Catriona McPherson’s first novel about debutante sleuth Dandelion Dahlia Leston nee Gilver, After The Armistice Ball, was shortlisted for the Ellis Peers Historical Dagger.
Nine books later and Dandy Gilver is as popular as ever. The latest, Dandy Gilver And The Reek Of Red Herrings – available in hardback and on kindle right now! – is set on the windswept Banffshire coast, where Dandy and her trusty sidekick Alec Osborne investigate murder in a picturesque fishing village.
So Crime Thriller Fella is tickled pink that former university lecturer Catriona has agreed to give us the intel on Dandy, the Golden Age of detective fiction and how having your book edited is a bit like being stripped to your knickers…
Tell us about Dandy Gilver…
Dandy’s gently born, carefully brought up, suitably married off . . . then it all went a bit pear-shaped. Bored witless with the life of an upper-class lady after WWI, she took up detecting. She’s getting pretty good at it.
What gave you the inspiration for your latest Dandy novel, The Reek Of Red Herrings, set in a remote Scottish fishing village?
Haha! I actually know the answer to this. You’ve no idea how rare that is. I was leafing through a glossy book on Scottish architecture and came across a chapter on the cottages of Crovie, which sparked a childhood memory of having been there. Crovie (pronounced Crivvy) is tucked into a notch of north-facing coastline that you might think was barely big enough to spread a picnic blanket. The people who built their homes there were almost literally swept off the land during the clearances and all but fell into the sea.
There’s one road – very steep and twisty – and it struck me that a single tree coming down in a storm would cut the whole place off in just the way locked room murders require. Needless to say, the story took on a life of its own and most of it happens along the coast a mile or two in the comparatively enormous village of Gamrie. I managed to hang on to the storm.
As a writer, what attracts you to the 1920s and 30s?
Well, not having to know about forensics and ballistics certainly doesn’t hurt. I wrote the first Dandy Gilver story to entertain myself in between viable professional writing projects. This is a perfect example of my career planning. I love the British golden-age and it seemed that all the writers of it – Sayers, Allingham, March, Tey, Innes – were dead and unlikely to provide any new stuff. Of course, Kerry Greenwood, Jacqueline Winspear, Carola Dunn and more are alive, kicking and writing wonderful golden-age-style fiction, but I didn’t know that.
Your stand-alone books tend to be more serious affairs – is it important to you that you exercise different writing muscles?
That’s got an impressive ring to it, but I’d be lying if I claimed so. I think what it is is that we can accept a level of bonkersness in 1930 that’s a lot harder to swallow in the present day. So when I write a contemporary story it naturally takes a more realistic turn than Dandy Gilver sleuthing in a circus or a boarding school with her Dalmatian at her side. Mind you, the darkness is leavened with humour in the modern stories too. I can write harrowing (apparently) but I can’t write solemn. Broadchurch with a touch of Dinnerladies just about captures it.
I’m fine with that; life is funny even when it hurts.
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
I used to write first and do everything else once my daily 2K was out. But then I moved to California and two things went wrong. First, it’s stinking hot in the afternoon in the Sacramento valley and it makes sense to do any running about early on. Also, my agent and my editor at Hodder are eight hours ahead so I have a tight window every morning to deal with anything they send me before everyone in London goes home for the day.
So, these days, I ease into my writing with chores, emails, blogs and social media and then get down to it just as the lizards move into the shade. I work at home most of the time but when I’m having trouble I go to a coffee shop in my little college town. All those exhausted students trying to jam more physics and statistics into their aching heads makes me feel lucky to be writing stories.
How do you deal with feedback?
The process of having your book edited is a bit like being in the changing room of a posh department store. You’re stripped to your knickers with wrap-round mirrors, while someone brings you either a. exactly what you knew you were looking for or b. purple hotpants with an integral boa or c. something you never would have thought of but can recognise as pure genius. If I don’t get a. I look hard for c. and try not to experience any edits as the hotpant-boa-combo.
I think the most important thing I’ve learned about negative feedback is not to defend my writing. If Editrix Lestrange (Suzie Doore) says it’s confusing/boring/implausible then it’s confusing/boring/implausible. If I disagree it’s because I didn’t put the things in my head onto the page.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
Oh, Stephen King. First and last, Stephen King. And Joyce Carol Oates in between. Those are my two living heroes. They’re both expansive, confident and, above all, big-hearted writers whose voices sing out to me. A paragraph from either one of them couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else.
Give me some advice about writing…
Finish the book. Keep going when it’s gets ugly. Don’t skip bits. Don’t polish as you go and don’t ever – ever – put it away half-made and start another one. You never know what you’ve got until it’s out of you. (Then polish like crazy and scrap it if it’s hopeless (but finish the book.))
What’s next for you?
I’m going to be researching the setting for the next Dandy Gilver while I’m in Scotland this autumn. I might start writing it before I go home in November, but more likely I’ll wait and then I’ll be the jammy besom in Mishka’s coffee shop in Davis, CA, getting to make up stories instead of studying for exams.