First Drafts With… William Shaw

Hi everyone, good evening and welcome to another interview with an author on the all important first draft process. Tonight, Brighton based crime writer William Shaw answers my questions.

Over to you, William…

1) When you begin the next book, how do you go about it? 

It’s quite a weird process. With Deadland, all I knew was I wanted to write a chase so I thought, right. Who is chasing who? Out of that came the image of these two boys hiding in marshland and the plot started to take shape from there. With The Birdwatcher I decided I wanted to set a novel in Dungeness. I spent a long time thinking, who would live there? Someone who doesn’t like talking to other people much? A birder who watches things carefully? Out of that came the character of the birdwatcher and the plot slowly emerged from there. 

2) Do you follow the same process you did for the book before? 

No… each time it’s a little different. Once I know the theme it’s then a question of what do I need to do to write it. There was so much tension in Deadland I didn’t really need to think much about plot. I just let the story fall onto the page. With Grave’s End, my next one, I had decided this would be about natural history and landscape and there was much less inherent tension in the plot, so I needed to plot it carefully in order to give it a good sense of movement. In that one I planned every chapter before I wrote it – something I don’t normally do. 

3) What is your research process, if you have one?

I’m a former journalist so love researching. It tends to be an iterative process, though. In principle, I believe in “write first, research later”. I know from my journalism that the world is even stranger than our imaginations, so that it’s good to dream stuff up and then see if you can make it real. In Grave’s End wrote a plot about a badger digging up human bones and then had to check with a naturalist whether that was possible. Luckily it happens! But research can also stimulate great plot ideas too. When I wrote Salt Lane I spent time talking to people who are responsible for maintaining the drainage on Romney Marsh – (more fascinating than it sounds, I promise) – and out of that, much of the plot emerged. So I tend to do research as and when I need it. The real trick is to wear your research lightly though.

4) How quickly after thinking or planning do you sit down to write? 

Again, it’s all bound up in a single process, a bit like the research. When I need to stop and plan, I do. I like to keep the writing going all the time though because that’s what keeps the world of a book alive in your head.

5) How does the draft form on the screen? 

I have to write a book in order – from beginning to end. I’ve never been interested in writing bits separate from the arc of the novel. I don’t really know why. I write a fairly uneven draft, some of it polished, other bits messy. My objective is to get to the end with things in a fairly good shape because I always think that a book only really reveals itself when you get to the end. At that point you can really see what it’s about: what themes you need to bring out, what characters you need to develop, what is missing and what needs to be chopped.
6) Where do you write the majority of the draft?

I do like to run off to an off-grid writing shack in Devon that I have where I often shift things along in a major way, but probably most of it is done at my desk at home in Brighton. For my next book, I’m trying writing standing up rather than sitting down. I’m told it’s much better for you!

Thank you for joining me on the blog William, finding out about your first draft process has been fascinating!


William Shaw’s The Birdwatcher and the follow up Salt Lane were both longlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. His books have also been nominated for a Barry Award, the Golden Bullet, and the CWA Historical Dagger. The Sun calls him “A modern crime master” and The Sunday Times named his book A Book of Scars as one of the 100 Best Crime books published since 1945. 

His DI Alexandra Cupidi series, set in Kent, featuring DI Alex Cupidi has been optioned for TV by Expectation Entertainment.

Before becoming a crime writer, William Shaw was an award-winning music journalist and the author of several non-fiction books including Westsiders: Stories of the Boys in the Hood, about a year spent with the young men of South Central Los Angeles, and A Superhero For Hire, a compilation of columns in the Observer Magazine.

Starting out as assistant editor of the post-punk magazine ZigZag, he has been a journalist for The Observer, The New York Times, Wired, Arena and The Face and was Amazon UK Music Journalist of the Year in 2003.

Twitter: @william1shaw

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