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.
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.’
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.
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…
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!