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Neil Daws: 'Remember, you’re writing a cracking yarn not an academic history book'

BY Katie Smart
5th Aug 2021

Neil Daws studied with us on a three-month Writing Your Novel course back in 2018. His debut novel A Quiet Place to Kill was published by Thomas & Mercer September 2021. We caught up with Neil to talk about his debut, his time studying with us and what inspired him to pay it forward and sponsor our #CBCSummerStory competition.

We’re thrilled that author and former student Neil Daws generously sponsored our #CBCSummerStory competition (competition now closed). The competition ran on Twitter (@cbcreative) and Instagram (@curtisbrowncreative) from 11am Thurs 5 August– 10am Tues 10 August. Scroll down for full competition information and to read the winning entries.

Interview with Neil

You were a student on our three-month London course back in 2018. How did your time on the course change your approach to writing?

I’ve always tried to be professional in my approach to writing by learning the craft through ‘how to’ books, short courses, listening to published authors at festivals, reading different genres, and writing–writing–writing, but I hadn’t realised how critical I’d become of my own output. The CBC course changed my mindset by providing a safe environment where no idea was ridiculed and by exposing me to the different pathways other writers employ to get from A to Z. As a result, I believe I have become less self-critical but better at self-editing.

Many of our students find a real community on our courses – are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

Absolutely! All of them, in fact. Writing is such a solitary endeavour that it can be daunting to let go and put your writing out there, but despite the wide variation in our stories and styles I soon realised I’d found my tribe. They were interesting and interested, and offered critique but not judgment. We became supporters, counsellors, advisors, sounding boards and cheerleaders, and remain so. Our group WhatsApp has been the primary link during the pandemic but we hope our get-togethers in the lounge bar of Piccadilly Waterstones will begin again soon. And we still think of Charlotte Mendelson as ‘our’ tutor.

Your debut A Quiet Place to Kill is to be published this September. The novel is a thrilling murder mystery set during WW2. Can you tell us a bit more about the story and the inspiration behind it?

The story is set in July 1940 at the start of the Battle of Britain. The women of the Air Transport Auxiliary carry out the dangerous task of ferrying warplanes to RAF airbases. But for the ATA detachment sent to the base at Scotney, the war in the skies is not the only danger―a killer is stalking them on the ground. On the day pilot Lizzie Hayes arrives in the quiet village, one of her new comrades is found murdered. One of the few women in Britain with a psychology PhD, Lizzie thinks she can use her skills to help identify the killer. But DI Jonathan Kember isn’t convinced. When a second pilot is murdered, Lizzie’s profile of the killer comes into sharper focus―attracting anonymous threats against her life. Can she and the still-sceptical Kember work together to find the killer before Lizzie becomes the next victim?

Having worked with many cops, I’d begun writing a contemporary crime story in which an equal male-female partnership had already emerged. The character of Kember was to change very little, but I recalled a fascinating lecture I’d attended given by flamboyant criminal profiler Dr Julian Boon, so Lizzie became a profiler. I also had a cutting entitled ‘Top Girls’ about women flying fast jets in North Africa, and was given another about Joy Lofthouse, who ferried warplanes for the ATA in WW2. I had the honour of meeting Joy a year later, and that absorbing half an hour, along with my interest in WW2, inspired me make Lizzie an ATA pilot, confronting her and Kember with the heightened levels of misogyny, bureaucracy and threat of death of that period.

Do you have any tips for writers working on a book with a historical setting?

Try to get the period details right because readers who enjoy medieval sagas, Regency romps or WW2 dramas will know if something is awry. That doesn’t mean becoming too hung up on the tiniest explanation of the workings of a crossbow, the stitching of a ruff or the many variants of a Spitfire, unless it is essential to the story. However, treat research with caution. It’s very easy to get carried away, especially if you’re interested by all sorts of stuff like I am, but be alert to what is necessary for the book and what is for your own pleasure. Remember, you’re writing a cracking yarn not an academic history book. A smattering of detail is enough to give a sense of the period.

When did you know you wanted to become an author?

I had an English teacher in secondary school called Mr Sawyer who, having marked each creative piece produced from the week’s assignment, would read extracts from those he considered had particular merit. The passage from my story started with the description of a butler as he opened the library door and finished when the butler said, ‘You rang, sir?’ Hearing my words read aloud made them sound different as if someone else had written them and my classmates listened to every word in silence. The lively discussion that followed was constructive and encouraging, not the criticism and ridicule I had expected. That moment more than any other engendered in me a love of writing, but real life got in the way so it’s taken a while to achieve the dream.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

There’s no typical day, to be honest. I’d like to be at my writing desk by 9am, have an hour’s lunch and finish at 5pm but that rarely happens. I’m clearer headed in the morning so I’ll try to crack on and get the words down or complete the next section of redrafting or editing. If I’m particularly absorbed or following a thread, the afternoon will be more of the same. The morning session frequently exposes niggly bits of detail that I need to establish or clarify so I often turn to my books and cuttings after lunch, and off I go down rabbit holes, all in the name of research.

Thank you so much for generously supporting our #CBCSummerStory competition by sponsoring two six-week course places with end-of-course feedback for the winners. What made you want to pay it forward?

I know from experience that every scrap of encouragement keeps you going when the words won’t come or the rejections roll in. I’ve met many famous writers at literary events and courses around the country, and each one took the time to chat and offer advice. Completing the Curtis Brown course changed the direction of my writing life so sponsoring places was the obvious way for me to pass on the support and encouragement I have received.

Competition prompt and rules

Writing Prompt

To take enter the #CBCSummerStory we want you to complete a mini-story that continues from this prompt set by Neil Daws:

‘The gathering was just as I had imagined…’


Our winner from Twitter is... Eliane Boey @elianeboey

The gathering was just as I had imagined. Textile merchants in sour, day-old shirts drummed fingers on the cutting table. Moist-palmed haberdashers perched on the edges of red plastic chairs, to molest needlepoint lace. Only the cutler stood apart. We looked like murderers, and we voted to sell our arcade.

Eliane's entry stands out with vivid descriptions of the hardworking merchants and haberdashers, the reader is able to visualise them thanks to specific details such as the day-old shirts and moist palms.

Our winner from Instagram is... Safiya @safiyareads

The gathering was just as I had imagined; morose faces wherever I looked, bodies shuffling from one room to another. Tears were punctuated by heartfelt prayers. Hundreds had attended the funeral prayer at the mosque and the grieving mother’s house was now overflowing with visitors. A handful were full of purpose while they wore faces of sympathy; help the mother, feed people, clean up. Stack up the good deeds. And me? I had to pretend that I wasn’t split open with grief inside.

I watched her, the grieving mother who was still a mother even though her only son had died, and thought how strangely calm she seemed. As if the worst thing that could happen had happened, so what else could life bring? I wanted to be wrapped in her arms, to cry together. But she didn’t know that I loved her son and I couldn’t tell her and tarnish his good name in death.

Safiya's depiction of grief is haunting and offers a compelling snapshot of humanity in crisis. From the helpful mourners flocking to aid the mother to the parallels drawn between the mother's façade of calm and the narrator's own secret anguish. The narrator's longing the grieve outwardly is palpable.

Congratulations to Eliane and Safiya! You have both won a free six-week course place on the writing course of your choosing, plus an end-of-course report and tutorial with a professional CBC editor (total prize value £410).

Email cbccourses@curtisbrown.co.uk to redeem your prize.

Instagram Rules

Follow us on Instagram (@curtisbrowncreative).

Like the competition post.

Comment below the competition post with your mini-story of a maximum 150 words (excluding the prompt).

You must be 18+ to enter.

Please only leave one entry per person.

Public accounts only please.

This giveaway is not affiliated with Instagram.

Competition ends 10.00am Tues 10 August (UK time) and the winner will be announced in our stories and on this blog at 11.00am Tues 10 August (UK time).

Twitter Rules

Follow us on Twitter (@cbcreative).

Like the competition post.

Reply to our competition post with your mini-story (story must fit within the length of the tweet), and use #CBCSummerStory in your reply.

You must be 18+ to enter.

Please only leave one entry per person.

Competition ends 10.00am Tues 10 August (UK time) and the winner will be announced in a tweet and on this blog at 11.00am Tues 10 August (UK time).

Prize redemption

The winners will be able to choose between a place on one of the following courses: Starting to Write Your NovelWrite to the End of Your NovelEdit & Pitch Your NovelWriting a MemoirWriting Short StoriesWriting Historical FictionWriting a Psychological ThrillerWriting a Romance NovelWriting Crime FictionWriting a Children’s Picture Book or Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book.

Prize may not be exchanged directly for cash. Prize must be redeemed by 22 Feb 2022.

Helpful tips

Think about the questions that Neil’s prompt opens up: What type of gathering is it? Where are we? When are we? Who is speaking? What outcome had they imagined? – it’s your job to answer these in an engaging and surprising way.

Finally, there isn’t much room in this mini-story so make sure you get straight into the action! We can't wait to read what you come up with.