Lin Anderson's writing environment could hardly be more different from the grirtty and grusome thrillers she writes about Glasgow forensic scientist Rhona MacLeod. Though the home she shares with her husband John is in Edinburgh's famous "writers' block" of Merchiston inhabited by Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and a non-crime writer by the name of J. K. Rowling.
Lin does most of her writing in the peaceful Highland village of Carrbridge, 20 miles south of Inverness. "My little study looks out on the woods where I hang nuts for the squirrels and I don't have anything to distract me apart from watching them. I don't go off to the coffee shop or anything like that. It's very conducive to writing, I've found," said Lin. "I'm very lucky, because when I walk out the gate and cross the road I'm into Ellen woods and that's a great place to think."
So far, however, the village which was post-retirement home to Lin's detective inspector father after he left Glasgow and where she and husband John had their three children has not been the scene of any of her fictional killings.
"I haven't murdered anyone in Carrbridge yet," In agreed, "but I must admit I'm quite tempted to do a northern book."
So far in her career, Rhona has investigated murders in Glasgow ("Driftnet"), arson in Edinburgh ("Torch") and genetic experimentation in the Hebrides ("Deadly Code"), but for her latest case, "Dark Flight" In has sent her heroine to a place which could hardly be more different from her tranquil Highland hideaway, Nigeria, in a story which draws its inspiration both from a real life murder case, the death of "Adam", the suspected victim of ritual killing whose body was recovered from the Themes in 2002, and her own experience of life in Nigeria where she taught for five years in the early 1980s.
"I've got very fond memories of Africa," Lin said. "It was a fascinating life experience. We lived in a very remote area and that's where I began writing the short stories that were set in Africa and that's where it really started with my writing. I'd always intended doing a bigger piece about Africa and the whole business of juju was just part of life. I've still got a big advert from the Kano newspaper for the local witch-docter and I used part of that in 'Dark Flight' and quoted directly from the advert."
The book also led Lin to research deeply into the illegal trafficking of children between Britain and West Africa.
"I tend to go for stories that I find really interesting or quite frightening and I want to find out a bit more about," she explained. "You also had the forensic story of how they traced the boy who was found in the Thames back to Nigeria. That was the first time something like that had ever been done, and I read somewhere the Met team had contacted the FBI who basically said they had no chance, but they never gave up. They never found the family, but I think the respect they had for that boy and the determination to find out where he'd come from. I was very moved by that."
It is not the first time that one of Lin's books has parallels with a real life case, though what is less usual in this instance is that her fictional version follows the real crime and not the other way round.
"When you are a crime writer you write a story and then you find out what you write about happens, maybe not directly, but it must be some sort of zeitgeist," she said. "When I wrote 'Torch' I wrote about this big fire in Edinburgh. It had been written for some time, but hadn't yet been published and then we had that huge fire in Edinburgh. Then when I did 'Deadly Code', I had bits of the body washing up on the western shores and then we had the case of a young man who was murdered and part of him was found in Loch Lomond and part was found on the west coast in Ayrshire. But to be truthful, whatever we write, it's never near as bad as what actually happens."
In the world of "CSI" and Patricia Cornwall, forensic experts may be popular heroes, but Lin revealed that Rhona's profession was actually the result of a happy accident.
"When I wrote 'Driftnet' the major thrust of the story for me was someone turning up at a scene of crime and thinking the victim was something to do with them and I decided to make it a woman thinking the victim was the son she gave up for adoption 17 years before. That was the core of the story," Lin explained. "Then one of my pupils I taught maths to at Grantown Grammar School, Emma Hart, went off to be a forensic scientist and works for the Met in London. She always talked about her work with tremendous enthusiasm, so I thought in my naivety I would make her a forensic scientist.
"Fortunately for me Emma was very good and made sure I got it right in the first book, but I sort of ended up with it by accident and it ended being something that everyone was interested in the end. And it ended up being fascinating because I then went and did a forensics evening class in Glasgow and a lot of what I learned or had read up or got from Emma, I then saw it or heard it talked about first hand and obviously you make great contacts because the people you meet there are policemen, lawyers, mortuary assistants, anyone who has to give evidence in court, that's why they do the course."
She and fellow crime writer Alex Gray were the only two non-professionals on the course and were asked by John Clark, the chief pathologist at Glasgow, to bring their books along on the last night before the Christmas holidays.
"We sold loads of books, but I have to admit, I thought when we came back we would get all these people coming up to us and saying you got this wrong or you got that wrong, but it was the opposite," Lin recalled. "It was amazing how many people in those professions loved the books.
"It happened too with me when I wrote the second book ("Torch") which was about arson. A fireman read it for me at Lothian and Borders and my fire investigator Servino MacRae became just this huge favourite and they really wanted him back, they wanted his own series. I also have a good contact at the University of Glasgow Archaeological department and Dr Jennifer Miller, who does a lot of forsenic work there, is a big Rhona fan. She helps me out with some of the research, but I don't show her the complete book until it's published." Lin has also picked up new readers with the Metropolitan Police team who investigated the murder of "Adam", the young African boy whose torso was found in the Thames, a suspected victim of a "muti" killing, a murder committed for witchcraft purposes. They asked for a copy of "Dark Flight" after Lin got in touch with them to make sure her book did not conflict with a live investigation. Not only had Lin not originally thought of a forensic scientist heroine, when she came to write her first published book she was not even thinking of a continuing character.
"When I wrote 'Driftnet' I hadn't imagined a series," she said. "I wanted to write a bigger piece, a novel rather than short stories, and I came up with this set of characters who proved to be very popular, so off I went with the next ones. When you write detective-type books, people are as interested in the gang of characters as they are in the crime, so you get the continuing lives of the characters that people are drawn to. When the agent saw it, she really liked the characters so she really encouraged me to develop them. When you sell a crime thriller, which is what I would probably class the Rhona books as, what publishers are looking for is the sense that this is not going to be the one book you write and they will be able to invest in you, as it were, and particularly in that genre."
Though now published by London major Hodder & Stoughton, who also publish Lin's first three books in mass market paperback, she first saw print with Edinburgh based Luath and though she praises the Scottish company for its support, she added: "One problem you have with Scottish publishers, except maybe Canongate, is that they find it very difficult to get distributed in England, but what Luath was able to do, and maybe this goes back to the Old Alliance, was get me into Europe."
Things changed with book four when Lin's new agent Jenny Brown steered her towards an auction between Hodder and Harper Collins. Now the victorious Hodder are hoping to repay that faith and investment by getting behind "Dark Flight", which they are promoting as Lin's breakout book.
In the meantime Lin has also been pursuing other writing paths with a screenplay for a supernatural thriller set in Edinburgh, "Dead Close", and has been working on a cyber-thriller for a Scottish television company.
"I quite like contrast of the two forms of writing," she added. "When I move from the novels to telling the story visually it can be quite a contrast. The old doctrine of 'show don't tell' is even truer for screenwriting."
While on the subject, what are the possibilities of seeing Rhona herself joining the mass ranks of the forensic scientists currently appearing on our television screens?
"I'm a great believer in the time and the place being right," Lin said. "It pops up periodically, but I'm in no hurry."
* "Dark Flight
" by Lin Anderson is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price £12.99.