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Highland writer's book research trip in damp footsteps

By Margaret Chrystall

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Shona MacLean, new book returns to York.
Shona MacLean, new book returns to York.

Even with Oliver Cromwell dead and his ‘fixer’ Damian Seeker fled to America, Conon Bridge historical crime writer Shona MacLean still found a good reason to reignite her Seeker book series.

The characters which surrounded Damian in the earlier books deserved the next chapter of their own stories, the writer decided.

And after her last book The Bookseller Of Inverness, set among the Jacobites after Culloden – a huge critical success and bestseller – Shona felt she needed a break from that period of history and writing about home.

The Winter List fast forwards her to the Seeker’s time – and good news for some who thought The House Of Lamentation was the last book.

Out on Thursday, The Winter List shifts focus from Damian Seeker to follow the fortunes of beautiful spy Lady Anne Winter, her Scottish maidservant Grizel, lawyer Lawrence Ingolby and some others who must now learn to cope with English politics turning itself on its head, as the Stuart kings return to power.

Puritans out, royalists in.

Now the raunchy, fun-loving Charles II is in power – with revenge in mind. His agents are hellbent on digging out and disposing of any of the late Oliver Cromwell’s biggest remaining allies still left and hunting for “the regicides” responsible for the death of his father Charles I.

Research for The Winter List meant Shona returning to a city she loves, York – where the book is set – a necessity to refresh and check some vital details.

But in one way, that trip meant an unforgettable experience for all the wrong reasons for Shona – though she has captured it in the book.

“I really like York and was sorry that I couldn’t take this book out of the city because I like the North York moors as well,” she said.

“I did my research trip in February last year and, I don’t know if you remember, there had been horrendous gales and snow and the trains had been off for four days when I was booked to go down. Then I was so lucky, they were on again, so I could go.”

But a footwear malfunction coloured the start of the trip.

“I realised my boots were leaking when I was still at home before going to York and it was snowing!

The new book continues the story of Damian Seeker's family, friends - and enemies.
The new book continues the story of Damian Seeker's family, friends - and enemies.

“When I arrived, there was somewhere I had to go and look at that same afternoon, so I couldn’t even go to the hotel first and change my shoes, so I was trailing around York in these leaking boots.

“That is why people in the book are going on about their wet feet a lot – it’s really heartfelt!”

Shona’s own experience makes for some uncomfortable descriptions in the book, and as a reader, you can’t help shivering in sympathy!

“Also the River Ouse just rose and rose and flooded. Out in the town looking at things, I got a phone call from the hotel saying ‘We’re going to have to move you. We’re having to close the hotel!’.

During The Winter List, the writer gives a rich sense of the changing times as the Restoration continues to alter the lives of her characters. But it is not a world Shona herself is interested in exploring further.

“For some reason I have never been that interested in the Restoration period and it might be the cliched view of debauchery among aristocrats – I’ve never been that interested in it!”

But the good news is there’s a very faint possibility of catching up with Damian Seeker himself again, perhaps…

“In a distant time I may go back to the Seeker in North America,” the writer admitted, though it sounds as if a long wait may lie ahead, if it happens.

Shona is already deep into her next book: “I originally had the idea in summer 2020, but my editor felt it would be a bad time to change the genre I was working in. Now it’s seven years on – and lots of notebooks. I’m trying to write it now, but it’s being difficult!”

Shona’s events: Wednesday, September 6, Picaresque Books hosts a 6.30pm interview at Dingwall Library; Waterstones Inverness on Thursday, September 7, 5-7pm; Elgin Waterstones on Friday, September 8, 6.30-8pm; Moniack Mhor historical writing course with Andrew Miller; Bloody Scotland on Saturday, September 16 at 3pm.

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