolute authenticity (fuelled by meticulous research) without ever burdening the reader or losing sight of the plot, which in the case of A House Divided is a real roller-coaster encompassing family feuds, contemporary medicine and witchcraft. Here she explains how neither book might have been written at all if it hadn’t been for a moment of liberation here in the West Country.

Margaret Skea
Margaret Skea

A House Divided, set in 16th century Scotland, is a sequel to Turn of the Tide, for which I was fortunate enough to win two awards – Historical Fiction Winner in the Harper Collins / Alan Titchmarsh People’s Novelist Competition 2011 and the Beryl Bainbridge Award for Best First Time Author 2014.

Although Turn of the Tide was my first finished novel it was not my first novel, or rather it wasn’t the first version of my novel. Here’s how I became ‘unchained’ from the restrictions of writing from the pov of an historic character and discovered the freedom that a fictional main character brings.

It went like this…

I wrote short stories. I’d only ever written short stories (well apart from the poetry of my teenage angst days, but the less said about that the better). Three thousand words was my comfort zone and it was a rut that I was more than happy to remain in.  Until one month I found myself bereft of children, my job axed and our recently acquired brand new house clearly in perfectly good nick. My husband said ‘Forget looking for another job, you’ve always wanted to write a novel, maybe now’s the time.’

Initially it wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought, for the main character had been in my head for many years. Ever since I researched his family as part of a dialect study. And far from struggling to get past three thousand words, about a year later I found myself with 70,000 – approximately three quarters of the way through. Then I began to flounder.

It wasn’t that his story was boring, or that he himself didn’t provide me with enough material to work on, but there was a constant battle going on in my head between truth and fiction, a battle which truth was definitely winning, severely restricting my plot options.
Problem: it was a novel I was supposed to be writing, not a history book.
Solution: An Arvon Advanced Fiction course – combined Christmas present from all my nearest and dearest and a few others besides (they aren’t cheap) ‘for those at least half-way through a novel.’

Totleigh Barton
Arvon at Totleigh Barton

 

I won’t bore you with the technicalities of getting to Totleigh Barton, a beautiful thatched long house buried in the depths of Devon, but what a fabulous environment in which to write. I went with 70,000 words and high hopes that the four days there would make all the difference. And they did. Just not quite in the way I’d expected.

Day 1: My first one-to-one session with a tutor. I strolled across to my meeting with the opening of my novel which introduced the main character (as it should) and the first page of Chapter 3 in which a two-bit messenger boy who didn’t even have a name was sent to set up an ambush.  I wanted to discuss the differentiation of major and incidental characters.  Which I suppose in a way was what happened. The tutor read the two passages, then after a pause picked up the ‘two-bit messenger boy’ page and said, ‘I think this is your main character.’

As those who know me will testify there haven’t been many times in my life when I’ve been speechless, but that was one of them. After I’d metaphorically picked myself off the floor we talked. About fictional versus historic characters and the huge advantages of a fictional main character. It all made sense, but could I ditch 70,000 words and start again? That was a terrifying prospect.  His parting shot – ‘Think about it overnight and we’ll talk again tomorrow.’

I did sleep, surprisingly, but at some stage during the night Munro rode into my head on his horse Sweet Briar, complete with a surname, and demanding the centre stage.  I woke up buzzing and ready to re-hash that single page of Chapter 3 into the opening of a novel. Of course I had all sorts of ideas about re-using masses of the other 70,000 words too – with a few tweaks here and there to alter the perspective. It would be the same basic story after all. Right? Wrong.

Turn of the Tide
The finished article – an award-winner!

Some of the historical events that featured in the first version did provide a framework for ‘Novel Mark 2’, but it became a completely different story. By the time I went home I had written 3000 words of the new Chapter 1, which, incidentally, made it into the published manuscript unchanged.  I also had a clear image in my mind of the final scene, so a goal to aim for.

It wasn’t just the novel that benefited, the experience has impacted positively on all my writing. ‘Killing my darlings’ one sentence, a paragraph or even a whole chapter at a time is now remarkably easy; after all I ditched 70,000 words and survived. The final versions of both my novels are much better as a result.

And the original 70,000 words? They languish in a box in my attic – maybe they’ll be worth something some day…

Layout 1Both Turn of the Tide and A House Divided are available in paperback, via bricks and mortar bookshops in the UK , online via Waterstones, Amazon and the Book Depository and also on Kindle.

 

Amazon.co.uk http://tiny.cc/dsgt4x

Amazon.com  http://tiny.cc/gtgt4x

Waterstones http://tiny.cc/nvgt4x

 

You can also find Margaret on  https://www.facebook.com/MargaretSkeaAuthor.Novels
And her website www.margaretskea.com

A great story from Margaret and one that having recently retired from battle with a historical novel makes absolute sense to me. Maybe I need a fictional minor character – or a writing course!

 

Do authors need a brand? Chris Hill chooses freedom

I ran into Chris Hill on Twitter and having read his intriguing literary novel Song of the Sea God (reviewed here) I was surprised to notice his second novel (see below) is lad-lit. Today he’s kicking off a series of guest posts on how writing can be unchained by an event, an idea, or in Chris’ case, his own frame of mind. 

Chris Hill
Chris Hill

I write for myself first and then look for a publisher who will take whatever I end up producing. As a result the first two books I’ve had published are quite unlike each other. Almost anyone in the know will tell you I’m doing this all wrong.

My first novel, Song of the Sea God, published by Skylight Press (ed’s note: brilliant writing!) is literary fiction and is a kind of creepy fairy tale about a man who washes up on a small island and convinces the locals he is a god. My second, The Pick-Up Artist, published earlier this year by Magic Oxygen, is a modern take on a rom com with some strong women and a weak man, bawdy jokes, elements of farce. It has a few points to make about the way men and women are these days but it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Publishing professionals will tell you it’s madness to write like this – that if you produce pretty much the same thing each time then you build a brand. You also give agents and publishers an idea what to do with you. I’ve ignored that advice not out of bloody mindedness or because I’m on some sort of crusade. It’s just that I find I write best if I’m writing something which interests me and which I am fully committed to. I have a day job which pays the mortgage and keeps the kids in trainers, as do many writers more successful than me, so I don’t need to become a production line worker turning out a series of interchangeable units of product. I can do as I please and, if I do it well enough, I will find a publisher happy to take it on.

There’s a great freedom in writing like this, I’m not sure what my next book will be, only that it will be unique – in this way I suppose I would say I’m unchained.

I certainly don’t have an axe to grind with authors who write similar genre books in a series, good luck to them – each to their own I say. I’m sure they will build up readers over time who know what to expect from them. My readers on the other hand are probably thinking ‘what on earth’s he going to do next?’ I will just have to hope I can find a readership of people who enjoy the unexpected.

Biog and links

chrishillbookChris Hill is an author from Gloucester in the UK whose new novel The Pick-Up Artist is published by Magic Oxygen Publishing. You can find it on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Pick-Up-Artist-about-Dating-Digital/dp/1910094161/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1424014293&sr=8-1&keywords=the+pick+up+artist+chris+hill.

Chris works as a PR officer for UK children’s charity WellChild and spent more than 20 years as a journalist on regional newspapers. He lives with his wife Claire, their two teenage sons and Murphy, a Cockapoo.

 

Chris is a social media addict with more than 20,000 followers on Twitter @ChilledCh  he is on Facebook here:https://www.facebook.com/chris.hill.3726 and has a popular blog where he talks about reading, writing and more at  http://www.chrishillauthor.co.uk/

Thanks to Chris for sharing his brand-free philosophy.

Our next guest will be historical novelist Margaret Skea on how she needed to free herself from one novel to move on with the next (and the one after that!)

If you’re a writer with a local connection and would like to blog here on the theme of Unchained, please contact us.

Nathan Filer and The Shock of the Fall

This week Ali Bacon reflects on what she heard (or hopes she heard) at an evening with Nathan Filer

Nathan Filer There’s nothing like a local hero to inspire us all to greater things, and since winning the Costa Prize with The Shock of the Fall, Nathan Filer is the man whose hand we have all wanted to shake, and so I did just that (pushy or what!) on Monday at an event in Yate Library where Nathan was talking about his book. In fact I discovered his roots are as much in South Glos as Bristol/Bath and there was a great turn-out.

I should say that up to then I knew only the outline of Nathan’s story and had belatedly dashed to only page 21 *blush* of Shock but by the end of Nathan’s talk about the writing of the book I knew a lot more about the book and the man. But then that’s what you might expect since the author and his hero Matthew  had been close companions for a very long time. It was such a lively and inspiring evening I’ve decided to pass on the bits of Nathan’s writing story that stuck in my mind, but I didn’t take notes so I’m just hoping I haven’t imagined too much of it. They do say you hear what you want to hear!

 First novels are rarely first novels.

Nathan has been writing for a long time and has a career as a stand-up poet. No, this is not his first novel, just the first to be published.  Writers know that first novels rarely are just that, but sometimes it’s good to know that the truly great novel – and great writer – have started in the not so great place, and still achieved greatness after all.

 Novels take a long time to write and change along the way

 I think Nathan estimated Shock had 6 or 7 drafts. During that time it changed from a more sensational account – almost a thriller – to what it is now. In fact very many things changed – except the main character. He was the driving force and the insistent voice that wouldn’t go away. Getting Matthew’s story right was what mattered. And Matthew’s character changed only to the degree that the author may have changed along the way. An interesting admission, which brings us to

 Fiction and autobiography, i.e.  my book and my life

nathan filer eventNathan was entirely candid about how much of the novel springs from his own experience and how many of the characters were originally modeled on members of his own family. I thought this was refreshing. How often do writers insist their work is not autobiographical when actually our writing is bound to be shaped by our lives. But, as Nathan pointed out, we put these characters into new situations and suddenly they are new people, they are fictional characters. I’m hoping this will be read by all those people who say ‘Am I in your book?’ because the answer is probably ‘yes of course you are’ and at the same time ‘don’t be ridiculous!’ 

 Do creative writing courses work?

Ah, the chestnut question! But asked by a young writer in the audience who had no academic axe to grind and really did want to know.  Nathan was quick to say that the Bath Spa MA worked for him, but that he knew people who had failed to benefit or even been set back by it. I think his advice was to embark on this style of course only if you are sure of the story you want to tell.

 Road to publication

Shock of the Fall(Well I wanted to know!) After many ups and downs, Nathan finished his first draft on the MA at Bath Spa and submitted it to the Tibor Jones novel competition. Nathan has a healthy cynicism for writing competitions which I am beginning to share, but in this case although the book didn’t win, it was spotted by an agent.  There was another year of work before the final submission, but within a week it was out to publishers and they were all bidding for it. So the long gestation was over very quickly and The Shock of the Fall was soon out in the world. No lessons here except that hard work does pay off, and real quality will get attention even in this mad new world of what often feels like publishing mayhem.

These reflections are hardly news, but sometimes hearing them from someone who has been through the mil and come out the other end reminds us of why things are as they are and what we have to do to overcome the odds.

Finally, with many of the audience asking about the setting and the mental health issues,  I learned a disturbing fact, namely that NHS cuts have been 20% greater in the mental health sector than the service over all. In a world that threatens our mental stability in so many ways, I find that shocking.

So to respond to the South Glos feedback form, yes, I met someone new, learned something new, and in my own little way yes,  I was inspired by the evening. I was certainly moved to buy the very pleasing paperback even though I have the Kindle edition! And if  Nathan should pass this way, he’ll be pleased to know I’m now zipping along on page 90 – and counting.

AliBweb
Ali’s novel A Kettle of Fish is available in Kindle and paperback editions.
Meet her at http://alibacon.com

Persistence and Passion: from Debz Hobbs-Wyatt

book coverThis week we’re delighted to welcome our first ever guest blogger, Debz Hobbs-Wyatt. We invited her because three of us, Gail, Shirley and Ali, all read her debut novel While No One Was Watching and all absolutely loved it. The book (Ali’s review is here) tells the story of what else might have happened in Houston on the grassy knoll at the moment when Kennedy was assassinated – of course while no one was watching. A brilliant premise and as we thought brilliantly executed. Here’s Debz to tell us more about herself and her book.

 Would you like to give us a bit of background about yourself and your writing career?

Debz Hobbs Wyatt I always wanted to be a writer and I wrote my first novel at the tender age of nine! (A Famous Five rip-off complete with tom boy and dog!) I have always been an avid reader and while I eventually studied science and worked for a pharmaceutical company, I always wrote in one form or another, either for work or for fun. I had the idea for my first novel at the age of sixteen, although I didn’t feel I had lived enough then to have something to say!
Then about nine and a half years ago I started to write seriously, working on that first novel (for me it was always about the novel!) and it became an obsession. And when my lovely partner Lee died suddenly in 2005, writing became my escape and my saviour. I have always been an optimist and a great believer in living the dream but none more so than when I lost Lee. I was determined to just do something that made me happy and I am. Truly.
The journey to this point has involved a lot of hard, but enjoyable work, honing the craft. Part of that was realising the power of the short story for experimenting with style, voice, tense etc. It speeds up the process and one that I think is so necessary. It was five years ago, I had my first short story accepted for publication and since then I’ve had twenty shorts stories published, won competitions, got my MA in Creative Writing and given up my day job!
I now work from home – in the mornings I write and in the afternoons I have built a small business editing and proof reading for private clients and some small publishers, and I also offer in-depth critiques for clients. I also have my own small press, Paws n Claws encouraging children to write and I publish the stories for the Born Free Charity. I realise now how important and wonderful it is to work with other writers. In order to teach you have to know it – and I am certain the critiquing has made me a better writer.

Shirley has commented that for her one of the most striking things about While No One Was Watching is the language, the way you capture characters through their American voices. I’m thinking of Lydia especially, of course. She comes alive through the way she speaks. Assuming you’re not American yourself, how did you capture such an authentic black, Southern voice, with its vocabulary, syntax, cadences, lilt?

I am from Essex, I spent ten years in Liverpool and I now live in Wales. But I have travelled a lot in the US and it does seem to come through in my writing – less so with the shorts as they tend to be set in the UK but for some reason my novels want to be set in the US.
I am obsessed with voice as this is what really connects the reader to the story – I want the reader to hear the character and not me. The main concern was being authentic and not making the characters stereotypes. I had to study the nuances of the African American Vernacular (AAV) – with a Dallas twang! I needed to look at the kind of expressions used and in Lydia’s case, how her parents would have spoken, one generation back. I also looked at books like The Color Purple and The Help. I listened to people speak; there are online libraries of dialects. I hope I did it justice; I studied it hard and along the way was looked at by my editors for accuracy.
What I did love was how my publisher was convinced an American had written it. But then he is Welsh! It will be interesting to see how it’s received when the book’s released in the US in March.

Do you like treading the line between fact and fiction (as you’ve
done here) or can the weight of historical research sometimes get in the way
of imagination?

While No One Was Watching started life as an image. I saw the psychic sitting in a chair looking at a reporter. She wrapped a child’s silver locket around her thick black fingers and said, “It belonged to a little girl. She disappeared the day Kennedy was shot and was never found.”  It seemed like a big premise, a new way of looking at an old story? And while the novel is about Eleanor Boone, that little girl who disappeared from the grassy knoll, it’s about a whole lot more than that. I added many layers.
Never the less, it seemed I could not write a story like this without there being a strong Kennedy tie in and hence I lot of research! But I loved it! In itself the Kennedy story is like trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle. I also loved the way fact and fiction rub up against one another. . I had the characters looking at real evidence from that day but this time looking for a little girl and not a man with a gun. It seemed to me that people are already fascinated by the story of what happened to Kennedy, but add to that the idea of missing child (bad enough, right?) but still missing after fifty years – I knew it would also tap into something universal. And it seems to have worked.
So while I don’t, in general, write historical fiction, there is something about taking an iconic moment in history and using it in a contemporary way. I find research is just another part of process and it’s essential for authenticity. And credibility. It doesn’t get in the way.

You’ve already had lots of success with short stories. Have you always wanted to write a novel, or did While No One was Watching take you by surprise?

I will always wave a banner for the short  (While No One Was Watching actually came from a short story) and this year I won the Bath Short Story Award and was shortlisted in the Commonwealth Short Story Prize  – but in my heart I will always see myself as a novelist. While No One Was Watching is actually my fourth novel but the first one to be published. The first novel was the practice one. The second did get some good interest from agents but I knew even before they confirmed it, that I wasn’t a good enough writer and that’s when I stepped up another gear and was part of why I did my MA. But I still plan to redevelop that second one and I have another thriller waiting to be reworked and the current work in progress. Not to mention lots of other burning ideas.

Ali has said that for her While No One was Watching is somehow much more than a thriller. I have to ask what’s in the pipeline now? Another thriller? Or something completely different? Or could there more adventures ahead for the amazing Lydia?

I am drawn to thrillers, I love page-turnability. The new work in progress is an adaptation of one of my published short stories I Am Wolf, it’s about identity, a feral child, set part in Russia and part in Alaska and while again it is really about a reporter, she is a flawed and complex character and there is a mystery but it’s very different in lots of ways to the first novel.  I also have a pacey psychological thriller called Isle of Pelicans related to Alcatraz and a reluctant clairvoyant – very different to Lydia! That will be developed next. But I will also develop Colourblind that second novel and it has important tie-ins to the American Civil Rights Movement and have a feeling  that it could be developed for the fiftieth anniversary of the Martin Luther King’s assassination in five years’ time. I really want to rework it, and I think there might be room in there for a cameo appearance by Lydia Collins!

Any particular career ambitions?

I feel like I am finally living the dream – I always said you must never give up and now I can say, see? I was right. I am so proud. It’s not about being rich, or being famous, it’s about being successful to yourself. It was pretty scary. I love sending my characters out into the world. I am just so relieved people seem to be looking after them! HUGE PHEW!
Next stop? While No One Was Watching – the Movie? And an agent, I hope! To get the next novel published. I am so grateful. But we must continue to learn and there are no guarantees the next ones will be published, just an unwavering belief that if you do what you love, every day, and you are receptive to advice and criticism, and will write no matter what – no reason why it doesn’t make a career.

Can I just say a huge thank you for letting me be a guest on this blog and for the very positive reaction I received from Ali and BWW for my debut. Thank you so much. It means a lot. Thanks everyone, never give up your dreams.

It’s been a pleasure, Debz,and thanks for telling us about your writing journey. I’m sure we could all learn from your persistence and passion. 

book coverIf you’re intrigued you can download the novel for Kindle here: and in paperback (Amazon are currently awaiting the second edition with the slightly new cover but do order it.)

Or The Book Depository  offer free shipment globally and they still have the first edition (we like the sense of a book about Kennedy being from The Book Depository!) My editor bought her copy from them for that reason!)

Debz with RosieWebsite: www.debzhobbs-wyatt.co.uk

Blog: http://wordznerd.wordpress.com/

Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/DebzHobbsWyattAuthor

Twitter: @DebzHobbsWyatt