Today I’m pleased to be part of The Sheltand Winter Mystery for Marsail Taylor and Reading Between the Lines blog tours
I understand you live and work on Sheltand, what drew you to the island and what’s your favourite place there?
Well, the answer’s rather prosaic: we were advised, at teacher training college, to apply to every region in Scotland with fingers crossed, as jobs were scarce. My first offer of a job was a letter from the Shetland Director of Education, saying there were two vacancies for a French/English teacher in Shetland. I knew I wanted to be in the country and near the sea, and I liked the idea of a small school, so I chose Aith (school roll 180 pupils aged 5-16). My first view of Shetland was the drive to my interview there, on the most gorgeous summer day, along quiet roads with green, green hills on one side and the sea dancing on the other. I fell in love straight away. That was forty years ago in August …
My favourite place is what’s called “the Minn” locally – Swarback’s Minn, the hand-shaped piece of water between Aith, Brae and the wild Atlantic – my sailing territory. There are headlands with a variety of birds, beaches with seals basking and otters ducking under, porpoises and I’ve even seen a humpbacked whale, all within sailing distance of the marina, which is only 400m from my front doorstep. On a good day I can get from doorstep to the middle of the voe with the sails up and engine off in 17 minutes! Yes, of course Cass’ beloved yacht Khalida bears more than a passing resemblance to my own Karima…
Shetland has its own unique dialect and I understand that you have written plays in the dialect. Will any of that dialect be seen in your novel?
The Shetland dialect is just beautiful to listen to – to hear it, have a look on BBC Sounds for Mary Blance’s Radio Shetland Books programme. The dialect’s a mixture of old Scots and Norn, the old form of Norwegian, with many words of Norse origin still in common use – the islands were Norwegian territory until 1469, and some Norn was still spoken by older folk in Victorian times. Many of my pupils speak in dialect, and I wrote the plays for them to perform at our local Drama Festival. In the novels I’ve tried to give a feel of the rhythm of the speech without putting readers off by phonetic spelling, and I’ve used dialect words where the meaning can be guessed from the context (though there’s also a glossary at the back). The grammar’s also different; for example, a Shetlander would say ‘I’m been’ to the shop, instead of ‘I have been.’ For example, if Cass’s friend Magnie was to greet her with, ‘Now then, Cass, where have you been since I last saw you?’, I’d write it as, ‘Now then, lass, where’re you been fae I saw you last?’ but it would actually sound like ‘Noo dan, Cass, whaur’s du been fae I saa dee last?’
When did you start writing, and why?
I’ve always written, since I was a child. I love telling stories. I began on my first adult novel as soon as I left University, and wrote five before I finally got a publisher for Death on a Longship – two historical romances, and three Shetland detective stories, all still unpublished. My first published works, apart from articles in the local magazine Shetland Life, were Shetland Plays and my self-published Women’s Suffrage in Shetland. It was meant to be a pamphlet, but so much was involved in the suffrage fight – education, working conditions, divorce, and custody laws and property ownership – and it went on for so long, from the first House of Commons bill in 1860 to partial women’s suffrage in 1919, that it ended up 320 pages.
What motivates you to write?
I write because I love doing it. Every morning after breakfast, I take a quick walk round the village, then head for my desk and get on with Cass’s latest adventure … or my Practical Boat Owner column … or a short story for our monthly local writers’ group meeting. I’m always writing something.
Who is your favourite of your characters and why?
My favourite character … hard question. I’ve got fond of them all! Cass is like a sometimes-exasperating little sister but I love her determination and fearlessness (I wish I had her head for heights!), and her cool head in a crisis. I love Gavin’s quiet sense of humour, his passion for wildlife, his unflappability. Maman is great fun when she swans on in her best dramatic fashion with a mixture of opera theatricality and French common-sense, and I enjoy Dad’s belief that his Cassie will only be truly happy when she finds a good Catholic man and has six children. Dream on, Dad! I genuinely don’t use real people in my stories, with one exception: some day my fifteen-year-old grandson is going to be asking searching questions about who inspired the engaging but naughty Peerie Charlie.
Who is your least favourite of your characters, and why?
Least favourite characters … I’ve created a few very unpleasant people. I won’t name them because of spoilers, but I think the worst are in The Shetland Sea Murders…. which just happens to be my last book. In it, Cass is on board our own tall ship, Swan, for a birthday weekend when a fishing boat goes on the rocks. The book is structured on the history of women’s suffrage and this is reflecting in the characters – so, for example, the first section links to the fight for women to get custody of their children, and involves possible child abuse; the second section links to women officials, and one character has the ambition of being Shetland’s first woman Convenor of the Council, and so on; I hope in the final chapters you’ll see Cass as a modern descendant of those determined women who drove ambulances under fire in World War I.
Tell us about your last book…
My newest book, A Shetland Winter Mystery, is set during ‘the Yules’, the old Norse word for Christmas, which has a number of traditions associated with it. One of them is that during the dark days before Christmas the ‘trows’, Shetland’s little people, are set free to roam round the houses. The book opens with Cass and Gavin waking to find little footprints in the snow around the house – and they’re not the only house to be visited. Naturally Cass begins investigating, and then a teenager disappears from the middle of a snowy field …
What’s coming next…
Well, the next Cass is half-planned and 11,000 words long – a tenth of the way! I don’t do a complete plan because it changes so much during writing, and because it’s more fun for me if I don’t know what’s going to happen next either. However, I do know it will involve the Book of the Black Arts, a book of spells stolen from the Devil himself, last seen in Cullivoe, on the north island of Yell, in Victorian times …
Thank you very much for letting me feature on your blog, and I hope you enjoy A Shetland Winter Mystery.
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.
Bio copied from Amazon.
Thanks to Marsali for answering my questions, and don’t forget to see what everyone else has to say on the rest of the blog tour.