The place is wildly inspiring as well as tax deductible for a researching writer. I’ve been able to wander castles and ruins, sleep in ghost-inhabited manor houses, visit ancient cairns, medieval churches and old city quarters, all of which have appeared in one book or another; I’ve walked for hours in Edinburgh in rain, sun and fog; I’ve been through the Highlands in all sorts of weather, and some of the Hebridean islands too. I’ve stood on the shores of remote Highland lochs, jumped across fast burns and sunk to my ankles (and wheel covers) in muddy bogs; I’ve walked over narrow inlets and stood on windy cliffsides and sailed on boats through thick dawn mist. Yup, there are places in Scotland that really are as romantic, majestic, and/or atmospheric as reputation claims.
These are officially research trips, so I try to glean info for whatever I’m working on. Sometimes I’ve hit research gold, discovering information that doesn’t exist in books or online searches. A rusty old sign beside Loch Katrine telling about local whiskey smugglers gave me an idea for a novella (“White Fire” in APRIL MOON), and then my next Sarah Gabriel release, THE HIGHLAND GROOM.
On a rainy afternoon in Dunfermline, I met an elderly historian who told me local historical anecdotes that have never been published (except by me!). Those nuggets added a deeper layer to the story I was writing at the time – LAIRD OF THE WIND. The hero, a close follower of William Wallace, feared that he had led betrayers to the patriot. The local traditions helped resolve the plot with a twist (and of course the hero found the love of his life!). Without that rainy afternoon, I might have written the story differently …
Now my visits to Dunfermline—one of my favorite peaceful places in Scotland—will come in handy again. My current novel-in-progress about Queen Margaret of Scotland is set partly in Dunfermline, where Margaret and Malcolm Canmore spent much of their time. Until I can get back to Scotland, memories and digital picture files will do the trick.
And I’ve met people in Scotland who have become lifelong friends, who now visit me when they’re over here. Just last year I explained to a friend, Scottish musician Dougie MacLean (if you don’t know his music, you’re in for a treat!) about a plot problem in LADY MACBETH … how could Macbeth, fatally wounded in battle against Malcolm Canmore, travel the fifty rugged miles from the Highlands to Scone, as recent historical evidence indicates? Macbeth was severely wounded, and it seemed impossible. My friend pointed out that Macbeth would "just take a boat" -– heading for the coast instead of inland as historians assumed, he could have sailed down the firth to the River Tay. That made all the difference to the scene. I put my characters on a longship one more time….
Writing Scotland is a fantastic excuse to go to there, and I’ve often used what I’ve learned there … but more often I research my books at home. Traveling for research is huge fun, but it’s not essential to the writing process, especially for fiction. Many, many authors brilliantly evoke places they’ve never seen.
No matter how much in-depth, in situ research and trekking about we do, ultimately writing good fiction comes down to planting the self in the chair and getting the work done. Good writing relies on quality of imagination and the ability to weave what we’ve learned and imagined into a complete and convincing story fabric. Whether or not we’ve been to the places we write about isn’t the important thing … it’s writing about what we love and what fascinates us, and conveying that in the book. That’s what really counts.
Have you all been to Scotland, and if not, what’s your favorite place to travel (in reality or in daydreams)? Do you notice in a novel when an author seems know the place well, either through traveling or through detail work done from home?
I’m offering a special prize this week, since I mentioned Dougie MacLean, who’s currently on an east coast tour (check his concert schedule for tickets) … a winner chosen at random from comments to this blog will win an autographed Dougie MacLean CD!