Published: 25/08/2011 11:08 - Updated: 25/08/2011 11:12

Ex-Editor Sets Sail on Novel Writing Career


AFTER a career in journalism that began with a student newspaper in South Africa — before he was evicted from the country for his opposition to apartheid - Mark Douglas-Home concedes he made have picked an interesting time to make his debut as a novelist.

"Either interesting or unwise," he added.

Douglas-Home — a nephew of Conservative Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home — is a guest at next week’s Nairn Book and Arts Festival, one of a line up of authors that includes poets Jackie Kay, Aonghas MacNeacail and novelist poet Andrew Greig, historians Tom Devine and Timothy Neat, novelist Sophie Cooke and former politician Dennis Canavan, as well as drama, music and film.

However, having spent part of this week at Edinburgh Book Festival, he has been hearing pessimistic talk about the future of book festivals generally.

Then there is the uncertain effect of ebooks, something which will take on more significance for Douglas-Home when his thriller, "The Sea Detective", is released in electronic format.

"I think crime books do well in ebook format, he said.

"That seems to be the way people are suggesting the market will go. There will be ebooks and there will be higher value hardbacks. The books that people like reading — airport novels, crime novels — will disappear into ebooks.

"I suppose the positive thing is that there doesn’t seem to be any diminution in people’s interest, or in the number of stories people want to read. It’s just the means of transmission and how you charge for them."

Which is not too dissimilar from the way newspapers have been changing over the last few years with print sales declining as more people turn to find their news on line.

Douglas-Home’s newspaper career saw him report on the Piper Alpha and Lockerbie disasters and become editor of The Herald and Sunday Times Scotland, as well as have senior roles with the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday.

Though sad in some ways not to be a part of the newspaper industry any more, he suggests journalism is not as enjoyable an environment as it once was.

"A lot of the fun in newspapers is in when they are expanding or when you cover a big event," he said.

"If your management say you can’t afford to do this or cover that, it becomes less interesting."

Like many journalists, Douglas-Home long had a hankering in the back of his mind to write a novel, but it was something he was only able to devote himself to when he left journalism.

"When you work in journalism, particularly the type of journalism I worked in, news journalism, you are inundated by stories," he said.

"Because of that it becomes very hard to hold your own stories in your head."

"The Sea Detective of the title of Douglas-Home’s book is oceanographer Cal McGill whose knowledge of tidal patterns is employed to solve a wartime mystery of his family’s past and a more contemporary mystery that involves him with murder and sex traffickers.

The book, which is published by Dingwall-based Sandstone Press, was inspired by two things, Douglas-Home revealed.

The first was coming across the grave of two sailors lost in World War II who had been buried in Ardnamurchan after their bodies were washed ashore nearby.

"They were never identified so their families don’t know they were buried in this idyllic spot," he said.

The other inspiration was the macabre discovery of severed feet at various locations on the coast of British Columbia over a long period.

That led him to create McGill, an expert in sea movements. To make sure the science was right, he enlisted the help of Professor Toby Sherwin of the UHI’s Scottish Association for Marine Science at Dunstaffnage near Oban.

"I thought writing this book would get me away from the tyranny of fact, but in the end there’s a lot of fact in this book. I’ve used the research to make it feel more authentic, I suppose," Douglas-Home said.

"I’m quite surprised by the amount of fact there is in. When I was a journalist I would wake up in the morning thinking: have I got that right or not? I thought that I wouldn’t have that feeling after writing a novel, but I’m sure there will be an oceanographer out there who will be able to spot all kinds of flaws."

However, Douglas-Home did get away from that "tyranny of fact" in other areas.

"I have made up two or three geographical locations and I thought about that very carefully," he said.

"I created an island and a township for the novel. You don’t want to impose your story on the stories real-life locations already have."

• Mark Douglas-Home appears at Nairn Community and Arts Centre at 2pm on Friday 2nd September as part of Nairn Arts Festival. "The Sea Detective" is published by Sandstone Books and Mark Douglas-Home is currently at work on a sequel.


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