A few years ago I visited a school in England. The pupils were studying Fighting Back, the second YA book I had written. All about moneylenders, violence, fear. They all knew, they assured me, exactly where the book had been set. According to them it was on an estate only a few streets from their school. The accents of the characters were their accents, not Scottish at all. I did not tell them any different. Delighted that my book had travelled so well. For when I write, I want the characters to be people my readers can relate to, the story to be relevant to everyone, and the setting to be somewhere they can recognise too.
Yet, when I write my setting is most clearly my own home town, Greenock. I always feel it is like a microcosm of the world, the best of places, the worst of places. Like Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead, all human life is there. I see so many things there that I use in my stories. Terrific humour for example, I saw a wee drunk man bump into a boy with spikey blond hair, and quick as a flash the wee man said. ‘Oh, sorry, Tin Tin.’ And walked on.
I see potential drama too. I passed a boy standing in a doorway. He was on his mobile phone and all I heard him saying in a frightened voice was, ‘ I know, I know, this is my last chance.’
His last chance for what, I wondered? I could make a story out of both those scenarios, and I bet you recognise them too.
Yet, when I was little how I wished I lived somewhere else, anywhere else. Writers didn’t come from places like Greenock. They lived in London, or Paris, or New York. It took me so long to realise that everything I needed was here. And almost every one of my books has been inspired by events that have happened here, or by locations in the town itself.
There is an isolated loch up behind the hills in Greenock, on the edge of a sprawling estate with views over the Clyde to die for. This loch freezes up in the winter, and I once saw two boys up there, bouncing boulders on the ice….and I thought, ‘ what if that ice broke?’, and Dark Waters was born. That loch is the focal point of the whole book. The characters are Scottish, their accents are Scottish. But I remember a school in England where the pupils had dramatized Dark Waters, and suddenly, my characters, Col and Dominic and Mungo were no longer Scottish. They were English. The problems they had were problems boys could have no matter where they lived.
Here, we have the largest cemetery in the West of Scotland, right in the middle of the town, yet once inside you feel as if you are a million miles away from the rest of the world. It has winding paths, monkey puzzle trees, mausoleums, stone angels watching you as you pass. I always wanted to set a story there, and I did. Missing. Very definitely a Scottish location, yet I get letters from the US, from readers who recognise that cemetery too. Recognise too the plight of Maxine Moody.
My town inspires me. When I was in high school I lived at the bottom of the hill and my school was at the top and every day I took the shortcut up a long steep flight of narrow stairs, high walls on either side. These stairs were always dark and damp. I always remember by the time I reached the top I was out of breath, ( didn’t know then I actually had asthma) but at the top I would stop to get my breath back and I would stand and look down at a fabulous view over the river and I can still remember saying to myself that when I was an old lady and breathless when I climbed stairs and people would say, ‘och its your age,’ I would be able to say, no, I was like this when I was 12. ( funny the things you remember.) I left school at 15 and went to work in the mill right across the street from my school. So I took those same stairs to work, and sometimes on a dark winter night when I finished work I would be coming down those stairs and the fog would roll in from the river. I couldn’t see anything, I was cloaked in fog, and when I would hear footsteps coming down the stairs behind me I would frighten the life out of myself thinking about the scariest thing I could imagine coming out of that fog. And the scariest thing I could imagine, was Another Me. Such a simple idea, it became a radio short story, and then a book, and now it is being made into a film. I would love it to be made in Greenock, but Cardiff is the place they’ve chosen. I’m told they have found the perfect location. They won’t be my stairs, but I am sure they will be just as atmospheric.
One of my favourite novels, To Kill a Mocking Bird, has a very distinct setting, a small town in the South of the United States, but the characters, the emotions, the sentiments, are universal. That story could be set in any town anywhere in the world where there is racial tension, and it would still be a great story.
The Scottish location is my stamp. I don’t want that to change. But like all of us, I want the story I tell to have that same universal appeal.
Cathy MacPhail was born and brought up in Greenock, Scotland, where she still lives. Before becoming a children’s author, she wrote short stories for magazines, comedy programmes for radio and two romantic novels. Cathy was inspired to write her first children’s book after her daughter was bullied at school.
Cathy writes spooky thrillers for younger readers as well as teen novels and has the unique ability to get to the heart of serious, topical issues through the stories of her feisty characters.
Cathy has won the Royal Mail Book Award twice, along with lots of other awards and has been called the Scottish Jacqueline Wilson. She is a big fan of Doctor Who and would love to write a scary monster episode for the series.
Find out more on her website www.cathymacphail.com