Every week we feature a Q&A session with one of our Crime Cymru authors. This week, Katherine Stansfield talks of her journey between Cornwall and Wales and gives us a fascinating insight into her writing process.
Give us a brief introduction to you:
I’m a multi-genre writer who likes to work in different forms. I write historical crime fiction, fantasy crime (under the co-writing pseudonym D. K. Fields), and I’m a poet. I live in Cardiff and teach for a number of universities, plus I’m a mentor for Literature Wales.
What’s your connection to Wales?
I’m from Cornwall originally and moved to Wales to go to university in Aberystwyth, on the coast of west Wales, almost 20 years ago. I fell in love with the place, and with being a student, and stayed there to do an MA and PhD, and then taught in the English department for a few years. After a year travelling, I moved to Cardiff with my partner David Towsey and we’ve been here ever since.
Tell us about your latest book:
I write the historical crime series Cornish Mysteries, published by Allison & Busby. The books are set in the 1840s and feature the odd couple detective duo Anna Drake and Shilly Williams. The pair investigate crimes based on real events in Cornish history and involve a good dash of local folklore. Think ‘Sherlock Holmes meets the X Files meets Daphne du Maurier’. The Mermaid’s Call, the third instalment, is out now, and can be read as a standalone for those who haven’t read the first two books, Falling Creatures and The Magpie Tree.
In The Mermaid’s Call, Anna and Shilly are trying to set up a detective practice for private cases, given that Anna’s had no luck joining the newly formed detective force at Scotland Yard. She’s hoping that turning private investigator in Cornwall will provide enough income to preserve her life with Shilly, while Shilly – still at the mercy of her vices and liable to see visions and omens at every turn – just wants to hold on to Anna. Cases have been thin on the ground so when a sea captain turns up with news of a body found beneath the cliffs at Morwenstow, things start to look up. But when Anna and Shilly reach this lonely coastal parish, they find that the truth is hard to discover amid some unsettling stories about a vengeful mermaid. As a spectre from Anna’s past haunts the investigation, Shilly fights to keep the destructive call of the mermaid at bay.
Have any of your plots and characters been influenced by real life events or people?
My Cornish Mysteries books are all based on real events and real people who are part of north Cornwall’s history. I grew up in that part of the world, on Bodmin Moor, and it’s become my mission to share the stories of a place that often gets overlooked when people think about Cornwall’s history: it’s not all mining!
In the first book in the series, Falling Creatures, the story centres on a murder that took place in 1844. A farm worker, Charlotte Dymond, was found on the moor with her throat cut. A young man who worked with Charlotte was found guilty and subsequently executed for the crime. This is still a very well-known story in the area where I’m from, due to the strange nature of the case and the many unanswered questions raised by the documented evidence. It was this real event that got me writing crime fiction in the first place, and the fictional characters I created to investigate the murder, Anna and Shilly, have gone on to have other adventures.
The second book is The Magpie Tree which takes place in a hamlet called Trethevy, not far from Boscastle. Anna and Shilly are on the case of a pair of women accused not only of being witches, but of abducting a young child. Though the crime in this book is fictional, the setting and some of the themes are drawn from legends associated with a waterfall in the woods of Trethevy, a place called St Nectan’s Glen. The chief architect of these legends is a man called Robert Stephen Hawker who was the vicar of Morwenstow from 1834 to 1875, so contemporaneous with the period my novels are set.
In The Mermaid’s Call, Shilly and Anna actually meet Hawker as it’s in his parish where their third case takes place. In this novel I draw on the distressing history of shipwrecks along this stretch of coastline, and the heroic efforts of Hawker to tend to the bodies of the dead that washed onto the beach beneath his vicarage. Hawker is a fascinating character in his own right: poet, antiquarian, mystic, devotee of animals, bibliophile, a believer in mermaids. I have long wanted to write about him, and when Shilly and Anna were bound for a new case, it seemed the right time to introduce them to Parson Hawker. As with the other books in the series, the murder investigation at the heart of The Mermaid’s Call is shot through with the folklore of Cornwall.
Could you tell us about your writing routine?
I’m very routine-orientated when it comes to writing. In fact, I don’t think I could get much done without a routine to stick to. I can’t write every day, or even every week, due to my various day jobs and freelance projects, but I aim to write 10,000 words a month for eight months of the year. That gives me an 80,000 words first draft which I can then edit, and I edit a lot!
A writing day starts early: I sit down at my laptop at 7am and work until about midday, with breaks for breakfast and plenty of cups of tea. Depending on other commitments, I might try and get a bit more done from 2-3pm, after which I turn to my work emails which keep me busy! Though I have a monthly word count, I don’t aim for a daily word count. Instead I find that giving myself a time slot to write in keeps me motivated and focused, and my daily word count has become quite predictable, though I don’t fixate on it.
How important is organisation and time management to your writing career?
Hugely important. I work for a range of organisations with different commitments at different times of year. This means I’m juggling lots of deadlines, some of which clash, and so I have to be organised just to get the work of the day jobs done on time, let alone any writing! That’s where my monthly word count target works well as I just have to get that amount of words written. It doesn’t matter if it takes me two weeks or three days – as long as I end the month with that 10k done, the book will get written and edited to meet the deadline. I know that for some writers deadlines can be a real barrier but for me they’re essential – if I have a deadline I can plan, and if I can plan, I can start, and starting is so often the biggest hurdle for me.
How would you describe your writing process?
With my fiction-writing, I’m all about the plans. I tend to make a very extensive outline before I start writing – usually about ten pages. This will read as a scene by scene breakdown, and might even include free-floating, unclaimed lines of dialogue as they come to me in the planning stage. The outline will become less detailed as I get near the end of the story, but I always know where I’m headed: often the final lines of a novel will be clear in my head before I write the first lines, and I write my way towards them. As I make progress and get more words under my belt, I add to the outline so that the later sections get the detail they need. This is especially important with crime plots, I’ve found, as clues need to be planted early then ‘activated’ later, and I need to make notes on this or I forget why I planted something in the first place! I tend to stick to plans though if things change in the writing then it’s always for good reason and I go with it, adapting the initial planning outline to reflect the change. In that way, the outline is a ‘live’ document that evolves alongside the book.
How many times had you gone over and redrafted your book before sending it out?
Many, many times! Once the first draft is written I read through and edit – big stuff like characters and plot as well as smaller line edits to tighten phrasing – usually three or four times. Then I give the book to a trusted handful of ‘beta’ readers to hear their thoughts. I’m lucky to be part of a workshop group of local novelists and we share our novels in progress to develop them and make them better. It’s invaluable! Once I have the beta feedback I’ll redraft again, and then the next stage is to read the book on Kindle.
Kindle users can send Word documents and PDFs to their device and then read them as if they were ebooks. The books won’t be properly typeset, of course, which means the spacing can be all over the place, but for me this is a fantastic way to experience my novel in progress in a different light and I tend to be more objective about pace when reading my own work on Kindle. It’s something about seeing the book look more like a book.
If anything comes up from the Kindle read then I’ll redraft again, then it goes to my agent if it’s a new book, and he usually gives me loads of excellent editorial suggestions. I redraft to make the agent changes, sometimes several times, back and forth with my agent, then it goes out on submission. If an editor buys it then there’s usually more editorial changes to come before the book is published. If the book is part of an ongoing series then it bypasses my agent and goes straight to the editor, and the editorial comments arrive about a month later and then I do another re-write, or two, or three. Once that’s done and the book goes off to be typeset ready to be proofed and printed, it’s about time to do a new ten page outline and start back on the 10k a month . . .
Read more about Katherine Stansfield
Discover Katherine’s books here