Saturday, September 20, 2014

Guest blog: Lin Anderson

Aline here.  I'm delighted this week to be able to introduce Lin Anderson to you. She is one of Scotland's best-known 'Tartan Noir' authors, with a string of successful books to her name. She's energetic, dynamic and her writing style is pared-down and elegant – and her eye for forensic detail is bloodcurdling! She's currently Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland

Here she tells us the story behind Paths of the Dead.

Books begin for me with a very vivid scene. If this scene stays with me, then I know there is a book in there. That opening scene often centres around something that frightens me. As a writer I explore those fears, confront them and try and deal with them.

As a student at Glasgow University, I studied Maths and Astronomy. My Professor of Astronomy was Archie Roy. As well as being one of the most entertaining and charismatic of lecturers, he was also ambidextrous. While discussing spherical trigomometry he would draw two large perfect circles on the board at the same time, and fill them in with diagrams. Most impressive.

Professor Roy as, well as being a renowned physicist and having a comet named after him, also became an authority on the paranormal, being past President of the Society for Psychical Research and Founding President of The Scottish Society for Psychical Research. He told a story once of how his interest in the paranormal had come about. As a young lecturer, he had stumbled on a library of books on the occult, housed in the main university building. He was surprised to note that many of the authors of the tomes were scientists like himself and decided if they were interested in studying the paranormal, then so should he be.

One video he showed on the subject in an evening class, involved a medium at work in a spiritualist church. Many years later, that idea was to inspire the opening scene in Paths of the Dead. Set in a Spiritualist church in Glasgow, not far from the university, Amy is persuaded to attend a Sunday morning service by her friend, Doreen. During this service, the medium reveals that Amy’s teenage son Alan has a message for her. Stunned and disbelieving, Amy argues that she left Alan at home alive an hour before. (You can see from this what my fear might be)

When Alan is found in a neolithic stone circle in the hills south of Glasgow, he has a stone in his mouth with the number five scratched on it. Shortly afterwards a female victim is found in the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney in similar circumstances, this time the stone in her mouth is marked with the number four. And thus the countdown begins, setting Dr Rhona MacLeod, forensic expert, Dr Magnus Pirie, a criminal profiler and himself from Orkney, and Detective Inspector Michael McNab on the trail of the killer.

In a previous life I lived in Orkney, not far from the Ring of Brodgar, which I visited often. The title Paths of the Dead was inspired by the excavation of the narrow strip of land between two lochs that links the Stones of Stenness to the Ring. The size of three football fields, this excavation has revealed a series of neolithic buildings thought to have been used for ritualistic purification purposes on the way between life at Stenness to death at Brodgar – a bit like crossing the River Styx.

I taught Computing Science for seventeen years before becoming a writer and this tale weaves the world of Artificial Reality Games (ARGs) with Druidry, marrying neolithic Scotland with the psychology of the modern mind. A puzzle that turns out to be a game, which turns out to be a puzzle, with lots of twists on the way. I never plan a book, but rely on the story to unfold as the participants of the little gang of characters that inhabit the world discover things – much like a proper investigation. This makes it exciting for me and I hope for the readers.

I therefore have no idea how things will end, which can be a little scary at times. A fellow writer calls that ‘the red fog of the denouement’. As a storyteller you must just trust your judgement to find a way out of that fog to the story’s ‘natural’ end.

I am fascinated by the structure of story and our understanding of it. How a story like Paths of the Dead fits together is what generates the pace and excitement – and keeps the reader reading, sometimes continuously until the end. Early in my writing career, I was lucky enough to take part in a new writers’ course with 7:84 theatre company. Ian Heggie who took the course gave lots of good advice which I still follow.

One such piece of advice was to keep the secret as long as possible. Life and people are full of secrets, some small, some not so small. Whenever you as a writer are about to reveal a secret in your story, whatever its size, always question whether you could keep it a little longer. I find the answer is invariably yes and that’s what keeps readers turning the pages. And remember a story is circular – the end should always reflect the beginning.

The most exciting thing about writing is what you discover on the way. Through researching Paths of the Dead I have learned a great deal, particularly about Scotland’s neolithic past, but also about the science we don’t yet understand, but can still use to our advantage. By the end of the writing process, I found myself in complete agreement with Emeritus Professor Archie Roy, namely the only thing we know, is that we don’t know (or not yet anyway).

The application of forensic science and psychology, plus the natural instincts of a seasoned detective, all combine to solve the neolithic puzzle that is Paths of the Dead. None of those skills could have solved it alone. Paths of the Dead is book nine in the series which features forensic expert Dr Rhona MacLeod. Each book stands alone, but there is a continuing thread in the lives of the group gang of characters who inhabit her world.

When I wrote the first in the series, Driftnet, I had no idea that it would turn out to be a series. I also knew next to nothing about forensics. Rhona was inspired by a former pupil of mine who left to study forensics at Strathclyde university.

In Driftnet, Rhona turns up at a scene of crime only to find the seventeen year old victim looks so like her, he might be the son she gave up for adoption. This was the dramatic premise. She soon finds out he isn’t her son, but because of the circumstances of the victim’s death, she is driven to find her son, as well as the killer.

Making Rhona a forensic scientist was the best thing I ever did. I even went back to my old university to do a diploma course in forensic medical science to aid with research. But at the end of the day, stories are characters in action, whether a crime story or otherwise. Readers come back to a series because they love the characters and want to be with them again and again. As do I.

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