In the second instalment of my The Write Place series of interviews about exactly where authors work, I speak to Margaret Skea. Margaret is an award-winning author whose latest book, Katharina: Deliverance, went on sale just this week. I’d like to thank her for her time – it’s never easy to find the time to answer a deluge of questions in the week you’ve got to prepare for a book’s launch – and for her fantastic answers.
Harry Scott: Please introduce yourself, what you write and what you’ve written.
Margaret Skea: I’m an author who wanted to be a novelist for as long as I can remember, but spent far too long writing short stories as an excuse not to start. However, the short fiction was a good training ground, both in editing and tight writing. All my short stories had been contemporary, but I decided the novel would be historical. When someone asked me why, I realized that the settings for many of my short stories were as far removed from me geographically as the novel was in time; and that what appealed to me was the challenge of transporting readers to somewhere neither I or they had ever been. There was another link too – most of my writing is concerned with conflict in one form or another and the impact living within it has on relationships, on families and on personal integrity.
HS: How long have you been writing?
MS: I have been writing off and on since I was eight and won a poetry competition in a local festival. Currently I have published a collection of short stories, many of which have won or been placed in competitions and three historical novels, all set in the 16th century. A fourth and fifth are in the pipeline. The first two follow the story of a fictional family trapped in an historic clan feud in Scotland, which lasted for almost 150 years. I’m currently working on the third in that series. My most recent novel could best be classed as biographical fiction, based on the life of Katharina von Bora, Martin Luther’s wife. The fifth novel will be a continuation of Katharina’s story.
HS: How long did it take you to find a writing system and a place that you were happy with?
MS: I haven’t – yet! Each book so far has been written in a different (or several different) places and I have no idea where I will write next. More on that below.
HS: Where are you writing at the moment?
MS: At the moment I write shut away in a friend’s house while they are temporarily living elsewhere. With no internet access and nothing else to do there I can (mostly) achieve my current writing target of 1000 words per day. What I will do when they return home remains an open question…
HS: Are you able to write with other people nearby or do you require solitude?
MS: How I wish I was a JK Rowling and could write in a café surrounded by people and noise. But I am hopelessly undisciplined and very easily distracted, so being somewhere on my own and where I can have complete silence, is ideal. I did try once making a playlist for a book I was writing and uploaded it to my computer, but even period classical music I found too much of a distraction.
HS: Where else have you tried to write?
MS: I have tried writing –
1) At a small writing desk and glazed bookcase combined, with the view from our lounge window reflected in the glass, surrounded by screeds of notes and research materials piled up around me on the floor – not ideal. (Turn of the Tide)
2) At a proper desk in a separate room in our house – better. (1st half of A House Divided)
3) In a remote cottage where I supplemented the existing rusty garden table, two chairs, a microwave and a kettle, with a portable gas heater, a sheepskin rug and a hot water bottle and muffled myself in a thick jacket, scarf, hat and gloves with the fingers cut out – surprisingly productive. (Restart of A House Divided, after a one year break)
4) In a Scottish castle, with all meals provided, but with a rule of silence from 9.00am – 6.30pm – the best and most unusual of them all, not least because it was February and one week in the central heating failed, so that I turned my room into a ‘cave’ to conserve heat and when the sun shone wrote in the greenhouse! That was courtesy of an Hawthornden Fellowship – roll on 2021 when I’ll be eligible to apply again! (Beginning of book no 4 – The End of Winter.)
HS: What’s your writing schedule – how do you break up your day and do you have a favourite time to write?
MS: As for timing, did I mention I am undisciplined? If I don’t start writing in the morning, the chances are I won’t manage anything productive that day at all, which is why I need to schedule inconveniences like visits to the dentist (or even pleasures like coffee with friends) for the late afternoon, so that hopefully I will already have achieved my target for the day.
HS: What do you write your first draft on?
MS: My first draft is always written on computer – it’s expensive enough printing out a finished draft in order to do a final edit on hard copy – writing it on paper from the start would probably use up a forest of trees per book, as I do so much chopping and changing as I go along.
HS: Does your writing/preparation method affect your space – is it full of post-its and scribbled notes, or is it pared back and minimalist?
MS: I start off with a clear space, but am quickly surrounded by sheafs of papers and post-it notes and books with pages marked by coloured tags, an assortment of pens for jotting down colour-coded ideas about characters and events, a cup of coffee that gets re-heated umpteen times but never actually finished, and (in the fridge) essential supplies of fruit, crisps and chocolate. My 11 inch laptop is attached to a 17 inch monitor, so that my eyes don’t get sore staring at the screen, and I sit with a squashy cushion on my knee – whether for heat or as a ‘comfort blanket’ I’m not sure.
Some semblance of order, in retrospect, is provided by a story-board on which I stick a single post-it for each chapter, again colour-coded according to the thread of the story it relates to. That allows me to see at a glance the balance between various threads, character’s appearances and so on. Every so often, usually when I’ve wasted half an hour looking for a particular scrap of paper with the essential bit of information that I need, I organize my post-its and scraps onto a separate preliminary board, but such organization generally doesn’t last very long.
HS: Do you have any kind of mascots or good luck charms to hand?
MS: I’m not into mascots or good luck charms, but I do occasionally pin up an atmospheric picture or a pithy quote, to inspire me to keep going. Current helps are: 1) a card reminding me of the essential ingredients of every scene – Conflict, Setting, Direction, A Point, A Reason and Clarity and 2) four other suggestions to keep me on track – End every day with notes for next day working. Think about what to write before opening laptop. Use spare time to jot down snippets. And most important of all – Keep track of time spent online.
HS: Do you have a particular type of clothing that you have to wear, or any other superstitions or rituals that go with your writing?
MS: As for clothing – I think I would do very well in a hot country (apart from the creepy-crawlies) because I rarely feel warm enough unless I have lots of layers on and especially a scarf around my neck. Fortunately, that is currently in vogue – long may it remain so.
HS: What’s the perfect drink to write with?
MS: Hmm. I count it a success if, while writing, I can drink an entire cup of coffee before it becomes stone-cold. I don’t think I have managed that more than three or four times in the five years I’ve been writing…
Each of the books I have written so far has been ‘birthed’ in a different environment – perhaps it’s time I learnt to focus at my own desk, in my own study, and with sufficient self-discipline to keep the internet switched off…
Again, thank you to Margaret for her time spent answering my questions – I’ve got castle writing envy.
She’s on Twitter – @margaretskea1 – and, perhaps most importantly, you can discover Margaret’s latest book and all her other superbly well-reviewed publications via her Amazon author page.