St Kilda Fever – the journey to my debut novel

  • Published on: 5th June 2019
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In this week’s blog, author and Stornoway Writers Circle member Fiona Macdonald tells the story behind her debut novel, St Kilda Fever, which is now on sale in An Lanntair’s bookshop….

I must admit I chose a rather circuitous route to writing a novel. I started an Open University course to learn French and needed another subject to complete my degree. I chose creative writing simply because there was no end of course exam, as my chances of turning up to were only fifty per cent due to chronic migraines. Happily, I got my degree in French and Creative Writing.

I’d really enjoyed writing short stories so I decided to try writing a book. I started it in 2015 when Russia was still our friend and retro wasn’t cool. Fast forward four years and a thriller/ love story with a Russian spy, set in the Outer Hebrides in the 70s, sparks more interest. Thank you Mr Putin!

Luck then played its part with the arrival of award-winning Canadian author Heather Birrell who established a writing group in An Lanntair. Joining this gave me the opportunity to bounce ideas off the group and to get valuable feedback and advice.

Writers are told to ‘write what you know’. So I set my book St Kilda Fever in a fictitious coastal village in Lewis. I chose the seventies as at that time Lewis was a different place than it is now. There were no mobile phones, internet, and travel took longer and was far more expensive. I thought it was time to have a strong, if flawed, female character. Doctor Helen MacAllister is from Glasgow and the story is told through her eyes. She’s young and is finding it difficult to fit into some of the more traditional ways of the island. Yes, and I forgot to mention her best friend is George, her Jack Russell. She’s got a broken heart which she’s treating with gin and prescription drugs.

Something happens at the military base on St Kilda, then during a storm Helen finds an unconscious Russian in her barn. The obvious thing to do is to hand him into the authorities but Helen doesn’t always do the obvious…

I also remembered the advice that I heard from Donna Leon whose detective books are set in Venice. When asked how she coped with the vagaries of Italian law, she simply smiled and said ‘I write fiction, not fact’. It’s important that readers remember that my village and its characters are fictitious and that medical and legal procedures are sometimes tweaked to keep the story moving at a pace.

Although most of the book is set in Lewis, part of it takes place on St Kilda itself, so a visit was arranged with the help of Seamus of Seaharris. It hadn’t rained for three weeks, but it did the day my son Lewis and I turned up to do the smallest book launch in the world! Whilst there, in the schoolroom, I chanced upon Don Munro the grandson of the last missionary and school teacher Dugald Munro – a retired gentleman with many interesting stories about St Kilda. This was his first visit and he had some interesting tales from his grandfather’s days. I felt very honoured to have met him and gave him a copy of my book and shook his hand. Sometimes fact can prove stranger than fiction!

St Kilda Fever is currently on sale in An Lanntair, the Baltic Bookshop, The Woodlands Centre, and Callanish Visitor Centre.