Location, location, location…

Coming full circle

  What links… Northumberland Norway The south coast Cornwall If you’ve read more than a few of my books you’ve probably know the answer to that already – these are the settings of In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, The Lying Game, and The Death of Mrs Westaway respectively. And now, to that list, I can add the setting for my new book, The Turn of the Key, which is: the Scottish Highlands. It represents a kind of full circle for me – because originally I wanted to set In a Dark, Dark Wood in Scotland, but as I began to write I was faced with the problem that the book is about my protagonist, Nora, being interrogated by the police, and I knew nothing about Scottish policing, which has completely different rules to the English version. And while I had a friendly English copper on hand to give me some procedural advice, I didn’t know any police officers north of the border I could tap for a favour. Being at the time a debut crime writer, I didn’t feel up to ringing up a random police HQ in Edinburgh and begging for advice, so with some reluctance I moved the action juuuust south of the border, to the Kielder forest in Northumberland – which turned out to be a great decision, as the forest setting became integral to the plot (and indeed to the title in most countries). However I always wanted to return to Scotland, and with The Turn of the Key I finally managed it.  

A pull on my imagination

  Why Scotland has such a pull on my imagination is not hard for me to figure out – my mother’s side of the family is from the Spey valley, where the book is set, and while I consider myself definitely English, we spent many holidays there as children, soaking in the almost absurdly majestic beauty of the lochs, mountains, burns and forests, and listening to my grandfather’s stories of kelpies and wee folk, fairy lochs and family legends. A natural storyteller, he would make long treks and steep hill climbs pass quickly as he recounted a rich mix of history and folklore – the fairy loch and the thieves pass, the rowans planted to fend away witches, and the springs that gave health or wealth or whatever characteristic came into his head on any given day. It was always hard to know how much was genuine local legend and how much was simply made up on the spot.

My grandparents are both dead now, and buried in the graveyard at Nethy Bridge, just outside Aviemore, but my extended family still gathers there every year to welcome new members and remember lost ones. And thanks to my grandfather, Scotland still feels to me like a place where the barrier between realities is very thin, and where things that go bump in the night might quite easily be more than just a book falling off the nightstand. In other words, the perfect setting for a slightly spooky tale.