The ‘You are There’ Experience

It is a privilege to welcome award-winning author Margaret Skea as my guest today. She gives us a unique take on the subject of settings in her historical novels, so sit back and enjoy the journey.

PortraitFirst of all, thank you, Jane, for inviting me to your blog.

Two historical novels and several awards later, I still find it hard to believe, and even harder to say, ‘I’m an author’ when someone asks me what I ‘do’.

But ask me about ‘setting’ in fiction and I hope you have half-an-hour to spare, for giving the reader a ‘you are there’ experience ranks highly amongst my many writing ‘passions’ and I’m never short of words on that topic.  Not because it was easy for me.  Quite the reverse.

My first (and best) advice to any other fledgling writer is always, if at all possible, to visit the locations they want to use. Probably not too difficult if you’re writing contemporary fiction, but rather more tricky, time-travel aside, when writing about historical characters in 16th century Scotland. The county of Ayrshire still exists, but not the Ayrshire I need to depict. Some features of landscape remain relatively untouched – the hills haven’t moved, though it appears from early maps that the coastline has.

Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 15.42.37The early maps are beautiful, as this section from Timothy Pont’s map, reproduced in Blaeu’s Atlas of Scotland, shows, but not the most reliable, for the process of map-making was still very much a work-in-progress. Inland, towns and villages have sprung up to mask the original terrain, woods have been cut down, fields enclosed and marshes drained. Roads have cut across valleys and even rivers may have changed course and lochs silted up, so that it can be hard to imagine the Ayrshire of the 1580s and 90s.

Turn of the Tide, my first novel, opens with a well documented Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 15.20.38historic massacre at ‘the ford of Annock’ but it’s no longer possible to establish the site of the ambush with any degree of certainty – it’s likely it’s been swallowed up in modern Stewarton, and when trying to choreograph the event all I had to go on were a couple of sentences –‘the Cunninghams assembled to the number of thretie-four… and concealed themselves in a low ground near the bridge of Annock … all of a sudden the whole bloody gang set upon the earl and his small company …’  This summer, as it happens, I’ve been asked to meet up at Annock with some members of the Clan Cunningham Society of America and I know they harbour hopes of seeing the massacre site, but the best I’ll be able to do will be to walk a stretch of the river with them and hopefully provide a sense of what it would have been like waiting for the opposing clan to appear.

‘Place’ was an extremely important concept in 16th century Scotland – men were often referred to by the name of their home rather than their surname. The fact that many of the relevant castles no longer exist, nor can their exact locations be pinpointed, was another very real problem for me, both practically and emotionally, as I tried to think my way into the heads of real people, without the clues that their own environment might have provided.  Take Braidstane, for example, where Kate Munro and her children live in A House Divided.  From the Montgomery Manuscripts I know that Braidstane was ‘in the bailliary of Kyle in the county of Ayr’, but no trace of the tower remains.  Admittedly that gives me lee-way – for the sake of the story Kate can live in a bastle house associated with the main tower, whether or not one actually existed there, and I can conveniently imagine a gable window facing whatever direction I please, but fiction writer or not, I’d happily have traded in those advantages for a glimpse ofScreen Shot 2016-02-06 at 15.49.20 the real thing.  There are some stumps of castles of the right scale, but there’s a world of difference between standing within the crumbling remains of a tower house and imagining what it must have been like to live there.  (Photo

Fortunately small-scale 16th century tower houses were little more varied in layout than those in the average modern housing scheme, usually conforming to one of several basic designs, the most popular being rectangular, L-shaped, or Z-shaped. Plans are readily available – in fact Nigel Tranter, aside from his prolific fiction output, also produced an illustrated five volume series – The Fortified House in Scotland, which happily my local library had in stock. But the choice of decoration, and evidence of the placing of amenities such as the kitchen range and garde-robes (the 16th century equivalent of en-suite) would have provided welcome insights into the individual tastes and characteristics of my characters and have helped to transform them into living, breathing people.

dreamstime_l_25845345Screen Shot 2016-02-06 at 15.58.11The tower houses in my novels are amalgams of many that I’ve visited, both ruined and complete. There are however three ‘real’ towers that were particularly important to me. ‘Greenknowe’, featuring on the cover of A House Divided, a ruin with most of its outer walls remaining, is a typical tower of my period, built in 1581.  Its near neighbour, ‘Smailholm’, is almost 100 years older and simple in form, but complete. Although unfurnished I could count the stairs between each floor, time myself running up them and feel how out of breath I was by the time I reached the top. I could perch in a window reveal and see the ground stretching away below me and hear the wind howling down the chimney. It is set in a rugged, untouched and utterly atmospheric landscape, and as it, like the others, is within easy reach of my home, I was able to experience it in all weathers. The third goes by the interesting name of ‘Fatlips Castle’ (don’t ask) which, though semi-derelict, retained a beautifully decorated timber ceiling, similar to the one shown here. If you think that the austerity of the exterior of Scottish tower houses was matched by dull interiors, think again.

margaret skea

It was easy to set scenes in royal palaces, such as Holyrood House and Stirling Castle (now beautifully restored, including the original ‘Stirling Heads’ and their painted replicas pictured below). However, the key characters’ homes I designed, as I might a modern ‘kit house’, with elements chosen from all the available authentic options, in order to best satisfy the needs of both setting and story.

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Margaret’s webpage:

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A House Divided, Amazon UK

Turn of the tide Card 1 copy 2

Turn of The Tide:  Amazon UK




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10 Responses to The ‘You are There’ Experience

  1. Jane Risdon says:

    Wonderful blog and love the photos and descriptions. I always take photos of locations and they spark idea. Your photos are wonderful, and I can imagine the pictures you convey with your writing. Lovely. Wishing you much deserved success. Thanks for hosting Margaret.

  2. Tom Winton says:

    Excellent interview, Margaret and Jane!

  3. gerrymccullough says:

    What a fascinating subject you picked for your article, Margaret! I love the explanation of how you worked on the description of the various places where your characters lived and how you were able to imagine yourself there by going to real places which still exist. The pictures, also, added such a lot. Thank you for this, and thanks, Jane, for posting it.

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