Death on a Longship, and its sequel, The Trowie Mound Murders, are both set in Brae, Shetland. Now, for the third of the series, my feisty sailing heroine Cass is going back to school: the North Atlantic Fisheries College in Scalloway, to get the formal qualifications needed for a paid post on board a tall ship. I already know she's not going to like it. She's a loner, used to people who come aboard for a fortnight. In a classroom situation, Jimmy's irritating laugh or Peter's sexism are going to drive her to think of homicide ... except that, as my main character, she's not allowed to carry it out.
When I'm stuck for inspiration, I try an interesting place. So, here I am, in the beautiful new Scalloway Museum, contemplating murder.
It's an amazing place, taking you right through the history of Shetland's ancient capital: Iron age ploughshares, a stunning Viking bracelet, the building and decay of Black Earl Patrick's Renaissance castle, the herring boom. From World War II there are mementos of Scalloway's proudest moment, as the headquarters of the 'Shetland Bus', when a handful of young Norwegian men risked their lives running arms to the Resistance in German-occupied Norway.
That would be a wonderful back-story for a mystery. I eye up the replica sub-machine gun hidden in a fish barrel. Now, suppose some nefarious person were to substitute that for a real one? How could he or she manoeuvre the victim to be shot by it? A family party, perhaps, with the kindly uncle making jokes until the blackmailing nephew stood in position, and some other family member, in all innocence, pulled the trigger. Possible ... but for a family party it would need to be daytime, like this, with children chattering around the model Shetland pony, and trying out the replica wheelhouse. Regretfully, I abandon the murderous uncle. It would be much better if I could get Cass here on her own, at night, and then she could find the body ...
And so, on it goes. So much plotting is practical. What would give you a tense, creepy start? How can you make the reader jump as much as your character does when the body is revealed? Creating characters, you're asking why, why, why. Creating plot, I find, you're asking how, how, how. How could I get Cass alone in the museum after dark? She climbs like a cat, so if there's a window that could be left open - I cast a quick glance around. Yes, that one up there. I'll need to go and look outside to see how she'd get up the wall, but it's a possible. Toilets usually have potential too. I go to investigate, and my eye is caught by a black iron cauldron filled with fine reddish ash: peat ash from the summit of the hill where they burned witches.
Suddenly ideas are thronging thick and fast: a girl face-down in that cauldron, smothered to death. Cass, outside, could hear a scream that ends in an awful choking gurgle, look around for access - the door, naturally, being locked - climb in through the window, find the dead girl and nobody else in the place ... Yes, nice.
Then there's the witches connection. I could work up a beautifully eerie atmosphere with that. I've a vague feeling there are witches in modern-day Shetland, Wiccans I think it's called now, who promote a positive closeness to the forces of the earth and nature. Memo to self: research. Another memo: it could be sensitive territory, and as a Catholic, Cass would be wary of 'all that' - which would add tension.
What's Cass doing wandering about at dead of night anyway? Answer: asking herself if she can bear to keep on with her college course, or if she's going to give up her attempt at respectability, and return to being a wandering vagabond. In which case, the resolution of the case should also make her decide.
Why that cauldron? How about the girl who's dead having come here to steal some of that ash? It could be some sort of séance, to contact one of those long-dead women. Is she serious, or just having a laugh? And her shadowy companion?
Now the work begins. I have a whiteboard in my writing room, and I'll write these bones of a story on it, then spend a day just working on them. Why must the girl be killed? I need an idea that'll be startlingly different from the witchcraft red herring, yet satisfyingly strong - if I've beguiled my readers with long dead witches, they're not going to be satisfied if she's been killed just because she's pregnant and the boy doesn't want to marry her. At the end of a good day, I'll have the skeleton of my plot. It'll change as I work on the individual characters, but now I know the questions to ask, my subconscious will have fun coming up with the answers.
At last, I have the inspiration I needed - all because I went out to look for it.
Death on a Longship:
When she talks her way into a job skippering a Viking longship for a Hollywood film, Cass Lynch thinks her big break has finally arrived - even though it means returning home to the Shetland Islands, a place she hasn't set foot on since she ran away as a teenager to pursue her dreams of sailing. When a dead woman turns up on the boat’s deck, Cass, her past and her family come under suspicion from the disturbingly shrewd Detective Inspector Macrae. Cass must call on all her local knowledge of Shetland, the wisdom gained from years of sailing, and her glamorous, French opera singer mother to clear herself and her family of suspicion - and to catch the killer before Cass becomes the next victim.
Marsali is giving away THREE prizes; a copy of Death on a Longship at each blog stop on her tour, a 1st place grand prize giveaway at the end of the tour of some silver Viking-inspired jewelry from the Shetland Islands, and a 2nd place $15 Amazon gift card.
1) To win a book: leave a comment on this blog post to be entered to win a book (open internationally for ebook or the US, UK, and Canada for a print book). Be sure your profile links to an email so we can contact you if you’re the lucky winner. This giveaway ends five days after the post goes live.
2) To win Viking-inspired Jewelry OR a $15 Amazon gift card: Click the link to go to the contest’s website and enter the Rafflecopter at the bottom of the post. A first and second place lucky winner will be selected on October 1st. First place person gets to choose which grand prize he/she wants. The second place person gets the remaining grand prize. Open to every country.
Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland’s scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland’s distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.