William S. Shepard
1. Robbie Cutler, your protagonist, is a suave, smart American diplomat living in
. Although he is in his thirties, he possesses wisdom often found in older, more experienced characters. Robbie is also a wine connoisseur. How did his development come about? France
This is his second diplomatic assignment, and he has undergone political and language training at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia, after passing the Foreign Service oral and written and security exams (still I think about 1 in 100 survive). Robbie grew up in a Foreign Service family, so is used to living overseas. That comes naturally to him now. He learns about wine while at
– just as I did. My wine book, “Shepard’s Guide to Mastering French Wines,” is a thorough survey of French wine regions, and it builds on my experiences writing about wine and tasting it in over 60 different vineyard locations throughout Bordeaux . France
Robbie is also though a fairly junior official. I had a problem with that, for I wanted him to have, here and in succeeding novels, access to highly classified information. That is how Uncle Seth came about – a nationally prominent man who keeps Robbie in the picture on national security matters. That is important here, but it becomes crucial in the fourth novel, “The Saladin Affair.” where Robbie has to stop an Al Qaeda assassination plot against the Secretary of State.
2. What do you and Robbie have in common?
Like Robbie, I am a Francophile. I supposed that started with Dad’s stories about World War One when he was a combat veteran there, and then a university student. I was a French literature major in college, and taught in a French high school for a year after graduation. His love story is his own business, with very little help from me!
3. The setting for Vintage Murder is the lush countryside of
Bordeaux and the rugged region of the Basque country in . What made you set the story here? France
It is an area that I know very well, on both sides of the border. I wanted a vivid enemy, and the Basque ETA fit that requirement. What they have not done is take my “suggestion” and start blackmailing the owners of the great wine estates in
. If that happened, I’m not sure I would still be welcome there! Bordeaux
4. Describe your writing process.
There are times when I cannot write (March/April, devoted to income tax preparation). I try to set aside roughly half a year, and then spend lots of time plotting out the novel. After that, it is a ruthless deadline – one chapter each week. I write in the morning. A cat perched on the desk usually helps!
5. Authors today are expected to do most of their own promotions. How do you balance social networking with writing? What promotions work best for you?
This is a work in progress. Writers’ blogs such as this one help spread the word. So do personal acquaintances. Reviews are most helpful. So is some paid advertising. I would like to be at the stage where this all melds together and is self-sustaining. But not yet, I fear!
6. Who are your favorite authors?
Dickens and Balzac are my favorite writers. Both have imaginations that are expansive and creative. In their own way, each creates and then peoples literary universes (Balzac quite deliberately). I remember one chapter in an early Dickens book, “Nicholas Nickleby,” in which it seemed to me that Dickens surfaced and then didn’t bother to pursue more solid plot lines than would occur to most writers in a decade! I like the way Balzac zeros in on an emotion and takes it to its conclusion, whether that is comfortable for the reader or not.
7. What inspires and motivates you to write?
I enjoy storytelling, and writing is based on that. It may be something of a family trait. I had an uncle who was a gifted storyteller, and had virtually no formal education. He was a spellbinder. He and my Aunt took in foster children. When someone misbehaved, the worst punishment would be banishment to bed, and no story hour! Of course this was before television, but Irvin Foster really had the gift.
8. What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about starting a novel?
I’d say there are four things to consider. First, write about what you know and have experienced. Second, do try to plot out the entire novel, at least as a sketch. Third, consider whether what you have planned fits the entire story line. For example, in my novel Murder On The Danube, the back story continually involves a small group of Hungarian Freedom Fighters. Who is present at what stage of the fighting is crucial, and that had to be planned with great care – the one who was missing might be the one who betrayed the group! Fourth, sit down and write the first chapter. Then revise it, again and again. Characters you hadn’t considered will begin to assert themselves, you’ll see!