Saturday, 22 April 2017

Reading the Past – Imagine the Future

Tomorrow, I fly to Kirkwall to take part in Monday's launch of the Scottish Library promotion Reading the Past – Imagine the Future, which is part of Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology

It’s always a pleasure to return to Orkney, and to my friends at Kirkwall Library in particular, who have been great supporters of the Rhona MacLeod series, but this event also has resonance for this year's Bloody Scotland crime writing festival.

In a chance encounter with James Crawford (publisher with Historic Environment Scotland) last August in the EIBF author’s yurt, we chatted about the possibility of a 'Bloody Scotland' book of short stories by twelve of Scotland’s leading crime writers, which would celebrate the 2017 Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, each story featuring one of Scotland’s historic and iconic built locations. I loved the idea and promptly offered to write a story set in Orkney.

With its inimitable Professor of Criminal Psychology Magnus Pirie, Orkney already stars in two of the books in my Rhona MacLeod series: in Paths of the Dead, when a body is found in the Ring of Brodgar,  and more recently in None but the Dead, which takes place mostly on Sanday. So I jumped at the chance to weave a story featuring Magnus for the collection.

My choice of location was Maeshowe, the 5,000 year old burial mound, known in old Norse as Orkahaugr, and I took this quote from the wonderful writings of George MacKay Brown as my inspiration:

 In my Orkahaugr story, Magnus solves a cold case from the time when the Vikings were making their mark in runes on the inside walls of Maeshowe.  

The book also features stories by Val McDermid, Christopher Brookmyre, Denise Mina, G J Brown, Ann Cleeves, Louise Welsh, Lin Anderson, Doug Johnstone, Craig Robertson, E S Thomson, Sara Sheridan and Stuart MacBride, all of whom explore the thrilling potential of Scotland's iconic sites and structures.

The book will launch at the opening night of Bloody Scotland in September this year, but you can pre-order on Amazon now.

The Bloody Scotland 2017 festival programme will launch on June 1st in Stirling, and on 6th June in London.

We have a magnificent line up for readers this year, with fabulous and unique events, which you could only find at Bloody Scotland.  So, remember to sign up for the Bloody Scotland newsletter to be the first in the know.

And of course watch out for tweeting from Kirkwall Library on Monday afternoon around 3pm, where we celebrate, at one of the best libraries and archives in Scotland, how important libraries are to our country’s history and heritage.


Related Links:-

Pre-order the Bloody Scotland collection of short stories on Amazon

Order Lin Anderson Rhona MacLeod series books on Amazon

Friday, 10 February 2017

Scottish Crime at a Confluence of Cultures

There are 14 million people living in Kolkata, and around 5 million living in the centre of the city. The Kolkata Book Fair is the biggest in the world, with 2.5 million people visiting it to buy books as well as to attend the festival events.

It’s hard to believe those numbers until you step inside one of the numerous entrances and see the hoards of enthusiastic readers who throng the multitude of bookshops. Indians love reading and all age groups were in the packed book tents.

My favourite memory was of a boy of about ten who had chosen his book from a selection of classics. Clutching it to his chest like a prize possession he was approaching the pay desk with a broad smile on his face. The book he had chosen was Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott – not the easiest of reads in English for any ten year old, but Indians love the classics as well as contemporary fiction.

Many people speak five or six languages including English. In India there are 1000 languages spoken. A melting point for different cultures, Kolkata is the most diverse city I’ve ever visited. Its inhabitants are aspirational and see reading as the doorway to knowledge about everything.

We were involved in three events at the festival. Jenny Brown our Bloody Scotland Chair spoke at a translation event. Crime books are very popular in India in particular Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. However we did spot books by Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith too.

The aim of our visit was of course to promote Bloody Scotland and Scottish crime writers in general. At our second event, Bloody Scotland took centre stage with Doug Johnstone and myself plus two Indian crimewriters, Monabi Mitra and Krishnendu Mukhopadhyay, chaired by Jenny Brown. It was a lively and well received event. We even managed to teach them a few words in Scots.

The third event I was involved in was entitled Who Are My Readers.  The six person panel included Egyptian lecturer and writer Khaled Alkhamissi, Vivek Shanbhag who writes in Kannada (one of India’s languages), poet and dramatist Nishi Chawla and Natalie Holborrow from Wales who is a poet.

It was chaired by Denes Gazsi, Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Languages at the university of Iowa.  It was a fascinating discussion during which I learned that over 75% of people in Egypt are under 25 years of age, all potential readers.

As well as the festival itself, Doug and I were involved in the British Council outreach programme. We visited the Shri Shikshayatan Girl’s school where we gave a talk to seventy eager readers. I can honestly say we’ve never had such informed and searching questions about being a writer and how to tell stories.

Like Scotland storytelling is very much a part of the Indian culture. At the end we were treated to the Indian version of Auld Lang Syne, beautifully sung by the girls… I think Robert Burns himself would have been delighted.

Perhaps my most abiding memory will be of our Confluence Of Cultures walking tour of old Calcutta. Kolkata has witnessed many more cultures in its past than most other cities have in our globalised present.

Communities of Chinese, Parsis, and Armenians who gave the city its oldest surviving Christian church, live alongside Anglo-Indians, Muslims, Marwaris, Biharis and the many more that made this city a great melting pot of diverse cultures.

One interesting fact I learned was that India was the only country that did not persecute the Jews.
It was these immigrants that made this great city bringing their knowledge, skills, literature, and cultures to make Kolkata the City of Dreams.


Hashtags: #KLF17 #KLF2017 #BloodyScotland

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Bloody Scotland goes to India

Thriller writer Doug Johnstone and I are heading to the 4th Kolkata Literature Festival 2–4th February 2017 to promote Scottish Crime Writing,  and in particular the annual Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing Festival which takes place this year in Stirling 9th-11th September 2017.

Kolkata Literature Festival is a relatively young literature festival that takes places within the folds of the International Kolkata Book Fair (world's largest book fair), to celebrate the written word, and the different facets of it – publishing, story telling, theatre, documentaries to name a few.

Doug and I will be accompanied by Jenny Brown, Chair of the Bloody Scotland committee, and the trip has been made possible by a partnership between the British Council and Creative Scotland

Former Bloody Scotland Festival Manager Dom Hastings, who now works for the British Council,  will meet us there. We look forward to seeing a reciprocal visit by Indian writers to our Bloody Scotland festival in a future year.

I have never visited India before, although both Jenny and Dom have, for various festivals and book trade fairs. I have however lived in the tropics, having worked for five years in Northern Nigeria, alongside other expats from the Indian subcontinent. In fact when I began my writing career it was with short stories set in this setting in Nigeria. So I’ll be looking for inspiration during my Kolkata visit.

I am at present thoroughly enjoying the detective novel, A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee which is set in Kolkata (Calcutta) in 1919. Abir, a London based Scot has already appeared at Bloody Scotland to great acclaim and I would highly recommend his novel which won the 2014 Telegraph Harvill Secker crime writing competition.

We have individual author events and a Bloody Scotland event at the festival, and will be reporting our experiences on social media (main festival hashtag is #KLF17).

Related links:-

Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival

Kolkata Literature FestivalKolkata Book Fair

Monday, 30 January 2017

'The Bridge' without a bridge: FOLLOW THE DEAD
Although my home village of Carrbridge is in the Spey Valley, I’ve never set a Rhona MacLeod novel there until now.

When my children were young they spent a great deal of time on Cairngorm with the Cairngorm Ski Club, in all weathers I might add. Me, not so often, and usually only when there was little wind and the sun came out.

The idea for the book came to me on Hogmanay 2015 when the whole family was back at home in Carrbridge, and since we don’t have a TV, we were playing daft games while waiting for ‘the bells’ at midnight.

I suddenly imagined what it might be like to spend Hogmanay on Cairngorm in a blizzard and what might happen there and thus the story was born.

I was helped in my research by Willie Anderson, Leader of Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team, and many of their amazing stories of survival and death in what is Scotland’s Arctic. The truth is far stranger and more wonderful than anything we can create in fiction.

The forensic side of the investigation led by Rhona is always for me the most fascinating aspect of the story. Holidaying in Aviemore where Sean is playing a Hogmanay gig, Rhona joins Professor Charlie  Robertson, former colleague and pathologist who’s part of CMRT, to investigate a downed plane on frozen Loch A’an.  CMRT being the first onto any scene of death on the mountain, are resposible for the initial forensic examination. What Rhona and Charlie find is not what they expected.

I knew shortly after I began Follow the Dead that the case would be a joint investigation with Norway. Five years ago I was asked to give a talk at the Edinburgh Film Festival about Nordic and Tartan Noir.

I had always known of the close connections between Norway and Scotland, mainly because I lived and worked in Orkney for a time and the idea of a joint investigation fascinated me. Think of  The Bridge but without the bridge ... just miles of North Sea.

I contacted the Norwegian Consulate in Edinburgh and they put me in touch with the Cultural Centre in Stavanger who in turn set up meetings with Stavanger Police Force. I flew to Stavanger from Aberdeen, a short hop of 50 minutes and spent four days there.

Police Inspector Egil Erikson and his team couldn’t have been more helpful and as a result, the character of Police Inspector Alvis Olsen in Follow the Dead was created.

Pre-order on Amazon

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Would you recognise your own son? - How a crime series began with DRIFTNET

The boy did not expect to die are the opening words of Driftnet, the story that launched the Rhona MacLeod series. It opens with Rhona, a forensic expert, arriving at a murder scene only to find that the teenage victim looks so like her, she thinks he may be the son she gave up for adoption seventeen years before.

University of Glasgow, where Rhona is based

At the time of the Dunblane school massacre (where 16 primary school pupils and a teacher were shot dead by Thomas Hamilton), I was a computing teacher in a secondary school in Edinburgh. When the terrible news reached my school, all anyone on the staff wanted to do was take their own children home.

I too had a small child in the adjacent primary school, but couldn’t take him home, because there was an after-school event for staff on the subject of child protection, and there was a social worker from Glasgow coming to talk to us.

That talk included information about three paedophile rings they suspected were working in Glasgow, and how these rings had just found the Internet.

That terrible murder of children, coupled with that lecture left an indelible mark on me.

Two other things combined with that memory to create the story of Driftnet.

My father (already deceased) had been a CID officer in Greenock police force. He had three daughters who he worried about a lot. One big fear was that he might turn up at a scene of crime and discover one of his daughters was the victim.

The third and final influence which helped create the story, was the revelation around that time that former MP Clare Short had had a child she gave up for adoption. She revealed this when her son came looking for her in his thirties.

Rhona finds out quite quickly that the boy is not her son, but the fear that he might have been drives her to start searching for her son. It also makes the death of the teenage victim seem more personal, and Driftnet sees her search for her son and the killer run in tandem.

Original cover for DRIFTNET

The killer is watching her, as much as she is seeking him, and the clash of her personal and professional lives created the character Rhona MacLeod.

I had no idea when I came up with that premise and character that Driftnet would be an immediate best seller, and would be the first in a series now running to eleven books and a novella, with the the twelfth book Follow the Dead now available for pre-order on Amazon.

I often think that Rhona MacLeod found me, rather than the other way round.


*** Promo from 17th April 2017 for limited time:  Buy Driftnet on Amazon for 99p / $1.21 ***


Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Deadlines and how to survive them

All writers have their own methods of writing.  One question I’m most often asked concerns ‘to plan or not to plan’. My method is not to plan.

I visualise an opening which intrigues and frightens me. Something bad happens, and the team arrive to try and figure out who and why. Hence, you the reader know a little more of the initial circumstances than Rhona and the team.

Then the investigation begins. Like all investigations there are twists and turns and false leads and people screwing up, being tested, often found wanting. Like a jigsaw, pieces are spotted and sometimes they fit. Often not.

As I progress the investigation through the team’s eyes, ideas arise. I do the research and more ideas come. Like life, the deeper you delve, the more complex the result.

I like this way of working. It makes telling stories exciting, and if I don’t know the answer to the riddle by page hundred, neither will you.

The first chapter of the first novel in the series, Driftnet begins with the sentence, ‘The boy did not expect to die’. The opening scene came to me in a visual form. I wrote it down and it never changed.

After that the story formed itself.

Each of the Rhona books happened that way, right through to the latest None but the Dead set on the island of Sanday on Orkney. Some are inspired by things people have said, or stories they’ve told me.

With None but the Dead it was the story of the discovery of thirteen muslin flowers in the loft of an old schoolhouse. The image sparks the story, the ending of which I do not know… yet.

And I’m back there now. Working towards what my friend and fellow crime writer, Alex Gray calls ‘the red fog of the denouement’.

This will be the first book in the series to visit my home area. When my father retired from the police force he took his family north to settle in Carrbridge. My three children were born here. I’m back here seeking to meet my deadline.

En route to the finale, the team (like myself) have gone from the top of Cairngorm to Stavanger in Norway. A joint investigation between Police Scotland and Politi- og lensmannsetaten informs the story.

When I wrote that opening all those months ago I had no idea I would end up in the middle of the North Sea. That’s the wonder and thrill of a real (and fictional) investigation.

Once in the final section of the book, everything you’ve written, all those twists and turns you’ve made, must be held in your memory. The world of your characters becomes your world. They are with you always, their voices in your head, often reminding you of what they know, and what you’ve forgotten.

Eventually the story comes together because, as every story is a character in action, so those characters determine the ending.

I like to believe that my characters will save me. If I remind them often enough that we are working (like any good thriller) against the clock, then they will come up trumps.

Okay… it’s worked up to now.

And so, back to meeting that deadline.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Bob Moore: 2016 Golden Spurtle World Porridge Champion (Video)

I had the great please of acting as MC for the 2016 World Porridge Making Championships in my home village of Carrbridge. The winner was Bob Moore, of Milwaukie, Oregon, USA, and you couldn't have had a more worthy and deserving winner.

Watch this lovely video by Fergus Thom of highlights of Bob's big day (you might even catch a few glimpses of me and Craig Robertson) ...

Related links:-

The Golden Spurtle
Competition Rules
Carrbridge website
CNN film of 2013 Golden Spurtle
Mary's Meals - World Porridge Day 
Crime Writers Do Porridge