Research for writing mystery novels can be difficult. At least, it is for me. My books are set in Britain; I live in the U.S.
I can get most information from the Internet, like moonrise time in Edinburgh, the name of a local pub in Buxton, how fast and high the tide comes in at Morecambe Bay, dates of the trout fishing season in Derbyshire. But my book An Unfolding Trap threatened to plunge me into a muck sweat. The story’s set in Scotland. To be precise: Edinburgh, Balquhidder, and the environs of the Trossachs. The city offered no problems: I’d been there numerous times. But I hadn’t a clue about Balquhidder, the ancestral Clan home of my protagonist, Michael McLaren. How could I set half the book in a place I didn’t know?
I emailed an association officer of the Clan MacLaren Society of North America, explained I was an author attempting to place my current novel in Balquhidder, and did she have a suggestion how I could obtain information about the village and area. She gave me the email address of the Clan Chief who lives there.
Now, Clan Chiefs are a bit like royalty, in that there are proper ways to address them in writing and in person. My etiquette book said a written salutation consists of their clan name only, because the person is THE personification of the Clan. Thinking it was a bit like calling your best mate by his surname, I addressed my message to MacLaren, said a prayer, hoped I hadn’t started an international incident, and sent it.
He replied, and through nineteen back-and-forth emails I obtained details of the village makeup and its layout, roads, weather, landscape, a bit of Clan history, music and other essentials to inject authenticity into my story. I also got help with Scottish dialect from Ian McCalman of the legendary folk singing group The McCalmans (Och aye. I tell ye this anly sae ye’ll ken th’ speech in An Unfolding Trap is right, an’ wiznae an American attempt a’ expressing th’ Auld Scots Tongue). Add the information from my friend—a former detective superintendent of Derbyshire Constabulary CID—about the differences between English and Scottish policing, and I was over the moon. I thanked them all profusely and, after telling the Chief I’d try not to disturb him again, plunged ahead with my writing.
As usually happens, I got into the first draft and, due to the path the story was taking, found I needed some sort of dwelling, like a hut, in which my protagonist could seek refuge. Bar that, I wanted to find an area either north of Loch Voil (like in the Braes of Balquhidder) or the area south (in the Trossachs). Some type of rugged, wild area, not overly inhabited, where my McLaren chap could be attacked and then stumble into the abandoned dwelling. A place either hidden for years or perhaps forgotten by the general populace. I had an ordnance map of the region, but it was impossible to tell if either of those spots was desolate and rugged, if I could plop my pretend building there. So I emailed the Chief, apologizing for interrupting him.
He suggested a cottage at the western end of the glen. It had all my requirements, even a tie to one of his ancestors. Donald MacLaren of Easter Invernenty, a renowned drover, had lived there. Known as Donald mor nan mart (“Big Donald of the cattle”), he as well as the current Chief’s ancestor (who happened also to be the Chief) led the Clan in the Jacobite Rising of 1745, including the last charge at Culloden. Big Donald survived, though he was later captured. However, to put a happy ending on this bit of history, he escaped in dramatic circumstances to return home.
Donald’s cottage was a great solution for my deserted dwelling dilemma. I thanked the Chief, said I regretted I’d had to ask another question, and went back to my writing.
In getting my McLaren to that cottage, though, I needed to know the best route. Two lochs lie head-to-toe in the glen and, therefore, might form a barrier between my hero and the building. Would my McLaren walk around the south side of the loch, or was there a walkable passage between the two bodies of water? The Chief emailed back, saying that even in December my guy could splash his way through the land bridge of rushes and bog, succumbing to a mere ankle-wetting only.
It was good news and made my hero’s journey a lot easier and shorter. I thanked the Chief, said I’d try not to bother him much longer, and wrote the scene.
All went well for several chapters until I needed the name of a fictitious beer and brewery. Because I wanted something that “rang true” with the region, history and language, I again emailed the Chief. After much consultation, he gave me his ideas for both names. I thanked him, said I hoped not to disrupt him further, and dropped the beer and brewery into my story.
I finished the manuscript, sent it to Ian McCalman to read and mark the places where it didn’t ring true (I’m a stickler for accuracy…as far as is in my power), and then sent it to my police pal to catch any police procedural problems.
A group of musicians here in St Louis recorded “The Braes of Balquhidder”, an old folk song that could be called the MacLaren Clan song, I suppose. (Each McLaren mystery has a companion song that’s important to the murder victim or to McLaren). This song’s version is performed in the classic jazz style of Marian McPartland.
So, all the bits and bobs were seen to. The book was duly published. I’m pleased with it, for I feel I’ve captured the lure and hold Scotland’s had on me since my childhood. It’s something that still whispers through the misty moors and echoes from the fathomless, dark lochs. I think the Chief’s ecstatic with the book’s completion, also. I’ve quit emailing him with “one more question…”