Off the beaten track – Bloody Scotland

The Saturday lunchtime event Off the beaten track, was – I think – a discussion about picking far-flung settings for your crime [novel].

Catriona McPherson, CF Peterson and Michael Ridpath were talking to Russel McLean, who was having a little bit of trouble speaking the lines he claimed to have written down. He introduced the three authors, and asked them to tell us what made them pick their settings.

‘Californian’ Catriona joked that she’d obviously been inspired by Wisconsin. She’d found a former army firing range, and somewhere she felt would be a great place for someone to have a breakdown… She read from her new Weight of Angels, which she said felt longer than when she planned the reading. It was about Mary Queen of Scots, who had her head chopped off, although she didn’t actually sing it, and the audience didn’t either.

CF (whose name might be Callum), felt he needed to set his story some other place than where he lives, but it’s still close. He read a piece from Errant Blood, about finding a dead body.

Michael had wanted to set his book in Vermont, but his agent told him that wasn’t a good idea, so it had to be Scotland instead. He picked the isolated cottage where he had spent a holiday as a boy, and read an excerpt from Amnesia, about an old man who can’t remember anything. Or so he thinks.

Michael Ridpath, C F Peterson and Catriona McPherson, with Russel McLean

Talking about how you see Scotland when you are somewhere else, Catriona feels that it looks different, and that distance makes her braver and she’s not worried about letting her characters live in someone else’s house. But after years in America, she occasionally needs to ask her friends stuff like whether you call trackie bums sweatpants…

Callum, who has a past in South Africa, already knows it’s too late to set a book there, without going back for more research. Asked about characters, he did pick a main character first, but sees the weather as another character which determines what happens.

Michael spoke about doing research in Greenland, and also Iceland. It’s important to collect impressions. But Capri is more fun than the distant corners of Scotland. He used no locals for his remote cottage, because people coming and going make things more neutral and also isolated.

Russel wanted to know if they have ever killed anyone. Not sure what he meant, as they clearly kill in their books, but ought to be sensible enough not to own up to any real life killings. Catriona replied that she has ‘happy and well adjusted down pat.’ I’d say so. She must have mesmerised the whole audience with her red, shiny earrings, which matched her red cardigan so beautifully.

An old manuscript by Michael’s father which he found after his death, contained things he’d later put in his novel. You just never know what you will find, and Catriona mentioned a friend’s grandfather discovered in a photo next to Hitler.

A member of the audience asked if they feel Scotland is overcrowded yet, from a crime-writing perspective. Michael said it’s no Midsomer, and that Sutherland is empty and offers endless opportunities. We’ll take that as a no then. As for whether Scotland has nice cosy crime like England, Catriona pointed out that Agatha Christie was far darker than people generally think.

Michael Ridpath, C F Peterson and Catriona McPherson

Somehow the talk moved on to ‘depleted uranium’ which made Catriona mention that she doesn’t want to ‘know things’ again, and she’s too lazy to do research. This didn’t seem to have stopped her from sheltering from the rain in a bread oven at some ancient house, where she was busy taking notes and needed to protect her ink from getting wet.

At this point poor Russel almost choked and had to be revived with some water before we were sent on our way with the happy thought that at least no one had asked anything about bubblebath dispensers. Apparently Iain Banks had once been asked if he or any of his characters had ever been made into such things…

This will now prey on my mind and it will be hard not to ask about.

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