It’s been a whirlwind month for Highland-based author S G Maclean with non-stop promotional events around the country for her latest novel, The Winter List.
In fact it’s been a whirlwind year, since the publication of her critically-acclaimed post-Culloden novel, The Bookseller of Inverness, in August 2022.
Now Shona is hard at work on her next book, this time set in 19th century Cromarty, promising her readers something completely different from the rest of her 11 novel opus, and definitely not historical crime.
Author of the Alexander Seaton series, set in seventeenth-century Scotland, and the Damian Seeker series, set in Oliver Cromwell’s London and York, Shona has been polishing her craft over many years since graduating with an MA and PhD in history from Aberdeen University.
The years of meticulous research, ingenious plotting and living inside her characters’ heads have finally placed her at the heart of the Scottish historical crime fiction scene, and she’s in constant demand at literary and crime festivals across the country.
But it was the unexpected success of the standalone Bookseller of Inverness which brought her to wider attention, and earned her a raft of new readers from the Highlands and beyond.
They’re the ones Shona hopes will follow her to Cromarty and the new departure in her writing.
‘Bookseller’ success exceeded expectation
She said: “The success of Bookseller was much more than I could have hoped for, especially as it came out very quietly and only in the Highlands.
“Now it’s had four hardback print runs, and bookshops tell me they are constantly re-stocking, which has made a big difference in terms of recognition of my name.”
It’s readers’ comments though which mean most to Shona.
She said: “I’ve had so many heartfelt comments about how much people living in this area enjoyed the book and were glad I had written about this part of local history.
“This was a relief too, as I was apprehensive about writing about such an emotive subject.”
As The Bookseller was taking off, Shona was busy completing the last in her Damian Seeker series, launched last month.
Damian Seeker has his avid followers, but Shona carefully made this last in the series one which could stand alone, and be enjoyed by new readers who hadn’t read the previous five, and didn’t need to in order to enjoy it.
The Winter List is set in York, and moves on from staunch Republican Damian Seeker’s normal Cromwellian setting into the febrile Restoration period.
Shona has parked Seeker out of the way in Massachusetts, so he doesn’t dominate the book.
Instead his daughter Manon has to navigate the intrigue and extreme danger of the period.
We’re now in the post-Cromwell era, the time of the restoration of the Stuart dynasty and King Charles II.
Shona tramped the city of York for authenticity in the freezing, flooded cold of winter in pursuit of her research.
If your name is on Royalist spy Lady Anne Winter’s list, it’s most probably a death knell, and the book draws the reader into a time of fear and intrigue, not dissimilar to the feeling post-Culloden in The Bookseller of Inverness.
Shona says she was apprehensive about this book, with Damian Seeker far less prominent in it.
“But only one reviewer missed him, the others were positive, as was the feedback from the public.
“I was quite invested in some of the characters from the series that now had to live in the Restoration period and wanted to see how they would get on.”
A brand new character stepped forward — Grizel, Lady Anne Winter’s Scottish housemaid.
“She was easy to write,” Shona said, “and a good foil for Lady Anne, as I wanted a more satisfying personal life for her.”
The beautiful and feisty Lady Anne has proved a great draw for ‘gents of a certain age’, as Shona puts it.
“I get a lot of questions about her from them. And other people want to read more about the dog in the book. It surprises me what people like.”
Free to pursue new ideas
With the Seeker series now safely put to bed, and the success of the standalone Bookseller of Inverness behind her, Shona is now free to follow the spark of an idea she’s been nurturing for more than seven years.
While researching in the Highland Archive in Inverness, she came across an intriguing record of a subscription library operating in Cromarty in 1832.
A group of rather prominent and well-heeled Cromartians set up this circulating library, which they called Cromarty Reading Club, buying a book each and passing it on to another to read, in a strict order.
The Reading Club list
A Major G.G. Munro of Poyntzfield was the instigator of the reading club, and here’s an example of how it worked, with the name of the book in the middle:
Sir Michael Clare Nicholas Notitia To Mr Taylor
Mr Taylor Croker’s Johnson To Mr Joyner
Mr Joyner Head’s Journey To Miss Ross
Miss Ross Woodrow’s History of the Church To Captain Clarke
Capt. Clarke Grahame’s India To Revd. Mr Finlayson
Revd. Mr Finlayson McFarlane’s Constantinople To Mr Junner
And so on, with 34 people involved.
Shona said: “I’ve completely fictionalised it, choosing only 12 characters and delving into the context of world events around them.
“Cholera was approaching, devastating Easter Ross.
“Hugh Miller was around, working as a stonemason.
Fear of body-snatching
“There was an enormous fear of body-snatching inspired by Burke and Hare.
“And it turns out there was a French consul in Cromarty, something which surprised me, but makes sense as Cromarty was a key embarkation point for people going to North America.
“There was a lot of shipping traffic to London, taking Inverness sacking, ropes and salt pork to the Caribbean.
“The country was moving to the Great Reform Act of 1832 outlawing slavery in the British dominions, something I couldn’t ignore. I’m not making this an issue book, but it was part of life then, and I found David Alston’s Slaves and Highlanders book very helpful.”
Boots on the ground in Cromarty
Needless to say, Shona has been pounding the pavements of Cromarty in pursuit of her characters, atmosphere and inspiration.
She said: “I went to an Open Gardens Day there and found long gardens going uphill behind those huge mansion houses.
“I realised how much you can see from there, it gave me the sense of how residents could watch each other.
“When I stayed overnight at Ardyne House, I realised how much I could see from the top of the house, right across the Firth, and I heard the racket of the gulls, and the noise of the sea at night.”
Doubtless these sensory influences will permeate the much-anticipated forthcoming book.
Let the plotting begin
Meanwhile, Shona has commandeered two rooms in her Conon Bridge home to fill with numberless notebooks of research and long rolls of paper for the meticulous mapping out and plotting of her Cromarty tale.
“I map my books out chapter by chapter, column by column,” Shona said. “It helps when moving characters about in the redrafting process, or reminding me what colour of hair they have for example.”
Shona thinks it will be early 2025 before this book is published. It’ll be a long wait for her growing army of fans.
You can catch Shona at the Death in Grantown Festival in Grantown on Spey, on Friday October 27 to Sunday October 29, where she’s appearing with other crime writers in a spoof play by Douglas Skelton on the Friday night, and speaking at and chairing other events through the weekend.
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