CTG Interviews: crime writer William Shaw about #TheBirdwatcher

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Today I’m delighted to welcome crime writer William Shaw to the CTG blog. William’s latest book, THE BIRDWATCHER, is out on the 19th May and he’s agreed to let me quiz him all about it …

Your latest crime novel – THE BIRDWATCHER – is out this week. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Having done three in my Breen & Tozer series I thought I’d take a breather. I had this beginning of a book that I wrote ten years ago and a successful author friend kept saying I should go back to it, because he liked it. It was about a child growing up in Northern Ireland, where some of my family are from. I resisted for a while, but then one day I thought, what if that boy grows up into a policeman? And I was off. I’ve never had something where the story just appeared to me in such a satisfying way. When I got to the denouement it was like being a reader, not actually wanting to finish. I was really on the point of tears at the end. Pathetically.

In THE BIRDWATCHER your protagonist, Police Sergeant William South, is a murderer as well as a policeman. What drew you to writing a character who is both killer and justice seeker?

That was the big attraction for this book. How do you write a sympathetic character who has done something very bad? We like complex heroes, don’t we? And everything in recent history tells us that good people are capable of doing bad things in the right circumstances. In fact what William South did turns out not to be that bad at all… but I don’t want to give away why!

How has the way you set out to write THE BIRDWATCHER – a standalone novel – differed from how you approach writing one of your Breen & Tozer series books?

Interesting question. Writing a series taught me that you can – in fact you HAVE TO – create characters without giving that much away about them, because you want them to develop over the arc of the later books. And actually, I really like working out how little I can tell the reader because I think the readers are a part of the creative process. You give them enough stuff for them to be inspired to make up the rest in their imagination. But maybe in a standalone you can’t go QUITE that far. You have to give people a sense of completeness. But it’s only a matter of degree. And in a standalone I think the shape of the book is more important. Everything has to be in it for a reason. A series has to have incompleteness to throw you into the next book.

THE BIRDWATCHER is set on the Kent coast. What was it about this area that attracted you as a writer?

I’m a sucker for Nordic Noir; there’s something about feeling cosy in a hostile natural environment, isn’t there? Much of South Kent has that. It’s not just the landscape that’s hostile. The Kent coast has taken a lot of knocks in the last twenty or thirty years and it’s not an easy place in many ways. I think that makes it interesting. I had a good friend who had their ashes scattered off that beach. With that, the nuclear power station, the derelict boats and the light houses and the cottages, it seems like a really meaningful landscape; it’s a place with a real sense of darkness but also a sense of a escape. And my main character is definitely an escapee.

Can you tell us a bit about your writing process – do you plot the story out first, or dive right in and see where it takes you (or a bit of both)?

I have learned that a one to two page precis is useful so I know where I’m heading, but the best bits of everything I’ve written were always the scenes I didn’t know I was going to write at the beginning. I love the feeling when you write some scene and you’re not sure why it’s there at all, and then 100 pages later you realise that there’s a great reason for it.

Do you have any writing quirks or rituals that you perform when starting a new book?

No rituals, just emotions. I’m really against writing being a superstitious process. I think the job is just to write every day, come hell or high water. After the excitement of opening a fresh document on the computer, it’s terror, mostly. A book seems such a large thing. And the fear continues until about three-quarters of the way through. At the start, I do end up buying a lot of books around the subject and – in the case of the Birdwatcher – finding excuses to visit the place. Books about birdwatching, I’ve discovered, are really delightful. It’s a great excuse to consume a lot of non fiction that you wouldn’t normally read.

What advice would you give to writers who are aspiring to publication in crime fiction?

Approach with humility. There are a lot of really great people in the crime writing community who will offer you amazing help and advice as long as you don’t blunder in there thinking you’re God’s gift. You may be God’s gift, of course. Just keep it to yourself. And accept it’s a crowded genre and the only way you’re going to succeed in it is by writing the kind of book you want to read, not the one you think the market wants, because there are plenty of people doing that already. Oh, and develop an iron liver for events like Crimefest and Harrogate Crime Festival.

And, lastly, what does the rest of 2016 have in store for you?

I’m just finishing the fourth Breen and Tozer book, which opens with the death of the Rolling Stone Brian Jones. I’ll be starting a new book over the summer but I don’t know yet what it’s going to be… Which is fairly scary. But my head is deeply into the current book I’m in so it’s hard to know what it’s going to be about.

Big thanks to William for dropping by the CTG blog and letting me quiz him.

THE BIRDWATCHER is out on the 19th May. Here’s the blurb: “Police Sergeant William South has a reason for not wanting to be on the murder investigation. He is a murderer himself. But the victim was his only friend; like him, a passionate birdwatcher. South is warily partnered with the strong-willed Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi, newly recruited to the Kent coast from London. Together they find the body, violently beaten, forced inside a wooden chest. Only rage could kill a man like this. South knows it. But soon – too soon – they find a suspect: Donnie Fraser, a drifter from Northern Ireland. His presence in Kent disturbs William – because he knew him as a boy. If the past is catching up with him, South wants to meet it head on. For even as he desperately investigates the connections, he knows there is no crime, however duplicitous or cruel, that can compare to the great lie of his childhood. Moving from the storm-lashed, bird-wheeling skies of the Kent Coast to the wordless war of the Troubles, The Birdwatcher is a crime novel of suspense, intelligence and powerful humanity about fathers and sons, grief and guilt, and facing the darkness within.”

You can buy THE BIRDWATCHER from Waterstones here or Amazon here

Find out more about William Shaw on his website http://williamshaw.com and follow him on Twitter @william1shaw

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