Nobody has actually asked me the above question, but I do have a few answers prepared so I thought I might as well use them…
Taking my latest publication, ‘The Lion and Unicorn Quest’ first, I can now divulge that I’ve been fascinated by the Festival of Britain for so long that I can’t even remember when I first heard of it. I think it was probably when I was studying history, which itself was so long ago that I can hardly remember any of it. So long ago, in fact, that the Fifties were hardly even history! Before I found out about the Festival of Britain I was fascinated by the Great Exhibition of 1851.
I’m still not sure which came first: the idea of using the Festival as a setting or the wish to write about the 1950s generally. I have usually steered clear of writing about real events, since it’s only too easy to make some horrendous factual mistake – and I am now waiting for someone to point one out in this latest novel – and it’s quite hard to write about a real event without involving real people, but I think I’ve navigated that particular minefield quite well in this case.
It was only after I started to research the Festival that I realised what an interesting year 1951 was. There was the Korean War, the Stone of Destiny affair, the Festival itself, the escape of Burgess and McLean, the general election. Some of these are mentioned in the novel and others contributed to the plot.
My Pitkirtly novels don’t usually have a background of well-known events, and the ideas that go into them tend to be smaller and more manageable, as well as more random. My favourite example of this is the steam train that comes along towards the end of ‘Death at the Happiness Club’. I happened to be in Culross (not a million miles from Pitkirtly) for a walk with my sister-in-law and her dog one Sunday when it was very much busier than usual, with groups of people clustered round the railway line wielding cameras. Eventually a steam train appeared on the single-track line which we had imagined to be disused, or only used by coal trains to and from Longannet Power Station. It took us by surprise, but evidently the people with cameras had known about it in advance!