Myra Duffy has the loveliest Scottish accent. I could have listened to her all day long. Not only is she a pleasure to listen to, she’s got loads to share about the Scottish island where her cozy mysteries are set.
The Isle of Bute is off the west coast of Scotland, known for its architecture, its long sandy beaches, and, when Myra’s around, the odd fictional murder. ;-) Coincidentally, a few days before I talked to Myra, there was the confirmation of the authentication of one of Shakespeare’s folios that is in the possession of a museum on the island. In this interview Myra brings us up to speed about what’s happening with that fascinating piece of history, and shares lots more about the Isle of Bute and the mysteries she sets there.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Myra Duffy
Alexandra: Hi, Mystery Readers. I’m Alexandra Amor. This is “It’s a Mystery Podcast”. I’m here today with Myra Duffy. Hi, Myra.
Myra: Hi there, Alexandra.
Alexandra: How are you?
Myra: I’m very well today, thank you.
Alexandra: Good. Looks like a nice, sunny day there today.
Myra: Yes, at last, after a long, hard winter.
Alexandra: Yes, I guess it’s great.
Myra: A wet winter.
Alexandra: Was it white?
Myra: Oh, wet, very wet. We get a lot of rain in the west coast of Scotland.
Alexandra: I guess so. I’m on the west coast of Canada, and we get a lot of rain, too, so very similar climates, I think.
Alexandra: Let me introduce our listeners to you.
Myra Duffy is the published author of non-fiction, but she has been writing fiction for as long as she can remember, winning a national writing competition when she was 13. In the past few years, she has turned to a life of crime, fictional crime that is. She has won a number of competitions, and had short stories published in various magazines, but prefers writing novels, most notably the very successful series of cozy crime mystery novels set on the island of Bute, just off the west coast of Scotland.
And that’s what we’re gonna talk about mostly today. Just before we jumped online, we were chatting about a very current event that’s going to be woven into your newest book.
Let’s start at the beginning, perhaps, and maybe you could tell us a bit about Alison, your main character. Alison Cameron. Alison Cameron, so tell us a bit about her. She’s a writer?
Myra: Yes. She started out as a teacher. Interestingly, I got into writing fiction really almost by chance. I’d always written a bit of fiction, but most of my work is non-fiction. And then a friend told me that there was an opportunity to publish, to get published, and I had something on the stocks. So I sent that off, and that’s really how I started. And Alison, she kind of came fully formed. I didn’t choose her name, I didn’t choose anything about her. And the way I tend to work is the first line of the novel comes into my head.
So with this one, the very first one, where Alison appears, is called “When Old Ghosts Meet”. And the very first line is, “Two days before my 49th birthday, I saw a ghost.” Alison sets off on the trail of finding this man she thought died 30 years before. And then when I started to write the Isle of Bute novels, which are all set in Bute, she sort of came with me. So I didn’t have a chance to escape her, and that’s really how she has come along. The beauty of her, she’s the kind of woman you would enjoy having a cup of tea with. She’s an amateur sleuth. She’s not someone who is a professional in any sense. I think, to be honest, Alexandra, she’s just a little bit nosy, and that’s really why she gets herself into trouble.
Alexandra: Yeah. Well, that’s the best characteristic for an amateur sleuth, isn’t it?
Myra: I think so, probably.
Tell us about The Isle of Bute. Does Alison live there or does she just travel there from time to time?
Myra: She travels there from time to time. She spent a lot of time in the island. We have a home in the island, and she has gone there. First of all, she went there really just for a holiday. Then she went because she was asked to go in and look into something, a friend of her mother’s who was in a care home there, that’s in “Last Ferry to Bute”.
And then she decided to give up teaching and become a writer. And she started writing mostly about history of Bute and the archaeology of Bute. And because of that, the stories are woven through with history and archaeology. And that’s what I like to do. I like to integrate that into the novels.
Alexandra: I could really tell from some of the descriptions of your books that you enjoy that. And then I saw, you mentioned it somewhere on Facebook, I think.
Alexandra: The real island of Bute is a fascinating place, lots of interesting architecture. I was reading about the Mount Stewart House, which is a neo-Gothic mansion, I gather; had the first ever indoor heated pool.
Alexandra: Of all things, yeah. Exactly. And then we were talking about this before we came online, that very recently…so we’re recording this in April, 2016.
There was a first folio that was authenticated in the library at Mount Stewart House. So why don’t you tell us a bit about that because you’re gonna weave that into your very next book?
Myra: They always knew it was there. I don’t think it was really just discovered recently, but the main problem with any folio is the authentication. And that happened very recently, so of course that’s a major event for not only Mount Stewart, but the whole island because there’s so many people.
I think there are only 34 folios, Shakespeare folio originals, in the world. So it’s a very big event. It’s going to be on display over the summer . So if anyone is anywhere near, then they will be able to come in and look at it, and just get a feel for the whole Shakespeare thing in terms of the island. So it’s going to be a big boost, I hope, to tourism there. I think it will be good. I hope it will help sell more books.
Alexandra: Yeah, that’s right. I didn’t know what a first folio was, but it was a printing of 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, printed in 1623.
Myra: That’s right.
Alexandra: And as you said, there were only, how many, 34?
Myra: I think there’s 34 in the entire world that have been left. When you think about how much we have in terms of physical books and how little or how few they had then and how difficult it was to do, it’s amazing that 34 of them survived.
I’m trying to weave that little bit into the new book, which is called “Bad Blood at Rothesay Castle”. And I’m trying to weave a little bit of the mystery of discovering that is in fact a Shakespeare folio into the mystery in there. So that’s something different, something just to try to be a bit current, and also a bit of encouragement in terms of the island.
Alexandra: It must be so fun to try to weave something like that into your books.
Myra: Oh, yes. I’ve done that with all of them. “Endgame at Port Bannatyne” reads a lot about a man called James Hamilton. He was an Edinburgh lawyer, but he bought Kames Castle on the island, and he married a woman called Harriett Wynne. Now, Harriett was a fascinating character because she was of a very well-to-do Welsh family, used to the high life. Her father was a great friend of Casanova.
Myra: Yes. And she couldn’t take a life in the island at all. So the story is that while she was in Edinburgh, just all by herself being painted by Raeburn, her husband was selling the boat bedroom furniture in order to make ends meet. So I’ve brought that into “Endgame” where they’re making a film about the life of James Hamilton. And of course, there are a couple of deaths in it as well.
Alexandra: Yes, of course. So the island must mean a lot to you. A couple of my series are set on islands here in British Columbia as well.
What is it about the island that attracted you? And you said that Alison kind of followed you there. So did you have the idea to write books on the island and then she came along with that or how did that work out?
Myra: Well, the first island one, which is The House at Ettrick Bay, I was walking along the…really just long sands actually one night with my husband. And I thought what if there had been a big Victorian mansion here and something had happened? And that was how that one first started.
Alison came along with that because she was a character I developed a bit already, and so I knew quite a lot about her. I thought, “She could come here. She could do the explanation.” And I think that’s one of the things which is quite important to know your character really well, and to feel that you understand a lot about her.
And I also wanted to make her an amateur because the police procedurals are quite tricky, particularly in terms of the details. Whereas if you have an amateur sleuth, it’s slightly easier, I think, to hand things over to the police. Although police in the island have been very, very helpful, if a bit amused by what’s going on. I’ve got to say that I don’t know what you know about Bute. In the 1940s, ’50s, Bute was one of the most important islands in terms of holidays for people in the west of Scotland.
Lots of boats sailed from Glasgow right down to Bute. Lots of people spent time there. It was also an island where a lot of personnel were built up during the Second World War. And you may be interested to know that the pavilion, which features in “Last Dance at the Rothesay Pavilion”, the Canadian Barn Dance, which is a very famous dance, was actually invented there by Canadian soldiers who were stationed in the island.
Alexandra: Wow, fantastic.
Myra: So there’s a lot that’s going on. The history is interesting. The geography is really interesting. The highland fault line, that’s the line that divides the south of Scotland from the north, runs right through the center of the island. So there’s lots going on, and I bring that into the books. I find that fascinating. The background is fascinating. The trouble is Alexandra, you’ve to be very careful not to let the research take over.
Alexandra: Yes, that’s right. I totally agree. I just on the Wikipedia page for the island this morning, just to learn a little bit more about it. And yeah, that fault line is very interesting. So the island is divided in half. There’s sort of the northern half above the fault line, and the lower half. And the northern half is much less populated, I gather.
Myra: That’s right, yes.
Alexandra: And it’s much more hilly, mountainous.
Alexandra: Okay, and then the lower part is farms, so it’s flatter.
Myra: Yes. It’s very nice. Long beaches, and really, really…very secluded. It’s very quiet. That’s why it’s kind of an anomaly that there’s so many murders on the island. I don’t recall when the last murder took place there. It’s that kind of situation, but I do enjoy writing about it.
I like cozy crime because although there are deaths, I try to keep most of any gory stuff off scene, off camera, so to speak. And I do like to try and make it feel humorous, because life is a mixture of…although there are lots of deaths, it’s not all gory. It’s a mixture, isn’t it, life? So I try to reflect that in the novels.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly. And it sounds like the island itself maybe even is a character in your books. I know I feel that way about islands in my books.
I noticed one of your reviewers pointed that out, that the descriptions of the island, the architecture, and the landscape were really vivid and beautiful.
Myra: Yes. I think that that’s really one of the most important things, that the character is brought to life. And interestingly, I’ve had a lot of responses from people who perhaps went there years ago and quite a number of them said that since reading the books have gone back to the island. So I feel like I’m doing my bit for the Bute tourist board as well.
I’m very lucky. I’m very lucky because I’ve got lots of support in the island.
Alexandra: I was going to ask that, yeah.
Myra: Yes. Which is the local newspaper has been terrific about doing reviews and supporting. I’ve got some outlets in the island, particularly Print Point, which is a small bookshop, and they’ve been terrific about hosting events. I feel very happy and very grateful that I’ve had all that kind of support as well.
Alexandra: That’s lovely. Amazing.
I bet the locals feel kind of proud, that someone’s writing about their place. I would.
Myra: Yes. Well, I hope so. I’ve got my fingers crossed on that one.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly.
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the next book? You’ve mentioned it a little bit, but tell us a bit more. It’s called “Bad Blood at Rothesay Castle” and you’re going to weave in the first folio stuff. What’s Alison up to in that book?
Myra: Alison has been called to the island because a party of American tourists are visiting the castle. They’re on the island for a while. And her friend has said, “I don’t know how much you know about it, but Rothesay Castle is the home of the Stewarts, who were the high stewards of Scotland.” That’s where the name Stewart comes from.
This party are all Stewarts, and Alison has been asked by her friend, Suzy, who’s now living in California, to go to the island and to write a little bit about the Stewart history and try to discover is any of these Stewarts are related to the important Stewarts like Prince Charlie or Mary, Queen of Scots. So hopefully that makes it a little bit humorous, but of course someone is found dead in the dungeon of the castle. I would love to tell you how it ends, but you know, I don’t know yet.
Alexandra: That’s great. If you’re surprised, then your readers will be surprised, right?
Myra: I hope so.
Alexandra: Do you have more plans for more books set on the island?
Myra: Yes, I’ve got one more, which I really want to write. And it’s set at the Bute Highland Games, which take place in August. And that’s an international event, of course, and a lot of Canadians come to the island for that.
Alexandra: Really? Wow.
Myra: Yes, a lot of Canadian Pipe Bands and dancers come to the island, highland dancers. So that’s a big event. I really do want to write one about that, but I write other stuff as well. So I’ve got all these novels knocking on the door, so that makes it a bit different. But I do intend to do at least one more with Alison, and then move onto a new series, I think. I think I’ll have Alison erased.
Alexandra: You have plans to branch out into a different series. Will they be mysteries as well?
Myra: Well, I have actually written a start to another series which is a young woman who’s as a journalist. I’ve also written a romance, romantic suspense. I’m well through a science fiction. I like to test myself a little bit and write different genre.
But my first love is, of course, Alison and the island. And I think I’ll be with her for some time to come.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s good, that’s good.
We should say there are six full-length novels, I think, now. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Myra: That’s right.
Alexandra: And there’s the prequel, which we talked about, where Alison sees the fellow on the train that she thought has been dead for quite some time.
Myra: Yes, that’s right. And there’s one other which is a novella, which is called “Suzy’s Story”. And it tell a story of how Suzy came to inherit the house of Ettrick Bay. So it’s a little novella. It’s a backstory to it. So that was just because I wanted to write really more than anything else. Probably, in total there are eight novels; six which are totally set in the island, and another two which are on the island partly.
Alexandra: That idea of wanting to share so much backstory fascinates me because we do get quite attached as writers, I find, to the people that we’re writing about, and to the stories, and to the information that we’re sharing.
I thought it was so interesting when I saw that book on your website. It’s kind of an addendum almost to one of the novels, just a little bit more information about what was going on.
Myra: Yes. It’s difficult to know whether it’s a good idea or not. For example, one of the novels I’ve written, which is “Grave Matters at St. Blane’s”. Now, St. Blane’s is 7th century monastery in the island, and this story is about…Alison goes to the island. She’s got a commission to write a little bit about the place, to discover that they’re trying to build a theme park there at the old monastery. So the locals are not happy about it, as you can imagine, because they’ve taken the sort of names like “The Devil’s Ride”, and this kind of thing.
But St. Blane’s mother was cast adrift by her father because she was pregnant with St. Blane. She was set adrift and actually ended up in Ireland. And that’s how St. Blane was born. There’s a nice story there as well, but as I said, there’s so many hours in the day.
As you will know from your own work and your own books, there are only so many hours that you can actually write. So funnily enough, I was thinking last night…I write very fast if I’m in really top form. I can write a thousand words an hour. And I thought 10 hours in the day so that’s 10,000 words. And there are seven days in a week so I can actually write a novel a week.
Alexandra: Yes, if you don’t bathe or eat or…
Myra: Anything else. I do think I’ll do that somehow.
Alexandra: Yeah, that might…my wrists will get sore, for one thing.
Myra: Yes. Not to mention your brain.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly.
I just think, too, with a place like The Isle of Bute, there’s so much history there. I just touched on it when I was looking at the Wikipedia page. It talked about how in World War II, there were some submarines that were kept, I think, at the north end of the island. And there’s all the architecture through the period, and I found a couple of photos of castles built at different times, and this history with the Stewarts. You could just write forever, really.
Myra: Exactly. First of all, it’s a small place that has amazing history, and geography, and the archaeology. My son lives in the island. He’s an archaeologist.
Alexandra: Oh, no way.
Myra: Well, he’s a forensic archaeologist, so he’s very helpful with some of the details, you see. He’s a great source, if I need to do some research.
Alexandra: Oh, that’s fantastic. What a great resource for you.
Did you say earlier that you had talked to the local police?
Myra: Yes, they were very, very helpful. The interesting thing about the police forces, of course recently there was a reorganization in Scotland, and they came under one police force, Police Scotland, rather than being all separate according to area. And one of the things I did think about was I was really glad that I had kept the police bit of it to the site to a minimum, that Alison’s not involved in.
One of the problems, as you know, is keeping up-to-date and suddenly…even in the time when I’ve been writing the Bute novels, you go back and you look at the first one when a lot of people have mobile phones. They certainly didn’t have the kind of technology that you have now, and so unlike earlier novels they can look very dated, unless you’re very careful of what you put in. So you have to be a bit careful. Otherwise, you’d be revising all the time and reediting to make them up-to-date. Do you find that’s quite tricky or do you find it quite easy?
Alexandra: I do. I’ve had almost a little bit of a paranoia about folding technology into my books, just because of that, the way that things can become so dated.
You look at the movies that were made even 10 years ago and if someone’s using a cellphone, and it’s this huge, clunky thing. It pulls you out of the story right away.
Myra: Exactly. So that’s why I feel the police aspect of it, if it’s kept to a minimum…obviously there has to be some, but it was kept to a minimum. And so the police have been very helpful with the details of it. I was doing an event at Print Point, and one of the people who was there said to me, “Do you think Alison would have learned by now that it’s a bit dangerous to come to Bute?” She’s obviously not a woman who learns from experience.
Alexandra: I know. Yeah, exactly. Oh, that’s a great point.
When you approached the police, did you just call them up and said, “Hey, I write these novels, and I’d like to chat with you”?
Myra: Oh, no. I just went into the local police station.
Alexandra: You did?
Myra: I rang the bell.
Alexandra: And then someone sat down with you?
Myra: Yes, it was one of the sergeants. He wasn’t there at the time, but he said he’ll call back. Yes, and he sat down. Well, there’s a very good website as well, which you can use. But he was very good and very helpful and everything. It’s good to have such support though, and it’s good to feel that people in that island are…they’re lovely people and they’re really cute to help. We should just as well, really given the circumstances.
Alexandra: Yes. That’s lovely. That’s fantastic. Well, thank you so much for being with me here today, Myra. This has been awesome. I could honestly ask you questions for quite a bit longer.
Why don’t you let everyone know where they could find your books?
Myra: They’re available at amazon.co.uk and amazon.com. And they’re available in Amazon.co. In fact, I think they’d probably be available through any Amazon site. Most of them are on “Kindle”, so you can get the e-book version. You can also order them through local bookstores. My website is www.myraduffywriter.com, and you can find me on Facebook or on Twitter.
Alexandra: Thank you so much for being with me here today. Is that a picture of the island behind you on the wall?
Myra: That’s the picture of Port Bannatyne, where we have our house.
Alexandra: Okay, beautiful. Really nice.
Myra: Yes. It’s really nice. We keep that there as a reminder of all the happy times in the island.
Alexandra: Do you just spend the summer there?
Myra: We go backwards and forwards a lot, even in winter.
Alexandra: Even in winter. Oh, cool. Okay, great.
Myra: It’s an island which is lovely in all essence.
Alexandra: Nice. Oh, that’s great. Well, thanks again and take care.
Myra: Thank you, Alexandra. Thank you.