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“You know, Dave, I wanna write a ghost story.” I spoke those words back in September of 1993 to my friend Dave Hovey. Behind them was a reservoir of an idea that had been filling up for months. It happens to writers all the time. An idea begins percolating, and pretty soon you feel that, somewhere in your head, a dam is going to burst if you don't begin writing—or at least start researching.
But I didn't want it to be just another gothic tale. I needed a unique setting. No weird New England mansions. No moors or fog-filled graveyards.
Then I learned about Cape Wrath. A lighthouse seemed much less cliché. And a name like that almost begged for a ghost story.
For about a year I collected everything I could find on lighthouses. Then early in 1995, after I bought our family’s first computer, I joined an online forum of people from the United Kingdom, and began asking questions.
Dave Wheeler, a former lightkeeper, and a meteorologist on Fair Isle, a tiny speck of land off the coast of Shetland, gave me wonderful details on the life of a Scottish lightkeeper. He also put me in touch with the Northern Lighthouse Board in Edinburgh. Within a few weeks of contacting the NLB, I had a narrative profile of Cape Wrath and some architectural drawings of the tower and the light station.
In June of 1995, my wife, Jenifer, called me at work and announced she’d won a week’s trip for two to London. By that time, I had been corresponding with Lorna Hunter (nee Grieve), the NLB’s Public Information Officer. In London I ran around knocking on the doors of the Admiralty and the Ministry of Defence (yes, that’s how they spell it in the UK) Library. I needed information about the Royal Navy because I was shaping Thomas MacAllister to be a retired naval officer with an unfortunate secret to keep.
Following our week in London, Jenifer and I went to Edinburgh, and Lorna gave me a used copy of Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses SERVICE REGULATIONS (the Scottish lightkeeper’s manual), a map of Scottish lighthouses, and a tour of the headquarters.
Lorna also arranged for me to interview the lightkeepers at Cape Wrath. The place is a three-hour drive from Inverness, then a boat ride across the Kyle of Durness, and an 11-mile minibus trip through some of Scotland’s most untamed country. But an hour outside of Inverness, we got a flat tire. It put us 1½ hours behind schedule, and we literally missed the boat.
I began writing to Cape Wrath’s Principal Lightkeeper, Calum Macaulay (who sent me some great photos), and for the next few years focused on plotting and writing. In November 1998 I was able to return to Scotland, but because of the impending winter, I was unable to visit Cape Wrath. After interviewing some more people at the NLB headquarters and the Deputy Editor at the Edinburgh Scotsman, I traveled to Dornoch (where Thomas MacAllister meets Andrea Sinclair) and spoke with Ian Ross-Harper, Chairman of the Dornoch Historical Society. I gained access to the Dornoch Council Chambers on the second floor of the Carnegie Free Library. During my stay in Dornoch, the story’s plot became more defined, and with some insight into the Dornoch Historical Society, I decided the Council Chambers would be the setting for two characters—Mary Craig, a Scottish news reporter, and Evan Robbins, an American researching his family history—to make some wonderful discoveries.
I followed the two trips to Scotland with years of writing, research, and rewriting. Writing fiction is never linear. There’s always more research to do; and scenes sometimes need to be adjusted or moved. And then there are plot surprises that demand you follow them.
In February 2008 I settled on a first draft. Then, for the next two years, I cut— sometimes like a butcher late for a banquet, sometimes like a yokel, whittling on the porch. I waited about six months between editing sessions, simply so I could return to the task with some emotional distance.
I returned to Scotland in September of 2010, and along with Calum Macaulay, visited Cape Wrath—nearly 15 years to the day from my first attempt. Thanks, in part, to Lorna Hunter and David Hird of the NLB, for one day, I was able to enter not only the lighthouse, but the lightkeepers’ living quarters: places that, for 15 years, I had only imagined.
In August 2011 the pipe band I belong to competed in the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow. On a rare, sunlit Tuesday, I visited King’s Theatre on Bath Street—where the story begins and Andrea Sinclair performs—and was given a tour of the grand old place. A week later I returned to Cape Wrath. During this visit, I had more time to walk the light station, more time to watch as the weather and sunlight changed. Inspired, I returned home and adjusted a few chapters.
And the editing continues. I suppose it always will until the hour this story is put in print. Through it all, I’ve experienced moments of magic, when constellations of meaning appear in your narrative, seemingly out of nowhere. I have worn out four or five computers, lost both my parents and a brother, survived a heart attack, bought a set of Scottish smallpipes, a new set of Highland pipes, and changed the book’s title four times.
I think Jerry Garcia said it best: What a long, strange trip it’s been.
“Can anyone tell me about the lighthouse at Cape Wrath?”
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