Hi Marsali, and welcome to the March edition of Writing in the Sand, Accent on …
I hope all our readers are enjoying Mothering Sunday. And talking of mothers, Ghosts of the Vikings, book 5 in The Shetland Sailing/Cass Lynch Mysteries, was released in December. What was the inspiration behind the storyline?
Cass’s flamboyant opera-singer Maman is great fun, so I wanted to use her centre-stage. I also wanted to use Shetland’s Viking heritage, so when I began to think about a country house venue where Maman’s company could perform, I realised if I used the beautiful Georgian Belmont House as the setting, I could also include the nearby Viking site of Lund … The obvious skullduggery to go on around an archaeological site was buried treasure, and the story spiralled from there.
Exciting stuff! And when you wrote Death on a Longship, the first in the series, did you plan to write five or more books?
I did expect it to be a series, but I didn’t think about numbers of books … now I’m thinking ahead slightly more with each book. I’ve got the next three in my head – not the exact plots, but an overarching idea of where Cass’s emotional life and relationship with her policeman lover, Highlander Gavin Macrae, might go. It’s great fun following your characters over several books.
And I bet that even after so many books, they can still surprise you from time to time. Where do you write? And do you prefer to work in silence or are you happy to work with background noise?
I can edit anywhere – I often take work travelling – but for actual writing I need to be at my desk, in my small study at the upstairs back of the house, looking down the voe (Shetland sea inlet) so that I can abandon everything if it looks like a good sailing day, or conversely, check there’s nothing going wrong with my boat in her marina berth if it’s blowing a storm. I also look out over the school I taught in for 33 years, and find unusual noise from there very distracting – partly because my beloved tortie cat, Miss Matty, jumps up on my desk to see what’s going on. One snowy morning the entire nursery came out to make a snowman beneath my window, and they had such fun I gave up work entirely and just watched them! My husband, Philip, is a composer, also working from home, and we divide up our day so that each of us gets quiet time. Mine is until 11am; he’s allowed to do scales then, but not tunes, otherwise I’ll just be singing along in my head. We have coffee together at 11, then from 11.30 to lunchtime is his time, when he needs peace to sing out loud, clap rhythms and whatever else it is composers do when nobody’s listening. I muck out the stable, check on our two Shetland ponies, potter in the garden, go for a walk up the hill, take the boat out, or otherwise refresh myself for more writing in the afternoon.
Sounds idyllic. I do miss the New Forest ponies of my childhood, and spend a lot of time walking in the forest when I’m home for a visit – usually with a book in my pocket! When you’re not writing, what do you like to read, and where is your favourite place for reading?
I’m a voracious reader. I read in bed – a hang-over from a bowel cancer op that went horribly wrong is that I still need an afternoon lie-down. I review books for the e-zine Mystery People, which keeps me up with the newest in crime fiction, and I also love Golden Age authors like John Dickson Carr. I read favourite books several times, particularly when I’m tired or under the weather – any illness has me reaching for my shelf of well-thumbed Georgette Heyer books. I also enjoy the classics. My University degree was English literature, in the days when you started reading at Piers Plowman and went on until 1984, and now I’m catching up on authors I didn’t manage to read in those four years – I’ve just finished the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, whose women are so much more credible than any by Dickens. I’m also a member of a readers’ group, and we try to do something different each month: history, travel, biography, a classic, a modern prize-winner … our book for this month is Commander, the story of a real-life Jack Aubrey. Other ‘finds’ through the group are Kate Atkinson, Sarah Walters, and Ali Smith’s absolutely wonderful How to be both.
My goodness – voracious indeed! And what a lovely, positive way to pass the time when under the weather. So do you prefer physical books or an e-reader? And why?
Real books, definitely! Last summer’s reading project was War and Peace, and I bought a lovely Everyman edition, in three volumes, with clean, crisp pages, and a ribbon marker in each volume. I’d read several e-books just before that, and it was such a pleasure to go back to handling paper, and feeling In your hands how the story was progressing, and how many pages were left… oh, and not being annoyed by a machine telling you how fast you were going to read. However, e-books are great for otherwise unobtainable or pricey texts, like most of the wonderful Boney crime novels by Arthur Upfield, and for travelling, given that decent bedside reading lights are now a thing of the past – the horror of finding yourself in a strange room with a book that it’s too dark to read!
I’m a real book girl too, but I do agree with you that e-books can be very useful for travelling.Not that I can imagine you’d ever want to go far from home – you live in a strikingly beautiful area. The area and your passion for sailing, mysteries and drama must keep you well-supplied with plot ideas. If, for any reason you had to set your novels somewhere else, where would that be?
Oh, a difficult question. Shetland is where I know, though I could have Cass arriving in any port and becoming involved in crime there … the current WIP has her sailing from Kristiansand to Belfast, with an exciting scene in the Titanic museum -but for another series, I’d go into the past, I think. I have several starts. My first publication was a history of Women’s Suffrage in Shetland, so when It looked like I’d never get a publisher for Death on a Longship, I began a crime novel starring a suffragette detective. I’ve also written half of a romance about the Scottish Women’s Hospital, based on the diaries of an indomitable old lady I knew when I was a child. She went with the SWH to the Russian Front in WWI. She and the other drivers were all ‘surplus’ daughters of county families, and it was simultaneously the most terrifying and the most fun time they’d ever had. Between bombardments, gruelling journeys with a car full of wounded men and close-shave retreats, they flirted with dashing officers in Russian and French, wore breeches and were reproved by their leader, Dr Elsie Inglis, for swearing. They couldn’t drive in the winter months, so were granted leave, and came home via St Petersburg at the start of the Russian Revolution. I’ve also been working on a series of short stories set during the English Civil War, starring my childhood pin-up, Prince Rupert, and finding he was a much more interesting person than the dreamy-eyed Cavalier of his portrait – he went on to become a ‘privateer’ (= pirate), fought the Dutch, founded the Royal Society and the Hudson Bay Company, then at fifty, fell in love with one of England’s first actresses and retired to Windsor Castle. Mind you, at the moment, with the wind howling outside, I’m tempted to take the clever Jeffrey Siger approach: set your books in Greece, and live there by way of research!
Sounds like you’re a voracious writer as well as reader, Marsali! How did you come to join the Accent Press family? And what can we look forward to next?
It was my agent who found Accent Press. Death on a Longship was originally published by Attica, who went out of business just as I’d begun the sequel which became The Trowie Mound Murders. I was beginning to despair of being published again when I was diagnosed with cancer, and sent south for five weeks of chemo- and radiotherapy before the big operation. I’d just had my first dose of chemo (nastier than I want to describe) when Teresa phoned to say that Accent had offered me a contract. You can imagine what a boost that was!
A well-timed boost indeed. And a wonderful example of the power of positivity. And all these books later, do you have any book cover pics and Amazon links you’d like to share?
I love the new covers Accent has done for my Cass series. I have great fun posting pictures of Shetland and what I’m up to on my FB page, https://www.facebook.com/Marsali-Taylor-264232770329242/ and my Amazon author page gives details of all my books: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Marsali-Taylor/e/B0034PACI8/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1486418231&sr=1-2-ent
That’s fab! Now, Marsali, if you were locked in a well-stocked library overnight, what book would you choose to help you pass the time?
Overnight … you mean, to keep me reading all night? Riches! Well … Stehdahl’s Red and Black is on my to-read list … The Hunchback of Notre Dame … Richardson’s Clarissa is a wonderful psychological drama, and it’s several years since I read that … But there’s a proviso: I need to be allowed to take the book home with me, if I don’t finish it. There’s nothing worse than being told half a story! Fashionably modern writers who end on a cliff-hanger, please note: that’s THE way to ensure that however much I enjoyed your book, I won’t buy the next one, if I can’t trust you to tell me a whole story. But having gone for the classics option, is it a really well-stocked library? Because there are four modern-set Georgette Heyers which are long out of print, and silly money on e-bay, that I’ve never read, as well as several Joan Aiken thrillers, and two John Dickson Carrs I’ve only read in French … If I really tried I might manage to read them all in one night!
And I’m sure they’d let you borrow what you hadn’t had time to finish! Finally, is there anything you’d like to tell readers about yourself which might surprise them?
Oh, I love surprises! Well … I may write like a mean and cunning murderer, but my gorgeous Miss Matty thinks I’m her mother, and when I have my lie down she cuddles into the crook of my arm like a nursing baby, and sucks my jumper. I stroke her tummy and tell her how clever she is, while Philip mutters ‘.. and how spoiled.’ Oh, and I start each day with ten minutes of belly dancing, wearing a coin belt; the cats know it’s breakfast time when the jingling stops!
Goodness! I’d better not let my cat read this, or she’ll be demanding pre-breakfast entertainment! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Marsali. I’m looking forward to finding out what mysteries Cass has to solve in your next book.
And as for this blog … well, next month there will be another Accent On … But before then I promise to catch up with my rather late post about this month’s Emirates Lit Fest!