MJN: As a native born Scotsman, you write novels that are set in your home country. It's not secret that Scotland has been a source of fascination for authors all over the world. There are ethnic purists out there who will tell you that only a native Scotsman can write an authentic Scottish novel. As a Russian-American writing about Irish history I run into that sometimes. "Why don't you write about your own people?" What is your attitude towards non-Scottish authors setting their novels in Scotland?
SL: I honestly don’t believe that a person’s background, or nationality, should matter a great deal in regard to what they write. If the books are written with a passion for Scotland I have absolutely no issue with people from abroad setting their novels here, after all you don’t have to be a murderer to write murder mysteries (fortunately).
I do find it slightly jarring though when authors mention something incongruous such as animals native to North America scurrying through the Scottish countryside. One instance of this was a recent book I read which mentioned Raccoons scampering around the Scottish woods! Things like that can be an unnecessary distraction, but I wouldn’t consider it justification to make the claim that only native-born people should write books set in their homeland. It comes down to doing your homework. If you know what you are writing about it doesn’t matter if you are from New York or Edinburgh. You don’t have to be there to write about it. If that were the case there would be no science fiction unless written by NASA astronauts. No war novels unless written by combat veterans, and no historical fiction unless the author first invented a time machine!
MJN: You have a rather voluminous series of novels featuring a character Robert Young. What is the genesis of that character? Is there a real life person behind the figure? Is he your alter ego?
SL: Robert, along with his wife Euphemia, have appeared in six novels now, but first appeared in a series of short stories set in my hometown during the years of occupation by the forces of Oliver Cromwell during the 1650s. The stories were written for the amusement of the ladies of a Bible study group I attended with them. They enjoyed these connected tales and encouraged me to write more. I had to produce a fresh short story on a weekly basis to keep them happy, which was fun.
When I first decided to write a ‘proper’ book I knew the characters so well that it made sense to bring them along with me. The main change was to move them forward a hundred years in time and relocate them from Fife to Edinburgh. The movement in time to the 1740s was largely down to my own love for that period and its familiarity to many readers. It was a conscious decision though to not place Robert either in one camp or the other regarding to the Jacobite rebellion. He, like most others, simply wanted to avoid being dragged into the dispute between German Geordie and the Old Pretender.
As for the history of Robert Young of Newbiggin himself, I suppose I have to confess that he wasn’t based on anyone in particular other than using my father’s Christian and middle names. The title ‘of Newbiggin’ was also a nod towards my father as he grew up on Newbiggin farm. I needed a name when writing the first short story, and so my father found himself being volunteered. As far as I know he hasn’t investigated any murders in Edinburgh though!
As for being my alter ego? I think there is an element of wish fulfilment for every writer with their characters. They say and do things we would never dare do ourselves. And Robert Young gets the chance to walk the streets of Edinburgh while it was still a cramped, smelly city before the expansion of the New Town and the march of progress which leaves us with the city we now know, and love. I enjoy being able to share the old city alongside him.
MJN: Some of your novels like A Pound of Flesh and A Capital Crime run rather long - 130-140K words. I believe there are certain industry-set standards for novel lengths in various genres. Do you ever set a limit to how long any given novel will be?
SL: I don’t set an upper limit to how long a book should be. I work on the premise that a novel should be at least 80,000 words. If people are parting with their hard earned cash then I want to know that I am giving them value for their money.
A Pound of Flesh is the longest of the books so far, while the others have all come in at around 110-115K words. I think that each book is as long as it needs to be to tell the beginning, middle and end of the story. There is nothing worse, in my opinion, than scenes which you feel have been included simply to pad out the book and lengthen it. Again that is purely a personal opinion and no doubt some readers will find certain domestic scenes within my own books as being superfluous, but they are all there for a reason.
MJN: The cover art on your novels is reminiscent of 1970s horror film aesthetics. Are you aiming to evoke a certain pang of nostalgia from your readers?
SL: To be honest I hadn’t actually considered them to be reminiscent of those movies but now that you have mentioned it I can see what you mean. As I create all my own covers and thoroughly enjoy the whole process of finding an idea then developing it until I have the finished image, I think that there is a certain attempt to recreate something that conjures up a glimpse of how Edinburgh was back in the 1740s. I hope that they look more like a mystery tale than a horror story though.
We all know the old saying that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but there is no doubt that most people do appreciate a cover image that hasn’t just been cobbled together in five minutes. My own covers are all inspired by a specific scene in each book. Getting back to the 1970s horror movie posters for a moment, I admit I always loved the posters created for the old British Hammer House of Horror films so perhaps subconsciously they have inspired me.
MJN: One thing that stopped me from writing mysteries is the fear of inadvertently tripping over another author's plot. There are just so many ways a person can be murdered. How do you manage to keep your plot twists original and fresh? How do you avoid those deja-vu moments where your readers roll their eyes and say, "I've seen that before." At what point is it okay to resort to staple techniques?
SL: You are so right about the fear of stealing another writer’s ideas. It is a dread that every author feels at one point or another. It doesn’t matter whether you are writing a Regency romance or a horror story with vampires and werewolves, you have that nagging voice at the back of your mind saying ‘this has all been written before!’
I try to come up with something different for every story where the main cast of characters remains unchanged while the supporting cast come and go as required. Happily though the 18th century provides ample scope for a whole host of despicable villains to run amok through the streets and alleys of old Edinburgh!
One advantage in writing a series featuring the same people is that you are also telling the story of their lives as time goes by. Alongside the mystery to be solved you have the day to day events which come to the characters, be it falling in love, illness or being reunited with long lost friends or family members. And yes, these are all basic staples of fiction but they are also things which the reader can associate with. Few of us, happily, will ever come face to face with the victim of a violent crime but we all know that feeling of falling in, and out of love. We also share the satisfaction of solving a mystery. It can be simply finding the missing TV remote control or finishing the crossword puzzle in the newspaper over our morning coffee. Mystery books are the same. You have to put the clues there for the reader to discover, so hopefully, they can say before they reach the end of the book, so and so is the killer. I don’t like mysteries where the investigator announces information which has never been shared with the reader until the denouement where all is revealed. Personally I feel a little bit cheated when that happens.
Hopefully I can continue to come up with fresh ideas, fresh mysteries and fresh adventures for Robert Young and his friends to enjoy for many years to come.