Aline Templeton lives in Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband and their Dalmatian dog, in a house with a balcony built by an astronomer to observe the stars over the beautiful city skyline. She has worked in education and broadcasting and has written numerous articles and stories for newspapers and magazines. Although LYING DEAD is the third in the DI Marjory Fleming series she has written seven others dating back to 1984.
If you're not a writer yourself, you'll have no idea how terrifying it is to face a blank sheet of paper, or a blank screen, and try to think how to start a book. So I cheat. When I think I have a good, sound idea I live with it for months, sometimes years, before I think of starting, and when I do actually sit down at my desk I have at least the whole of the first paragraph word for word worked out in my head.
My early books were stand-alone novels, so you really do start from nothing – but then, you also have total freedom. It was a big decision to start a series, as I did three years ago. Once I'd deliberately tied myself down to aspecific area, and a specific central character, how would I come up with really fresh ideas? Would I, like Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot, end up hating my main character, and, if I was successful, have to go on writing about the bastard and only be allowed to kill him off once I was dead myself? Did I really want to risk it?
But one day, DI Marjory Fleming came into my mind very clearly. She was a tall, athletic-looking Scotswoman – Big Marge to her subordinates – tough, humorous and sharp-tongued. Before I knew what else she was, I knew what she wasn't: she wasn't a dysfunctional loner, with a string of failed relationships and an alcohol problem. She was the sort of woman you'd find down the local nick, a working mother with a farmer husband, Bill, teenage kids and aging parents giving her the problems all modern women are faced with while tackling the difficult, demanding and fascinating job of a senior police officer.
Her sidekick sprang into life too: DS Tam MacNee, a wee Glasgow hard man with a dubious past, a predilection for quoting Robert Burns, and a self-imposed uniform of trainers, jeans, a white T-shirt and a black leather jacket whatever the weather. It was only recently I remembered that I had met a detective so clad, many years ago, a splendid chap who was talking to me about the work of police dogs in dealing with vandalism. I asked him what they did when they found the culprits – cornered them, snarling, perhaps? He looked at me pityingly and said, 'They bite them.' I never saw him again, but he lives on in Tam MacNee.
With a stand-alone novel, nothing more happens to the characters when the book is finished. You open the box, set them all out, then put them back and shut it again. But give them a series, and it's all different. They have an existence even when you're not writing about them. It's a bit strange to start with – the sense that they're just going on having an ordinary daily life and in the next book you have to catch up with what has been happening to them when you weren't there. You need to accept, too, that you can't change their personalities to suit the plot. They're people, not just collections of useful attributes. With every book more emerges about their past life, their present relationships, their moral principles and their likes and dislikes. It's like getting to know a new friend, and they are still surprising me.
My greatest fear, that I'd be scratching around for ideas, was happily unjustified. Just the other way round, in fact – do you remember how much harder it was in primary school when the teacher couldn't be bothered to think of a topic and just said, 'Write a story about anything you like?' Having the place and the characters established seems a stimulus to creativity and plots suggest themselves out of the situations set up in previous books, and out of the atmosphere of the place.
It was carefully chosen. Galloway, in south-west Scotland, has huge variety. There's a stunningly beautiful coastline as well as hills, forests and lochs. It has towns with proper shops instead of chain stores, and villages and hamlets and estates and farms. There's still an old-fashioned sense of community linking the local people, and whenever I spend time there I discover some new aspect of its character. And it's ideal for tax-deductible holidays – I mean, of course, research trips undertaken wholly and exclusively for business purposes. Honestly, it's pure coincidence it wasn't set in Slough.
But rural areas aren't a paradise any more than inner cities are. The first book in the series, Cold in the Earth, takes place during the foot-and-mouth epidemic and it struck me then that for those of us who live in towns, this was something very much in the past, a bad memory and no more. But the countryside didn't recover when it wasn't a news story any more, and deep scars linger, even today.
It started me thinking about the background to future books. Glossy country magazines promote the countryside as an idyll of meadows full of rosy-cheeked children tumbling about, and pretty cottages with gingham curtains and shelves of jewel-like preserves and the smell of baking never very far away. It's not like that. I grew up in a picturesque fishing village where there's no fishing any more and the wild young men who could have done their risk-taking in gales in the North Sea turn to even more deadly pastimes. My second book, The Darkness and the Deep, was written about that sort of village.
Lying Dead, just out in paperback, is set in a charming hamlet where local people have been priced out by second-home owners, and Lamb to the Slaughter (out in May) starts with a protest meeting when a thriving market town is threatened with a superstore which will strangle local businesses. I've had direct experience of how deeply people feel, on both sides of that argument.
In each case, the background has suggested a plot to me, but then it takes off in ways I never quite expect. When I start a new book, I usually have an idea of the beginning and the end, but it's always a great surprise to read any synopsis I've written after I've finished the book. I attach a warning now that it mustn't be used for publicity purposes – this was after I found, to my horror, the synopsis of one of my early books in the publisher's catalogue, by which time the weapon used, the victim and the names of the characters had all changed. Everyone has a different way of working, but personally, I think if I knew in advance all that was going to happen, I'd get very stale. My motivation for writing is to see what happens next. I'm telling a story to myself as well as to the reader. It seems almost embarrassing to say this – I'm not in the least bit fey, despite my Highland granny – but I always look forward to writing a scene with Tam MacNee because he's funny and caustic and I want to see what he says this time. No, I don’t understand it either. And OK, it's weird. But that's what it's like, for me.
LYING DEAD is published by Hodder Stoughton 24/1/08 pbk £6.99
DI Marjory Fleming
Cold in the Earth (2005)
The Darkness and the Deep (2006)
Lying Dead (2007)
Death is My Neighbour (1984)
Last Act of All (1995)
Past Praying for (1996)
The Trumpet Shall Sound (1997)
Night and Silence (1999)
Shades of Death (2001)
Lamb to the Slaughter (2008)