A month in a seventeenth century castle with no internet and barely any phone signal might not be everyone’s idea of a break, but it could not be more perfect for historical novelist Margaret Skea.
Kelso writer Margaret found out last week that she had been selected for the prestigious Hawthornden Fellowship, which means that she will be put up at Hawthornden Castle, near Bonnyrigg, with nothing else to do but write.
“It’s perfect for me,” she said, “there’s actually a rule of silence between 9am and 5pm, and people take care of your cooking, cleaning, everything.”
Margaret recently published her second novel, A House Divided, a follow-up to her debut, Turn of the Tide. She has chosen to explore the world of 16th century Scotland, a time of bitter feuds between major families that carried on for generations.
Margaret, who grew up in Ulster at the time of The Troubles, says that once she had decided to try writing a novel – after more than 20 years of producing successful short stories – she knew she wanted to explore such times.
“I wanted to write about the effects of conflict on people, families and relationships.
“And perhaps it’s easier to write about that through 16th century Scotland rather than something I’ve lived through.”
Even though she knew the story that she wanted to tell, Margaret still ended up making a drastic decision.
“I had started, and got up to 70,000 words using hugh Montgomery, a real, historically known person, as the main character,” she said, “but it wasn’t really working.”
“I was becoming too bound by the constraints of truth,” she went on. “And I was stuck until someone suggested using a fictional person as the main character.
“So, I did, and I ended up keeping just 3,000 of those 70,000 words.
“But after that, the story just flew.”
With the follow-up, Margaret found that she had the opposite plotting problem to her debut.
“With the first book I knew the final scene before I started, but I didn’t know the ending at all the second time, although the second book was a lot easier to write,” she said.
And Margaret already knows roughly how the third book in her series will go.
“I’m looking into the next 10 years or so of the period,” she said, “looking for a point where there is sufficient historical evidence to hold the fictional characters that I have created.
“Hopefully I’ll have the framework ready before Hawthornden, so that I can really work it up while I’m there.
“I’m also in a pool of writers volunteering with the Scottish Book Club, which provides writing mentors for teenagers.
“The pairing up depends on the type of writing the young people are doing, but there is a pool of 12 writers so far who are interested in it.
“I like to give presentations locally on historical matters and writing, and I go into schools to give talks as well, so it’s a very exciting time for me.”
Margaret’s novels are available from Grieve’s Bookshop in Berwick and Mainstreet Trading in St Boswells, and can be ordered through Amazon.