Sunday, April 13, 2014

Diplomacy: Information for Writers with William Shepard

Good morning, Mr. Shepard. 
Thank you so much for visiting with ThrillWriting today. 

     Readers, Mr. Shepard has
     served our country
     overseas for decades in
     the diplomatic corp. Sir, what
     you like the readers to know
     about you?

Mr. Shepard - My career was in
     diplomacy. I am a lawyer by
     training, and a writer by preference. I am herded
     about by two enchanting rescued cats, and we live on the
     Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Fiona - I very much enjoyed reading your memoirs - you are
     Harvard educated and decided to use your expertise in
     language and diplomacy to further the American cause in
     many countries. Can you give a brief taste of the countries
     in which you served and what your roles included?

Mr. Shepard - First, Singapore, fascinating and ultra-modern. When
     we were there, the island was being kicked out of Malaysia. As
     an Embassy officer and lecturer at the University of Singapore, 
     I had a ringside seat. We returned a year ago, and enjoyed
     seeing how magnificently the nation has progressed.
     A model for progress and keeping an expert eye on the
     environment. I was Consul at the Embassy in
     Singapore, then was transferred directly to Saigon during the
     war, and my family stayed in Singapore. In Saigon, I was Aide to
     Ambassadors Henry Cabot Lodge, then Ellsworth Bunker. It
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     was a ringside seat in the war.

Fiona - Before you tell me about
      your next stint, may I ask
      how that was for you and
      your family? You were both
      in foreign countries with very
      different cultures to our own
      and on your own without the
      daily support. How did you

Mr. Shepard - Some would say,
      after New England, everyplace
      is a foreign country! I am from New Hampshire and Lois is
      from Connecticut. So, of course, we met while students at the
      University of Vienna. Living in foreign parts comes fairly
      naturally. Lois is very good at adapting to foreign cultures - and
      representing our own. I must say, a high point of sorts was
      reached when she heard that I was coming home to Singapore
      from Saigon for Thanksgiving, and there was no turkey
      available. So she talked a visiting US Admiral out of a turkey
      for our Thanksgiving dinner.

Fiona - I love that! Your wife, Lois Shepard, is very versatile.
      Would you share the story about when her quick actions saved
      a little boy's life and protected your family as a result?
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Mr. Shepard -  We lived near a
     kampong, or native area, in
     Singapore. One day the amah
     (house servant) came running
     in, to say that a baby had
     fallen into a water cistern and 
     drowned. Lois went flying out
     of the house, took the child
     from the arms of a relative, 
     and started artificial
     respiration. She was relieved
     when, after what seemed an eternity, the child
     threw up all over her and started breathing! After that, oddly
     enough, we were the only Embassy family that never had a
     problem with thievery. By the way, that rescue hit UPI quickly,
     and Lois' parents read about it in Hartford the same time it
     appeared in the Singapore press.

Fiona - What a fabulous story. I interrupted you, sir. Where did you
      go after Singapore?
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Mr. Shepard - Saigon. Actually I had
      two tours there, once for a
      year directly from Singapore, and
      then a few years later, I
      returned from Budapest to help
      monitor the Paris Peace Agreement.
      The Hungarians were part of the
      peacekeeping team, and I was there
      to monitor their performance -
      which was lousy. 

Fiona - That was during
      the communist reign. What did you
      find most difficult from a western
      perspective in dealing with this very different governmental
      philosophy? What personal challenges did you have to work
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    Mr. Shepard -   Communism in
      Hungary was a hated imposition.  
      The Russians were viewed
      as backward in every way, and their
      system a dreaded imposition. The
      heroic Hungarian Revolution of 1956
      proved that. I was trained in the
      Hungarian language and was the first
      Political Officer at our Embassy in
      Budapest, and then held
      the Hungarian Desk
      at the Department of State. We
      knew His Eminence Cardinal
      Mindszenty, who was in refuge at the
      Embassy then. And Lois was the only eyewitness to his
      departure. My novel, Murder On The Danube, is set in
      modern Budapest, with flashbacks to the 1956 Revolution.
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Fiona - Did you feel great
      relief when you were sent
      to France?

      How fun that you wrote a
      book about French wines.
      Was it all red wine and
      cassoulet? Or did your stay
      in France offer up its
      own challenges?

Mr. Shepard - My responsibility as Consul General in Bordeaux
      covered one-quarter of the entire nation. I had the usual
      gamut of American citizen issues (including getting people
      out of jail, or locating people who were lost), understanding
      the local culture and politics (I called nearly every election
      right), and making friends for the USA. The fact that my father
      had been an American soldier in France during the First World
      War helped ensure my welcome. The wines of course were
      world class, but that was on my own time. One of my chief
      responsibilities was keeping watch on Basque terrorism. 
      That formed the basis for
      my first diplomatic mystery novel, Vintage Murder.
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Fiona - Can you quickly go over
      some of the roles that
      diplomats play in foreign
      service and the ranks?

Mr. Shepard - Diplomats
      represent their own nation in
      another one. An Embassy is
      the official mission in the
      receiving state's capitol city.
      With us, it is a career 
      service,  and various 
      specialties (political, economic/commercial, consular,
      administrative, cultural/press) to follow as a career track.
      You start by taking a tough written and oral exam, and then get
      promoted, ever so slowly. The variations of assignment along
      the way are fascinating. The problem for a writer is that they
      change over time, and what you remember quite distinctly may
      no longer be there!

Fiona - What types of personalities work best for foreign service?
      And which kind of personalities might feel the most challenged
      - this will help writers set up their characters for success or
      failure when plotting.

Mr. Shepard - I think that the folks who do well on the Foreign
      Service exam are readers, and compulsively curious. My oral
      exam, for example, had a panel member asking me to trace the
      attempts in the US Senate to forestall the Civil War. I had
      always been interested in that period, so apparently did well.
      Another question was to name, in my view, the five best
      American symphonies and their conductors. What seems
      needed is curiosity, a desire to see beyond the obvious, and a
      self-starter mentality.

Fiona - You referred to the changing conditions included in the life
      of a diplomat not only imposed by place but time and
      circumstance, what do you feel are important aspects of the job
      for a writer to understand in order to write authentically. Are
      there resources for writers that you are aware of where research
      could be conducted on diplomatic realities of a given time or

Mr. Shepard - Well, now there are an increasing number of
      memoirs, such as my own, Sunsets In Singapore. There are
      probably too many thrillers about, and the Foreign Service isn't
      really like that. A lot of it is slow going, and building some
      confidence with your opposite numbers in a Foreign Ministry.
      For example, I helped negotiate a consular convention with
      communist Hungary, our first treaty with that nation in some
      thirty years. What made it work was that the other side, when I
      disagreed with them, understood that I was giving an honest
      point of view. Had there not been that understanding, there
      would have been no treaty.

Fiona - Now that you have retired, you have become a prolific
      writer - and many of your books are under the sub-genre 
      diplomatic mysteries. Obviously, your work is a great resource
      to you - can you speak to this genre and what readers might
      hope to experience through your writing.

Mr. Shepard - First, I hope the reading is enjoyable. Tell a story,
     that's the first thing. I had an uncle who was a farmer in New
     Hampshire and a born storyteller. He and my aunt had no
     children, but they took in foster children from the state. Uncle
     Irvin told me that if the children were bad, the worst thing would
     be to tell them, "No story tonight!" Something like that is
     needed. Then comes the context, and the believablity of detail.
     But remember, it is a story that is being told.

Fiona - Mr. Shepard, it has been an honor to interview you, thank
     you so much for sharing your time and expertise with us. One
     final question that I ask of everyone who visits ThrillWriting:
     Could you please tell us the story behind your favorite scar? And
     if you are without scars, could you please tell us a harrowing

Mr. Shepard - No scars, I'm afraid. In my last days in Saigon during
      my second tour, I went out for a trip towards the Cambodian
      border. The helicopter pilot told us that there would be no
      intelligence briefing - the last briefer had left for the USA the
      day before! So off we went. We flew near the Parrot's Beak of
      Cambodia, and before we landed, the small arms fire began.
      (We were a peacekeeping mission.) The children who were to
      have met us left their sad traces on the ground. It still gives me

      On the more pleasant side, we had a huge
      Christmas tree in Budapest, and invited some Hungarian friends
      (who weren't afraid to be seen with us) to the house to see it.
      One said that they had always had small trees - the reason being
      that Christmas trees were illegal to have, so people would chop
      down small trees and hide them behind their overcoats. "But we
      really like the big trees," he said. I'm sure that is what they have

Fiona - Thank you, Mr. Shepard. 

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


  1. Thank you, Fiona, for an illuminating interview...excellent for writers in the 'mystery' genre, particularly for those penning intriguing government thrillers set in the world's exotic and not so exotic countries. Must get around to reading William Shepard's books. All good wishes to Mr. Shepard and of course to you, dear lady.
    Billy Ray
    P.S. Catch my weekly blog (flash fiction, observations, potpourri) on - this week: 'A Little Boy Searching'... I also display my posts each week on Goodreads, my main website, and IAN social network site.

  2. Many thanks for your comment. Hope you enjoy this new mystery genre!
    William Shepard