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Interview with Marsali Taylor

I am pleased to have been included in the tour for the new book, Death in a Shetland Lane, by Marsali Taylor. The tour is run by the amazing Lynsey Adams at Reading Between the Lines. Let's lear more about the book and writing generally from Marsali.

Thank you for inviting me onto your blog today, Val. I love having the opportunity to talk about my new book with you.

What inspired you to write your book?

Death in a Shetland Lane began with a post on FB: one of our local archivists was asking for stories about the mysterious black-magic Book of the Black Arts, last seen in Cullivoe, Yell, which is one of Shetland’s northern isles, and coincidentally, one of the places my intrepid sailing heroine Cass hadn’t investigated murders in yet. Thinking about what might induce one person to ill-wish another got me thinking about what people really, really want - fame, fortune, or just enough to get by. Who is your favourite character in your book and why?

I’ve got very fond of Cass, who narrates the stories; she’s brave, determined, and at times so focused on her sailing world that she’s blind to the obvious - go, on, you tell her why her young female cat seems to be round about the belly! I can have fun letting the reader be one step ahead of her, while hoping that I’m still a step ahead of them both! Of the characters who are just in this book - each book can be read as a stand-alone - I sympathised a lot with Jesma, who’s separated from her husband and struggling to make ends meet. What was the first story you had published?

My very first published writing was in the school magazine when I was ten. It was to be based on a museum exhibit, and it had an Egyptian cat sculpture reminiscing about Queen Nefertiti, whose bust was opposite. After that, in the 90s and 00s, I wrote factual articles for a local magazine, Shetland LIfe. My first book was Two Shetland Plays, publised by Fair Play Press in 2010 - it was two plays in the Shetland dialect, which I’d written for my pupils to perform. One was about the way casual gossip spreads and lingers, and the other was my ‘religious play’, based on a probably true story about two servant girls, sisters, who went off in their rowing boat to milk cows on the island of Uyea, were lost in the mist and blown offshore. Their parents never knew what had happened to them - they were presumed drowned. I had a lot of fun staging that, with the two girls alone in a mock boat, and the star cloth behind them, and yes, they think they’re going to die, and talk about that, while their parents worry in the ‘house’ at one side of the stage. However, the story goes, forty years later, a Norwegian man came to their home and said he was the son of one of them. The same story’s told in Aålesund, about the sisters who were blown across the sea, and people there still claim descent from them. My first Cass novel was the fourth detective story I’d written, and it was published in 2012 - since then there’s been one a year.

Do you have another story planned or in progress? When can we expect to see that?

I’m just finishing off Cass’s next adventure, set during the Shetland Folk Festival, but it’s also stepping back into Shetland’s recent past: 1981, when there were 8,000 men working up north to build the Sullom Voe oil terminal. Cass finds a diary from then, and her attempts to trace its owner are mixed up with the death of one of the Folk Festival stars. The way I’m writing it, there’s a longish chapter following Cass, then a day from the diary. Gradually, the reader will learn more about what happened back at the camp which has led to tragedy in the present. Cass and Gavin may not find out everything in the end, but the reader will… I hope it’ll work out! Who is your favourite author?

From all authors, it has to be Jane Austen. I have to ration myself to reading her books only every two or three years. Otherwise … Georgette Heyer is my go-to in time of sickness, and for crime, I love the work of John Dickson Carr/ Carter Dickson. I can’t understand why he’s not still in print. Moderns: Shona Maclean’s wonderful The Bookseller of Inverness blew me away when I read it recently. What do you like to do when you’re not planning or writing your next book?

Sailing! I have my own small yacht (8 metres long, think a very small, old-fashioned caraven with a pointy end), which I let Cass borrow, and all through the summer, if it’s an even vaguely decent day, I take my boat out. I’d don’t go far or fast, just out to the end of the voe, around the island, maybe left to the Atlantic, all at a walking pace (feels faster on the water). I enjoy the silence, and the green hills, the waves, the birds and wildline around me around me - on one magical day last summer, I was escorted by a pair of white-sides dolphins who just wanted to play. I also enjoy learning the flute - I took it up far too late to ever be any good, but I enjoy making music. I try to write busily from October round to May again but winter is also my drama time - I’ve played every role in pantomime with our local group (baddies are the best fun!) and also classic roles like Helena and Olivia from Shakespeare and Abigail in The Crucible. When did you know you wanted to write novels?

Always! I still have a book of diary-style stories from when I was aged 5 or 6, going by the spelling, and full-length stuff from my teenage years. As soon as I'd got University over with (an English course in those days included reading the Complete Works of English literature!) I began my first of two still unpublished C18 romances… then the first detective novel, which got me my agent, Teresa Chris. I write a trilogy in that series, but they were too cosy, Teresa reckoned (cosy wasn’t ‘in’ in the 90s), so I invented Cass, a sailing loner with a secret in her past and a chip on both shoulders. Do you write novels in other genres?

Not now, though some day, when I’ve time, I’ll revisit the romances. I also wrote a half-length historical crime novel, and I’d like to go back and write another story about that Norse family. What do you like most about being an author?

Well … the writing! It’s the best fun anyone can have one their own, as the late, great Terry Pratchett said - though he didn’t have a boat to take out on a bonny day. I love the writing process, getting caught up in the story and seeing my characters grow. The other big love is my readers. I’m still surprised when someone’s actually heard of me, and when they have it soooo makes my day! Here is Cass, and Gavin and their whole world, created out of my head, and people out there believe in them as much as I do. That’s just amazing.

Do you have a specific routine for writing? Is there a special place or particular tool you use?

I do: alarm at 6.30, at my desk by 7.15, urgent emails, then breakfast, a walk round the village, back at desk by 9.15 and writing hard till 11, when I stop for a cup of tea. I do something active till lunch or I try to make appointments, like hair, in that time. Flute practice after lunch, then back to my desk, and usually this is correspondance and organisation time - for example, a trip south means booking ferries and hotels, planning my event speech, and emails beforehand and after to the organisers. I have another break from four till dinner, then I’m back to the WIP afterwards. I use my computer as a typewriter, writing straight into a .doc, revise yesterday’s work at the start of each day, print out each chapter as I finish it and then keep writing. If I have a good idea, I make a note of it on my printout, and then incorporate it once the book’s finished, and I’m at the redrafting stage. My special place is my writing room, with a desk large enough for my computer, my open file of print-out, my ’to deal with’ pile and two cats who believe I can’t write a word without their active assistance.

What advice do you have for other writers?

The advice that helped me most was this: find a writing time you can always do, and write, daily, even if you can only manage 15 minutes or 100 words. Writing a bit every day keeps the back of your head working on your characters even while the rest of your attention’s on earning a living. In my case, I did 30 minutes each day at 6.30am, before getting ready for school (I was a teacher). I aimed at 250 words, and that routine really encouraged me. The other thing I should have done much sooner was join a writers’ group. I thought that I’d be better using that evening to sit and write, instead of talk about writing, but when I finally took the plunge it was fantastically encouraging, and I now count my fellow Westside Writers as best friends. If your book were to be made into an Audiobook, who would you choose to read it?

My books are on Audible, with a fantastic narrator, Angela Ness - she sounds just like Cass to me! If your book were to be made into a movie, who would you like to play main character’s name?

Hmmm … we don’t have a TV, so I’m not really up in 30-something actresses. My ideal movie would be an indie production, shot in Shetland, with local actors as the leads. Our drama group has the perfect Cass (I can teach her to sail, or better still, be her body-double for the offshore action shots!) and maybe the director would let me be in it too …

Tell us more about Death in a Shetland Lane

Days before the final Shetland fire festival, in broad daylight, a glamorous young singer tumbles down a flight of steps. Though it seems a tragic accident, sailing sleuth Cass Lynch, a witness at the scene, thought it looked like Chloe sleepwalked to her death.

But young women don't slumber while laughing and strolling with friends. Could it be that someone's cast a spell from the Book of the Black Arts, recently stolen from a Yell graveyard?

A web of tensions between the victim and those who knew her confirm that something more deadly than black magic is at work. But proving what, or who, could be lethal - and until the mystery is solved, innocent people will remain in terrible danger...

The Author

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.

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