I am delighted that SD SYKES is joining me on my blog today for her blog tour. Her latest book - The Butcher Bird - was published by Hodder & Stoughton on 22 October 2015.
Your first book – Plague Land – was published in September 2014. What inspired you to write a crime novel set in the 14th century?
I’ve always been drawn to medieval history. There’s something mysterious and magical about the architecture, literature and general beliefs of those times. I also love historical crime fiction, particularly the books of CJ Samson and Ariana Franklin – the idea of solving a murder, before the existence of forensics and the police force, when only deduction and examination could provide the solution. But, if I could pin down my inspiration to one moment, then it was watching a TV series called ‘Inside the Medieval Mind.’ The presenter, Professor Robert Bartlett, showed us a fourteenth century map, the ‘Mappa Mundi’, that is now held in Hereford Cathedral. In one corner was the image of a man with the head of a dog. A ‘Cynocephalus.’ A creature believed to live in the unmapped parts of the world. A physical representation of the unknown. The ‘other.’ When I saw this, the idea to connect a crime with medieval superstition just leapt into my imagination.
The Butcher Bird continues Oswald de Lacy’s story. When you wrote Plague Land, did you always intend for it to be the first in a series?
I did. Oswald is not the usual type of detective. In fact, he begins his career in Plague Land by being rather inept and reluctant, representing those situations that we all face, where we feel out of our depth, but must soldier on. But Oswald has inner strengths. He shows courage, when courage doesn’t come easily to him, which makes him more of a hero to my mind. I would like to follow Oswald as he grows older, into a more seasoned and worldly detective – though I don’t intend for him to ever completely lose that inner vulnerability.
How difficult has it been to research this time period and make your books as authentic as possible?
The chroniclers and historians of the fourteenth century tended to forget about the lives of ordinary people. Equally, most ordinary people were illiterate, so did not leave their mark on the world. But there have been some sources that have been invaluable for filling these gaps about everyday life, and making my writing as authentic as possible. Firstly, the Canterbury Tales – written in the 1380s. Wonderful bawdy tales of fourteenth century society. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville were also very useful – as Sir John recounts the trip he apparently made to China (though it is doubtful he did, given some of his descriptions of foreign lands.) But my greatest source has been an illuminated manuscript ‘The Luttrell psalter.’ Created for a rich family in the 1340s, this prayer book is decorated with images of everyday rural life in remarkable detail. Drawn about the margins are kitchens, dining halls, watermills, farmers herding sheep, horse carriages, bear-baiting etc, etc. It’s like being transported back 680 years.
Describe your writing style in 10 words or less?
Pithy, pungent stories with energy and heart.
Do you have any strange writing habits?
I can only write the first draft of my novels in the mornings, between 9am and 1pm. And I must have strong coffee!
Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you plot out the whole book before you start or just start writing to see where it leads you?
I am a plotter. In the past, I’ve written more scripts than novels – and a screenplay or radio play usually starts with a ‘treatment’. This is where the story is dissected in detail, to ensure that the plot works. So, I always start my novels with this ‘treatment’ which is a long, chapter by chapter document. But I should also say that I don’t follow it slavishly. If better ideas come to me as I write – and they often do – then I absolutely use them.
Who are your favourite authors?
I love (in no particular order): C J Sansom, Sarah Waters, Ariana Franklin, Anne Tyler, Karen Maitland, John Steinbeck, Antonia Hodgson, Martine Bailey, Jo Nesbo.
If you were writing a book about your life, what would the title be?
Ha! I’ve no idea. Actually, maybe that could be the title?
How has your life changed since becoming a published author?
My ‘writing time’ is much more easily defended than in the past. These days, when I say I’m going into my office and I do not want to be disturbed – my family seem to listen! Other than that, my life is pretty much the same as ever.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
It is simply this. Persevere. Keep writing. Every day. It’s like anything in life – the more you do something, the better you get.
And lastly, why should people read The Butcher Bird?
I’d like people to read The Butcher Bird, not because it’s about history, but because it’s about people. It’s a crime thriller, that just happens to be set in 1351. There are murders, lies, jealousies, love, sex and intrigue. As you follow Oswald and his investigation, you will be transported back to the Kent of 1351 in the aftermath of the Black Death – as society tries to find its feet after one of the greatest plagues of all time. You will also visit the medieval walled city of London, and join the hoards as they cross London bridge. You will go into castles and hovels. You will drink ale and eat pottage. But most of all, as you take this journey you will recognise these people as being just like you and me.
About SD Sykes
SD Sykes lives in Kent with her family and various animals. She has done everything from professional dog-walking to co-founding her own successful business. She is a graduate from Manchester University and has an MA in Writing from Sheffield Hallam. She attended the novel writing course at literary agents Curtis Brown where she was inspired to finish her first novel. She has also written for radio and has developed screenplays with Arts Council funding.
Find SD Sykes on her website and Twitter - @SD_Sykes
The Butcher Bird
Published by Hodder & Stoughton on 22 October 2015
Oswald de Lacy is growing up fast in his new position as Lord of Somershill Manor. The Black Death changed many things, and just as it took away his father and elder brothers, leaving Oswald to be recalled from the monastery where he expected to spend his life, so it has taken many of his villagers and servants. However, there is still the same amount of work to be done in the farms and fields, and the few people left to do it think they should be paid more - something the King himself has forbidden.
Just as anger begins to spread, the story of the Butcher Bird takes flight. People claim to have witnessed a huge creature in the skies. A new-born baby is found impaled on a thorn bush. And then more children disappear.
Convinced the bird is just a superstitious rumour, Oswald must discover what is really happening. He can expect no help from his snobbish mother and his scheming sister Clemence, who is determined to protect her own child, but happy to neglect her step-daughters.
From the plague-ruined villages of Kent to the thief-infested streets of London and the luxurious bedchamber of a bewitching lady, Oswald's journey is full of danger, dark intrigue and shocking revelations.
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