New tales of the Old Town: With Stuart Laing

I would like to thank, Author Stuart S. Laing for being my guest on Layered Pages today. He is here to talk about why he chose his characters, the location for his story, period, who he writes for and his writing process. Stuart is a wonderful writer and has been instrumental in my own writing. I have learned so much through him. So please help me welcome, Stuart!

Please allow me to begin by first of all thanking Stephanie for allowing me the opportunity to share a little of my books with you. She is a rock of support that I and many other authors have come to know and appreciate for all the time and trouble she goes to on our behalf.

I write an ongoing series of mystery crime thrillers set in Georgian era Edinburgh prior to the development of the New Town featuring my main character Robert Young of Newbiggin and his family and friends. I try to weave real historical incidents into my tales as much as the plot allows me to do so.

Children of the Shadows

Why Those Characters?

Robert Young, his wife Euphemia, his close friend Captain Travers and Estelle Cannonby all existed prior to the first Edinburgh tale. They first appeared in a series of short stories written for the entertainment of the members of the Bible study group which I attended at the time. I wrote a couple of these short stories set during the 1650’s when my hometown was occupied by the New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell. These were passed around the members of the group who all enjoyed them and asked for more. In the end I was turning out a new short story which followed on from the previous one every week to keep them happy.

When I decided I wanted to write a full length book I knew the characters so well that I didn’t want to leave them behind and so they packed their bags and followed me across the Firth of Forth to have new adventures in the city of Edinburgh.

Robert solves crimes for the challenges it presents him as he strives to prove a client’s innocence, along with the financial rewards this service brings him, although he is rich in his own right from being heir to a small business empire built by his father.

Charles Travers, as captain of the Town Guard, works to prove the guilt of Robert’s clients but they are the best of friends despite this and will work together when required.

One surprise has been how much people have taken the character of Sergeant MacIan to their hearts. He started out in the first draft of A Pound of Flesh as a background character without even a name but he has somehow pushed his way to the fore and despite being a grouchy, crusty old reprobate with an “old fashioned” approach to meting out punishment for the guilty but women especially seem to love him.

Other characters such as Effie, Shona, Kitty and Alice Galbraith were also intended to be just the supporting cast but they also have all became regulars who demand their moment in the spotlight as the series has developed.

I am rather grateful to them all though as they all bring something new to the table and allow stories to develop in ways which I hadn’t even considered earlier.

A Pound of Flesh

Why Edinburgh?

Edinburgh, as a tourist hotspot, is familiar to people from all corners of the world and is a place I have always loved. Its history, its geography, its people, the pubs, museums, shops and culture including the International Festival and Fringe have always been close to my heart. Even as a teenager I loved escaping what I saw as the humdrum of life in a small Fife coastal town for the hustle, bustle, excitement and colour of Edinburgh so when I was looking for a location to anchor the books I knew that Scotland’s capital was the only logical place for me to choose.

It helped that I have several good maps of Edinburgh from the time which are invaluable to me as they not only allow me to visualise the city as it was in 1745 but also names all the closes and wynds (streets and alleys) which existed then.

Modern Edibourough Old Edenbuorgh

The modern photo shows St Giles Cathedral on the Royal Mile (High Street) while the drawing shows the old Tollbooth standing before the church prior to its destruction in 1817 but this is how the High Street would have looked at the time of the books. It’s mad to think that they built a prison in the middle of the busiest street in town but they did. They also built the Guardhouse a little further down the street also in the middle of the road. And we complain about town planners these days.

Why That Era?

I thought long and hard about this. I considered the Regency era and Victorian times as options when the New Town was thriving and there was a clear distinction between rich and poor: the poor had been left behind in the Old Town while the rich now occupied the broad and clean streets of the New. It was tempting to do so but in the end I knew that the 1740’s was a better choice. Edinburgh was still a cramped, walled town only a mile east to west and half that distance north to south but contained more than 70,000 people who lived literally heaped atop one another in towering tenements which at the time were the tallest buildings in Europe. It was that sense of everyone, rich and poor, living cheek by jowl that appealed to me.

The sense of claustrophobia must have been intense at times but from the history it seems that people were proud of their city where everything a man or woman could desire could be found from the markets, stalls and shops on their very doorstep.

Who Are You Writing For?

Hopefully for anyone who enjoys a good yarn whether they are history buffs or not. I know how touchy Historical Fiction fans can be about anachronisms or other errors and I can appreciate where they are coming from (I can’t watch war movies without pointing out things like the German tanks attacking our heroes in Normandy are actually American M48 Patton medium tanks, which is just one reason why my wife won’t watch war movies with me).

I have attempted to stick as closely as possible to the facts when it comes to locations, events and dress but at the same time recognise that the story is more important than whether a button would be bone or brass on a gentleman’s coat. If the story doesn’t hold the reader’s attention then such things simply won’t matter.

The Process of Writing

The first thing is the characters for me. I know them so well now that they have become friends who I have to protect and care for even if they do tend to do their own thing once the writing starts. I always work out the plot from beginning to end prior to starting writing down to the level of what happens in each chapter. Unfortunately the characters themselves tend to take over so the only things which remain unchanged from originally plotting the story to typing The End are the first scene and who the guilty party is. Anything else is pretty much fluid no matter how hard I try to force people to stick to the script!

When I am actually writing I normally sit down at my netbook at lunchtime and will write for on average four or five hours stopping only for regular doses of strong coffee. I need to have the television switched off as it is far too much of a distraction with its pretty flickering colours and images urging me to stop and look at the pictures. Music however is a different story. I work better if I am listening to my favourite music and that can be anything from Pachabel’s Canon in D to Iron Maiden to folky stuff such as the wonderful Birdy and her song Wings. Mumford and Sons, Marillion, Hawkwind, Big Country and The Clash all feature regularly on the soundtrack to every book as I write them.

The biggest secret to any writing process for me is simply this – don’t set yourself unrealistic deadlines. As an Indie author you are in control! You set the targets and create your own goals. Don’t expect to become an overnight success and have Hollywood knocking on your door demanding the right to turn your book into a blockbuster movie. Do it for fun. If you enjoy writing your book then there is more chance that people will enjoy reading it.

Thank you again to Stephanie for allowing me to share my stories with you today. I hope, if you are tempted to try them, that you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed bringing them to you. Now where is my coffee?

You’re welcome and thank you! Now enjoy that coffee!

About Stuart Laing:

Stuart Laing

Born in 1966 and raised on the east coast of Scotland in the ancient Pictish Kingdom of Fife. Stuart has been married to the love of his life for 20 years and they have blessed with a daughter. Completing the household is a cat which is also female leaving him heavily outnumbered.

He has always been fascinated by the history of Edinburgh and has spends most of his adult life studying Scottish history in all its aspects but always find himself being drawn back to the cobbled streets of the Old Town.

He would urge all visitors to Scotland’s ancient capital to (briefly) venture into one of the narrow closes running down from the Royal Mile to get a flavour of how alive with mischief, mayhem, love and laughter these streets once were.

Stuart’s book can be purchased here

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