Glasgow and Edinburgh are well covered when it comes to crime stories – with Denise Mina and Ian Rankin leading the way respectively. But other areas of Scotland are ripe settings for Tartan noir as well. Stuart MacBride has written about Aberdeen and Peter May has thrived with his Lewis trilogy. Meanwhile, indie author Helen Forbes set her novel In The Shadow of the Hill in the Western Isles, and she has plans to conquer Inverness too. Published by New Talent November sponsor ThunderPoint Publishing, we decided to have a chat with Helen about her inspiration and her journey as an author.
Can you tell us a little more about yourself?
I am a civil litigation solicitor in my hometown of Inverness. I started writing many years ago when I was studying law as a mature student and single parent in Edinburgh. Although I didn’t have much spare time, I found that writing was a great way to switch off at the end of a busy day. I was also able to take advantage of the university library for research purposes. It was only when I started to write In the Shadow of the Hill that I turned to crime, so to speak. I have always been fond of reading crime fiction, particularly Scottish crime fiction, but I never actually thought of writing it, until the plot of the novel started to turn in that direction. I had written two novels before I wrote In the Shadow of the Hill. Both were island-based, but not crime fiction.
You’ve turned Lewis and Harris into characters in the book almost. Tell us more about that?
My mother is an islander and I have family in the Western Isles. I am very familiar with the islands, having lived on Lewis for a few years as a child, and on North Uist and Lewis for a total of nine years more recently. I still have regular holidays in the islands. One can’t help but be acutely aware of the landscape and the elements when living in these exposed areas and, for me, the landscape has always been a great inspiration in my writing. Funnily enough, I haven’t lived on Harris – and I may never be allowed to set foot on the island again – but I know it well from travelling regularly from North Uist up to Lewis. I also spent some time on Harris researching the area when writing the novel. Much of my earlier writing is also set in the Highlands and Islands. I felt there was a lack of good fiction set in this area, although that has changed somewhat over the intervening years. I have also written award-winning short stories set in the Antarctic and Naples, so I do try to broaden my horizons from time to time.
Tell us something about your 2008 novel, The Land of the Dead?
I was writing a novel set in 18th century St Kilda, based on Lady Grange, the wife of a High Court judge, who was banished by her husband to St Kilda. I heard of a free self-publishing opportunity, provided the novel was completed by a certain date. I completed the novel, published it, and almost immediately realised that the structure of the novel didn’t work, so I withdrew it. It was a salutary lesson in the perils of self-publishing, and the wisdom of having good editorial input before publishing. I have since completed another novel set in 18th century St Kilda, called Lament for the Children, and I am currently seeking a literary agent. I hope to revisit and rewrite Land of the Dead, but with a title that sounds less like a zombie movie, before too long.
What sparked the idea behind In the Shadow of the Hill?
The novel came about after I wrote a short story featuring two boys from very different families, living next door to each other on an unidentified island. The short story was successful in a couple of competitions and it was published. An acquaintance commented that it would be great to know what happened to the boys as they grew up, and she suggested it might make a good novel. The short story is now the prologue to In the Shadow of the Hill. As I mentioned, I had no intentions of making it a crime story, but as the characters developed in my head, Joe Galbraith became a detective and, well, I won’t say too much about Stephen MacLaren and his path in life. As the story developed, I began to enjoy the twists and turns that led to the final twist. Deciding how to reveal the story to the reader took some thought, and trying to remember what the reader knew, and what each character knew, at any given time, was difficult, but enjoyable.
Scottish crime fiction has developed a life of its own in recent years. How do you see yourself fitting into a genre that seems, in some ways, to be leaving the rest of Britain standing?
There are certainly plenty of excellent role models in Scotland and it is great to be part of such a vibrant genre. There is a lack of crime fiction set in Inverness, so I would hope to plug that gap by developing a series featuring Joe Galbraith. Although the writing of In the Shadow of the Hill was well underway before Peter May’s successful Lewis Trilogy was published, it was a real boost to see that island-based fiction could be so popular nationally and internationally.
What next for Helen Forbes, crime novelist?
I am almost finished a first draft of Madness Lies, the second book in the Joe Galbraith series. It is set in Inverness and North Uist, and features some of the characters from the first book. I would hope to develop Joe’s career and life story further throughout a series. As you might imagine, I’m having to be careful when picking up some of the loose ends from the first book, without giving too much of the story away. I am also interested in combining my crime fiction with my love of historical fiction.
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