FORMER Kelso lecturer Margaret Skea is hoping that an ancient Ayrshire vendetta could prove the catalyst for a new career as a full-time novelist.
Last year, her debut novel, The Turn of the Tide – set during the Ulster plantation period – scooped the top spot in the historical fiction section of the prestigious Harper Collins/Alan Titchmarsh People’s Novelist Competition 2011.
Although pipped at the final post for the main prize of a guaranteed publishing contract, Margaret is now hoping her novel will still be published and it is currently under consideration by an agent.
The Turn of the Tide garnered glowing plaudits from such high- profile judges as Jeffrey Archer and Penny Smith, with bestseller author Lord Archer describing the quality of Margaret’s writing and her research as “outstanding”.
It was while growing up in Bangor in Northern Ireland, that Margaret kindled her lifelong passion for books and reading.
So keen was she, in fact, that she made use of the unwanted library tickets her family were entitled to, plus her own, to take out 15 books every week from the local library.
“I started alphabetically, so I took out 15 books from the A section and if I found one I liked, I would then read everything in the library by that particular author,” Margaret told us.
“Eventually I’d move on and repeat the exercise in the B category and so on, right through to the Z section when I was in secondary school.”
Margaret devoured everything she could get her hands on when it came to books and when her older sister started at university, Margaret, by then in junior year of secondary school, started reading big sister’s university texts as well.
Although a native of Ulster, Margaret has lived in Scotland for the past 25 years, working as a lecturer in English and communication studies, as well as tutoring adult creative writing classes. The remainder of her time has been spent between the emergency fostering of children, running a bed-and-breakfast, church-related voluntary work and writing.
Her first writing successes came in short story competitions and other work has been published in magazines and anthologies in Britain and the United States.
Her aim now is to become a full-time professional writer and she’s hoping that The Turn of the Tide, will provide her stepping stone to that longed-for writing career.
“I’ve always loved reading, ever since I was little,” Margaret explained. “And I’ve always scribbled. When I was at school it was mostly poetry. Then, somehow, and I don’t quite know why, I moved sideways into short stories as an adult. The first successes I had were with short stories.”
When Margaret won a short story competition for Women & Home magazine, which was for unpublished writers, she was introduced to a literary editor in London who advised her to go home and write a novel.
“I thought ‘I can’t do that’. My comfort zone was 3,000 words,” said Margaret. “So I came home and kept doing short stories for quite a number of years.
“I got some more published, won some more competitions, but never quite had the courage to try a novel.”
That all changed about three years ago, when, according to Margaret, various circumstances conspired to give her more free time.
“And at the same time, kids we’d been fostering for quite a long time moved on. So, rather than looking for another job, I decided now was the time to have a go at writing the novel that I should really have started some years earlier.”
All the short stories Margaret had written up until that point had been contemporary fiction – but not so her novel.
“I don’t know why, but I decided I was going to write a historical novel. It is a period of history I am quite familiar with because I did a PhD in linguistics in the dim and distant past and part of the research for that was the Ulster plantation period.”
The plantation of Ulster began in the 17th century when English and Scottish Protestants were settled on land confiscated from the Gaelic Irish.
“And while I was actually researching that period I found a little footnote in some family papers about a feud, called the Ayrshire Vendetta, which ran from about 1440 until about 1625, when it was finally healed between the families involved,” said Margaret.
“One of those Ayrshire families became one of the major planter families in County Down, which is why I was looking at them. I just kind of got fascinated by that particular vendetta and that particular family.”
Margaret then wrote a 70,000-word manuscript. But when discussing it with someone else, they made what she called the “radical suggestion” that instead of having the main historical character and his family at the centre of the story, Margaret would probably find it quite liberating if she took one of her other very minor characters, who at that stage only featured for about two pages – around 300 words out of 70,000 – and write it from that person’s viewpoint.
“So I took my 70,000 words and reduced them to 3,000 words within a week and started again basically. Although I kept the background of the vendetta and some of the main key points within that, it is now around 80 per cent fiction and I am much happier with that.”
The book took more than three years to write, but the finished product could almost be considered as Margaret’s second novel as she had already finished it once before rewriting it.
“Essentially the novel is about living within conflict situations. Yes, it’s very firmly 16th century, but so many people around the world are living in conflict situations with the same dilemmas and difficult choices. Do you go for truth, justice, or what is expedient in terms of keeping your family safe?
“I guess because I grew up in Ulster through the Troubles, conflict is not new to me and I kind of tapped into my memories of what it was like living in a conflict zone. And I think that has as much resonance for now as it did for then.”