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!

 

Bristol Litfest is here again. Book bazaar and our first ever flash slam

book bazaar
Nina looks after our wares

We’re delighted that a bunch of us got to the Book Bazaar in the Green Lab on Saturday and Sunday to have some good fun and share the wise words with local authors and publishers.

Here’s old friend Nina who came from Wales to join us and you can check our Facebook page for a few more photos of us and our wares. I was sorry not to be there myself but good to know we had a presence and made some useful new contacts.

Nikesh Shulka - be kind!
Nikesh Shulka – be kind!

We’re also delighted to be taking part this Friday in the Flash Slam at Crofter’s Rights with Nikesh Shukla in the chair.

Five teams, four rounds – sounds like a blast!

More Litfest events are here. 

 

 

 

And don’t forget. If you have a spine-tingling story in your pocket and want to submit it for our Spine-tinglers event, the deadline is looming. Send it by Wednesday 10 pm please!

Spine-tinglers event November 1st. Cometh the hour …

Let us tell you a story

South Bank Bar

Yes, as you may have heard our new and improved Sunday Night Stories get-together WILL take place on Nov 1st from 6 – 8 pm when you can snuggle up in the bar at Southbank Club Bedminster and let our members and guests make you shiver or smile with their spine-tingling stories.

Update! Submissions are closed and we have selected eight stories by our members and guests to be read on the night. We’ll be in the main bar at Southbank and hope to welcome everyone there who’s free to join us.

Tickets on the door. Don’t forget your voucher if you have one! Details below or contact us with any questions.

 

Local writers are invited to join us 

If you are within striking distance of Bedminster and have a chilling or thrilling story to hand (or can rustle one up in a hurry!) please send it to us by Wednesday October 21st. We’ll pick those we like best and invite the authors to take up our three guest slots on the night.

Please read our submission guidelines before you send us anything and only submit if you can come and read on the night. We’ll let you know by October 28th if you’ve been selected.

There is no entry fee (or prize!) for this BUT

  • everyone who submits a piece for consideration will be sent a Bring A Friend For Free voucher, so that even if you’re not reading, you can come along with a friend and have your entry at half -price.
  • if you’re selected and decide to come alone, you’ll have free entry.

The full ticket price is £5, by the way, to include spooky refreshments. (Cash only.)

So whether you’re a reader, writer, or someone who likes a bit of entertainment, don’t let Sunday evening get you down. Come along and be part of the Southbank scene, and let us tell you a story.

Spine-Tinglers Flyer

 

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.