A few weeks ago I met Colin Garrow at the foot of Bennachie (the iconic ‘hill’ of Aberdeenshire). Temperatures were freezing, but we had a pleasant walk and a hot coffee afterwards. We thought it would be a fun idea to interview each other and that’s what we did. You can find my answers to Colin’s questions on his web page. Here are Collin’s answers to my questions.
You’ve mentioned in interviews that you wrote stories when you were young. Can you remember the very first story that you wrote? If yes, what was it about?
The first one I can remember writing was intended to be a novel. It was inspired by ‘2112’ (an album by Canadian rock band, Rush), and was a sort of sci-fi/caveman-type epic. By the time I got to the fourth page, I’d run out of ideas.
Instead of studying literature, like most people think writers do, you went to drama school. What part of drama school influenced your writing the most?
The course I did was more about community drama than acting, so we learned lots of things about running workshops, working with community groups and creative arts, as well as putting on a few plays. Working with other actors helped me to see what worked on stage and what didn’t, and the different styles of theatre (Brechtian, naturalistic, physical etc) all influenced what I went on to write, though it’s more difficult to say how that happened. Basically, my writing suddenly improved, so I can only attribute it to what I learned on the course.
You have written a number of books for children. Did you tell your child/children your own bedtime stories or did you stick to the published ones at the time?
I wouldn’t want to pressurise my son to read my work, though he has read a few chapters from a couple of my books. So, no, when we went through the story-at-bedtime bit, I stuck to books we liked, progressing from the likes of, ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’, to ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks.’
In the Christie McKinnon stories, your protagonist is female. Why did you choose to write these stories from a female point of view?
The first two children’s novels I wrote had boys as the hero (though both had female sidekicks), so when I started on ‘The Hounds of Hellerby Hall’ I deliberately chose a girl (with a boy for a sidekick). It was also interesting to think about how she would react to the situations she found herself in and how she was influenced by her surroundings – changing attitudes to women etc. Nevertheless, she turned into more of a tomboy than I wanted her to be.
A lot of your stories are set in the past. This requires a lot more research (i.e. time) for writers. What exactly attracts you to write about ‘the olden days’?
Well, research is a matter of opinion – of course it’s possible to do masses of research, but I didn’t want my books to be packed with historical facts, throwing in historically-accurate descriptions just for the hell of it. I wanted just enough detail to give a sense of authenticity. With the ‘Maps of Time’ series, I read a couple of books, the best of which was, ‘Restoration London: Everyday Life in the 1660s’ by Lisa Pickard, as it has loads of info about food, money, jobs and housing. However, I think it’s easy to get bogged down in facts and I didn’t want to bore my readers, so unless I need specific information, I tend to just make it up!
As to why I write historical fiction – I think it’s that I’ve always had a fascination with the past and how amazing it would be to go back and see what it was like. So I created worlds I hoped would come over as realistic.
Most of your stories are ‘whodunnits.’ Did you ever solve a mystery yourself?
Sadly no. Actually, I’m not at all perceptive and things that’d be really obvious to anyone else tend to go over my head. The only time I can solve mysteries is if when I invent them. (Although, to be fair, since I never know how they’re going to end, I still have to solve them – does that count?)
Besides a number of novels, you have also written a number of short stories and flash fiction. Do you prefer one above another and why?
Short stories are a great way of exploring an idea, so they’re useful exercises if I want to try different writing styles, or genres. I also like them because they force the writer to be concise, throwing away longer passages that might work well if it were a novel, but interrupt the flow in a short story.
I think generally I prefer novels, since they give me something substantial to work on, whereas if a short story isn’t working, I put it aside. At the moment, I’ve got about a dozen stories I’ve started but haven’t yet found interesting enough to finish.
Where/when/how do you get your inspiration for your stories?
In the past, I’ve tried writing exercises as a way of ‘discovering’ something to write about, but now I have a very specific way of working – I come up with a title and use that as inspiration. The first Christie McKinnon book was inspired by Joan Aiken’s ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’, though it was specifically the title that inspired me, because I liked the alliteration and wanted a title of my own that sounded similar, hence ‘The Hounds of Hellerby Hall’. Once I had the title, I wrote the book to discover what had happened at the Hall and why there were hounds involved.
With ‘Death on a Dirty Afternoon’ it was slightly different, because I also had a first line. In my book on writing, I’d come up with examples of first lines to show how they might be developed. One of them became the first line of the novel, so I had the title and the first line to inspire me. Other than that, it’s just a matter of writing until I get to the end.
Is there a particular issue you prefer not to write about and, if so, why?
Not sure. I probably wouldn’t write, say, a political thriller, because I don’t know enough about politics to write intelligently on the subject. However, I think it’s important for writers to grow, so I wouldn’t rule anything out.
If one of your books was chosen to put into a movie, which one would you choose and why?
It would have to be ‘The Architect’s Apprentice’, just because it would be brilliant to see the streets and houses recreated.
What is the ‘most unknown book’ you’ve read that influenced you as a person (not necessarily as a writer)?
I couldn’t tell you the title, since it’s long since vanished into the rubbish tip of my mind, but it was a book I read dozens of times as a kid. It was about a little boy whose dad is missing in Africa, so the boy builds an aeroplane out of bits of junk and flies to Africa to rescue him. It was a lovely book and I still think about it today.
What was the best advice regarding writing you ever received?
It has to be Stephen King’s words of wisdom on the two things you have to do to be a writer:
- Read a lot.
- Write a lot.
You can find all of Colin’s books here.