Authors reveal the images that inspired 100,000 words



About the author...

S.D Sykes writes historical crime fiction set in the fourteenth century, following the exploits of the young detective Oswald de Lacy. Her second novel ‘The Butcher Bird’ was picked by the New York Times as one of the ten best crime novels of 2016. Her third book in the series, ‘City of Masks’ is published by Hodder and Stoughton in Summer 2017 and is available for pre-order now. She lives in Kent with her husband and family.

It’s often said that writers are magpies, gathering together a whole collection of shiny bits and pieces for future use – whether they be overheard conversations, a small and personal object, newspaper cuttings or even a particular smell, and I’m no different. In fact, I have a whole host of oddities stored away in my memory, small notebooks or untidy drawers. Most of these little pieces of inspiration will never be useful, whereas I’ve known for a very long time that I would write about a butcher bird.

So where did this start? I expect many of you (or maybe your parents) will have an Observer’s Book lying around the house somewhere – dusty and forgotten now that we have the internet to help us identify breeds of dogs, species of wild flowers, or types of automobiles? I grew up with a whole selection of these wonderful pocket-sized books on the bookshelf, but my favourite was always ‘The Observer’s Book of Birds’ with its coloured illustrations and descriptions of the birds’ plumage, nest, food and haunt (‘haunt’ what a great word – so much more evocative than habitat!). I might have only seen blackbirds, blue tits and sparrows in my suburban garden, but it didn’t stop me imagining that an osprey might one day find its way to Croydon.

At some point this book was passed onto me as an adult and now it rests upon my kitchen windowsill, rather musty-smelling and held together by sellotape, but it still helps me to identify birds – and now that I live in the countryside, I do see the occasional green woodpecker, nuthatch or goldfinch. But one bird that I will never see is the Red-backed Shrike – as this particular migrant seldom makes it to Britain, with only one pair nesting sporadically in Devon. Nevertheless the Red-backed Shrike still merits its own section in my Observer’s book, and although it’s only accompanied by a black and white illustration, my attention has always been attracted to this page, and in particular, this piece of description. ‘This Summer visitor is well named ‘Butcher Bird’ as it butchers birds, mice and insects and impales them on thorns and spikes.’

Isn’t this macabre? Unforgettably so – to my mind, anyway. 

Imagine how it must have been, many years ago when these birds were common Summer visitors to our shores, to wander into a forest and come across a branch of thorns acting as some sort of grisly out-door meat rack, complete with a selection of dead rodents and nestlings? It’s images such as this that spur the writer’s imagination – especially if she is writing crime!

My novels are set in the middle of the fourteenth century, in an age when people were apt to see the supernatural in the natural – especially in the aftermath of the Black Death, as they struggled to make sense of this apocalyptic disaster. It was into this environment that my butcher bird flew with perfect ease, prompting me to write a novel about a remote village in Kent that becomes convinced a monstrous bird is preying upon their children – leaving its victims impaled upon the barbs of a Black thorn tree, just as the butcher bird is wont to do. It is only the intervention of reason and the discovery of the true murderer that finally suppresses this belief, but in the mean time, the novel tells the story of how fear, superstition and hysteria can warp behaviour, particularly in isolated communities. So, from two lines in a small reference book to a whole novel – this is how scrapbook inspiration works.

Thank you, S.D. Sykes, for the insight into your writing world!