Thursday, 4 May 2017

Guest Post: Su Bristow on the writing of SEALSKIN

This week, novelist Su Bristow shares with us the mechanics and mystery behind the writing of her debut novel, SEALSKIN.

What happens when magic collides with reality?
Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous ... and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives - not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence?
Based on the legend of the selkies - seals who can transform into people - Sealskin is a magical story, evoking the harsh beauty of the landscape, the resilience of its people, both human and animal, and the triumph of hope over fear and prejudice. Rich with myth and magic, Sealskin is, nonetheless, a very human story, as relevant to our world as to the timeless place in which it is set. And it is, quite simply, unforgettable.

Su Bristow: Hi Jane, and thank you for the invitation to write a guest post for 52 Ways To Write A Novel.

My debut novel, Sealskin, came out in February this year, published by Orenda Books. Does that qualify me to talk about how to write a novel? Of course not! All I can do is tell you how I wrote this one. The process will certainly be different next time; for a start, Sealskin took years to write. I don’t think I’ll ever match your speed, but it won’t take quite so long the second time around. I’ve learned – I hope! – a thing or two along the way.

But I do have a day job, so writing happens when other things don’t. And a lot of the process, for me at least, happens when I’m not sitting at the computer. Bits of plot fall into place, characters develop, and whole passages of dialogue unroll themselves while I’m walking, or gardening, or driving; anything that doesn’t need full concentration. The actual word count doesn’t tell anything like the whole story.

That’s true for most people who write, of course, but I gather it’s quite unusual not to have blizzards of post-it notes around your desk, or time-line diagrams, lists of characters and so forth. All of that was inside my head until I actually came to write it down. Is it more or less efficient that way? Well, I did try writing notes now and then, but I never looked at them again, so they were pretty much redundant.

Author of SEALSKIN: Su Bristow

However, Sealskin is a retelling of a legend, so the basic structure of the story was already there. I knew how it started and how it ended; my job was to colour in the picture, add some twists and turns, and make sense of the huge moral anomaly at the heart of the story. For those who haven’t come across it before, the story comes from the west coast of Scotland, and it tells how a young fisherman witnessed a marvel one moonlit night: nine seals came ashore, took off their skins and became young women, dancing naked on the beach. He hid one of the skins, so that one of the selkies – as they are called – could not go back to the sea, and he ‘took her home to be his wife’.

And there’s the problem. Is this really a sweet, sad, romantic tale? It’s usually told that way, but the selkie woman has no choice, and certainly does not consent. She mourns for her lost life, and when the chance comes to return to the sea, she does not hesitate, even though, by then, she has human children whom she has to leave behind. As a younger woman, I might have told it as another example of how women can be used by men, tricked into servitude for sex, domestic labour and childbearing. But these days I’m more interested in how people find their way through the traumas that life deals out, and how getting it wrong at first can teach us, if we’re willing, how to get it right for ourselves and for others. After all, I’ve spent most of my working life helping people to do just that.

So I decided to tell the story from the point of view of Donald, the young fisherman. How did he come to do this dreadful thing? And if he came to regret it and tried to make amends, how would that work? I told it in deep third, so that we are always inside his head.  That was partly because Donald himself – at least at first – has trouble seeing things from other people’s point of view, but also because I wanted to follow his emotional and spiritual journey as he slowly, painfully, begins to grow up through his love for Mairhi and his desire to atone for his crime. There is no omniscient narrator: we see the way people change through Donald’s own eyes, and through what they say and what they do. And as Mairhi herself never speaks – or at least not in words – we have only her actions to give us clues to her inner life. Like Donald, we have to learn to interpret what we see and experience. Showing, not telling, was definitely the name of the game.

I won’t say too much about the twists and sub-plots in the novel, for those who haven’t read it yet. But as I arranged it into the short chapters that some people have commented on, I had in mind the action of waves on the shore: most of them small, only changing things a little, and from time to time a bigger, more dramatic one, that leaves the landscape different and sometimes almost unrecognisable. Each wave brings something, and takes something away. Land and sea are joined in an eternal dance. They can’t be united, but there is mutual dependence. That’s one of the major themes of Sealskin, played out through all of the characters in the book.

Thanks for those insights, Su! 

I very much enjoyed reading Sealskin, and can see why it has capitvated so many readers. 

Don't get concerned about your way of working though. Some novels I've written have required complex timelines on whiteboards - mostly multiple point-of-view historicals - while other novels, like the psychological thriller I finished writing today, had nothing down on paper except a 2-page synopsis from which I strayed quite far at times. The notes happened in my head. 

So it may be down to the book in hand. Not necessarily a process we choose, or one which is good or bad, or more problematic than any other, for instance, but a response to the task we set ourselves when we write the first line of a new novel.

Best of luck with your next project! - Jane


‘An extraordinary book: original, vivid, tender and atmospheric. Su Bristow’s writing is fluid and flawless, and this is a story so deeply immersive that you emerge at the end, gasping for air’ - Iona Grey

‘An evocative story, told with skill and beauty, that held me spellbound until the very last page’ - Amanda Jennings

Sealskin is the most exquisite tale of love, forgiveness and magic. Inspired by the legends of the selkies, this gorgeous novel is a dark fairy tale, an ode to traditional storytelling, a tribute to the stories we loved hearing as children. But be warned – this is no happy-ever-after tale. The language is just glorious, poetic and rich but precise. And her characters – oh, they will remain in your heart long after you’ve closed the last page. Mairhi – especially since she never really “speaks” – is a beautiful mystery, but one who haunted me when I was between chapters. If this is her first, then I can’t wait to read whatever Su Bristow bestows upon the literary world next’ - Louise Beech

Buy Sealsin on Amazon here:



  1. What a lovely post. I have Sealskin on my TBR pile and I'm hoping to get to it very soon.

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