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Perthshire Author FJ Watson on bringing the past to life in The Courier’s new serial Dark Hunter

Dark Hunter takes the pressure-cooker environment of 14th century Berwick-Upon-Tweed and throws a murder into the mix to scintillating effect.

Image shows the cover of historical novel Dark Hunter by F J Watson. The book cover is a deep red with gothic style script and an image of a black bird coming in to land.
FJ Watson's Dark Hunter is the current Courier serial story. Image: Birlinn Ltd.

In her novel Dark Hunter, which is currently being serialised in the pages of The Courier, keen historian FJ Watson brings the tension of a dangerously claustrophobic 14th century Berwick-Upon-Tweed to life.

For historian and expert in Medieval history FJ (Fiona) Watson, researching her first novel didn’t quite involve the romantic late-night library sessions and dusty tomes that I had imagined. The pandemic and presence of most of the information that she needed online have put paid to that theory.

Her chosen period of history isn’t an easy one to research, so when it came to crafting the tale of a young squire who finds himself joining the English garrison of Berwick-upon-Tweed three years after Bannockburn, she has made the most of what evidence she did find, while using her well-informed imagination to add meat to the bones of the tale.

A medieval detective story

Her squire, Benedict Russell is a fish out of water in the garrison, and his character allows us to experience the action through a questioning lens. “I needed somebody who was young and naïve and was looking at the situation in Berwick through very fresh eyes. He was somebody who wasn’t really supposed to be there in many ways because he is filling his brother’s shoes.

“He is educated, because if he is going to solve a mystery he needs to be able to function in a way that is credible as a kind of detective, he was slightly distanced from the soldiering life so that he can question things that other people wouldn’t,” says Fiona.

Image shows a head and shoulders shot of author Fiona Watson whose latest book Dark Hunter is featured as The Courier's Serial. Fiona has short fair hair and is smiling at the camera.
Fiona Watson author of Dark Hunter. Image: Birlinn Ltd.

Many of the other characters in Dark Hunter are based around people who did actually exist, such as the knight Benedict serves, Sir Edmund Darel, “he’s not the most intelligent but he knows what he’s doing!” and his counterpart Sir Anthony Lucy, who Benedict admires more than his own master.

Researching Dark Hunter

“I love the research,” says Fiona, “but I love to actually breathe life into these stories because you don’t have the dairies for the characters from that time in the same way that you do in the modern period.

“You are left a bit more distant from the people involved and yet they were just as real as anybody else and they suffered, you know? They got excited and had their passions just as we do.

“It was a very difficult period as well so it is interesting to explore whether, at a time of war that people can be brave or betray people or just keep their heads down.”

While Fiona says that she wants to be true to the historical facts that she can pin down, she sees the personalities and how they would have related to each other as a blank canvas.

“I know the high politics,” she says, “I know how an army is assembled but sometimes it is actually the day to day stuff that is difficult to find, the little things that most people’s lives are made of.

A volatile environment

Conditions when Benedict gets there are bad but they have been worse: Berwick-Upon-Tweed was the last English-held garrison in Scotland and the Scots are circling so they know that they are very vulnerable.

Sometimes the garrison gets paid and sometimes they don’t and if they don’t get paid nobody can buy any food.

Fiona has chosen a pressured environment for her story. In 1317 Berwick was a walled city in a kind of no-man’s land between Scotland and England where the pendulum could swing either way at any moment. “and then I threw in a murder inside the walls,” she laughs. “That’s why I chose that period, the soldiers know that they are sitting ducks, they could be invaded at any moment and they don’t feel particularly loved by their own government.”

The inhabitants and visitors to Berwick-upon-Tweed are already in an impossibly tense situation when news breaks that a young woman has been brutally murdered. It’s up to our unlikely hero to race against time to find out who killed her and why.

Dark Hunter by FJ Watson is published by Birlinn and is the current novel being published in serial form in The Courier’s print edition.