Writing where I know by Janet O'Kane

I am delighted to welcome dear tweep friend, Janet O’Kane, to the blog today to share her influences for the setting of her recently released debut novel, No Stranger to Death. I thoroughly enjoyed Janet’s book and found it to be an original take on a suspenseful murder mystery. You can read my review here. Over to you, Janet.


I set my first novel, No Stranger to Death, in the place I have lived for more than twenty years: the Scottish Borders. You can get here fromEdinburgh in less than an hour by car, yet the surroundings and way of life are reminiscent ofScotland’s more remote highlands and islands. A friend’s wife affectionately calls it ‘The land that time forgot’. The Borders has beautiful scenery, an abundance of wildlife and more castles than you can shake a stick at. However, it also has the same social problems found in any city, as well as that handy plot device most readers no longer find plausible: areas with no mobile phone reception.

Setting my book in a rural community risks disappointing readers who expect the story to be light-hearted, but murder is dreadful wherever it happens and I wanted to reflect that. I’m also fascinated by secrets, the contrast between appearances and reality. Living somewhere beautiful doesn’t stop people making a mess of their lives. They just learn to hide it. One of the novel’s Amazon reviews sums this up nicely: ‘The environment may be cosy, but the themes are dark’.

The real Borders locations in No Stranger to Death add colour but I also wanted to make them contribute to the story. For example, my main character, Zoe Moreland, regularly goes to Kelso and sits in a café overlooking the picturesque cobbled square and stone-built town hall. I like to think readers may be interested in seeing Kelso themselves one day, but more importantly, Zoe’s visits there provide the novel’s final twist.

Armed with a notepad and camera, I visited locations, even ones I’m very familiar with, before writing about them. Zoe is taken by her new friend Kate Mackenzie for a fish supper in Eyemouth, the Borders’ only seaside town. They sit in a car at the harbour watching boats bobbing in the water and Kate talks about having the strange sensation that she’s the one moving while the boats are staying still. I wouldn’t have known this can happen if I had relied on Google Earth.

Despite using many real places in No Stranger to Death, I decided to create a fictional setting, the village of Westerlea, for the book’s main events. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, I needed the flexibility of being able to choose what went where, to suit my story. I didn’t want readers complaining I had taken liberties with the layout of an actual village. Secondly, given the grim circumstances Zoe gets caught up in, it seemed unfair to saddle a real community with even a fictional notoriety.

That said, many of Westerlea’s buildings and features are based on real ones. The Rocket and its tiny bar were modeled on the pub in the first Borders village I lived in. And I got the idea for Zoe’s coach house from an old farm steading I used to pass when walking the dogs. It has now been converted into a lovely home. Westerlea’s cemetery, with its stone pillars that Zoe’s car hits in the snow, is taken from a village called Leitholm, where I also got the idea for my book’s opening while attending a Bonfire Night party.

There is a world of difference between writing about sheep in a field and conveying the joyful experience of sitting in your car watching a Border collie herd those sheep along a narrow road. In No Stranger to Death I tried to give readers a taste of what the Scottish Borders is like, not only by describing this lovely part of theUK but also by showing Zoe’s responses to it. Despite all the horrible experiences I put her through there, Zoe falls in love with her new home. And I admit, in this respect, she is me.

I have now started researching locations for my next book, which picks up Zoe’s story six months after No Stranger to Death finished. The historic Union Chain Bridge, which spans the River Tweed and connects Scotland to England, would be an ideal place to dump a body . . .


Link to Amazon: http://amzn.to/1clg31K

Link to my blog: www.janetokane.blogspot.co.uk

Link to my Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/JanetOkaneAuthor

2 thoughts on “Writing where I know by Janet O'Kane”

  1. Lovely post! I used to spend a lot of time in Kelso as a kid, and I can remember the cobbled town square and a sweet shop that used to be opposite. I think the idea of the fictional ‘Westerlea” amongst the real setting of the borders is great (in fact I’ve done the same with my own novel!). Looking forward to reading this.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Susi, and that it brought back memories of visiting the Borders. I did actually cheat a bit when describing Zoe’s visit to Kelso, because the cafe she sits in is actually a tiny Boots the Chemist! If/when you read my book I hope you enjoy it, and best of luck with your own.

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