SD Sykes interviewed by Karen Maitland

SD Sykes and Karen Maitland

We asked Crime Files authors Karen Maitland and SD Sykes to interview each other – read on to find out why the medieval period has both intrigued and inspired them…

Here are SD’s answers to Karen’s questions…

Posted on November 11, 2015 in Author Q&A

KM: Which came first, the idea for the plot of the murder of Alison Starvecrow in Plague Land or the setting of the plague and its aftermath? In other words, did you decide to set a crime novel in the medieval period and then go searching for the plot or the other way round?

SDS: The medieval time period has always fascinated me, particularly the years of the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century. It must have been such a distressing experience, and I wonder if we can fully appreciate the horror? The foreboding and panic-stricken stories that must have reached England from Europe, the onslaught and terror of the Plague itself, the deaths without confession and absolution, the mass graves, and the subsequent chaos of a society that had lost half its population. So, in answer to your question, I did decide upon the setting first. This time period just called out to me. I particularly wanted to explore if anybody would have cared about a murder in a time when so many had recently died. What I discovered was that surprisingly the world didn’t descend into some sort of dystopian hell-hole after the Black Death. There might have been a few months of disorder, but the rule of law was re-established quickly by a ruling class that were keen to keep their place at the top of society. I knew this would be a fascinating setting for a crime thriller.


KM: Many authors say they find writing the second novel harder than the first, was that so for The Butcher Bird? Did that one present any new challenges?

SDS: Talking to other writers, I’ve found that my experience of writing my first two novels has not been entirely typical. Plague Land was not a novel I’d been working on for years before it was published. In fact it was sold to my publishers on a fairly rough first draft and a detailed synopsis. I then had about six months to work with my editor on rewrites and polishes before I finally let it go. The advantage of having worked on a first novel this way was that I had the experience of being able to write a second novel within a year. The challenge for me in writing The Butcher Bird was to develop and continue the story lines that had begun in Plague Land, whilst ensuring that this second book could also be read as a stand-alone novel. This was a difficult path to tread, and I hope that I’ve been successful.


KM: Your novels are remarkably visual and cinematic. I know that you’ve done some screen writing and also written for radio. So do you see scenes and characters you are writing in the novel as if you are watching a film? Are you an author who initially works in words or images?

SDS: You’ve found me out! I would say that I’m something of a frustrated film director. I do think in terms of scenes, and try to imagine the whole performance unfolding in front of me, as if it were on a large screen. I also like the cadence of film, the interplay between high drama and those quieter moments that are designed to almost rest the eye, and where the reader can take a breath and relax before the next increase in tension. I try to use my writing like the camera, leading the reader about the scene, and showing them the aspects of the drama that I’d like to emphasise. I also like to keep my dialogue to the point. I learnt this technique when writing scripts: dialogue is often reduced and then reduced again until every word is working as hard as possible.


KM: Your research into the detail of everyday life is meticulous and makes the reader feel they have really been transported back in time. But have you ever come across details which conflict with the popular concept of medieval life and do you use them, even if you risk some readers thinking you’ve got it wrong?

SDS: I do. In my books Oswald is an agnostic at best, despite having been raised in a monastery. A few early readers questioned this as there is a popular concept that absolutely everybody everywhere believed in God. In fact, it is often called the ‘age of faith’. I discovered evidence of the trials of non-believers in the ecclesiastical courts, but reason alone told me that there must have been doubters – although, like Oswald, you kept such feelings to yourself or risk being branded a heretic. I expect some readers will still think that I’ve got this wrong but I was willing to take this risk. I wanted Oswald to be something of a 21st century voice in a 14th century world. I did this in full knowledge that he could be seen as something of an anachronism. The book I’m currently writing is set in Venice in 1358, and has Oswald solving a crime whilst awaiting a galley to take him on the last leg of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I will have difficulty in persuading some readers that there was no such thing as a ‘gondola’ in the Venice of those times!


KM: I imagine, like me, that you become so fascinated by research that you could spend all your time doing that and not writing. How do know it is time for you to put the research material to one side and start writing?

SDS: Researching the 14th century is fascinating and sometimes enormously distracting. I recently became obsessed with the history of Venetian chimneys. Obscure, I know, but I had to know how they worked and finding the answer wasn’t easy. In order to control my urge to research, and to limit such ‘chimney’ distractions, I start by writing my plot and then use this storyline to concentrate my research into those areas that will hopefully be relevant. So with The Butcher Bird I needed to focus upon the laws introduced to control wages after the Black Death. I needed to know about medieval London: how carriages worked, which roads were used to travel from Kent to London, breeds of hawks used for hunting, weather patterns of the 1350s and even the implements of torture. It’s an old cliché, but I sometimes think of research as being like an iceberg – you only see a tiny fraction of it your novels, but underneath is a giant, underwater mass that’s keeping you afloat.


KM: Oswald de Lacy is a brilliant detective because he is such a well-rounded character and the readers can identify so well with his fears and hopes. I find myself really empathising with him. But I’m going to ask question you I hate being asked – how much of you is in Oswald or are you able to write about him so well because he is completely different from you?

SDS: Thank you. That’s lovely to hear. I do share some of Oswald’s personality, but then there’s a bit of me in all of my characters. In fact, when the mood takes me, I can be as horrible and waspish as Clemence, or as silly and insufferable as Mother. Regarding Oswald specifically, I am an introvert – happy with my own company, and happier to observe rather than rushing into the spotlight. I wanted to explore how a person with these same personality traits would cope when they had no choice but to be in charge. Would they sink or swim? I think Oswald can be a little arrogant, immature and quick to judge others. I hope these are not my own characteristics! I have a son of a similar age to Oswald, so I’ve been able to observe his behaviour and that of his friends over the past twenty years. Having been raised with a sister rather than a brother, it’s been very rewarding and eye-opening to watch boys grow into young men. I thought you caught teenage boys perfectly with your character Vincent in The Raven’s Head. His naivety, obsession with girls, and occasional pomposity really made me smile.


KM: Unlike most in his community, your medieval sleuth, Oswald, doesn’t accept the supernatural explanations behind the murders he investigates. Do you think that most fictional heroes are people who stand slightly outside society and who question its beliefs and values? Is that what makes a good fictional detective in both historical and modern crime novels?

SDS: I do think that heroes – and specifically detectives – are nearly always outsiders. They have to be a person who is not easily swayed by the crowd and can come to his or her own conclusion, otherwise the solving of crimes would be left to the rule of the mob. I was at a crime-writers conference over the summer, and the writer Alison Joseph talked about the detective being the modern day medieval knight, or even the priests and theologians of our age. They’re disinterested in the everyday matters of life. They’re often dishevelled, and don’t take care of themselves. Instead they are obsessed with the solving of the crime. I think this is an interesting idea. They are those people in our society who face death on our behalf and then offer justice by finding the murderer. This inevitably makes them an outsider.


KM: What made you want to write historical crime rather than contemporary crime – which is easier?

SDS: I wanted to write about crime detection before the advent of forensic science, phones, an organised police force and computers. To me it just seems a purer form of the art. The crime needs to be solved by examination, interrogation and deduction. I call Oswald an investigator rather than a detective because the concept of crime solving was pretty much unknown in the 14th century. If a person was murdered, then a ‘hue and cry’ was raised, and the culprit was chased down. If the murderer was not found in those first few hours, conveniently holding the murder weapon and covered in blood, then he or she could pretty much expect to get away with it. I don’t know if it’s easier to write historical crime. There’s little than can be specifically researched from this period regarding crime detection, which does allow a greater use of the imagination. On the other hand, it would sometimes be helpful if there were a reliable police force that Oswald could call upon to help him, rather than a group of reluctant and grumpy villagers.


KM: You describe medieval Kent very vividly. I can smell it, hear it and feel the fear. So how do you set about recreating those places in medieval times?

SDS: I live in the Kent countryside on the outskirts of a small village, opposite fields and a farm. I also walk my dogs every day in a wood nearby, so I just take note of the sounds and smells of the natural world. I’ve also spent time in reconstructed medieval homes (at the wonderful Weald and Downland Open Air museum) where the houses are just as they would have been at the time. But it strikes me that these homes would have been very cramped, so I think that people would have spent as much time as possible outside. I was also fascinated that the average person did not have a chimney in their home (the chimney obsession again!), they just lit a fire in the middle of the hall and allowed the smoke to rise to the roof and exit through a roof lantern. They must all have smelt like bonfires – although I suppose this was preferable to smelling of dirty clothes and body odour… And mud. There just must have been so much mud everywhere. The roads were just tracks in the earth – fine in a dry summer – but otherwise it must have been a constant fight against the stuff, both outside and inside the house.


KM: Like me, you seem fascinated by the medieval mind, heaven and hell, their belief in the supernatural and what they believed to be the causes of illness. How do you get into the medieval mind-set and do you think as modern writers we really ever can?

SDS: I try to read as many primary sources as possible. Of course, there isn’t a great deal of choice as this was before the age of printing. And the books are all in translation, but I can still get a glimpse into the world of the 14th century mind. To see what mattered to them. What they believed in. What made them laugh or cry. My favourite books are The Canterbury Tales, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Piers the Ploughman and the Book of Margery Kempe. I’m currently reading Boccaccio’s ‘The Decameron’ which is the story of a group of young people who flee the Black Death to an idyllic safe haven in the hills above Florence, where they pass the time by swapping stories. So far, most of the stories I’ve read, are surprisingly bawdy in tone. They involve swindlers, liars, adulterers, wicked priests, and yes, there are even misbehaving nuns. I have been thoroughly entertained! This might have been the age of faith, but it was not the age of prudishness.

But, the book I rely upon the most to get me into the medieval mind-set is the Luttrell psalter. It’s not the text itself, but rather the art in the margins. It is the most amazing chronicle of every-day life in the mid fourteenth century. People are eating feasts at long tables, ploughing the fields, turning the pig on the spit, dressing their hair, herding sheep into a pen. And alongside these images of everyday life, is a collection of the most incredible, bizarre, fantastical hybrid creatures. Known as drolleries, these creatures can be irreverent, vulgar, comical and then even grotesque and sinister. What were these drawings were doing in a sacred text? I’ve begun to wonder if they are represent the outpourings of a repressed mind? Not so much a doodle but a piece of graffiti. Drawn by somebody whose life was otherwise controlled by the strict mores of society? Whatever they are, their weirdness plunges me straight into the zone. Whether this is the genuine zone, I suppose we will never know. As writers, I guess we can only portray this world as it appears to us.


KM: What books first captured your imagination as child or adult that that made you want to be a novelist

SDS: I always loved spooky stories, and took a great deal of delight in being frightened, even as a small child. In fact I remember feeling constantly cheated by Scooby Doo, as the ghosts were never real! The book that made me first fall in love with the thrill of stories had very few words. It was Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Even now I have the same feeling of delight and trepidation when I look at the illustrations in this book. In terms of novels, it was reading Jane Eyre. I had no idea that Rochester’s poor, demented wife was being kept prisoner in the attic. It was both terrifying and electrifying. In the full knowledge that I will probably fail, I shall always strive to recreate that Jane Eyre attic moment in my own writing.


KM: We both write about a society which was bound in ritual and superstition. Do you have any writing rituals or superstitions, like always buying the same notebooks?

SDS: I do have routines – or quirks– that I’m quite fond of but I don’t think they would qualify as rituals or superstitions. If I do happen to look out the window and see a magpie on the lawn then I always say ‘Good morning Mr Magpie’, but then everyone salutes the magpie, don’t they?


To read Karen’s answers to SD’s questions, head over to the H for History blog

SD Sykes’s latest novel, The Butcher Birdand Karen’s latest, The Raven’s Head, are both out now.

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