Travel to Deadland and Dungeness with William Shaw
Travelling down to Dungeness with Alex Cupidi and William Shaw
Some authors take you on tours of the book’s locations. Some authors bring their characters along. When they walk with their characters on location, the guided tour takes on a whole other dimension.
Meet William Shaw, author of The Birdwatcher and Deadland. Here he takes readers down to Dungeness where both books are set, and brings detective Alex Cupidi for some extra insight…
William and Alex, it’s over to you….
Back in January, I went moth-watching at Dungeness.
Unsurprisingly there weren’t many; it was the middle of winter.
The watch was organised by David, the nice man who runs something called the Dungeness Bird Observatory, a kind of hostel for birdwatchers. It sits at the end of the row of houses that were built on the footprint of a Napoleonic gun battery. My imaginary detective Alex Cupidi lives there.
It didn’t really matter that there weren’t many moths. We stood around the bright lights that act as the traps, while David talked about the wildlife of the area; the peregrine falcons that nest on the huge nuclear power station and the rare crickets have have been showing up in recent years as global warming changes their populations. His local knowledge is phenomenal. Winter was his quiet time; during the spring, when the winter migrations of birds start, the days are long. He can be up at the crack of dawn recording the species coming through, setting the bird traps in the sunken woods, that they use to examine catch and examine some species before releasing them back into the wild.
I’d emailed him before, but I realised, as I spoke to him face to face for the first time, that even before I’d met him, I had written him as a minor character in The Birdwatcher. He’s read the book, but he never mentioned it.
I was down there again the weekend before last. I dropped in for tea with a local artist who lives in an ancient first class carriage that was dragged onto the shingle around eighty years ago. Paddy, the artist, hates it when people call Dungeness “bleak”. For him, it’s as rich and nurturing a landscape as you’ll find anywhere.
And David, out recording the latest sighting of the Short-Haired Bumblebee, reintroduced here after it was declared extinct elsewhere in the UK, would probably agree. Dungeness is teeming with wildlife. This promontory of twelve square miles of shingle has more bumble bee species living in it than anywhere else in the British Isles.
In The Birdwatcher, one of first things DS Alexandra Cupidi says is ‘God, it’s bleak.’ But by the time I’d decided to start a series based on her character, she, like Paddy and everyone else who lives here, had fallen in love with the place.
As we talked, the weekend before last, a woman walking her dog dropped by. Paddy introduced me, telling me which of the local wooden houses she lived in. The penny dropped as he spoke.
It was one in which I’d murdered a man, horribly, also in The Birdwatcher. The woman bought the cottage recently. She lives there with her mum. Paddy gave me a kind of glance that made me think I better not tell her her shack was the the scene of a grisly killing.
Funnily enough, I’d already met a woman whose husband was born in exactly the same place decades before. She said it gave her a funny turn reading the book, knowing the shack so well herself.
What makes contemporary crime fiction so rich a genre is the way it exists in this half-way space between imagination and reality. It’s an uneasy relationship, but a good one, I think. We set our books in real places, with real people in them, and real problems too. Salt Lane and Deadland are set against the real problems of illegal immigration and poverty that exist in the hinterlands of these beautiful places.
The real places spark our imagination. Stories come to life. This one of crime fiction’s secret superpowers. We imagine the bad things that might happen there, and each time, hopefully, that tells us something fresh about the places we love and about the times we live in.
Thanks William (and Alex) for a very fascinating insight!