There’s only two days left until the release of A House Divided by Margaret Skea. The novel, set in sixteenth century Scotland, is the sequel to Turn of the Tide, winner of the Beryl Bainbridge Best First Time Author award in 2014. I enjoyed the first book and am counting down the days until the release of the second one. In the meantime, I’ve invited the author to answer a few questions about the latest book.
Welcome, Margaret. Let’s get started, shall we?
What prompted you to write about this historical event?
- MS: A House Divided is the sequel to Turn of the Tide, which had
as its genesis a key point in an historic feud. I wanted to continue the story of my fictional family – the Munros – and so I began by looking at the broader history of the late 1590s, in order to find events in which they could be involved.
There were two that stood out for me – a widespread Scottish witch-hunt and the siege of Amiens. Both occurred in the same year – 1597 – which set the time frame, and both had significance.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts. If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
MS: I had a timetable of the key dates at Amiens and I stuck rigidly to that. There were fewer specific dates and locations available for the witch-hunt, but the date for the climax of the book was chosen specifically to fit in with a key change that arose from it. However, despite their significance, there is little detailed information available about either of these events, which allowed scope for my characters, both fictional and historic, to take the centre stage.
(I include an historical note at the end of the novel to clarify the extent to which the key events within it are based on fact.)
What research did you do for this book?
MS: I began by studying the historical context of the 1590s, both in Scotland and abroad, not only looking for interesting events, but also to steep myself in the period – food, clothing, travel, money, politics etc – so that I could write as naturally as possible about it, without having to stop every ten minutes to check something.
Having decided on my focus, I then put quite a considerable time and effort into attempting to research in more detail the events I had chosen to include. But there came a point when I had to accept that if there was more detailed information out there I wasn’t going to find it, and so I contented myself with research into the generalities of witch-hunts and sieges of this period.
Do you use a mix of historic and invented characters in the novel? Which are more difficult to write? And do you prefer one over the other?
MS: The balance for me is very much in favour of historic characters, only my main family and a few incidental people are fictional. The difficulty or otherwise of writing about historic characters depends on the amount of information available about them. Often, as in my case, the job of a novelist is to put flesh on the bare bones of dates and times, and I approach this by seeking to remain as true to the period and to any known facts about a character as I possibly can. Do I prefer one over the other? I don’t think I do, I have fun with all of my characters in different ways. Perhaps if I was writing about someone very well-known I would feel more restricted.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
MS: For me there are two keys to this. The first is authenticity – it is impossible to claim accuracy when depicting an earlier era – 1) I wasn’t there and 2) sources, even primary ones, were written from a particular person’s point of view and therefore, by definition, flawed. However I do believe in striving for authenticity, in so far as it’s possible. Secondly, of course the quality of writing – the best research in the world won’t bring an era to life if the writing doesn’t match up. And an essential ingredient in both is the careful use of detail, as compared to an overload of information-dumping.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male rather than female characters. Do you pefer to write one sex or the other? If so, why?
MS: Discounting historical romances, a hugely popular genre in its
own right, that certainly used to be the case. However there has been a resurgence of interest in mainstream historical novels that focus on historic female characters. This is probably not good news for me as I definitely find it easier to write about men that women. (Not sure what that says about me… except that I was always a tomboy and so grew up feeling more comfortable around boys than girls.)
Thanks for answering my questions, Margaret, and good luck with your latest novel. Margaret welcomes visitors to her website and her Facebook page. Her books are available online on Amazon and other online shops. They are also available to order from any bricks and mortar bookshop in the UK.