Novelist Marsali Taylor is visiting my Travel Thursday blog this week. Hi Marsali, welcome to my blog. Can you tell my readers a bit about your work and what places have inspired your writing.
Hi Karen, thank you for inviting me over. My writing is inspired by my home – the west side of the Shetland Islands.
Now, in early July, it’s light all night. The verges of our single-track roads are bright with rose clover, orange hens-and-chickens, and imperial purple marsh orchids. Fields of buttercups and meadowsweet run down to the dancing sea…but for my sailing heroine Cass’s fifth adventure, I wanted a March setting, with sudden blustery showers churning the sea to white.
More particularly, I wanted a country house to stage a performance by the opera company led by Cass’s French mother. The recently restored Belmont House, on our most northerly island of Unst, is available to hire, so I persuaded our Westside Writers’ group that we could have a fun weekend there.
Belmont is Georgian, with a long, curved window above the porch, and arms of wall coming out to two little pavillions. Inside, it was gorgeous: warm and welcoming, furnished in period, but not so fancy that you didn’t dare walk on the carpets, or put a cup down on the tables. We chose our bedrooms – I was up in a box-bed in the attic – and colonised the sitting room.
We ate by candlelight at the oval dining table. The next morning, we spread out all over the house; I got the little study behind the arched window, with a view down two lines of daffodils to the beach, and the dancing water.
Before dinner, I had a quick soak in the most beautiful bath I’ve ever seen – wood-framed, with a little step to get into it. I knew Cass would love that, and the wide staircase was just perfect for her glamorous Maman to sweep down.
Just being there gave me loads of ideas. I went out to the west pavillion, and tried the under-stair cupboard for size as a hiding place. I tested overhearing voices in the summerhouse. I noticed how sound-proof all the doors were, and that there wasn’t a toilet on the first floor, where there were two bedrooms, meaning people had a legitimate reason to wander about at night …
Better still, I had inspiration for the other strand of plot only three miles away, at Lund. A recent archaeological dig found a sizeable Norse house with a stone frontage facing the sea, and workshops behind. You can still see the terracing of the fields, and the bay below has stone-lined boat noosts. There’s a a twelfth-century church, with Norse crosses beside it, and a headland with reputed Viking graves… Buried treasure – what could be better? It gave me an excuse to send Cass up there by boat, to help guard the sites from treasure-seekers.
As well as history, I like to include folklore in my books, and I had that too, in the ruined House of Lund, which reputedly has the devil’s hoofprint under the doorstep. Between opera singers, treasure hunters, and devil legends, I reckoned Cass would be kept pretty busy.
Our Writers’ weekend created a self-published anthology called Wastside Noir, featuring a number of stories and poems set at Belmont, and we enjoyed ourselves so much that we returned the following year. By then, Ghosts of the Vikings was finished, and it was very strange coming back to the real house after spending a year there in my imagination. I kept expecting to meet Maman playing lady of the house, or Kamilla, sparkling and pretty, or wannabe Bryony in her velvet jacket, or dark, brooding Nicolas. I felt quite affronted to find that the owner of Lund House had taken the walls down to shoulder-height, for safety reasons – I’d written a very spooky scene there. Lundawick, though, was as beautiful as every, with its heart-shape of golden sand, and there was a boat the size of Cass’s anchored right in the middle of the bay.