All first-time novelists dream of making a splash. Few do, which makes Francine Toon’s arrival on the UK literary scene all the more notable.

Late last month the 33-year-old Scot picked up not one but two nominations in the prestigious Bloody Scotland awards, the prizes awarded by the annual crime-writing festival of the same name and designed to recognise the best of what these days we know to call Tartan Noir. Her novel, Pine, was one of four shortlisted for the Debut Scottish Crime Book Of The Year, but it was the only one of the quartet to also find its way onto the longlist for the McIlvanney Prize, named in honour of the late William McIlvanney, the so-called Godfather of Tartan Noir. Pine was only published in February which means it was barely out of the traps when Toon went into lockdown. Her day job has continued to an extent – she’s a commissioning editor at London-based publisher Sceptre – but, like the rest of us, she emerges into a very changed world which in her case includes the promise of literary stardom in the offing.

The twin accolades from Bloody Scotland have delighted her, she says, but there may be an element of surprise too. One newspaper reviewer described Pine as “a twilit ghost story” and “a literary Gothic thriller to chill the marrow” and, though it turns on the disappearance of a teenage girl from a rural community in the Highlands as viewed through the eyes of 10-year-old protagonist Lauren, there’s no denying that the novel’s predominant flavour comes from its strong supernatural elements. This is a world in which ghostly female figures in white lurk by roadsides, stone circles appear in bedrooms, memories of even recent events appear nebulous and shifting, and the brooding woods dominate everything.

“I would say it’s a Gothic, suspenseful mystery novel that’s also about growing up and father-daughter relationships,” says Toon when I ask her to describe Pine. “I think I definitely wanted to write something that was unravelling a mystery and getting to the heart of something dark in a small community. I love reading those kinds of books and I wanted to write something in that way. And I think with the father-daughter relationships, I hadn’t set out to write that but I really liked having to contrasting characters, a small girl and a taciturn grown man. They were two different perspectives I enjoyed playing off against each other.”

So how well does the novel sit within her understanding of the Tartan Noir genre?

“In my head it was blending different genres and influences. But I’ve always loved crime fiction and I’ve always wanted to tell a story about a crime and a teenage girl who disappears. I’m a big crime fiction reader and I also listened to a lot of true crime podcasts when I was writing the book, so I was really pleased that it was acknowledged for having that crime element that I wanted to bring into it. But I realise it’s not your traditional crime book – but then I suppose Tartan Noir can be a bit broader than just a police procedural.”

Toon’s evocation of place is as important to Pine as the characters she creates to populate the surrounds of Strath Horne, the fictitious town around which the events take place. It’s an evocation based on first-hand experience. Although born in England, Toon moved to Clashmore, near Dornoch, aged nine and lived there until she was 11. Toon’s father worked in hotel management and was employed at The Royal Marine Hotel in Brora and, though the family later moved to St Andrews where Toon spent her teenage years, she returned regularly to Clashmore for holidays until she was into her late teens. A poet whose work has appeared in several collections, Toon always knew her heart was in fiction so when it came time to put pen to paper for that first long-form effort, it was to Clashmore and her childhood there that her imagination turned.

“When I was a child in Sutherland I just had so much freedom,” she recalls. “It was really great. In some ways it did feel like quite an old-fashioned childhood in that there were less safety concerns. My parents could just let me run wild around woods and fields and I think that made a really big impression on me, and especially living by this big forest, Clashmore Wood, which I knew really well. That just stayed in my imagination and I thought I wanted to write about that particular place … Obviously my life wasn’t exactly the same as Lauren’s, but I think I chose a character of that age because I was that age I when I was living there.”

But while the all-important woods of Strath Horne are based closely on Clashmore Wood, Strath Horne itself is based only “somewhat” on Clashmore. Moreover, Toon was careful not to base any characters on real people.

“The home that Lauren lives in is a bit exaggerated but it was based on the outline of the house I lived in for a while and I just thought of the different types of characters you might get there. I think that because of something to do with the landscape you get outsiders and people who are into new Age practices, so that was an interesting thing to explore as well … People don’t really associate that with the Highlands. They associate it more with tartan and tablet and that sort of stuff. Maybe it’s because there’s so much folklore and it’s such a beautiful natural landscape that you find people there who are outsiders and who can find their own way of living on the edges of society.”

That certainly describes Lauren, her guitar-playing odd-job man father Niall and her Henna-haired New Age mother Christine. Christine disappeared when Lauren was a baby leaving behind only a single photograph, her own mother’s book of folklore and dark spells, and a swirl of vicious rumour that results in Lauren and her father being viewed with suspicion in the village. When strange things start to happen in and around Lauren’s house and then Lauren’s teenage friend and occasional babysitter Ann-Marie disappears, she and her father are further enveloped in rumour, gossip and mystery.

Toon wrote Pine mostly at her home in London. How did the fact of being so far removed from the place in which the book is set affect the writing of it?

“When you’re in one place it’s hard to imagine the other exists because they’re so different from each other,” she admits. “But having been in London for quite a lot time, 10 years, it was really helpful for me and I enjoyed remembering and trying to feel a sense of connection with the place I had grown up in, and with Scotland. When I’m in London it can feel very far away, so there is almost a sense of homesickness to it.”

She did wangle a writing week in a cottage in Dunoon, however, and made several research trips to Clashmore to make sure she had some of the finer details correct. Like what time it grows dark in the autumn and winter, when exactly the trees shed their leaves and, importantly, what the landscape looks and feels like around Hallowe’en, which is when the novel begins.

With its beguiling 10-year-old protagonist and evocative rural setting Pine seems ready made for cinema or television. Toon admits there have been some preliminary skirmishes in that regard – meetings with interested parties, in other words – but nothing concrete has yet been proposed. In the meantime work continues on novel number two, another semi-autobiographic tale set partly in Fife and partly in the capital (Toon studied at Edinburgh University before landing her first publishing job at the city’s historic Chambers firm). “It’ll have suspense and mystery and it’ll follow a teenage girl,” she says. “I just want to write about places I’ve lived in and know well. It just feels like it comes more naturally to write about them.”

In terms of the novel’s overall feel, however, expect more of the same.

“Being in London has made realise how Gothic Scotland can be,” says Toon. “A lot of people asked me why I chose to write a Gothic novel – but it just comes with the territory.”

Pine is out now (Doubleday, £12.99)