I recently wrote about the amazing people I have met through my befriending experiences. Today, I’d like to introduce you to someone else I met through these projects and who has now become a firm friend. Joan Dunnett has just published her first book, Tides of Change. She is very interested in history, and has a particular fascination with Scottish history. In Tides of Change she has captured perfectly the spirit and times of 18th century Scotland.
Right from the start, we are plunged in to the drama. It is May 1704, and we are at sea just off the east coast of Scotland…..
“James Lightfoot didn’t want to be put ashore at Figgate Whins. It was a dangerous place. He might be robbed of his remaining few possessions. He waited on the deck of the merchantman while the crew loaded bundles onto the boat: probably luxury goods to be smuggled into England. The ship’s legitimate cargo was bound for Leith. A thin strip of light began to appear to the east. The sea was calm, the light breeze cool and fresh. The captain was on deck. He lit his pipe with a steady hand. he must know the risks. The navy would be patrolling the east coast, ready to challenge any vessel in these waters, not just French privateers.”
We quickly learn that James has been away from Scotland for four years. He is returning to Edinburgh to further his medical studies. But before being put ashore he is asked by the captain to deliver a letter (“A matter of some urgency – and delicacy”). Soon enough, James is suspected of being a spy and unwittingly gets caught up in early plans to establish Scottish Jacobites’ readiness for an uprising.
The narrative bowls along at a marvellous page-turning pace. The reader gets a real sense of time and place; the novel is packed full of contextual details which add depth and breadth to the intriguingly layered plot as it unfolds:
“A heavily laden cart trundled along several yards in front of him. Just ahead two fishwives carried creels full of mussels. They glanced back at him. They exchanged words, then looked back again, smiling. He was more conspicuous than he wanted to be. As he neared the small hamlet of Jock’s Lodge, a popular crossroads, more travellers appeared. This was a kind of meeting place for vendors going and coming from Edinburgh and Leith. A sickly-looking old man struggled to load bales onto a cart – hard toil weakening the body of a man already suffering from stiff joints. A strong smell of bread wafted through the air from the direction of the inn. James felt hungry, but didn’t stop. He would head for Edinburgh, find his friend and deliver he letter which was still secure in his pocket.”
Clearly, I have to declare an interest because I know the author. Nevertheless, it’s a great story. And to whet your appetite further, Joan has kindly agreed to say more about her inspiration behind the story, and about some of her writing choices.
Why was it important to begin the story very precisely in 1704?
The seizure of a Scottish trading vessel in March 1704 caused tension between English and Scottish merchants. The French saw this as an opportunity to send an agent across to Scotland to seek out the Scots’ readiness for a Jacobite rising. Meanwhile, English politicians were eager to press forward to negotiate a union with Scotland. An interesting period, and the beginning of the British Empire.
The main character, James Lightfoot, is a medical student. Why did you want him to have this profession in particular?
I wanted to put some science into the story. James, having travelled as a ship’s surgeon, had experienced, first hand, the expansion of overseas colonies, as a result of exploration and improved navigation. James’s mentor, Archibald Pitcairne, had acquired a considerable reputation at the University of Leiden with his developments in medical theory and practice.
Many (all?) of the locations in the book are real, and some of the peripheral characters are too. Did this make the writing easier or harder? Why did you decide to combine reality with fiction in this way?
Most locations are based on real places, but the details are fictional. For instance, the tenement house in Edinburgh is fictional, and similar to National Trust for Scotland’s property, Gladstone’s Land. Slains Castle is real but the details of the interiors are entirely fictional. Visiting locations is part of the fun of writing fiction.
Creating a fictional character is easier than writing fiction based on the life of a real person. The actions of a real person are fixed, so it is often preferable to make a real person a peripheral character. With main characters, who are fictional, there is more scope to be creative within the story.There are many gaps of our knowledge of the past, so it is not too difficult to blend facts and fiction seamlessly.
What do you hope the reader will get out of the book?
I hope readers enjoy escaping into the past. I try to imagine how people lived in the period, and how their lives were affected by political and social changes. At the end of the novel there is a historical note and a list of further reading, for those who are curious to know more about the events that form part of the story.
James Lightfoot seems like the kind of person regularly to get into adventures. Will there be a sequel so that we can find out what he does next?
There may be a sequel. I have a few ideas.
You can also hear Joan talking about her novel and her writing process with Rebecca Budd on her marvellous Tea, Toast and Trivia podcast via these links: