13 July 2018

Blogtour - Dancing on the Grave Q&A

Dancing on the Grave by Zoë Sharp

And now for something a little different - today we're joining the blogtour for the fantastic Dancing on the Grave by Zoë Sharp.

Well known for her series featuring Charlotte (Charlie) Fox, Zoë has also written standalone fiction before and has now returned to this with Dancing on the Grave:

A sniper with a mission… a young cop with nothing to lose… a CSI with everything to prove… a teenage girl with a terrifying obsession…

In one of the most beautiful corners of England, something very ugly is about to take place.

There’s a killer on the loose in the Lake District hills, and the calm of an English summer is shattered.  For newly qualified Crime Scene Investigator, Grace McColl,  it’s both the start of a nightmare and the chance to prove herself after a mistake that cost a life.

For Detective Constable Nick Weston, recently transferred from London, it’s an opportunity to recover his nerve after a disastrous undercover operation left him for dead.

And for a lonely, loveless girl, Edith, it’s the beginning of a twisted fantasy—one she never dreamed might come true.

Zoë has very kindly agreed to answer some questions about the new book, writing and stuff in general. So, over to Zoë.

BBB: Your new book, Dancing on the Grave, is a standalone – coming after a long series of books featuring Charlie Fox. Is it easier or more difficult writing a standalone? (Is it “Yay! Freedom!” or “Where do I even start?”)

ZS: It was both those reactions, really. Writing standalones in third person and being able to use multiple viewpoints does give you a great sense of freedom. By using close-third, it was fascinating to be able to get right inside the heads of the characters rather than just Charlie Fox, which with the exception of a couple of the short stories, I’ve always written in first person, so I’m always telling the story from Charlie’s point of view and hers alone. With Dancing on the Grave, I limited it mostly to four POVs – the CSI, Grace McColl; the young detective, DC Nick Weston; and the other main players in this drama, Patrick Bardwell and Edith Airey.

This allowed me to really look at the motivations of the people involved – especially those you would consider to be the antagonists – and understand why they were carrying out such apparently monstrous acts. Crime fiction for me is more about the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’. After all, with this book you’re following the actions of the sniper almost from the start. This is not a whodunit where you have to work out his identity (although that comes into the story to a certain extent) but what his reasons are. And especially what drives Edith, the disturbed teenager who throws in her lot with the sniper.

Plus, it’s good occasionally to take a break from a long-running series – I’m just starting Charlie Fox book thirteen now – so you can return to it revitalised and refreshed. I have quite a few story ideas that simply wouldn’t work for Charlie. This gives me the opportunity to write them.

BBB: The book is set in the English Lake District, a traditionally peaceful area. What made you want to set a story of murder in such a place?

ZS: Here I’d have to quote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches: “It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” In this case, my sniper is using a very large-calibre rifle with a very long range. Using the open countryside of the Lake District in Cumbria – recently declared a Unesco World Heritage Site – makes that threat more claustrophobic, somehow, than being in a city. The juxtaposition of having sudden death visited out of nowhere in the midst of such tranquillity is, I think, that much more shocking.

BBB: The story was inspired by a series of shootings that took place in Washington DC in 2002 – we’re, sadly, accustomed to hearing about such events in the US, but what was involved in transposing this to the UK?

ZS: I did take as my original inspiration the Washington Sniper attacks in 2002, particularly the aspect of an older sniper and a younger, more impressionable spotter. It was that complex relationship I wanted to explore more fully as I wrote about Bardwell and Edith. These are both deeply damaged people – damage not entirely of their own making in Bardwell’s case.

Sadly, we too have experienced spree shootings in the UK – at Hungerford, Dunblane, and the Cumbria shootings committed in 2010. But when Derrick Bird went on the rampage in the west of the county, shooting twelve people dead and injuring a further eleven before also killing himself, I felt the need to put this project aside for a while. It didn’t matter that I’d already written the story, already set it in Cumbria, way before those events. Bringing the book out immediately afterwards, with a plot based around a gunman on the loose, seemed too exploitative, and publishers at the time shied away from it.

Since Dunblane, gun control has been very strict in the UK. Bird used a double-barrelled 12-gauge shotgun, which is more widely available as a sporting gun here, and a .22 calibre bolt-action rifle, also legal for pest control. Nobody can legally own automatic or semiautomatic assault weapons, or handguns. In Dancing on the Grave, Edith has a small-bore .22 Gaucher rifle, which she uses for rabbits and grey squirrels. (Cumbria is one of the few areas where there are still native red squirrels and great pains are taken to ensure the non-native greys do not encroach on their territory.) Her father, a volunteer policeman, is a gun nut who, in theory, handed in the majority of his weapons collection after the ban came into effect. In practice, however, that’s another story…

The police in the UK are not routinely armed. In Cumbria some of the motorway patrols are also ARVs (Armed Response Vehicles) but the weapons are kept in a locked box inside the vehicle and special authorisation has to be given before they can be deployed. (Or that’s how it worked at the time I did my research and, consequently, when the events of the story take place.) This was never going to end in the kind of armed stand-off you might expect in a US-set novel.

BBB: You’ve also said that the story is about fame in today's society. Without being too spoilery, do you think there is anything uniquely modern about notoriety through crime (I think of 18th century broadsides and celebrity criminals making speeches in the scaffold)?

ZS: There has grown up in recent years what is, for me, a dreadful culture of people wanting to be famous simply for being famous, without any talent or skill involved. This has been largely brought about, I think, through the explosion of reality TV shows. Apparently, kids leave school declaring their ambition to be “a celebrity” without tacking on that desire to any particular profession. For Edith, a dysfunctional dreamer who feels utterly suffocated by her mundane upbringing and her dull parents, the opportunity to do something – anything – to break her out of that world is one she grasps with an enthusiasm bordering on mania. I quote Henry Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” to which I add a common, if misquoted, postscript “and go to their graves with the song still in them.” It seemed to sum up Edith’s greatest fear – and therefore her greatest motivating factor – to the letter.

BBB: In a lighter vein, I've always thought it must be fun, though very difficult, writing about a crime-scene investigator. All that science! All that detail! Is it fun? And how do you manage the detail?

ZS: It is fun, and it’s also a hell of a lot of hard work. As with any research, you take in a huge amount of information and then leave about ninety percent of it out. I try to remember that I am not writing a How To manual. But I like technical detail – it’s why I enjoy house renovation so much. It appeals to both my creative side in the designing and planning, and my practical, problem-solving side in the actual construction. If somebody pulls a gun in one of my books, I want to know what kind of gun, and why they chose it – that tells me a lot about the character.

For the crime scene side of things, I’d already done quite a bit of work for my previous standalone, The Blood Whisperer, where the main character, Kelly Jacks, is a former CSI turned crime-scene cleaner. For this book, however, I spent some time talking to CSIs from Cumbria, as well as other experts in the field, and I did a lot of reading of forensic science textbooks of the type that are used to train real CSIs.

When it came to the weapons, I used to competition-shoot with rifle, so I have a pretty good working knowledge of the theory of sniping, but using a .50 calibre weapon – as Bardwell does in Dancing on the Grave – meant I had to learn a lot more about the complexities of shooting at the kind of distances where even the curvature of the earth has to be taken into account. It’s all fascinating stuff, but I tried not to let it overwhelm the story at any point.

BBB: Can we expect any more from McColl and Weston?

ZS: I see Dancing On The Grave as another in my non-series series, if that makes sense? The first of these was my last standalone, The Blood Whisperer, and is linked to this book by having strong female main protagonists, who for one reason or another, are unable or unwilling to go to the police when things start to go bad.

And as with Kelly Jack in The Blood Whisperer, I’m not ruling out another book involving Grace and Nick. I do have more storylines fermenting for those two, but equally I have other characters and stories I’d like to pursue first. I just need to speed up my process, but I’m working on it, honest!

BBB: Now some more general questions… stop me if any of this gets too personal! What's your writing day/routine like? And where do you write best?

ZS: Erm, I don’t really have a writing routine, which is probably a bad thing, right? I like to make notes on paper before I sit down with my laptop. (I call this using my neck-top computer – I’m saving up for an iBrain.) It always helps having something to prompt me. I find I can jot down the main points I want to cover in a scene or conversation between characters, then I can expand on that more fluidly when it comes time to put fingers to keyboard.

When I’m in full-on book mode, I set myself a monthly word target – around 30,000 words. It works out at only a thousand words a day, which may not sound too many, but that’s if you can find time to write every day. As it is, I keep a running total, so my daily target goes up and down according to how productive I’ve managed to be so far that month. If I don’t do this, it’s too easy for a day off to become a weekend off, to become a week without getting anything written, and then I’ve lost momentum altogether and have to spend more time reading what’s come before to get me back up to speed than time spent writing.

Generally speaking, I can write more or less anywhere. Certainly I can make notes anywhere to write up later. When I worked as a photographer I used to write regularly in the car on the way to shoots. I was usually the passenger, I hasten to add, rather than the driver! If I’m at home, I like to plug in an ergonomic keyboard and a big flatscreen to my laptop to give me more thinking space. It means I can have several screens open with research information as well as my writing document.

BBB: Do you work it all out in detail first or just launch in – and do you know how things are going to turn out, or end up surprising yourself?

Zoë Sharp
ZS: I do like to know where the story is going before I start, so I plan in advance. Not necessarily the nitty-gritty of the plot, but certainly the main dramatic events. What I don’t tend to plan are the responses of the characters to those events, so that they react in a more organic way when I reach that point in the story. My outlines tend to have E&OE at the end of them, which you used to get on quotations from tradespeople. (Errors & Omissions Excepted.) Things often change and mutate quite a bit as you go.

Perhaps more important to me than an outline is a summary. As I write, I keep a note of each chapter – the gist of conversations, the main plot points covered, injuries any of the characters are carrying, which day it is, and whether this chapter carries on immediately from the events of the last chapter, or if there’s a time jump or flashback scene. That way, when I’ve finished the book and come to edits, I can make any alterations to the storyline on my summary rather than having to wade through several hundred pages of typescript.

And yes, although I know where I’m going, sometimes things happen on the page that I wasn’t expecting or even that I didn’t see coming at all. Numerous times, a minor character rewrites a cameo into a starring role when I’m not paying attention. It’s a fallacy that writers control the worlds we write about – sometimes I think we’re just channelling them with no control whatsoever.

I think of writing a thriller as making a fast bike journey at night. You’re rushing along darkened roads, clinging on for grim death. You know roughly where you’re going but you’re not entirely sure of the route, or what hazards lie ahead. You can see in detail only the stretch of tarmac directly in front in the beam of your lights. And, throughout, you’re aware you might crash and burn at any moment. It’s a constant mix of fear and adrenaline. Remind me again – why do I do this…?

BBB: Zoë - thanks for that, and best wishes with publication of Dancing on the Grave: may it find many readers!

Zoë Sharp is the author of twelve books (so far) in the crime thriller series featuring ex-Special Forces trainee turned bodyguard, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox, as well as a joint novella with espionage thriller author John Lawton, numerous short stories, and two (again, so far) standalone novels, of which Dancing on the Grave is the latest. She spent some years living in the Lake District, where she helped self-build her own house. She now divides her time between writing, improvising self-defence techniques, house renovation, and international pet-sitting.

Find out more on www.ZoeSharp.com.

Dancing On The Grave
Zoë Sharp
£9.99 mmpb ISBN: 9781909344402 ebook ISBN: 9781909344396

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