I say in the book’s blurb: “In the world of international shipping, the rules are blurred and the oceans lawless.”
While there is some dramatic licence in this statement, it contains a strong element of truth as well. The laws governing the shipping industry are inevitably compromised by the plethora of jurisdictions involved in the simplest of transactions. The ship may be registered in a tiny Pacific island state. Her crew may represent half a dozen different nations. Her owners may be Greek but her charterers from Switzerland. Her cargo might originate in Brazil and be destined for China. The ship might be insured in London while her cargo is insured in New York. International law attempts to reconcile all these differing interests, but the reality is that jurisdictional issues become blurred by the sheer complexity of it all.
Enter the criminal mastermind pursued, in this case anyway, by maritime claims investigator, Angus McKinnon. Writers are inspired by different influences but “write what you know” is a steadfast rule for many of us. So it was only natural to draw on my own experience in the world of shipping. What else? I’d worked in the business throughout my career. I still found it deeply fascinating. And along the way I’d encountered plenty of dubious characters and more than a few nefarious schemes.
So although planning Sea of Gold was a tortuous business, I was able to draw on some of these experiences to construct a framework for the story. And that’s how it got started: cargo theft, contract fraud, unexplained damage and loss, Act of God and force majeure. I was in familiar territory. As a Piraeus-based marine insurance claims handler I’d gathered plenty of material for the book.
The story opens with the theft of a cargo of ethyl alcohol from a port in the Republic of Georgia. I was sent there to investigate it. The maritime fraud perpetrated in Thailand actually went back years to a shipment of charcoal from Malaysia to the Gulf. The firm I was with managed the ship. The agent in the Philippines who carried two guns in his car? I was in the car! And as I recalled these events I began to embellish them in my mind: a touch of violence here, a beautiful woman there and so on.
But just as I was feeling rather pleased with myself, I hit a snag. What I had was a series of interesting events with some lively characters but no coherent plot or story arc. It’s all very well for those writers whose characters somehow naturally lead the plot but mine needed some help.
And I wanted the plot to be complex. I’m a fan of Len Deighton and relish the complexities of his tales. But was I trying to force a series of disparate events into a plot that didn’t exist? Yes, I was.
Long walks in the Scottish Borders and on a little Greek island, armed with trusty voice recorder brought results. I walk therefore I think. It always works.
So finally I had the plot, with events and characters all lined up. Just as I thought I had it settled I hit another snag. Sea of Gold is not a blood and thunder kind of story but I wanted a climax worthy of any good thriller. There had to be action and violence. But it had to bring matters to a head as well; and be plausible. More long walks. Finally, I decided to walk but not come home until I’d resolved the climax issue. It was early in the year. I walked along the banks of the River Tweed deep in thought. Dusk gathered. I walked on. Darkness fell and it began to rain. But I would keep my promise. I would not return home until I’d sorted it out. It worked, and as with many things, less was more. The climax would be violent, packed with action, but not try and resolve everything in one go.
Then came the cover
Once I’d decided on an enigmatic metaphor for the title of the book, the cover theme became obvious. I searched online and one image jumped out from the rest. I tracked down the photographer, Noriaki Tanaka, through Flickr. He told me the photo was taken from Mount Chokai looking out over the Sea of Japan, and was under Creative Commons so it was free – except the cost of sending him a complimentary copy of the book.
I believe the photo works beautifully. The metallic tone of the sea is truly golden while the ripples and shadows on the surface evoke the mysteries and dangers faced by Angus. The ship silhouetted off centre up towards the horizon, unknowingly awaits her fate.
In the end I was pleased with the result: my first novel, and the first in a planned series. Angus McKinnon had arrived!