I began by asking her:
You live in Scotland now but grew up in Ulster during the time of the 'troubles.' Did this in any way influence your writing?
Everyone knows the maxim ‘write what you know’. Growing up in Ulster during the worst of the ‘Troubles’ meant that living within a conflict situation was what I ‘knew’. We went to school, shopped in Belfast, travelled by bus and so on, not expecting to be killed, but knowing it could happen at any time. So I understand what it feels like to live with an ever-present danger, very much as it must have been for the folk I write about in 16th century Ayrshire. Looking back I also realize that although I had no desire to write about the ‘Troubles’ as such, in a way I’m telling a little of that story, but from a safe distance – through the perspective of a different place and time.
In Turn of the Tide, we are introduced to the Munro family. Can you tell us about your decision to use a fictional family - and did it give you more freedom as a writer?
When I began to write Turn of the Tide I was focusing on the Montgomery family and I wrote 70,000 words with Hugh Montgomery as the key character. Though it was helpful to have a framework, I found myself ‘constrained by truth’ and so one momentous afternoon I made the (scary) decision to ditch the 70,000 words and start again with a fictional main character, whom I could mould and move at whim. Of course I consoled myself with the thought that, as my new main character would be involved in the same key historical events, I would be able to re-use a lot of the original story, but it didn’t quite work like that, in fact I didn’t re-use any, because my perspective changed.
It was a positive experience though – I found the introduction of a fictional family liberating, and it did wonders for my editing skills - having thrown away 70,000 words, it’s not hard to cut out a thousand or two if they aren’t fulfilling a useful function!
A House Divided continues the saga - at what point did you know that this would be a series, and how did it influence the way you put the story together?
I always conceived of a series, right from the beginning of that early draft, so one main concern was how to finish Book 1 in a way that was appropriate as an ending in its own right and yet pave the way for the sequel. (My husband thought I might as well have written ‘ To be continued…’ on the final page) which I feel is a bit harsh. If Munro’s story had ended there it would have been in many ways justice. The second book A House Divided builds on the first, but it's pleasing to have several reviewers say that you don’t have to read the first to enjoy the second as i did want it to be capable of standing alone if necessary.
You've had a great deal of success with your short stories too - obviously the short story is a very different beast from a novel, particularly when that novel is part of a series. Can you expand a little on those differences and how you approach working in the different genres?
Short stories were my first love, though I haven’t had so much time for them recently, but I think they’re a tremendous training ground for writing a novel. Many of the ‘building blocks’ – character, setting, story arc and so on are the same, but there isn’t room in a 3000 word story for padding, so the writing needs to be especially tight and controlled. And that’s no bad thing in a novel either. Of course there is the issue of sustaining a story through c 100,000 words and a lengthy time span – I took two years to write Turn of the Tide, plus editing - and I have to admit that seemed very daunting to me when I first started. There is clearly a lot more of plot, character development and (in my case) research and so on required for a novel and preparing an outline I’m sure would help – I’m just not very good at that!
For Turn of the Tide I knew the opening and exactly what the final scene would be before I started, but nothing about the in-between, and for A House Divided I didn’t even know how/where I was going to end until a couple of weeks before I actually finished. Not the easiest or most comfortable of ways to work!
In contrast when I sit down to write a short story it’s usually in response to a specific spark of inspiration and I tend to write a first draft within a day, then leave it aside for a while (measured in days rather than months) and come back to spend another day editing it.
There are several that I’m particularly proud of and I hope to bring out a small collection of them this year including some of those that have previously won or been placed in various competitions.
You've promised us a third novel in the Munro series - will this be the last (or would you rather not say?!)
I have promised a third novel in the series - in fact I wrote ¼ of the first draft of that while on a writing fellowship in February / March of this year. However another story is jostling to get to the head of the queue and as it’s one that is tied to an anniversary, I suspect it will succeed. (Sorry folks! Munro will be back shortly.) I’m deep in research mode just now, so watch this space…
Your website says you are an 'ethical author' - can you tell us what this means?
The ‘ethical author’ concept is one that I found through the Alliance of Independent Authors. Basically it is concerned with putting the reader first and behaving professionally both on and offline, and involves agreeing to a set of specific principles. These can be found at Here and are well worth following.
Thank you so much for talking to me today Margaret.
Find Margaret on her Website
and on Facebook
and on Amazon or in the UK
Turn of the Tide: Winner of the Beryl Bainbridge Best First Time Author Award
Sequel - A House Divided - Long-listed for the Historical Novel Society New Novel Award 2015