To wish you all a very happy 2020, we’re starting a new Q&A feature, where Crime Cymru authors will be answering our questions to tell us a little bit about themselves. This week, Alis Hawkins talks about the influences that shape her writing.
Hello to all Crime Cymru followers! I hope you had an excellent Christmas and that 2020 is looking good so far. I’m really delighted to be kicking off this new series of Q&A sessions with Crime Cymru’s writers. I hope you enjoy it!
|Have any of your plots/characters been influenced by real life events/people?
All of them! The reason I started writing the Teifi Valley Coroner series was because I wanted to write about the Rebecca Riots and, having set the first book up with such a solid historical background, I’ve carried on in the same vein.
The background to In Two Minds is Welsh emigration to America but there’s quite a big dollop of the nascent science of forensic pathology too.
The third book in the series, Those Who Know – which will be published on the 28th of May this year – features the death of a teacher in mysterious circumstances and manages to take a sideways look at both what education was like in Wales in the mid-19the century and, as Harry’s trying to get himself elected coroner, how elections worked in that day and age. Fun fact from that book – the colours of political parties were completely different back then. The two main parties – Tories and Liberals – were red and blue respectively!
|If you like to write to music – what do you choose and why?
I never write to music, it’s too distracting. The only sounds I can write to are the sounds of nature which Harry and John might be able to hear, too. Music would take me into a different world and I need to stay very firmly with Harry and John in theirs.
|If you were discouraged from writing – how did you overcome this?
Hmmm, this is an interesting question. Though, at one level, nobody’s ever been particularly discouraging – apart from agents telling me that their work wasn’t ‘right for their list’ – the whole process of trying to become a published author is massively discouraging. Most people don’t get their first book published, or even their second – ask any honest author how many books they’d written before they got a publishing deal and you’ll see that’s true – so you have to be able to keep on going in the face of persistent rejection.
I can’t answer for other writers but here are my bulwarks against rejection:
· Find other writers you trust and ask them to honestly critique your work AND LEARN FROM WHAT THEY SAY. Even if what you learn is difficult. But they have to be writers you trust. An editor once gave me excellent advice on who to listen to. ‘When you get a critique which picks up on some of the plot holes, weaknesses and fudges you knew, in your heart of hearts were there, you know this is somebody to listen to.’
· Learn to be your own editor. You have to be self-critical. Leave your finished work somewhere and come back to it after a couple of months and try and read it as if it were by somebody else. Read your work out loud – that’ll illustrate some of your weaknesses. And don’t let yourself get away with self-indulgence. I can’t count the passages of beautiful poetic writing I’ve had to cut from my books because, lovely as they are, they’re not moving the plot forward or telling you something about the characters.
Before I was published, when I’d been writing for several years, somebody asked me, ‘When will you give up?’ To which my response was ‘When I don’t think my writing’s improving.’
I’m about to start writing my twelfth book (by the end of the year 6 will have been published). I’m definitely still improving.
|If you were encouraged to write – who encouraged you and how?
The first person who encouraged me was my inspirational English teacher. When I was fourteen, he changed the course of my life. He told me I had a talent and I’ve never stopped believing him.
But I’ve also been enormously lucky in the people who I’ve chosen to spend my life with. My ex-husband, John, could not have been more encouraging of my writing and created time for me to do it when our kids were small; and my partner of the last twenty years, Edwina, has always believed in me and has supported me in working part-time so that I could continue to develop my writing career. Without their emotional, practical and financial support there’s no way I could have been a novelist.
|Do you do your research strictly online, or talk to professionals in the field or a mixture of both?
I nearly always start online – often with Wikipedia which is very underrated as a starting point. Then I progress to the books I’ve found online including, in recent times, some wonderful, unpublished PhD theses which as original research, are absolutely invaluable to the historical novelist. As some of my books are set in real places, I’ll also spend time visiting the the settings. Though my medieval novels (published by Sapere Books and available from Amazon) are based in a fictitious medieval university city, Salster, my Teifi Valley Coroner series is set very much in the real world of west Wales and it’s essential that I know what the places look like (even though they will have changed since the 1850s when the books are set).
But I do also talk to experts. For the first in my medieval psychological crime trilogy – The Black and The White (pub date, March 2020) I spent a whole weekend with charcoal burners in the Forest of Dean, learning the millennia-old technique of making pretty much pure carbon from trees. Edwina and I enjoyed that research trip so much we ended up not only being part of the team that run the annual charcoal burn at the Forest of Dean Heritage Centre, but moving to the Forest!
|Which books have you read that have made you think ’Wow, I wish I had written that’ and what was it about the book?
Oh, there are so many! OK, top three:
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. A masterclass in how to write historical fiction; briliant from beginning to end. It’s based on real events in the Derbyshire village of Eyam during the 1666 plague, when the villagers quarantined themselves to stop the plague spreading. Brooks’s main character is Anna Frith, the vicar of Eyam’s servant, who merits all of one tiny (anonymous) mention in the historical record, so is well up for fictionalising grabs.
Next of Kin by Joanna Trollope. I could, actually, have said nominated anything by Joanna Trollope as I love her books and she is a very underrated writer. (I know she’s very successful, but that’s not the same as being rated, critically, and I think she should be). Her use of detail to conjure up a world is outstanding and her flawless dialogue tells you so much about her characters. I chose Next of Kin because it’s about a world I know – dairy farming – and that book, above all, brought home to me how brilliantly she weaves exemplary background research into her compelling stories.
American by Day by Derek B Miller. I read this very recently, having had it recommended to me by a bookseller when I was on my tour of every independent bookshop in Wales to launch my latest book in May 2019. (You can see more details on my website here.) It’s a crime novel but it’s also so much more than a crime novel. Derek Miller is an American who now lives in Norway which means that his depiction of a Norwegian detective going to America to search for her missing brother brings a unique sensibility to the whole investigation. Just wonderful.
Why did you pick your genre?
Because crime fiction is my go-to read. It’s the genre I come back to again and again and which gives me the greatest satisfaction. As I hope is obvious from the previous answer, I read a lot of very varied genres but, if I had to read only one genre, ever again, it would be crime fiction. To the series writer, it offers an almost unique opportunity to develop characters over mutltiple books and many years. It also allows you to reflect the vices and virtues of the society your crime is set in, and it gives you a structure so that, as a writer, you don’t have to make up everything about your book, from scratch, each time. Plus you get to bring a bit more justice into a world which sometimes seems chaotic and uncaring.
And you should always write what you love to read.
|Who have been the biggest influences on your writing?
This is going to sound corny but it has the benefit of being true: every book I read influences me to some extent, for good or ill. In reading books I admire I hone my technique and in reading books I’d like to take a red editing pen to, I learn what to avoid. Some authors say that, when they read a truly outstanding book they think ‘why am I bothering, I’ll never be this good’. I just think, ‘maybe if I keep working hard, I might one day be something approaching this good’. Good books – whoever they’re written by – make my heart sing and I aspire to doing the same for my readers.
|What are you reading at the moment, to begin 2020?
I’ve just finished fellow Crime Cymru member, Katherine Stansfield’s latest Cornish Mystery – The Mermaid’s Call and yesterday I began this year’s CWA historical crime dagger winner – SG Maclean’s The Destroying Angel. Both are wonderful!
Here’s a picture of the books I got for Christmas and shall be reading in January and February.
Happy New Year to all Crime Cymru readers and supporters!
Read more about Alis Hawkins