Thursday, 26 September 2013

Pride of place

I am presently waiting to hear back from my editor and my book cover designer, after which I will be thrown into frenzied activity in order to publish No Stranger to Death in November. So now is the time for a relaxing trip around the Scottish Borders as I share with you some locations which helped me write my first novel.

My answer to that old chestnut 'Where do you get your ideas from?' can often be a literal one: from a place. On seeing an interesting building or view, I ask myself, 'What can I make happen here?' or think, 'That would make a great setting for . . .' This is partly down to a weakness on my part: as I wrote No Stranger to Death I learnt that despite being able to conjure up people and plots from nowhere, I struggle to invent settings. Also, if I have a place in my head, I find it far easier to write the scenes which happen there.

Thanks to the internet, we can all observe Greek islands, the Grand Canyon, even the Antarctic without stirring from our desks, but if possible I prefer to experience a place first-hand, to hear the sounds, smell the smells and spot the little details that will give my writing authenticity. The Borders is a boon to writers and artists (which is probably why so many live here) because the region is packed full of inspiring places, large and small, natural and man-made.

Here are just a few examples of real-life places that have found their way into my book. And no, I’m not sponsored by VisitScotland but I think that as an ‘incomer’ I’m possibly more excited by what I see than people who have grown up surrounded by all this loveliness.

I first saw this building several years ago before it was made into a lovely home. It used to be the stable block of a much bigger property, and formed the basis for the coach house which my main character, Zoe, is having converted. But will she ever move in?

This house was my inspiration for Larimer Hall, where Zoe’s unwelcome suitor, Neil Pengelly, lives with his brother Peter. In my book, Zoe can see the Hall from an upper room in her coach house; in reality several miles separate the properties.

This is Kelso town hall as seen from the window of Zoe’s favourite café. Actually I’ve cheated; there is no café there, just a tiny branch of Boots. And why does Zoe keep going there?

Many graveyards in the Borders are not adjacent to churches but on the outskirts of villages. This is the pretty entrance to a small graveyard which serves the village of Leitholm, on which I based much of my fictional village, Westerlea. Zoe attends a rather eventful burial here.

When Zoe is taken by her friend Kate for a fish supper in Eyemouth, the first thing she sees when she gets out of the car is Gunsgreen House which, Kate tells her, was built by an eighteenth-century gentleman smuggler. Later that evening, they bump into the people Kate blames for two recent deaths, although Zoe isn’t so sure.

I've already started preparing for the follow-up to No Stranger to Death by finding some more great locations. But first I need to get this book published . . .

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


I love the idea of #WordlessWednesday: a blog post consisting of just a picture. So here's my first. It is a preamble to my next full post, where I'll be talking about Borders locations which have inspired my writing. Here is one of them.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Can you make the trees more threatening?

I've already blogged about briefing Kim McGillivray, my cover designer for No Stranger to Death. Well, this week I got to see the concepts he has come up with. And no, the illustration above isn't one of them. At Kim's suggestion, we met at the recently refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, which currently has a glorious exhibition of men in tartan. Our First Minister may eschew the kilt, but in past times notable Scotsmen did not.

Under the gaze of several non-kilted, famous Scots (the Gallery's cafe is, admirably, an extension of its display space) Kim took me through his creative process. He has read the entire novel in order to pull out large elements he might explore visually, such as trees, winter and fire. He was also looking for small details, like the owl that Zoe, my main character, watches as it swoops down in front of her to catch a mouse.

I am endlessly fascinated by how other writers work, so I very much wanted to see an artist's approach to generating ideas. To my surprise, I suppose because I expected him to think in images, Kim's initial output was in words. Then, after narrowing down possibilities he started sketching his ideas out.

He presented me with three concepts: two representational and a third which concentrated on capturing the mood of my novel. We looked at paperback-sized printouts of each of these, then moved to his laptop to see them as they would initially appear online, as thumbnails. Immediately, the ‘mood’ cover jumped out at me. Even in its infancy it was great. Then Kim put it up on the screen alongside the thumbnails of published book covers I had sent him. 
It looked fantastic. To say I was stunned would be like saying Agatha Christie sold a few books. Suddenly No Stranger to Death was no longer just words in my head!

Having agreed on the concept to go with, Kim and I then discussed details of the design. The title of this post is just one of my requests he has now gone away to put into action. We also agreed to include a teaser, a small detail on the cover, the significance of which will only become clear at the end of the book. It would be unfair to Kim and not do justice to the work he has put in to show you this early version of my cover, but here’s the title and, gulp, my name. See, he has even managed to incorporate some turquoise!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

You don't know what you don't know

The evidence never lies, Nick

Mark Billingham tells a story about sharing a festival stage with a pretentious literary writer who spoke at length about how she felt her characters’ presence when writing and how they, rather than she, dictated the story. When the spotlight turned on Mark, he explained his own creative process thus: ‘I just make shit up’.  

I’m certainly of the making-shit-up school, but sometimes my imagination needs to be augmented with solid facts. I’m a big fan of research, not just because I don’t like to get things wrong, but because of what I call the ‘You don’t know what you don’t know' principle. While fact-checking, I regularly learn something completely different to, and often more interesting than, what I set out to discover. This happens most often when I involve people, rather than books or the internet, in the process. Here are three examples of how the YDKWYDK principle has helped me in writing No Stranger to Death.

CSI: Scotland
Writing my first novel started with a single idea: using a village’s Guy Fawkes bonfire to dispose of a body. This idea also presented me with my first challenge, to find out the extent to which that body would be destroyed. This was many years ago, when I was a mature student at Edinburgh University, so I made an appointment to meet with someone in the Forensic Medicine department. It was the first time I ever used the ‘I’m writing a novel and need to know . . . ‘ line which I’ve used many times since. Feeling sure they would assign me a student to speak with, I was amazed when it turned out the head of the department had made room in his diary for me, and then overawed when he told me he was used to talking to writers, in fact he often advised Ian Rankin!

This lovely man was so generous with his time and advice. The effect of fire on the human body, he told me, depended on many factors. He offered to show me photographs, but seeing the look on my face, thought better of this. Then he suggested the victim could be wrapped up in something like a carpet, because ‘that way she would be baked rather than burned’. Needless to say, I have used this, and I took great delight in having one of my character ghoulishly describe the dead woman as ‘Chrissie en croute’. In addition, as I got further into the novel, I realised wrapping her in that carpet provided yet another twist to my story, and solved a plot problem which had worried me for some time.

Who do you think you are?
I remember how I got the idea of a body in a bonfire: at a village Guy Fawkes party. But what on earth possessed me to make Kate Mackenzie, my ‘Dr Watson’ character, a genealogist? This was a job I knew nothing about. So, although Kate’s work isn’t vital to the plot of No Stranger to Death, I thought I should at least know what she would have on her desk and what she would spend most of her time doing.

I emailed a genealogist based nearby to find out if she would allow me to ask her a few questions about her job and we agreed to meet at the M&S café at Berwick (oh the glamour of being a writer!). She made genealogy sound fascinating and deserving of so much more than a bit part in my stories. 
They'll never take . . . our freedom!

I learnt that many Americans, while keen to prove they have British ancestors, would much prefer to find they are of Scots descent over English. Apparently, some of them also like to believe they’re related to William Wallace, the 13th-century fighter for Scottish independence, but they have a bigger chance of being related to Mel Gibson, who played him in the film Braveheart! This gem set my pen scribbling, and is now a line spoken by Kate. I’ve also come up with a way of giving Kate’s job a far bigger role in Book Two.

Fight club
During my recent edit of No Stranger to Death before sending it to an external editor, I realised a scene where my main character Zoe Moreland fights off an attacker didn’t work. I rewrote it several times but it remained unsatisfactory and over far too quickly. John saw from my face that things weren't going well and asked me what was wrong. I tried to explain the problem, and the next thing I knew we were acting it out. Without the weapon, I hasten to add. And as soon as we did this, I knew how Zoe would instinctively act and how her attacker would try to prevent her from escaping. Better still, I came up with yet another way to obey this valuable piece of writing advice: think of the worst thing that can happen to your character, then make it even worse.

There is, of course, a downside to research: it can be far too enjoyable and distracting. When I’m struggling to write an awkward scene, it’s easy to kid myself that looking at pictures of tattoos or reading about the derivation of Scots words is a legitimate part of my creative process. Research is up there with Twitter when it comes to being a time-suck for writers, but also like Twitter, it can introduce us to people and experiences with the potential to enhance our writing and our lives.