Across the books and in person.

Welcome! Since I write two English mystery series, I thought it would be fun to chat about that. And about England. Specifically, Derbyshire, since that is the county I know the best. If you have questions about my books, about mysteries or your own writing, or want to know something about England -- perhaps you're planning a visit -- I'd love to talk with you. Let's start chatting, shall we?

Derbyshire VIllage

Derbyshire VIllage

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bonnie Scotland

Just returned Tuesday (late afternoon) Dec 14 from a whirlwind trip to Edinburgh.  Left Wed, Dec 8.  First time I've been to Scotland in the winter.  And it was perfect timing...  Don't know how up to date you've been with the British weather forecasts but Scotland and England were dumped on about two weeks ago -- snow and ice.  Roads were closed, motorists were stranded in their cars, ice....  We made it into Edinburgh without any problems and had a glorious six days in the city and in the countryside.  The snow was melting during our stay, dripping off the eaves, creating puddles of water in the streets and sidewalks -- which wouldn't usually be a problem, but the shop owners didn't clean the sidewalks or throw down salt!  So we walked over lumpy blankets of frozen snow -- quite treacherous.

Took a one day trip up to Loch Ness -- nice to get out of the city and see the land again.  Not that I despise Edinburgh (I don't), but I love the countryside and villages the best.  We saw Ben Nevis on our way up there on Sunday -- tallest mountain in Britain.  A lot of climbers fall due to banana skins on the slopes.  Honest!  Hikers take along lunches to eat on their climbs and they toss the banana skins, thinking the skins are biodegradable (makes sense).  Well, the temps are below freezing on Ben Nevis so the skins do not decompose.  Along comes snow, covers the skins, the snow freezes on the skins, a walker tromps unknowingly on the skin and slips....  We heard on the news Sunday night that a climber had died that afternoon!  Mountain Rescue group with helicopter had been called out, etc, but the guy had died.  I think he'd fallen into a crevice.  Can't quite recall.  Anyway, it was very eerie knowing that we'd been in that exact area that day.

The reason for going to Edinburgh was to attend the final concert of the McCalmans, the Scottish folk singing group I'd "been St Louis agent" for in 1980.  Hadn't seen Ian (the leader) for thirty years.  The gray hair was the only thing that gave away his age -- he sang and played as well as ever, and his famous patter was still quite funny.  The group played a mixture of old favorites and new songs.  The only disappointment was that Hamish, one of the original members who had retired in 1982 (to be replaced by Nick Weir) wasn't brought in for a song or two on stage.  He attended the concert (I talked to him afterward, in the bar) but didn't participate.  Would've been super to hear him sing one last time.  The concert was on Friday, Dec 10 at The Queen's Hall.  The following evening, Saturday, Dec 11, we attended a private "farewell" party at Ian's home.  I felt a bit sad being there due to the occasion, but was honored to be included in the intimate group of Ian's friends.  Got to chat with him for a bit (the place was packed) before we went back to our bed-and-breakfast.

Spent most of our time in Edinburgh doing tourist things like shopping, touring Holyrood Palace, and touring Mary King's Close.  The Close is part of the historical section of the Old Town, a rediscovered area that was the home for hundreds of people in the middle ages until around 1900.  There were many such sections in Edinburgh, but this Close is, I believe, the only one open for touring.  Edinburgh is built on an incredibly steep hill.  It was also a walled city.  As the population increased, there was no place for people to build homes but upwards.  Dwellings were built stacked on top of previous ones so that skyscrapers developed upward to around fourteen stories tall!  Imagine medieval, cramped, narrow streets...then imagine fourteen stories height to these buildings.  Hardly any sunlight would penetrate to the bottom of the street.  The Close was a slightly different story -- because they could not continue building upward (due to the foundations of the buildings), the poor people burrowed INTO the side of the hill.  These stacked 'skyscraper' buildings ran up the hill, giving each one a slightly different ground level.  By digging into the base of the building, INTO the side of the hill, you created a room at right angles to the building.  More and more people burrowed into the underground and connected their one-room dwellings to each other via underground "streets".  Again, imagine being underground and living like this -- an entire family confined to ONE room of living, no windows, no fresh air, no light.  The smoke from their cooking fires, odors from the bucket in the corner....  Deplorable conditions.  It was fascinating to see this, yet heart breaking, knowing people endured this for their entire lives, century after century of this existence.  If a family member caught the plague, the mother had a heart breaking decision of whether to keep that member with the family -- thereby practically ensuring the entire family would catch the plague and die -- or seal that member in a separate room underground, confining the person to the dark, locked in area so that the rest of the family could survive.  A certain death.  Just horrible.

When we emerged from the Close and walked back onto the High Street, we saw hundreds -- literally hundreds -- of kilted soldiers coming out of St. Giles Cathedral right across from the Close.  HUNDREDS.  They kept coming and coming and coming out of the cathedral.  They boarded several of those large tour buses.  Our best idea was that they had attended a memorial service for fallen comrades, just back from a tour of duty to Afghanistan, perhaps.  There's something about guys in handsome and so brave.

Holyrood Palace was extremely interesting.  In the state dining room I stood behind the chair in which Queen Elizabeth II sits while at the table.  Kind of fun, that!  In the older section of the palace we walked through Darnley's bedroom, up a small twisting flight of steps of a tower and then saw the tiny room in which Mary, Queen of Scots and her secretary, David Riccio supped.  A quick history lesson, in case your memory isn't up to snuff: when Mary was six months pregnant in March of 1566, Darnley joined a group of Scottish nobles who broke into her supper room and dragged Riccio into another room and stabbed him to death.  It's odd seeing it.  I don't know about you, but when I read the history of Mary, Darnley, Riccio et all I envisioned Mary and Riccio dining in a large room, with her ladies in waiting attending her, perhaps standing along the walls.  Nope.  TINY room.  NO bigger than a common bathroom -- in fact, smaller than our bathrooms.  Probably about eight feet square.  To think of a table being in there, two chairs, and Mary and Riccio....  Amazing they could fit.  So seeing the room and imagining the two people there, then imagining Darnley and his supporters dragging Riccio out of the room, through Mary's bedroom and into a large room where Riccio was murdered....  Well, it really changed my mental image of the whole thing.  I love being in places that I've read about, where something that I've learned a bit about happened.  It gives me a personal link to the past and I feel more empathy to the people who were part of that event.

Holyrood is at the bottom of the hill that comprises the High Street; Edinburgh Castle is on the other end, at the top of the hill, which is befitting for a castle that needs defending.  When I'd previously been to Edinburgh I'd toured the castle and, therefore, the upper section of the High Street.  Going to Holyrood took me to the other end -- and I'm glad I did.  The architecture seems more medieval there, the street narrower and steeper.  I felt as though I really were in the medieval era.  That part of the street had a different feel -- more history and less touristy (though there is absolutely nothing wrong with the castle section of the High Street).  The High Street is also referred to as the Royal Mile, due to the two main buildings that bookend it.  It's actually a bit longer than a mile, but that's not important.  I enjoyed walking it and seeing the old city.

I came back from Scotland with a new plot for the next McLaren book, too.  I was going to write another Taylor and Graham after I finish McLaren's third book, but I think I best strike while the idea is hot!  I did finish the first draft of book three two hours before I left on my trip, so all I have to do now is smooth off the draft's rough edges.  Probably take me a few weeks.

Besides Christmas shopping and getting a few fun things for myself (that's part of the fun of going to Britain!), I came back with a very handsome tie for McLaren to wear in the next photo shoot.  The fabric is the McLaren tartan!  How fun is this!  I can envision the shot: McLaren, looking thoughtful, with the neck of his shirt open and the tie loosened at his throat.

Two things I found that had changed in the thirty-plus years since I've been to Scotland: the tourist centers/gift shops no longer have those carousels offering strips of slides for sale (like interiors of castles, etc where you aren't allowed to take your own photos) and there are a lot of foreigners!  Especially least right now, in Edinburgh, in December.  Why the cold, dreary climate???

Edinburgh was festive in its strands of white lights.  Very much in the holiday spirit.  Many of the gift shops had 1940s music playing, which I found interesting and odd.

We lucked out on the weather: as I said, we just missed the main snow storm the week previous to our visit.  The forecast as we left Tuesday was for another major snow storm to arrive the following day.  Doesn't sound all that bad, motorists stranded, etc, but when you think that the large trucks carrying gasoline are also stranded....  Many gas stations were closed because they had no gas to sell.  Companies weren't accepting orders from Scotland because they couldn't get the purchases to the buyers in time for Christmas.  The Royal Mail had tons of mail it had to get delivered, but with the roads closed....  Not the best time for this bad weather.  So, as I said, we were indeed fortunate to get there during that week's weather break.  I loved seeing the snow on the hills, but I do feel for the people who are suffering through this.

Anyway, it was a fantastic trip and I am still amazed my family did this for me.  I don't see how I can ever adequately thank them.