Crime authors spill their guts about writing...

This week: S.D. Sykes

Tell us about yourself.

Like most authors I suspect, I’ve been writing stories since I could write. But it’s a precarious career - so, in order to pay my bills and put food on the table, I’ve had many other jobs over the years – from running my own business through to walking dogs. My second passion, after writing, is medieval history, and I was inspired to write historical crime fiction after attending the novel writing course at literary agents Curtis Brown. My first novel Plague Land was published in Sept 2014, and my second novel The Butcher Bird was published in Oct 2015 (paperback in April ’16). I’m now working on my third novel in the Somershill series. I live in rural Kent with my husband.

How do you pick character names? Do any of them special meaning for you?

I’ve never been asked this before, so thank you Barbara! I use both historical research and general observation to name my characters. But it’s a tricky process. The name has to suit the character perfectly, and I have to be able to imagine the character with this name, or the whole construct can fail. I’m always on the look out for unusual names to use in my books. For example, in Plague Land, I have a family called the ‘Starvecrows.’ It’s a wonderful name, taken from a ‘Starvecrow farm’ that I used to walk past with my dogs. In my third book, I have a character called ‘John Bearpark.’ Many years ago, I saw this name written above a shop – so I wrote it down, hoping that I would be able to use it later in my writing.

How long does your first draft take you?

I seem to take around six to nine months to write a first draft (including research) and then about six months to edit and polish. When I’m writing my first draft, I try to write at least 1000 words a day, and my books tend to be around 100,000 words in length. I find this daily target to be a good discipline, and would recommend it to any writers out there. You have to sit at your desk and write. Even on the days when you don’t feel like it!

Research: do you find it fascinating or laborious? How do you go about your research?

In the main, I find research fascinating. If a particular piece of history interests me, then I can become obsessed with it. When researching The Butcher Bird, my obsession was London Bridge – at the time the only permanent crossing over the Thames, but also a whole community in its own right, with shops, houses, taverns and latrines. There was even a chapel half way across the bridge. If I had a time machine, then London Bridge is exactly where I would go! I love it when research turns up history that echoes modern day life. For my third book, I’ve been researching Venice and 14th century pilgrim culture. From this I’ve discovered that the Venetians were the tour operators of their day – with a tourist office designed to persuade pilgrims to travel to Jerusalem via Venice, rather than use Bari in southern Italy; and another office designed to conciliate between the galley captains and any disgruntled customers. A sort of medieval ABTA. 

 

Most of my research is desk research – I look particularly for primary sources. But I also visit locations, and try to imagine how they looked, felt and smelt six hundred and fifty years ago. As you can imagine, this can be one of the best parts of researching. Especially as I’ve recently had to travel to Venice.

How easy/hard was it to get your first break?

It was difficult and it took a long time. I kept going because I loved what I was doing – but also because I have a stubborn and determined streak (a necessary attribute for a writer!) Also, I’m a great believer in that old adage, that the harder you work, the luckier you get. Of course, it would have been great to have been an overnight success with my first attempts, but it didn’t happen that way. And the positive side is this – I know how to deal with failure and success.

What's the best writing tip you've ever been given, and how has it influenced you?

I quite often trot this tip out – so I’m sorry if you’ve heard it before. If I could pick one piece of advice, it would be this one, from Elmore Leonard. ‘The difference between me and an amateur is I cut out the boring bits.’ At first, you might think this sounds a bit glib or silly – but being able to reduce and then cut out your own ‘boring bits’ is the key to success. There are, of course, many ways to enliven your writing and make it more compelling. The key is to be tough with yourself. If a sentence does not move the plot 

forward, illuminate some aspect of your character’s personality, or do a very good job of setting the scene – then you should probably cut it.

What book do you wish you had written?

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. I’ve always loved gothic literature, ever since reading Wuthering Heights as a child. For me, the Little Stranger is a modern-day gothic classic. A decaying mansion, ghosts, doomed love, and the underlying threat of malice and violence. And Sarah Waters’ writing is sublime. I’ve probably read this book five times, and each time it still surprises and delights me.

How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?

My books are set in the 14th century, so you might wonder how my own life experience might appear in my writing? But it does. What I love the most about history is looking into the past and seeing the human condition reflected back at me. Most human attributes are eternal – love, hate, ambition, jealousy, courage etc, so I’m able to use my modern day experiences to inform these aspects of my books, just as much as if I were writing a contemporary novel. Of course, life itself was very different. The environment was a wilder, more dangerous, more natural place. Strangely enough, one of my previous jobs that I often call upon is dog walking. Dogs need to be walked every day, in all weathers – and as such, I became an expert in dealing with mud. It made me realise how difficult it must have been to keep clean in those times, especially for the poorest people in society. With daily work in the fields, un-made roads and floors of beaten earth – the fight against mud and dirt must have been constant.

What scene in your latest book did you most enjoy writing, and why?

In my latest book I have a scene where Oswald is buying a monkey at a medieval version of the pet shop. Unfortunately monkeys were quite often purchased in this way and then kept as amusing, if inappropriate play-mates for the children of rich families. You see the images of monkeys over and over again in the marginalia of medieval manuscripts. I had imagined the scene for many days before. The hustle and bustle of the London street where Oswald finds this shop. The smell of the place. The condition of the monkey. The way that Oswald tries to rehabilitate the pitiful creature that has spent its life in a small 

cage. It was one of those passages that I was able to write in one session, and have hardly altered in the edit.

Which book or character are you most proud of creating and why?

I’m very proud of my main character, Oswald de Lacy. He’s a rather shy and unconfident young man who still manages to act courageously – despite not naturally possessing the typical characteristics of a hero. For me, Oswald represents those experiences that many of us have had – of being thrown into a situation and feeling out of our depth, but finding the inner strength to keep afloat. I suspect Oswald may frustrate some readers with his occasional indecision and lack of assertiveness – but hopefully they will see him grow over the space of the novels.

What's the secret of your success?

Perseverance and a passion for stories. Come what may, I will always write and I will always read. Success will come and go, but my love of writing and literature will always be with me.

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The Butcher Bird, by S.D. Sykes, comes out in paperback today!