Saturday, 3 June 2017

Diana talks to Margaret Skea

Hi Margaret, it is lovely to talk to you again. Thank you for doing the Diana talks slot this week!

First things first I am sure there is a question that you have always longed to be asked. Now is the chance. Ask your own question and answer it!

Q: Would you like to live in the century you write about?

A: Costume dramas give a romanticised view of life in earlier centuries and yes I’d like to wear some of the clothes and be part of some of the set pieces – Mary Queen of Scots’ arrival in Edinburgh for example. But life was only good for those at the upper end of the social scale and I’d probably have been a skivvy, and in that case, definitely not!

Your  latest book is  A House Divided . What made you choose this genre?

I grew up through the worst of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and so the issues surrounding living within conflict and the pressures that places on families, relationships and personal integrity is something that has always interested me. The folk in 16th century faced many of the same kind of issues, so in that sense I was writing ‘what I knew’ at least in emotional terms, substituting swords and dirks for guns and bombs.

How do you get ideas for plots and characters?

Most of my characters were real people, so for them it is a case of putting flesh on the bones, while remaining true to what is known about them. However, my main character and his family are fictional but it was a relatively simple matter to think myself into the middle of the real life conflict in which my novels are set and allow my characters to react to the situation playing out around them. In terms of plot, the historical context provides the framework, and key events are historic, so there are constraints, but it’s both fun and a challenge to work within them and still manage to develop unexpected plot twists.

If, as a one off, (and you could guarantee publication!)  you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?

I’d like to write a children’s book, that would become a classic, but I have absolutely no idea what it would be about, so I guess it won’t happen.

Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously.

I always wanted to write (didn’t we all?) but life, the universe and everything, in the form of marriage and children and so on, intervened. I was far too old when I started seriously – I wish I had done it 20 years earlier. I may not have enough time to write all the books I want to now.

Marmite? Love it or hate it?

Hate it, definitely. And all the derivatives. This stems from when I was about eight and going to swimming lessons in the evenings at an outdoor pool. We weren’t supposed to go home until we’d drunk a mug of Bovril. When I could, I climbed up to the top of the tiers of seating and poured mine over the wall into the sea below. But sometimes we were too closely watched and I had to drink it. Yuk! (Oh Margaret!! That has really made me laugh. I would have drank your share willingly!!!)

Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??

Chocolate, lots and lots of chocolate. Chocolate + ginger, chocolate +  mint, for preference, chocolate + cranberry (at a pinch) and when all else fails plain dark chocolate. And silence. 

I promise I won’t tell them the answer to this, but when you are writing, who is more important, your family or your characters?

I’m pleading the fifth amendment on that one – if you can do such a thing in the UK.

Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?

Toss-up between architect and antique furniture restorer.

Coffee or tea? Red or white?

Coffee. I don’t drink so it would have to be ginger beer (hot is rather nice, though the bubbles can go up your nose…)

How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?

I’m comfortable with a starting point and a finishing line, and allowing everything else to fall into place as I go along. But the last book I had neither start nor finish and that was tricky – the end I only discovered about 2 weeks before I wrote it.

If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?

Plain and simple – Galliard.
Not being familiar with Galliard (a source of shame for this letterpress seller,) I looked  Galliard up and find it a delightful font.
Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?

Some of Leonardo da Vinci’s original medical sketches.

Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head??? If so how did you cope with that!?
I like to give them some freedom, and often they make use of it – as long as they tell me why and where I don’t mind…

How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?
Don’t get me started! I LOVE research. And I was fortunate enough to get a travel grant from Creative Scotland to go to Germany in April to travel around all the main Luther related sites. – impossible to estimate the value of being there – fabulous.  (Respect!!)

Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?

Well, I’ve had readers requesting that I kill off certain characters, but I’m afraid history is history and the baddies don’t always get their comeuppance, however unfair that is.

Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?

I have sometimes tweaked the facts – the ages of a protagonist / antagonist for example – but if I do such a heinous thing I always own up in an author’s note at the end of the book. By then I hope the reader won’t care, no matter how much of a purist they are.

Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?

I’ve not had that problem – maybe because I am a bit OCD…

Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?

I’ve got a few (real) characters I cannot bring myself to like AT ALL. But they’re fun to write none the less.

What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?

Books that are atmospheric / descriptive / thought-provoking /or simply cracking good stories and when I just need to totally relax the old favourite children’s books – the ‘Anne’ series or Swallows and Amazons for example.

What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?


Last but not least... favourite author?

A definite pass, or you’d be here for a month – oh, ok then a starter for eleven – Rumer Godden, Daphne du Maurier, Winston Graham, Dorothy Dunnett, John Wyndham, Jane Austen, Douglas Adams, Dick Francis, LM Montgomery, Arthur Ransome, Gerald Durrell… fairly eclectic mix as you can see.

About Margaret:

Margaret Skea grew up in Ulster at the height of the 'Troubles', but now lives with her husband in the Scottish Borders.

Awarded the Beryl Bainbridge Award for Best First Time Author 2014 and Historical Fiction Winner in the Harper Collins / Alan Titchmarsh People's Novelist Competition for her debut novel Turn of the Tide, the sequel A House Divided was longlisted for the Historical Novel Society New Novel Award 2016. The third book in the series will be published in autumn 2017. She is passionate about well-researched, authentic historical fiction and providing a 'you are there' experience for the reader.

An Hawthornden Fellow and award winning short story writer - recent credits include, Overall Winner Neil Gunn, Chrysalis Prize, and Winchester Short Story Prize. Third in the Rubery Book Award Short Story Competition 2013, a finalist in the Historical Novel Society Short Story Competition 2012, shortlisted in the Mslexia Short Story Competition 2012 and the Fish Short Story and long-listed for the Historical Novel Society Short Story Competition 2014, the Matthew Pritchard Award, and Fish One Page Prize, she has been published in a range of magazines and anthologies in Britain and the USA.
New collection of short stories - Dust Blowing and Other Stories, including some of those from competitions mentioned above is now available. 

Margaret is also my hero for coming to my aid when I had a broken leg in Oxford. Not just once, but twice.    Thank you, my hero!

© Diana Milne January 2017 © Margaret Skea 26th May 2017





  1. Nice interview, Margaret, Diana. I enjoy the different ways individual authors think, plan, and execute. And the little quirks that make them unique. :)

  2. Gosh - what thought-provoking questions and deftly handled answers!Now about that brokend leg... ;)