The Path to Inverness – an interview with SG MacLean

SG MacLean in Inverness

Shona MacLean, award-winning author of the Alexander Seaton and Seeker detective series, might have remained in academia had it not been for the logistics of family life. Her third child was born six weeks after submitting her PhD thesis to Aberdeen University, and the prospect of chasing short-term academic contracts around the country was not enticing. Her husband had opportunities for promotion and they had to “go with the career that was going to put and keep a roof over their heads”. His job took them to Banff on the Moray coast where MacLean found herself “in a rented, mouse-friendly farm cottage with a baby who cried all afternoon”. She would drive to the seafront where the baby would sleep, and she would look at the sea and think. “That’s when the ideas that eventually became The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, started to take over my head,” MacLean says. A notepad and pen began accompanying them to the seafront.

Maclean chose to set both series in the 17th century, where she feels at home. Her PhD research had focussed on education in late 16th century and 17th century Scotland. Aberdeen has magnificent public records dating back to the 14th century, some written in Scots, a tremendously evocative language she says. “Burgh court and kirk session records open a window onto the man and woman in the street, with all their woes, animosities, loves, hopes and flaws. It’s like eavesdropping.” It was hearing those voices that fired her imagination, as her interest in “kings, queens and high politics” is limited. This was the period where in Scotland, following the Reformation, and in England, particularly from the Civil War of the 1640s onwards, ordinary people begin to make their voices heard and to “rattle the cage of history”.

The choice of detective stories as a sub-genre came about by accident. While she has always enjoyed reading them, “when I started my first book, I had a story of the relationship between two young men (Alexander Seaton and Archie Hay) … in mind. I needed a catalyst for something that changed the course of their lives, and decided I would have a murder. It changed the plot and nature of the book completely, and set the course for me as a writer”.

Many modern authors of historical fiction shy away from protagonists with religious or political passions out of step with our own times. Alexander Seaton and Damian Seeker both buck the trend. Alexander Seaton’s most important struggle was the spiritual struggle with himself, Maclean says. From Scottish diaries, letters, sermons, she knew this struggle was real for very many people; and it was fundamental to the character she wanted to write about. “I had to stick to my guns.”

Damian Seeker is a very different character, but with equally strong beliefs – in his case in the fledgling English republic of Oliver Cromwell. “It mattered a great deal that (he) believed in something, and to me the republic seemed to offer a more fundamental and admirable set of beliefs for a strong character to cling to.” She adds that “My biggest challenge, as a Scot of Irish Catholic descent, was writing a character devoted to Cromwell!”

Alexander Seaton evolved as a character during those afternoons at Banff seafront, and the story came later; but Damian Seeker arrived after the overarching plot for the series was established and MacLean’s editor enquired who the detective was going to be. “A stomp in the woods on a dreich December afternoon” came up with Seeker, captain of Cromwell’s guard.

Plots for individual novels are usually sparked by something she comes across that takes her interest. Destroying Angel, set in the North Yorkshire Moors around a fatal mushroom poisoning, was inspired by funghi she spotted in her local woods. Sometimes, the idea springs from something interesting that happened in a particular year. The plot of The Bear Pit came from the co-incidence of the Bankside bears being ordered to be destroyed in the same year that there was a series of spectacularly bungled plots against Cromwell.

Despite having a PhD in 17th century Scottish history, MacLean says that she knew very little about the English history of that period. Persuading her to write a book set in London took her publisher years, she says! “I had hardly ever been to London and knew practically nothing of its history or topography.” The spark of the idea for the first Seeker book, where much of the action revolves around a London coffee house, was a documentary about the first coffee houses arriving in the 1650s.

Research, both reading and physical, is an integral part of every book. Her methods and sources are “a function of the art of the possible” but include archives, printed records and (for Seeker) walking the unfamiliar streets of London.

For her latest book, MacLean returns to Scotland, and her hometown of Inverness.

The Bookseller of Inverness is a standalone tale set in 1752, amongst Jacobites looking for revenge, six years after the battle of Culloden. Close to home in every sense, MacLean says at times she found it hard to write about this challenging period in Scottish history.

As to the future, Maclean and her husband are brand new empty nesters, but that new freedom is slightly impeded by “a dependent dog”. In terms of her writing, possible future projects include a contemporary novel (not detective), and an early 19th century non-crime novel. Despite reminders from her editor that “you’re an historical crime novelist, Shona” she has started work on both in her spare time. While driving to the seafront with the dog, perhaps?

The Bookseller of Inverness is due out in the UK on 4th August 2022.

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