Category Archives: One to Watch

One to Watch S D Sykes – Q&A

Today I’m very pleased to welcome author S D Sykes to the blog and she has kindly answered a few of my questions. Her first book Plague Land was published in paperback on 21 May 2015 and her latest novel to feature Oswald De Lacy, The Butcher Bird was published by Hodder and Stoughton on 22nd October 2015. I can’t wait to read The Butcher Bird and you can read my review of Plague Land here.

1. Tell us a little about The Butcher Bird.

Set in 1351, The Butcher Bird is the story of a young lord, Oswald de Lacy, as he tries to solve the murder of newborn children on his Kent estate. The childrens’ bodies are found in the hedgerows, just as the Red-backed Shrike (or Butcher Bird) impales its victims upon thorns. It is a time when England is still recovering from the Black Death – but instead of the initial chaos, society is slowly finding its feet. Oswald is still the naïve and inexperienced boy of ‘Plague Land’, but he has learnt to stand up for himself against the mob. When the villagers try to hang a local mad man for the murders, Oswald steps in to give this man sanctuary. But is Oswald’s judgment clouded by his experience the previous year, when these same villagers set upon a young boy whose only crime was to be disfigured?  Should he pay more attention to the evidence, and listen to advice? His investigation leads him into the dark heart of medieval London, and then back to Kent, where he finally unravels the mystery and discovers the identity of the true murderer.

2.  The Butcher Bird is the second novel to feature Oswald de Lacy, the first being Plague Land. Did you always intend for Oswald to feature in a series of books? What was the appeal of that time in history?

I did always envisage a series for Oswald, following his progress from callow youth to a more experienced, battle-scarred detective. In the first two books, Oswald is still a teenager – but in the book I’m currently writing, he is twenty-six. I hope to follow him into old age!

The middle years of the 14th century fascinate me, particularly as this was a time of great social change. The Black Death killed so many people that it gave the poorest in society some long-deserved power. Now that the work force in the fields was halved, those who remained wanted paying more for their labour. They found a new confidence. They called for an end to feudalism and the imposition of unfair taxes. There were even the beginnings of religious reforms, with calls for a bible in English. I would say there was a direct cause and effect between the Black Death in 1348-50 and the Peasants Revolt of 1381.

3. Plague Land was your first novel. What did you learn from going through the publishing process with Plague Land that you’d wished you’d known before you started writing? Did anything surprise you along the way?

The part of the process that has most surprised me, is the lead time to publication. Publishers can be thinking of slots for their novels up to two years in advance.

However, this doesn’t mean that you can afford to slack, if you are given a publication date for the year after next. The book may need to be copy-edited and proof read up to a year before publication. So, what I’ve really learnt is to write my first draft as quickly as possible, and then to build enough time into my schedule for rewrites and edits.

4. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel? 

After beginning a number of novels with no idea where they were going, and then failing to finish these same novels, I am now a compulsive planner! The first part, for me, of writing a book, is to spend at least a month planning the underlying plot of the novel. I hope to use this time to fill in any massive plot-holes. To make sure that the novel hits the right notes, with complex story-lines, character arcs, red herrings and then a satisfying conclusion. But, I should also say that I don’t stick to this plan slavishly. In the writing of the novel, I often find that better ideas occur to me. In this case, I don’t hesitate to use them – even if it messes up my plan. In terms of how long it takes me – the last two novels have been about a year from start to finish.

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?  

I have two dogs who take up a lot of my spare time. I sometimes look upon them as my personal trainers – forcing me to go out, even in the driving rain. I should say, that I mostly love these walks in a local forest. The sense of being somewhere ancient and wild. But I also love getting on a train and going up to London. I like being part of this massive, humming heart of humanity in central London. I like people-watching. Going to look at art galleries. Watching films. I’m also an avid gardener, and something of a rose-a-holic. 

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be? 

I read your interview with Fleur Smithwick last week, and I see that she has also chosen this novel. It would have to be Vanity Fair by Thackeray. It’s long. It’s very well written and it’s very, very entertaining.

7. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. What question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?  

It’s quite a specific question really and concerns an aspect of Oswald’s character. I describe him in ‘Plague Land’ as having the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Every time he gets nervous or stressed, he has to rush to the nearest garderobe. Nobody has asked me why I chose to do this – so, either I’ve been too subtle in my descriptions; or they have noticed, but the topic is just too embarrassing! Anyway. The answer is this. It’s something that I’ve suffered with, on and off, over the years. I’ve never seen it written about in a novel – so I wanted to change that. 

Thanks for answering my questions and appearing on the blog.

About the Author

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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.

About the book

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“A gripping medieval historical crime thriller, from a brilliant new voice.

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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