It was a hillside strewn with fallen trees that inspired my latest novel To Die Alone, published on September 30 by Hale. The novel, the second to feature Detective Chief Inspector Jack Harris, had its beginnings during a family holiday on the Isle of Man. Although my characters live and work in the North Pennine hills, something about the Isle of Man scenery struck home.

The idea came when we went for a walk on a wet and windy morning. Our attempts to follow the path along the river valley were repeatedly thwarted by trees that had been brought down by the ferocious winds the night before. It was quite a sight, a reminder of what Mother Nature can do when she is angry.

Standing there and surveying the hillside, my connection with the place took over and a storyline unrolled itself there and then, a story that starts with a man alone and fleeing for his life on a tree-strewn hillside.

Knowing that such a landscape would slot beautifully into the North Pennines, I picked up the hillside and moved it over to the world inhabited by Jack Harris. One of the beauties of being a writer is the ability to do a bit of tidying up on the map.

As I stood there, I firmed up the idea, which evolved into the discovery of the dead man and his dead dog on the northern hills, the latter torn apart by another animal. Jack Harris has always loved animals more than humans so it seemed a nice touch that he be more moved by the dog’s death than the man lying dead in a copse a few metres away.

As police investigate, it turns out that the dead man’s life is full of secrets and those discoveries lead Harris and his team into a dark and murky world which raises the spectre of a killer stalking the panicking northern hillside communities. And all from a thwarted walk in the Isle of Man.

Sense of place has always been important to me as a writer. So many of my ideas have come not from snippets in newspapers or overhead fragments of conversation, but from the overpowering sensations presented by places, be they rural or urban (my other strand deals with DCI John Blizzard in a grimy northern city).

I think that connection with places is what shapes my own reading when it comes to crime fiction as well.

As a young boy, I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories and, yes, I was drawn to the wonderful creation that is Holmes, but what also struck a chord with me then, and does so now, was the evocative way in which Arthur Conan Doyle painted 19th Century London. Yes, I know he had to go into more details because in those days many people had not been to London but for me, his description, weaved as it is into the stories, is beguiling and inspiring.

I feel the same when I read about Rebus. Ian Rankin draws you into a dark and disturbing world that exists behind Edinburgh’s popular façade and the stories are all the better for the way he paints pictures with his words.

Yes, I know that writers debate endlessly the role of description in fiction, that it is increasingly archaic given the nature of modern readers, but for me, I like to be given a sense of where I am. Yes, I like imagining things but I also like the writer to point and say ‘look over there.’

After all, if a place inspires a writer, can not it inspire a reader as well?

To Die Alone, published on September 30 by Hale.









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