William S. Shepard
Now residents of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the Shepards enjoy visits from their daughters and granddaughters, fine and moderate weather, ocean swims at Assateague, Chesapeake Bay crabs, and the company of Rajah and Rani, their two rescued cats.
Prize winning mystery writer William S. Shepard is the creator of a new genre, the diplomatic mystery, whose plots are set in American Embassies overseas. That mirrors Shepard’s own career in the Foreign Service of the United States, during which he served in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest, Athensand Bordeaux, in addition to five Washington tours of duty.
His books explore this rich, insider background into the world of high stakes diplomacy and government. He evokes his last Foreign Service post, Consul General in Bordeaux, in Vintage Murder, the first of the series of four “diplomatic mysteries.” The second, Murder On The Danube, mines his knowledge of Hungary and the 1956 Revolution. In Murder In Dordogne Robbie Cutler, his main character, is just married, but their honeymoon in the scenic southwest of France is interrupted by murders. The most recent of the series, The Saladin Affair, has Cutler transferred to work for the Secretary of State. Like the author, Cutler arranges trips on Air Force Two – now enlivened by serial Al Qaeda attempts to assassinate the Secretary of State.
Shepard is Wine Editor for French Wine Explorers (www.wine-tours-france.com) and is also the author of Shepard’s Gujide to Mastering French Wines.
1. Robbie Cutler, your protagonist, is a suave, smart American diplomat living in France. 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?
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 Bordeaux – just as I did. He 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 France. What made you set the story here?
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 Bordeaux. If that happened, I’m not sure I would still be welcome there!
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!
“Bill Shepard’s first thriller combines diplomacy, terrorism and high stakes politics. He knows the Basque country thoroughly. A great read!” – Paul Laxalt, former United States Senator.
“Bill Shepard and I served as diplomats in France, he as Consul General in Bordeaux, and his knowledge of that region – the intrigues, the relationships, the people - is encyclopedic. He has adroitly used this knowledge to weave a fascinating story. If you like Bordeaux wine, read Vintage Murder. – Evan Galbraith, former United States Ambassador to France
“London has Sherlock Holmes and now Washington has its first diplomatic sleuth, Robbie Cutler. Learn about embassy life from an expert, as you enjoy Bill Shepard’s diplomatic mystery.” – F.A. “Tex” Harris, former President, American Foreign Service Association