Marsali Taylor’s Former Job as a Qualified STGA Green Badge Tourist Guide for Shetland has Influenced her Novels
Marsali Taylor’s writing career began with plays for her school pupils to perform in the local Festival. Her first Shetland-set crime novel starring quick-witted, practical sailor Cass Lynch and Inverness DI Gavin Macrae was published in 2013, and there are now ten in the series. Reviewers have praised their clever plotting, lively characters and vividly-evoked setting. Marsali’s interest in history is shown in her self-published Women’s Suffrage in Shetland, and Norse-set crime novella, Footsteps in the Dew. She’s a regular reviewer for the e-zine Mystery People and a columnist for Practical Boat Owner. Hobbies include sailing her 8m yacht, drama and learning to play the flute. She lives on Shetland’s scenic westside with her composer husband, three extremely spoiled cats and a self-willed Shetland pony.
Do you have a “real” job other than writing, and if so, what is it? What are some other jobs you’ve had in your life?
I don’t have a “real job” now but I was a teacher for over thirty years, until I was invalided out following a series of bowel cancer operations. I arrived in Shetland aged 23, green as they come, and taught French, English and Drama at Aith Junior High School, including lessons in the primary department. I was just about to go on to my third generation pupils when I retired. As a teenager I did shop work–my “gap” year was spent in R W Forsyth’s department store on Princes St, Edinburgh, and I also spent a summer working in a casino. Later, I wrote articles for Shetland Life, a monthly magazine, and I qualified as a STGA Green Badge tourist guide for Shetland.
Have any of your jobs outside of writing influenced your writing?
My tourist guiding, definitely. I do miss my pupils, and being in the school among them (particularly in these Covid years, when I haven’t been able to go down and do drama), so that’s why there are so many lively young people in the books, particularly in the last book, A Shetland Winter Mystery, written during lockdown. I was missing my grandchildren too, so I had fun letting the teenagers take centre-stage – my grandson is the age of Berwin in the story, and my granddaughter the age of Dawn.
What compelled you to write your first book?
I’ve always written. My first book, probably mercifully unpublished, was a Georgian romance, as was the second, starring a young actress caught up in the American War of Independence. After those I wrote a detective trilogy, starring a student heroine with mongoose instincts and her Shetland village dwelling great-aunt. Those were fun, and I still hope a publisher might take an interest in them.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Always. My very earliest writing is a little notebook whose first story begins: one day i was at loke horn [Loch Hourn] when we were going to get the rugs we saw something strange in the burn. Joan [my older sister] seid ti was a fox or a deer asleep we made a dash for the nearest gate becasae we knwe ti couldnd de a brown stown. Going by the spelling I think I was five or six.
Tell us a little bit about your book/s
I write puzzle-style mysteries set in Shetland. They’re narrated by Cass Lynch, the sea-mad daughter of an Irish oil-man and a French opera-star. In the first book, Death on a Longship, she’s 29, a hand-to-mouth sailing vagabond living aboard her own small yacht. She’s quick-witted, resourceful, and so far she’s managed to rescue herself from everything I’ve thrown at her.
Shetland’s a watery place: a jigsaw piece of green hills set in the middle of the North Sea. Many families still live in houses built by their grandfathers – and yes, everyone knows everyone! If Cass needs to find out about a suspect, well, her retired fisherman pal Magnie will give her their entire life story. It’s a beautiful place, with cliffs noisy with seabirds, the sun dancing on the water, the ditches bright with wildflowers… and bairns, du kens, I do lik throwing in words fae wir distinctive dialect.
The activites of our hectic life are woven into my plots. The Trowie Mound Murders has a big scene at the local Agricultural Show. For A Handful of Ash, I had fun describing what country children get up to at Halloween: guizing, kale-casting, and of course the local party, where Cass gets hauled in to judge costumes and neepie lanterns. The Body in the Bracken ends with the first Viking fire festival of the year. Ghosts of the Vikings features archaeology, and a period house filled with temperamental opera singers. My goriest novel, Death in Shetland Waters, has Cass aboard a tall ship. The most recent one, A Shetland Winter Mystery, focuses on local feeling about the giant wind-turbines going up on our beautiful hills. Don’t think I’m just skylarking – there are clues a-plenty among the local colour.
Do you belong to any writing forums or organizations that have helped spur your career as a writer? If so, tell us about them and how they’ve helped you.
I’m a member of the Westside Writers, who meet monthly. When we began we were all unpublished, and over twenty years we’ve become dear friends who encourage each other and glory in each other’s triumphs – every WW launch is a big occasion involving serious cake and bubbly. I try to write a short story on each theme set for the month, and I’ve used several of these in my website blog or for competitions–one was shortlisted for the Margery Allingham prize. I’d advise every author to join the Society of Authors. They’re our union, who will advise on contracts, but they also ran a wonderful series of online workshops during lockdown, as well as local Zoom meetings – I’m in the ‘Scottish Islands’ group, along with new writing friends from Orkney, Skye and the Western Isles. As well as the SoA, there’s an association for every genre of writing, and I’ve had such fun with my fellow crime-writers at the CWA conferences. They’re held in a different town each spring, and include talks from local police officers, forensics folk and crime historians as well as chances to publicize your own work in a local library or bookshop. The spring was Torquay, and oh, it was good to see everyone again.
How did you feel the day you held the copy of your first book in your hands?
My very first book was an edition of two of the plays I’d written for my pupils to perform and I still remember the thrill of opening that envelope and holding it in my hands. I’d made it at last; at the age of fifty, I was the real author I’d always dreamed of being.
What type of music, if any, do you listen to while you write?
I absolutely don’t, and if the school janitor starts up the mower on the football pitch I head off for a sail, or go for a walk until he’s finished.
What inspires you and motivates you to write the very most?
The story itself. I love telling stories, and for me too much pre-planning spoils the fun of discovering what happens next. Once the story starts unrolling in my head I just want to keep writing. I don’t always know who the killer was until the final chapters.
What one thing are you the most proud of in your life?
One writing thing? The lovely letter I got from a fellow sailor and cancer-sufferer who’s now a friend. She was having treatment, and someone brought her the first Cass novel, which she said transported her from the awfulness of hospital and treatment into sailing Shetland with Cass. She’s now completely better, and sailing her own boat again; this summer she’s sailing round Britain to raise funds for Macmillan–including coming to Shetland. We writers often feel we’re not really doing our bit for a society with so many problems, sitting in our comfortable rooms spinning stories. That letter made me feel what I’m doing is worthwhile.
What about your family? Do you have children, married, siblings, parents? Has your family been supportive of your writing?
I have a wonderful husband who’s a composer, and so totally understands the pressure of creative work. He’s much better than I am at being disciplined–I’ve learned from him that nothing happens unless you keep a routine, although I’m still tempted outside on sunny days! My daughter’s an actor/director, married to another director, and they live in London with their teenage children. I love visiting them, and we have fun doing ‘London’ things like theatre and museums.
The main characters of your stories – do you find that you put a little of yourself into each of them or do you create them to be completely different from you?
With Cass I set out to create someone different from me: small, dark curly hair, whereas I’m tall and chestnut, 30 to my 60, tongue-tied with people and a loner where I’m a chatterbox; what we have in common is our love of the sea, but with me it’s a hobby, with her it’s a way of life. People still say they hear my voice when they’re reading, but I feel like she’s a little sister who will not take good advice. At the same time I do try to make her the sensible Everywoman we’d all like to be in a dangerous situation: Cass wouldn’t go upstairs in that lonely house when she knows there’s a murderer about without a compelling reason. For other characters, I start out with what I need them to do in the rough idea for the book which is my starting point, then think about what sort of person would do that. It always feels like an acting job; while I’m writing, I’m in the characters.
6: When growing up, did you have a favorite author, book series, or book?
I was a voracious reader when I was young. My first books were the Narnia books, along with the Enid Blyton Five Find-outer series. I loved the Elinor Lyon Ian and Sovra series, set in the West Highlands, and the Monica Edwards Romney Marsh and Punchbowl Farm series – I re-read them during lockdown and enjoyed them hugely.
7: What about now: who is your favorite author and what is your favorite genre to read?
Now I read all sorts of books: factual, nature, history, modern novels, classics. At the moment I’m working my way through Rumer Godden’s novels, and fighting through Hornblower in Norwegian (because that’s what the library had in norsk, which I’m learning, ready for my next Norwegian tall ship adventure). Conversely, crime is what I read least, except for review books and my cherished collection of “oldies”–John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L Sayers and Josephine Tey. In times of stress or sickness, I reach for Georgette Heyer and submerge myself in her version of the Regency–or, of course, Jane Austen, but I’ve now read her few books so often I have to ration myself to once every two or three years.
Location and life experience can sprinkle their influence in your writing. Tell us about where you grew up and a little about where you live now – city? Suburb? Country? Farm? If you could live anywhere you want to live, where would that be?
I live in rural Shetland (that means not Lerwick), on the beautiful west side, overlooking Cass’s sailing territory. This is my ideal world: I know my neighbours, there’s a real community spirit with lots going on, it’s beautiful, it’s crime-free, the shop, garage, leisure centre and most importantly, the marina where my boat’s kept are all within walking distance. If I could change it, those street lights would go, so that I could see the stars again, and the school janitor would mow his football pitch only once a fortnight.
Do you have any pets? What are they? Tell us about them
We have three very spoiled cats. The oldest is a big stripy who arrived in our garden as a young stray; he’s dignified and moves only at a leisurely pace. Our two girls are mother and daughter, both tortoise shells, but mother is a little elegant china marquise, and daughter is more like a Russian duchess dressed up to go troika riding, with an extravagant white ruff and a yard of fluffy tail. The mother is my special cat, who sits on my desk or in my lap while I’m writing and keeps me company while I read.
Where do you write? Set the scene for us when you are writing. What does it look like? On the couch, laptop, desk? Music? Lighting, handwriting? Or do you write at a coffee shop or other location?
My writing room is the smallest in the house, and I have my table/desk in one corner, beside the window facing the sea. The walls are pale gold, and the carpet is dark green with a gold border. There’s a corner china cabinet that belonged to my grandfather, and on the shelves are family things, including the last surviving cups from my great-grandmother’s wedding present tea-set from her employer (she married in 1879). There are two tall bookcases, and several shelves with files. Some day I’d love to paper one wall in Chinese paper, or paint it myself. I write direct onto my computer, then print out each chapter as I finish, and keep the growing pile of paper in a file between the computer and the keyboard, so that as I have a good idea which should go in earlier I can note it in the right place. About three-quarters of the way through I’ll go back to the start and re-draft, then go on to the ending. Once I’ve done that I put it into my Kindle, to get the readers’ experience, read, redraft again, and finally it goes to my agent for her comments.
Do you watch television? If so, what are your favorite shows? Does television influence of inspire your writing? : What about movies? Same as above.
We don’t have a live TV, but do buy box-sets at Christmas and watch an episode or two a night between Christmas and New Year. This year’s was the Hornblower series; we’ve also enjoyed Nordic noir series like The Bridge and old BBC classic serials. We both love films, and have a screen and overhead projector to watch them. Philip likes action movies, I prefer drama, so we take it in turns to choose. I’d love one of the Cass books to be turned into a film–Shetland would be fantastic in widescreen.
How long did it take you to write your most recent (or first) book? When you started writing, did you think it would take that long (or short)?
I take a year to finish each book: thinking about it over the summer, jotting down character and plot ideas, then settling down to write once the days get darker and the water gets colder. By October I’m into my daily writing routine and the book should be more or less written by late spring, then my editing, followed by Headline’s editing, happen over the summer, as I’m starting to consider the next book…and (breaking news) I’m delighted to have been signed up for three more Cass novels, so that’s me occupied till 2024.
Is there anyone you’d like to specifically acknowledge who has inspired, motivated, encouraged or supported your writing?
My former head teachers Bill Anderson and Glenda Moffat who encouraged the whole-school pantomimes and drama festival entries which were my first published writing, and my agent, Teresa Chris, who had faith in me to be publishable, and stuck with me for the five years when nobody else thought so.
Is there any one particular book that when you read it, you thought, “I wish I’d written that!”?
So many–it happens all the time. I have to keep reminding myself that the books I write are my unique voice. Maybe other writers are thinking that about them!
What is your main goal or purpose you would like to see accomplished by or with your writing?
When I first came to Shetland, everyone south asked ‘But what will you find to do with yourself up there?’ I’m on a crusade to show Shetland as the amazing place it is.
How has having a book or being published in a book changed your life?
I’m not sure it has…I’m always surprised when someone’s heard of me.
Many authors have said that naming their characters is a difficult process, almost like choosing a name for their own child. How did you select the names of some of your lead characters in your books?
Names are so important! It’s sort of easy in Shetland, where there’s a smaller pool of Norse-influenced surnames: Anderson, Georgeson, Johnson, Johnston, Peterson, Williamson etc along with a few beauties like Hoseason. If my character is a Shetlander, they do need a Shetland name, and there’s also an age element – for example, Ruby or Margaret would tend to be grandmother-age, and Tamar and Baabie are traditional names for the over-eighties. The tradition of naming your first girl after the mother’s mother is gone, and young girl names include individual spellings like Kaylee and Wendi. Boys, intriguingly, are still called after their fathers and grandfathers–have a look at the ‘births’ column of the Shetland Times! It’s as if the fathers let their daughters be called any pretty sound, but put the foot down over their sons, who need a “right name.” I do worry a bit about using the name of a real person, but it’s hard to avoid. I look up the phone book and, for example, give my Georgeson character a first name with an initial that’s not in the phone book, and I avoid a combination which is the name of someone I know or have taught.
For characters who aren’t Shetlanders, I tend to look across at my bookshelves and take their surname from there, and then look up baby names from a particular decade online. Each name needs to be distinct visually, as that’s easier for the reader to remember who’s who, so I skim through the initial letter I want looking for one whose meaning suggests their personality. Nobody’s mentioned it yet, but the names of the main family in A Shetland Winter Mystery are linked by meaning to the Norse gods they’re associated with.
It’s said that the editing process of publishing a novel with a publisher is can be grueling and often more difficult than actually writing the story. Do you think this is true for you? How did you feel about editing your novel?
I love the editing process. For me the hard bit is when you’re struggling to create the story in the first place. After that it’s pure fun, seeing what needs to be fixed and fixing it. After draft 3 at home, it needs a new eye, and my agent, Teresa Chris, is fantastic for that. My editor at Headline, Celine Kelly, is super–she homes straight in on the places where I haven’t thought a character or plot point through properly.
Now that you area published author, does it feel differently than you had imagined?
It absolutely does! It’s incredibly exciting to go into a bookshop and actually find my books there, and every so often I get an e-mail from a reader, saying they’ve just discovered my books and love them – that always makes my week! I think one of the ones that touched me most, and made me feel I was doing something worthwhile, was from a fellow-sailor who was struggling with cancer treatment. She said being out on the water with Cass got her through it. On the minus side, well, now I’m being published by one of the “biggies” Headline, then I feel more pressure to produce a book a year, to keep up my writing routine, to do CPD by going to Society of Author lectures and crime festivals and doing online courses, in short, to be professional about my writing. It’s still fun but it’s serious too. I just wish I could convince other people that writing is work–if I had £1 for everyone who looks blankly at me when I say I’m still a working woman, and then says, “Oh, that isn’t work” when I remind them I’m a writer, I’d be drinking champagne more often…
Is there anything else you want your readers to know about you? Include information on where to find your books, any blogs you may have, or how a reader can learn more about you and writing.
My books are available in your local indy bookshop or Waterstones, and also on Amazon–or do please ask your local library to stock them. They’re all out on Kindle, and some are available in Audible. They can be read in any order, as each murder is self-standing, but there’s also a slow-growing relationship between Cass and the investigating policeman, DI Gavin Macrae, throughout the series. I have a website, wwwmarsalitaylor.co.uk, which includes beautiful photos of Shetland and the occasional blog or short story in the Members’ Area.
Thank you, Marsali, for a glimpse into your writing process and how the scenery and setting of Shetland are part of it,