SCOTLAND’S biggest crime-writing festival has returned as a number of the country’s best authors head to Stirling to celebrate the best the genre has to offer.

A number of big names, including Val McDermid and Denise Mina, will speak at the event which also helps to promote up-and-coming authors across Scotland.

Part of the festival includes the awarding of The McIlvanney Prize for the best Scottish crime book of the year as well as a prize for the best debut of the year.

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The National spoke with all the nominees on the debut prize shortlist about their inspirations, what it was like writing their first novel and their plans for the future.

Heather Darwent – The Things We Do to Our Friends

Set in Edinburgh, Darwent’s (below) novel focuses on Claire who arrives at university and is sucked into the enigmatic world of a rich new friend.

Prior to writing her first novel, the author admits she was on a very different career path working for a start-up in the technology sector.

“I just started writing and the best thing is you don’t need anything or anyone, it’s private and completely yours”, she explained.

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The author started writing slightly before Covid but says she “never thought it would get published” and that she’d really just set herself the challenge of getting the book finished.

It’s been quite the journey to making both the shortlist for the prestigious Bloody Scotland prize and the longlist for the McIlvanney prize.

“Everyone’s been so friendly, I’ve been so shocked by that. We’re all writing in the same genre but they’re still very different books and I think we cover so many different bits of crime”, she added.

Fulton Ross – The Unforgiven Dead

Many crime-writing fans will be used to novels set in Scotland’s biggest cities but Fulton Ross, originally from just outside Fort William, has set his debut novel in the Highlands.

He’s wanted to be an author since he was 17 having been inspired by Iain Banks but admits he “lacked confidence”.

Eventually, Ross (below) turned to journalism and sub-editing which he says helped give him the confidence to start writing.

Inspired by the folk-tales of his childhood, The Unforgiven Dead is a reference to the “sluagh” which was a way of describing souls “too evil for hell”.

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The book focuses on a Highland constable who finds a young girl who has suffered a ritualistic, three-fold death.

And that theme of threes is one readers can expect to see crop up again.

Ross told The National: “I’m almost at the end of my first draft of my follow-up to this. The book itself has a theme of threes with a triple-death at the heart of it.

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“I’ve always envisaged this as a trilogy and am almost finished the second one and will be set in Barra.”

Heather Critchlow – Unsolved

Critchlow, who was raised in Aberdeenshire, worked as a business journalist for a number of years but, like Ross, admits she didn’t have the confidence to send a manuscript off.

After joining a writing course however, she’s been able to launch a successful debut – Unsolved.

It feels particularly relevant given its main focus is a true crime podcaster who tries to help the family of a missing woman.

“I became fascinated by these podcasts and how people go back 20 or 30 years to investigate a new crime”, Critchlow (below) said.

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“My favourites are set in isolated areas and I wanted to pick a small community so it was obvious to choose the hills of Aberdeenshire as that seemed a perfect place for the novel.”

On her nomination, she said: “I never imagined I’d be nominated, it’s incredible. The whole team have got behind the book and I think all of us in the debut category feel amazed how it’s all gone.”

Callum McSorley – Squeaky Clean

Things couldn’t have gone better for Callum McSorley when it comes to debut novels.

Not only has he picked up a debut nomination but he’s also made the final shortlist for the McIlvanney prize.

The book focuses on a car wash employee, Davey, who takes the wrong customer’s car for a driver and inadvertently gets caught up with the criminal underworld.

Writing the novel was something of a surreal experience given McSorley (below) himself worked in a carwash to earn a little bit of extra cash.

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“I started writing stories about jobs I worked in. I had done night shift on the railway and then the car wash thing came back to me – my boss was a real character," he said.

“He turns up in the book although I have to say my old boss was nicer. I gave him a copy so if he’s chosen to read it he’ll know it’s based on him."

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On making it in both categories, McSorley said: “I was over the moon about the debut prize and then got on the shortlist. You see your name alongside Ian Rankin and it’s mindblowing.”

Kate Foster – The Maiden

The Maiden takes readers back to 17th century Edinburgh and is based on the true story of a woman arrested and charged with the murder of her lover.

Writing is nothing new to Foster (below), who still works as a journalist, although she says she only started to take creative writing seriously in the past couple of years.

The novel tells the story from the perspective of Lady Christian Nimmo, the woman accused of murdering her husband who is still said to haunt the Corstorphine area of Edinburgh to this day.

“It’s part of the folklore there. As a child, you learn about it in school and I was terrified of the ghost," Foster explained.

The National: Kate FosterKate Foster (Image: Bloody Scotland)

“But when I came back and remembered the story I realised I wasn’t so much frightened as I was intrigued and I thought it would make a great historical novel.”

She described her nomination as an “absolute honour” having first pitched the novel in 2020.

“To have come through the ranks from that idea up to the debut shortlist and the McIlvanney longlist, you couldn’t make it up.”