3 Challenges to writing historical fiction – by Margaret Skea

Margaret Skea  has written several historical novels – her most recent being Katharina: Fortitude, a sequel to Katharina: Deliverance, both based on the life of Martin Luther’s wife. She grew up in Ulster at the height of the ‘Troubles’, but now lives with her husband in the Scottish Borders. Thanks for being on the blog, Margaret.


The Katharina books have been the most challenging of any I have written to date, on several counts.

Firstly, my passion is for historical authenticity – providing a ‘you are there’ experience for the reader.  Now, of course, they aren’t there and neither am I, but I want readers to be so immersed in the period and the story that for a time they forget the 21stcentury and feel as if they are. One of the keys to that is extensive and rigorous research. Along with lively and cinematic writing.

(Note: I use the term authenticity because I don’t believe historical fiction can ever claim to be accurate, except in terms of names and dates and so on, and even they can sometimes be a matter of debate.)

So what should we do when sources disagree, or even worse don’t say anything at all? Which was exactly the case when I started researching Katharina von Bora, the subject of the two books set in the heart of the Reformation in Saxony, Germany.

She was clearly an influential character – she is the only reformer’s wife of whom we have a portrait, in fact a famous painter of the day, Lucas Cranach the Elder, painted her numerous times and many museums across Europe still hold portraits of her to this day.

And yet there is debate over her parentage and place of birth, and no concrete evidence of the reason why she was placed in a convent at the age of 5, nor why she was moved again at around 10.  There is no verified information, although it is possible to make an educated guess, but no more than that, of how Luther’s writings were smuggled into the convent, triggering her desire to escape, along with eleven others, in the first mass break-out following his teaching.

Even after her marriage, when we have lots of information on what she did, we have no direct information as to why. So how did I go about the task of writing a credible account of Katharina, in the face of such shadowy and insubstantial evidence?

As regards her character, I had to work backwards, both from comments that are made about her by others, and via thinking through what kind of person she must have been to act as she did.  Fairly early on in my research into the Luther marriage, I began to make connections between the interaction of Martin and Katharina, as evidenced in the one-sided correspondence that has survived – we have many of `Martin’s letters, but very few of Katharina’s – and what I remember of the relationship between my maternal grandparents. That felt like a break-through – I now had a model for Katharina that gave me a basis from which to work.

The second, critically important challenge, was how to develop a ‘voice’ for her, that would be both distinctive and in keeping with the little we did know. Normally I write in 3rd person past tense and I started out with that intention here too. But in an attempt to ‘find’ her voice I started to write random snippets in 1stperson present, fully intending to discard them once I felt she was comfortably lodged in my head. Instead, I found that once started, it seemed appropriate to continue.

1st person present is a difficult pov and tense to sustain over the course of a novel, it is very easy to make mistakes and so one entire edit was devoted to checking for pov slippage and any lapses into the past tense. But it gave an immediacy and a vibrancy to the text that helped to breathe life into Katharina and a sense that the novel is her story.

As a result, I now think of it almost as Fictionalised Autobiography, if there can be such a category, though, of course, what readers experience can never be anything other than my version of her. I hope I have done her justice.

And finally, because of the scant and fragmentary nature of the evidence that did exist in relation to her early life, I knew I needed to find a structure for the first novel that would hold it all together. And so, again in a first for me, I wrote a dual time-frame novel introducing key points in her life through flash-forwards to her last three months. That worked easily in Katharina Deliverance when large periods of time required to be bridged, but became much harder to sustain in Fortitude, not least in the decisions of where and when to break up the more coherent narrative.

So, three main challenges and each of them a steep learning curve. I hope I am a better writer as a result.

In honour of the release of Katharina Fortitude, it is on offer at 99p / 99c Now’s the time to grab a copy – or if you’re in KU you can read it for free, but please, please can you do so before the end of August as I’ve entered it in the Kindle Storyteller competition and would love to make the shortlist and get it on Mariella Frostrup’s desk (BBC Radio 4 presenter of book programmes). You would all help to make me a very happy camper if I could get there.

At the moment I am at #11 in Christian Historical Fiction and 12 / 15 in 2 other sub-genres. I think I need to get into single figures in the rankings, so any purchases or pages read will be immensely valuable, as will reviews – also an important part of the algorithm.

Katharina: Fortitude by Margaret Skea ~~ Eagerly-awaited conclusion to Katharina Deliverance – Runner-up in the Historical Novel Society New Novel Award 2018.

‘We are none of us perfect, and a streak of stubbornness is what is needed in dealing with a household such as yours, Kat… and with Martin.’

Wittenberg 1525. The unexpected marriage of Martin Luther to Katharina von Bora has no fairytale ending. A sign of apostasy to their enemies, and a source of consternation to their friends, it sends shock waves throughout Europe. Yet, as they face persecution, poverty, war, plague and family tragedy, Katharina’s resilience and strength of character shines through.

While this book can be read as a standalone, it is also the powerful conclusion to her story, begun in Katharina: Deliverance.

‘Beautifully written and meticulously researched – historical fiction at its best.’ BooksPlease

If you like your historical Fiction to be authentic, immersive and packed with drama, this book is for you. Grab a copy today at the introductory price of 0.99


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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4 Responses

  1. Fascinating revelation on how to develop an important historical character when there is so little direct information to hang your tale on. Thanks for the insight into your process.

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