Voices of the Past: S.G. MacLean Discusses the Art of Mastering Your Research


S.G. (Shona) MacLean has recently published the fourth in the popular Damian Seeker series, set in seventeenth-century Britain, and the review of The Bear Pit (Quercus 2019) can be found in HNR 89, August 2019. Her books have been well received within the historical fiction community; Lisa Redmond writes in her review that “MacLean is a writer of immense talent who seems to be getting better with each book. The sights, sounds and smells of seventeenth-century London are brought vividly to life, and the author’s gift for creating varied and interesting characters make this a genuinely gripping historical mystery.”

Before Damian Seeker came along, there were four Alexander Seaton novels published between 2008 and 2013, featuring the eponymous early seventeenth-century disgraced kirk minister who becomes a teacher. Again, these were read and reviewed with high plaudits for the quality of the writing, the plot, and the excellent historical contexts. In reviewing Crucible of Secrets (HNR 58, November 2011) Gordon O’Sullivan has the following assessment: “The period detail is excellent; the Aberdeen of the time is richly imagined, and the dialogue is terrifically subtle. The characterisation too is accomplished with both major and minor characters clearly and enjoyably distinct.”

Shona kindly agreed to discuss some aspects of her writing with the HNS.

Shona has a PhD in a subject covering the period of her fiction, and in elaborating the appeal of this time, she says:

My undergraduate studies at Aberdeen were primarily in Medieval History, but mainly because of availability of sources, for my PhD I moved to the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My interest was, broadly, the education of the laity in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Scotland and how and why it was funded. This may sound rather dry, but it involved many hundreds of hours poring over contemporary diaries, letter-books, sermons, and church and burgh records of almost every description. The city of Aberdeen has an astonishingly well-preserved set of town records dating from the thirteenth century, and from the later sixteenth century they are primarily in Scots, and written in amazingly colourful and evocative language. You can practically hear the tensions, petty jealousies, animosities and anxieties of our seventeenth-century forbears – they speak for themselves, and have a great deal to say. Listening to the voices of the past in this way made me see the people of the past as real flesh-and-blood characters whose concerns were as urgent to them as ours are to us. I think it is in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the middling sort and even the lower orders start to make their voices heard, as individuals as well as groups. The results of this are plain to see in the great conflagrations of the middle decades of the seventeenth century in Scotland and England. I find this period the most natural to write about because I almost feel I know these people.

A typical flaw of the historical novelist is that he or she cannot resist spilling vast quantities of hard-fought research into the text; with an academic distinction in the field, resisting freighting the stories with all kinds of learning is, Shona says:

Probably one of the most difficult balances for an historical novelist to achieve, and it doesn’t come naturally – it’s something I think I’ve learned to get better at over time. Sometimes to readers it might appear that the writer is showing off by parading a lot of research on the page, but actually, I think it’s a symptom of something else – a lack of confidence, a fear of being ‘called out’ for not knowing your stuff, for being a fraud. In the early days for me though, when my period of intense academic research was still very fresh for me, it mattered a lot to me that my readers should understand the context of what I was writing, with all its nuances. Over time, with (quite a few!) gentle nudges from my editor, I have learned to trust more in the momentum of the story and the sparks it can set off in the reader’s imagination. I’ve learned that the key thing is for the writer to master her research and be able to write with a degree of confidence in her material to the extent that the reader has confidence in what’s on the page. ‘Know it, don’t show it’ is probably the simplest way of putting it.

A big difference between academic writing and fiction is that in the former most writers know exactly where they are going and how they get there before drafting an article or book. Fiction can allow the author a little more flexibility to deviate from the route, but Shona explains:

Always…I plan in advance – I have a loose chapter structure of perhaps 8-10 headings. When I start out, the setting comes first, and I usually know who is going to be killed, but not always why or by whom. This comes as I gradually get to know the characters – I find that some work really well, whilst others never rise off the page. I go through a structural check at about a third of the way through the book – I look at which characters are working, which aren’t and what the plot really seems to be about (which is not always what I thought it was going to be about) and then again about two thirds of the way, to make sure I haven’t left any threads hanging or that no characters have gone rogue on me. Having said that, I am currently just over a third of the way through The Man from Bruges and in a state of panic about how I am going to get everyone to the end!

In discussing influences on Shona’s writing career, the obvious starting point is her uncle, Alistair MacLean – a writer of bestselling thrillers mostly from the late 1950s to 1970s, many of which were adapted for film. Indeed, as Shona says:

It would be disingenuous to say anything other than Uncle Alistair, although possibly not in the ways people might imagine. The biggest thing was the knowledge that someone from my background could do it. My grandfather, Alistair’s father, had been a kirk minister, but also a gifted writer, and had several devotional works published when Alistair was a boy, so there has always been a family pride in writing. More than that though, there is the love of the story. I have heard many claims made for novels, usually by novelists, but to be honest, while I want to write as high quality work as I can, what matters most to me is the story, and Uncle Alistair’s career emphasised for me that people love a good story. Certainly until their father’s early death, my father and his brothers lived what appears at a distance to be a classic ‘Boy’s Own’ childhood, and they read all the great Scottish adventure writers – Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan. I’d been published for 10 years by the time I first read any Scott, but I’d already realised that I was trying to write books that I hoped my Dad and his brothers would have liked. More and more I am coming to think that there is a breed of writer who’ll never quite get out of Scott’s long shadow, and, fashionable or not, I’m happy to be one of them. So, there you go: Alistair MacLean, and Sir Walter Scott.

Apart from the family influence, Shona has a number of favourite contemporary historical fiction books: “Ian Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost; Douglas Galbraith’s The Rising Sun and any of James Robertson’s historical novels. I’m quite often sent historical novels for comment, and I’d say S.W. Perry is the name to look out for in historical crime.”

With the United Kingdom and much of the liberal democratic Western world plunged into a variety of identity crises, there’s much scope for the writer of fiction to examine these “interesting times.” Shona is keen to one day try her hand at contemporary fiction.

A few years ago I was practically burning with an idea for a contemporary novel set around the Tarbat peninsula in Easter Ross, where I spent much of my childhood. I have a fairly full synopsis and some sample chapters. My editor’s response was, ‘That’s lovely, Shona, but you’re an historical crime writer.’ Ho hum. Once I have finished the current book (also set in the seventeenth century), I will be moving up to the early nineteenth century for a novel set in the town of Cromarty, on the Black Isle. There may or may not be a murder….

There’s good news for Shona’s readers in that she hasn’t yet tired of her series characters, and hasn’t been tempted, say, to push Alexander Seaton or Damian Seeker off the Reichenbach Falls. As she says:

I can’t give too much away without putting in spoilers for book 4, but anyone who reads to the end of The Bear Pit will see why. Yes, though, I do find it difficult to carry a character over several books. Nevertheless, particularly in Scotland, readers are always asking me if there are going to be any more Alexander Seaton books. I do feel I have some unfinished business with him – the 1640s in Scotland were spectacularly eventful, and I feel I owe it to people who’ve invested in the first four books to finish his story. I hope to get to that in about two years’ time!

Many thanks to Shona for providing some fascinating insights into her writing historical fiction. We look forward to witnessing the further exploits of Damian Seeker.

About the contributor: Douglas Kemp is one of the UK team of review editors for the Historical Novels Review.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 90 (November 2019)

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