Catriona McPherson was working as a linguistics professor in Scotland when she came to terms with the truth: She was in the wrong job. This one was making her miserable.
“I was really rubbish at it as well,” McPherson says.
With that realization, she left academia to become a fiction writer. One move around the world, a 13 book mystery series and nine stand alone novels later, McPherson is writing the kind of series she never thought she would attempt: One set in America.
McPherson and her husband moved to California in 2010, after her husband took a position as a plant pathology professor at UC Davis. When they had to decide if they would be uprooting their lives to move to Northern California, they knew that they wanted to live in the country, like they had in Scotland. They found a plot of land south of Winters, where McPherson can garden while her neighbor’s black angus cattle meander over to graze on their tall grass.
McPherson assumed they would have no trouble acclimating to life in America. She and her husband had, after all, grown up watching American movies and television shows. Then they moved, and found themselves tripped up by a dozen little things they had never seen on television. From buying a house (McPherson says she first thought escrow was a place, as in, “a house in Escrow”), to mailing a letter (the blue mailboxes were invisible to McPherson, who expected them to be red), to driving a car (the pair got many a fix-it ticket because they didn’t know what a registration tag was)–McPherson says that they probably should have bought a book on living in America.
Instead, she ended up writing a character who could express all those frustrations for her: Lexy Campbell of the Last Ditch Mysteries.
The character is a Scottish woman who left her homeland for a marriage that quickly fell apart. The first book in the series , “Scot Free,” came out in 2018. The second book, “Scot and Soda,” was released earlier this month.
The Last Ditch Mysteries are a departure from McPherson’s previous series, the 13 novel Dandy Gilver series set in the 1930s. McPherson assumed that she would never know America well enough to set a book here, but then her editor asked her for something a little different from her first series.
McPherson said yes. She says that in some ways being a writer is like being an actor: When the director asks if can ride a horse, you say just yes and just figure it out when the time comes.
She still didn’t want to write a novel from the perspective of an American, but knew she could write a fish-out-of-water story.
“I thought I would lose all my friends,” McPherson says of her experience writing the first novel. Through Campbell, McPherson could share her thoughts about everything she found confusing and strange about life in America. She thought that if she made those points out loud she wouldn’t look like the “good immigrant.”
Luckily, she didn’t face a backlash. McPherson says that her jokes are lighthearted, and certainly not meant to be mean.
McPherson also found it nerve-wracking to categorize these novels as humorous. She says that all of her books have a few laughs in them, but labelling a novel as “comic” changed the game. As she saw it, if you declare that something is funny, it allows people to look at it, judge it and tell you it isn’t.
That gamble paid off as well. McPherson’s first book in the Last Ditch series just won the Lefty award for “Best Humorous Mystery Novel” at the Left Coast Crime convention in Vancouver.
McPherson has been a fiction writer since 2001. When she began her career publishing was still done in the old style, meaning that authors had to go through a handful of major publishing houses, all based in New York. McPherson rode the wave of the rise of Amazon and epublishing, which removed the hurdles writers had to scramble over. She says that for the most part this change up has been, “marvelous.”
She still has a few hurdles of her own to get over as a transcontinental author. For now some of her book are only published in the U.K. Almost all of them can be found stateside.
“Writing I understand. Publishing is a bit of a mystery to me,” McPherson says.
When working on a first draft, McPherson says that she shoots for writing 2,000 words a day, five days a week. Then she sets the draft aside for a month to work on something else, then comes back to it for a rewrite. She says that at this rate, she writes about a book a season.
After her move from Scotland, McPherson says it took her a few years after the move to recognize the change in California’s seasons. She was used to the year-round green of Scotland. Now she is learning to notice the shift in the seasons through small signs like the smell of spring.
She’s also learning more about America. McPherson has figured out what a registration tag is and the fix-it tickets stopped. She and her husband bought their California home with the help of local realtor Curtis Stocking, and came to realize that most other people didn’t really understand “escrow” either.]]>