The day that changed my life almost happened without me. I was having lunch at the swish central London offices of Good Housekeeping magazine with the other finalists of their First Novel competition.
We’d just been treated to a whistle-stop tour of Orion Publishing’s stunning headquarters on Victoria Embankment – it was an amazing experience, and I could only gape in awe as we stood on the roof terrace and took in the incredible views over the city.
At the same time, I was uncomfortably aware of the money I’d spent travelling down from my home town of Inverness at such short notice. What on earth had I been thinking?
I’d only entered the competition at the last minute, and never expected to hear anything more about it. But there I was, one of the ten finalists.
As I sat there smiling, I doubt any of the others could tell I was fighting off a vicious migraine.
I wished I’d managed to eat more than half a slice of toast that morning. Wishing I hadn’t got lost en route, and arrived looking cool and together instead of pink and flustered. Wishing I didn’t feel quite so out of place amongst all the other finalists who looked like they had “soon-to-be-successful-authors” stamped all over them.
I’d written a couple of short stories that had done quite well, but actually having a novel published? That was just a dream.
My nerves started to kick in and I was about to make my apologies and leave, when the three prize-winners were announced in reverse order. My heart sank as the two runners-up were named – they received new laptops as prizes, and I was desperately in need of one at that point.
Oh, well…and then my name was called.
Luigi Bonomi, the literally agent who’d chosen the winning entry, was calling my novel Shadow Man “gripping” and “darkly humorous”. I could hardly believe my ears.
I had won? I was in my early 50s but my life was about to change.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur. I was so shocked, I couldn’t tell my husband or my daughter – all I could manage was to text them a row of emojis.
Incredible as it seemed, my Inverness-set crime novel with a very unlikely hero was going to be published. And someone was actually going to pay me to publish it!
If you’d told me when I was at school that one day my words would appear in a real book, I’d never have believed it.
We had very little money when I was growing up and my father was a harsh, controlling man, so my brother and I didn’t have the best childhoods.
But our parents believed in the value of reading and education, and I’ll always be grateful to them for instilling my love of reading from an early age, and introducing me to the wonder of libraries – all the books you could ever read, for free! Even then, I enjoyed making up stories. English was one of my favourite subjects at school, and I loved creative writing. But writing as a profession? Doing it for a living? It was never something I seriously considered.
School led to university, a disastrous early marriage and a job as a civil servant, until my mother’s sudden death brought me back to Inverness with my second husband, to care for my now disabled father.
At the time, it felt like the end of the world. A return to a life I’d escaped years before, with new responsibilities I didn’t want but felt duty-bound to shoulder.
With a challenging new job in a mental health security unit, my writing became more of an escape than ever.
And it was only through the gentle prodding of my second husband, Martin, that I found the confidence to enter my short stories in a couple of competitions. Martin was unfailing in his support – and winning the Good Housekeeping competition meant I could finally start to justify his belief in me.
Since then, my life has changed out of all recognition. My first DI Mahler novel, Shadow Man, was published by Orion in 2017, with the second book in the series, What Lies Buried, coming out in paperback this October.
I’ve gone from suffering crippling social anxiety to being able to talk at crime-writing festivals, in this country and abroad, and I even hosted best-selling author Denzil Meyrick at an event in Inverness last week.
As an ambassador for Birchwood Highland, the mental health charity I used to work for, I’m able to talk about the invaluable work they do to a much wider audience.
I now write full-time, and I’m slowly getting used to the idea that I’m someone who writes books for a living – even if I do still sometimes think it’s all been a dream!
What Lies Buried by Margaret Kirk is out now in hardback, ebook and audio from Orion and the paperback will hits the shelves on October 17
Margaret Kirk, author, from Inverness