I’ve worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and university lecturer. I took early retirement and now live in Glasgow. My wife and I visit the Hebrides and Estonia regularly. Before retirement, my writing was mainly academic work. In 2013 I edited (as well as co-authored) M. Lamb, J. Macmillan, & A. Martin, Bute Connections, Rothesay, Bute Natural History Society(a collection of biographies of historical figures connected to Bute). Since then I’ve concentrated on writing fiction.
1. How did you get started writing?
I’d written various bits and pieces (e.g. two school pantomimes when I was a teacher) and plenty academic stuff, but it was only when I took early retirement that things took off. Now I could focus on what I really wanted to write. To start with that was history. I did some family history, and then things relating to the history of Bute. Then I thought about fiction.
2. What drew you to write a novel?
We visit Islay regularly, and seeing the remains of the World War Two airbase triggered the idea of a novel related to it. I wrote the first draft of The Peat Dead without any idea of whether it was any good or not. It was only when my wife Vivien, who’s an honest critic, said how impressive she thought it was, that it became real.
I was then lucky enough to have it assessed by a published author through the Xpo North Emergents Programme. That was very encouraging and also gave me some good practical advice, a key point being to cut out 40,000 words! I had to sacrifice some beloved characters and scenes, but I learnt the lesson that you’ve got to focus on the plot and keep it moving. And that the first draft is only the first draft.
3. Which writers past or present have influenced your style of writing?
I’ve not consciously modelled my writing on anyone (I don’t think many authors do), but I guesslots of writers I’ve read have shaped my writing in one way or another. As a teenager I read Agatha Christie, Dennis Wheatley and Sax Rohmer, so they may be in there somewhere (though I’ve managed to resist writing about puzzle-solving amateur sleuths and oriental criminal masterminds). Eric Ambler probably influenced my mixing of crime, history and politics in the plot. Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios is a brilliant mixture of all three, as well as a powerful evocation of the atmosphere of the late 1930s. Lots of others will be in the mix too, as I do a lot of reading; I think all of your reading shapes what you write. Writers I’ve read more recently and very much admired are Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Peter May.
4. When you first started writing did you find it hard to get publisher interest?
I didn’t think seriously about getting The Peat Dead published until I came second in the Bloody Scotland Pitch Perfect event in 2016. Then I wrote to agents and publishers, and got plenty of polite refusals and even more total non-responses (‘If after six months we haven’t responded, please assume we’re not interested’). So you can imagine how excited I was when the lady from ThunderPoint said yes!
5. There are many interesting characters in your Novel, do you have a particular favourite one?
Angus Blue is the lynchpin of the book. He’s the one I started with, and he drives the investigation from start to finish. He has a strong moral sense: he believes in right and wrong rather than law and order. Justice is for him a moral imperative rather than a legal quibble. He has passions, but keeps them below the surface. And there’s a tragedy back there too. He is a team player, and builds a small team, each member of which has a distinctive character. There are lots of other characters in the book too, and I wanted each one to be different, and real. If the next Inspector Blue novel is published, there are characters who will return and who will need to be developed further, starting with Angus Blue himself.
6. What kind of research have you have to undertake for your Novel?
The plot and the characters are all my own. But the action has to take place in a plausible context. The locations on Islay are known from frequent visits. There are some very evocative places too which I wanted to include because they add to the sense of the past never being absent from the present.
One or two little tweaks were necessary in the service of the plot. I had to add a cafe to the museum, create a fictitious distillery, and transform the police station from a small bungalow into an Edwardian villa.
Distilleries are an important part of Islay’s identity, as well as its economy. Angus Blue tries a different Islay whisky most nights. You can imagine that this necessitated many hours of careful tasting! I had to select the right whiskies, and describe the tastes as I experienced them. There’s only one fictitious whisky in the book, but Blue doesn’t get the opportunity to try it.
The plot hinges on historical events during World War Two. The airbase is real, but the events that happened there in the book are made up. However, some historical research was needed to make sure that the main events might have happened. The level of secrecy was so high during the war that, who knows, maybe they did happen!
Regarding police procedure, we are fortunate to know a retired detective who had worked in, among other things, the Vice Squad, and their advice on the activities of the police officers was very useful.
7. Are the characters in your books based on any real life?
All the characters I create are I guess drawn from my take on real life. However, only three minor characters are based on specific real people, and they are very positive characters. I should stress that no character in the book is based on anyone resident on Islay.
8. Do you have a particular favourite scene in the book and why?
Not one particular scene, but there are several which I particularly enjoyed writing. The car chase (on an island!!) and Blue’s conversation with his reporter friend about the possibility of aliens being involved. I also surprised myself when I read some of the scenes in which older people remembered the distant past and found how moving they were. But I’ve just been reading a recollection of Wilkie Collins that on checking over a manuscript he reached a part so moving that he wept, and had to rewrite the page as his tears had caused the ink to run.
9. Do you see any of your characters personality in yourself and vice versa?
I think it would be a dishonest writer who did not admit that their own personality had been invested somewhere in their books. But we have to look through the eyes of each character, and so I suspect every character has got a tiny bit of us in them. I would of course like to be like Angus Blue. We all have our fantasies!
10. If you can, would you give us a sneaky peak into any future novels you might planned.
I’ve written the first draft of a second Angus Blue novel. It’s set on Jura. A cabinet minister is shot outside his mansion. But when Blue and his team try to investigate, they find themselves hampered by political policemen, who want to cover up what’s been going on at the house, and replace the truth with a fake narrative. Blue travels to England, Ireland and Germany before the truth behind the events on Jura emerges. That involved more research, including a visit to a small town on the Polish-German border.
The third one is still in the planning stage, but it will involve an Estonian woman, married to a Scot and living in Oban, who disappears on a visit to family in Estonia, and whose body is then found floating in Lake Peipsi. Blue works with local police to uncover some murky deeds harking back to the country’s communist past, and linked to dodgy goings-on in Scotland.
The reason I chose Estonia is that we go there regularly, so know the country quite well. I’veeven attempted to learn the language. I’ve translated a closed room mystery published in 1937 from the Estonian, and am currently working on a second novel by the same author (Elmar Valmre). It’s hard work, but very satisfying.
Finally, continuing the Estonian theme, I’m working on a crime novel set in 1930s Estonia, a small newly-independent country trying to forge its own identity. A senior policeman falls from a viewpoint in central Tallinn and is impaled on a flagpole. Chief Inspector Hallmets investigates, whilst two journalists develop their own take on events, and get sucked into them. Is this a new genre: retro-Baltic Noir? This book is involving us in some interesting historical research. It was weird to actually stay at the same hotel where DCI Hallmets stayed (in the book) some eighty-odd years ago.
11. If you had the opportunity to write a novel with any writer alive or dead, who would it be and why?
That’s a scary prospect, as I suspect the best writers aren’t good at working together, they’ve got too many of their own ideas, and their own writing style. It would have been interesting though to spend a week observing Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald at work.
12. Do you have words of advice you can share with anyone who is interested in writing a novel?
No published author is short of such advice!
a. Don’t stop reading. It’s what you’ve read that makes you the writer you are.
b. Find the genre you’re happy with. And you own voice. Don’t try to emulate your favourite author.
b. Write regularly. It doesn’t have to be the same hours each day, but writing eighty or ninety thousand words is a big job and you have to keep at it. And even if you just get a few hundred words done in a session, you’re making progress.
c. Find a First Reader: someone you can trust to read your work carefully, and give you honest and constructive feedback.
d. Expect disappointments, setbacks and rejections. But don’t give up.