Scene of the Crime – William Shaw

Scene of the Crime

William Shaw discusses the setting of his latest thriller THE BIRDWATCHER and why he couldn't just stay indoors for this one!

Posted on February 8, 2017 in Scene of the Crime
Tags: Crime books, Scene of the Crime, dungeness, the birdwatcher, william shaw, writing spot

Raymond Chandler said, “Down these mean streets, a man must go.”

And a writer probably should too. Though obviously it’s much simpler for a writer to sit at home navigating those mean streets on Google Streetview.

The great thing about Dungeness, where I’ve set The Birdwatcher, is that Streetview doesn’t make it there. The single track roads at the end of this extraordinary piece of headland are private and therefore un-Googled.

The only way you can genuinely write about the place is to be there. And maybe take a camera.

Dungeness is a strange, beautiful, lonely place. Twelve square miles of shingle, built up over thousands of years by the currents that run along the Straits of Dover. Around the turn of the last century it wasn’t much more than a series of gravel pits and quarries. In the 20s workers bought old rolling stock and towed them to the end of the line and used them as summer houses, making it a kind of working-class shanty-town holiday camp.

And on top of that in the sixties they built a socking great nuclear power station there. If ever a writer is in need of metaphor for danger, it’s good to have something really big on hand.

The headland’s position, jutting out into the channel, its isolation and the quarry pits that filled with water, made it a natural nature reserve. From the 50s it had become a destination for naturalists – in particular birdwatchers. So when I decided to set a book there, it wasn’t long before that book became The Birdwatcher.

Though I’d been there as a visitor, I now needed to go there with a different eye. On my first of several visits I took photos and videos. Some were purely practical. A murderer couldn’t travel from X to Y, I discovered because Power Station Access Road was cut off by huge fences that didn’t show up on maps.

But the real stuff happens less obviously. You can inhabit images. Revisiting them, they come alive in our head. I have many photographs and film clips of one bungalow in particular. There was something about its symmetrical “M”-shaped gable attracted me to it. It was clearly occupied, but I never saw anybody in it. Unlike the other shacks that huddle together in a sociable fashion, this one was on its own, the view of the sea it would have once had blocked by the Dungeness nuclear power station. And the windows were blank, hidden by dark blinds, as if tempting you to imagine what was going on inside.

Soon, in my head, I was imagining it surrounded by yellow police tape; it became my murder house in The Birdwatcher.

The Birdwatcher is out now in paperback

Dungeness cottage

Dungeness cottage

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