I’m very pleased to welcome Margaret Skea, with a guest post and extract from her new book, Katharina: Deliverance, which is released today. Happy release day, Margaret, and over to you….
Sidetracked into a different world (and time).
So there I was, in March 2016, fresh from a month on a Hawthornden Fellowship – an all expenses stay in a 17th c Scottish castle with nothing to do but write. We were very well looked after – cooking, cleaning, clothes washing and so on all done for us – the only ‘rule’ a rule of silence in the castle from 9.00am – 6.30 pm. That, and the surroundings, made for an incredible work environment and having gone with heaps of research material, but not even the most sketchy plan for my next novel, I came home, after seventeen days of actual writing, ¼ of the way through Book 3 in my Scottish historical fiction series. It seemed my next nine months were taken care of.
The best laid plans ‘gang oft agley’ as they say here. A couple of weeks into March I headed down to London for my first visit to London Book Fair. The buzz was energising and I managed to get individual appointments with several agents and agencies, hoping that someone would be keen on Scottish HF – after all, Outlander was proving popular…
However, it seemed that historical fiction about real, but minor and unknown Scottish lairds wasn’t going to be an easy sell. Several agents, by way of a pleasant chat (I assumed) asked me what I was thinking of writing next. I mentioned a particular historic figure and received several positive nods, but nothing more.
Imagine my surprise a few days later when I heard from two agents who both were interested in my ‘next’ project – not my current Scottish one. That posed a problem, well, let’s be honest, two problems.
1) I knew nothing about said historic character except that she existed, and
2) They emphasized that as there was an important related anniversary coming up in 2017, if I was going to write about her it had to be right away.
Which is how in March 2016 I took the difficult decision to set aside my ¼ written Munro Book 3 (hoping I would be able to pick up the threads at a later date) and began researching Katharina von Bora, Martin Luther’s wife. But as I quickly found out, there was a reason I knew nothing about her. Because there isn’t a lot to know. Not in terms of concrete, verifiable evidence at any rate. There is debate about her birthplace and parentage; about the reason she was placed in a convent at age 6 and moved again at 10; about why she and eleven others eventually escaped, in the first mass break-out from a convent following Luther’s teachings. Only a handful of her letters remain, and of those only one contains any personal reference, and that only amounts to one paragraph. Not much to go on, then. Perfect for a novelist you might say. Well, no. Not exactly. Not, that is, if your passion is for authenticity in your writing, as mine is.
By this time, though, I really did want to write about her, so failing much documentary evidence, I took myself off to Saxony to ‘follow in her footsteps’ and hope by so doing to ‘find’ her. Two weeks and 1000 miles later, I think I have done. Or at least a version of her that fits with the known facts and provides plausible possibilities, and to judge by early reviews readers are convinced also.
Katharina: Deliverance, the first of two novels based on her life, released on October 18th is already appealing to both historians and readers of quality historical fiction alike.
Do I regret striking allowing myself to be sidetracked? Not at all. I’ve loved ‘finding’ and writing about Katharina, and look forward to working on the conclusion of her story next year. In the meantime, though, I have a publisher deadline for the Book 3 of the Scottish series, so I need to step forward in time from 1525 Germany to 1598 France to pick up where I left the Munros.
Lippendorf, February 1505
‘It is very shameful that children, especially defenceless young girls, are pushed into the nunneries. Shame on the unmerciful parents who treat their own so cruelly.’
Curled into the window seat, I press my face against the rippled glass, watching the trees bending and straightening before the wind, as the townsfolk do when Duke George passes through the market square. Above the trees, clouds pile, black on black, and I shiver. ‘The rain is coming.’
Klement, standing behind me, whispers in my ear, ‘The giant is coming. His footsteps shake the track leading from the woods. Soon he will reach us and…’ He grips my shoulders, shaking me.
Hans leaps up from his chair, shoves Klement backwards. ‘Stop it!’ And to me, ‘It’s only thunder, Kat, and cannot touch us here.’
Another rumble, louder than the last, and with it a distant rattle, like a cart on the cobbles in Lippendorf. The sky darkens, sucking out the light, Klement hissing, ‘And darkness was over the earth from the sixth until the ninth hour…’
Hans glares at Klement again as a jagged line of light splits open the sky, the accompanying crack frightening. I cross myself and shut my eyes until the noise fades, then peep between my fingers and see the rain spiking onto the ground below the window, churning the semicircle of path that curves to our door into a river of mud. The tree outside the window is blackened and a curl of smoke struggles upwards against the falling rain.
Klement is triumphant. ‘See? Next time it will be…’
‘Shut up!’ Hans spins round, claps his hand over Klement’s mouth. ‘Listen. There’s a carriage coming. Can it be Father?’ His voice has a catch in it that sends another shiver through me. ‘Anna said…’
Klement is at my other side, mischief forgotten. ‘Anna is a gossip. We shouldn’t pay too much attention to what she says.’
I tug at Hans’ arm. ‘What did Anna say?’
He pats my hand, shakes his head. ‘Nothing. Klement is right. It is but gossip and likely nonsense.’
We all crane to see as the carriage rolls to a stop, sending a wave of water arcing towards Anna, drenching her skirts as she waits in the open doorway. There is another flash of lightning as our father emerges and, holding the carriage door, reaches up to hand down a woman dressed in a burgundy cloak, her face shadowed by the broad brim of her hat. The padded velvet top is studded with pearls in the shape of a swan, its wings raised as if poised for flight.
‘Rich, I suppose,’ Hans says.
She hesitates on the carriage step, as if reluctant to soil her shoes in the mud, then, with a flash of ankle, she lifts her skirt and, holding onto our father, leaps the puddle between the carriage and the threshold of the door, slipping as she lands. He keeps his arm around her waist even when she’s steady again.
I catch a glimpse of a silver buckle and shining leather, just like our mother’s shoes she wore on Sundays going to Mass, and my stomach aches. ‘Who’s she?’ I ask. ‘And why’s she with Father?’
‘The wicked stepmother, I presume,’ Klement says.
‘Hans?’ I jiggle his arm, but he stares at the floor, shrugs.
Anna appears, her voice husky as she sends the boys downstairs. She shakes her head at me when I go to follow. ‘Not you, miss. I’m going to tidy you up first.’ She fusses at my dress, running her hands down the skirt, straightening the girdle, tugging at the sleeves. Her grip on my hair is firm, the comb strokes rapid, the teeth biting into my scalp, but when I put up my hand to stop her she slaps it away.
‘Ouch,’ I say, hurt as much by her uncharacteristic brusqueness as by the action itself.
She sets the comb down and turns me to face her. ‘Be good, Kat. Try to behave like a little girl, not a hoyden.’
‘For Frau Seidewitz. She’s…’ She takes a deep breath, the huskiness back. ‘She’s to be your new mother.’
Margaret Skea grew up in Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles’, but now lives in Scotland. Her passion is for authentic, atmospheric fiction, whether historical or contemporary. An award-winning novelist and short story writer, her credits include: The Beryl Bainbridge Award for Best 1st Time Novelist 2014 (Turn of the Tide), and longlist in the Historical Novel Society New Novel Award 2016 (A House Divided). These novels are the first two in a series of Scottish historical fiction following the fortunes of a fictional family trapped in real events in the 16th century. Her short stories have won or been placed in many competitions, including: Fish, Mslexia, Winchester, Rubery and Neil Gunn.
She is now back to working on the third novel in her Scottish series and hopes to have it and the conclusion of Katharina’s story out next year.
Sixty-five miles away, at Erfurt in Thuringia, Martin Luder, a promising young law student, turns his back on a lucrative career in order to become a monk. The consequences of their meeting in Wittenberg, on Easter Sunday 1523, will reverberate down the centuries and throughout the Christian world. A compelling portrayal of Katharina von Bora, set against the turmoil of the Peasant’s War and the German Reformation … and the controversial priest at its heart.