Each week, we invite our Crime Cymru authors to tell us a bit about themselves and their writing. This week, Myfanwy Alexander takes a break from wrangling with the first draught of her next novel to tell us a little of the dilemmas that writers face when writing series and of characters who insist on elbowing their way into the story.
It’s a glorious Spring morning in the heart of Montgomeryshire and I am up to my oxters in a first draught. I should perhaps explain that I am notorious for my failure to accept historical change so as far as I am concerned, I still live in a county which was abolished in the 1970s but my sense of belonging is attached to the deliciously green corner of Wales where I grew up rather than the whole extent of Powys, which makes up a quarter of the nation’s land surface. I am also a fervent Jacobite, an attitude inherited, like the use of the word ‘oxters’ from my Scots mother and would crowdfund a judicial review of the Dissolution of the Monasteries if I could just get this first draught finished first….
I mustn’t give the impression that finishing this draught is a chore because I am so conscious of my enormous good fortune: I am paid to spend time doing what I love best, telling stories. This is my fifth novel, all of which were written in Welsh first, with the first two having been translated into English. The stories follow the caseload of Dyfed Powys Police inspector Daf Dafis who has been described by a reviewer as Welsh literature’s most attractive man. I was delighted by this remark, as I have been with readers’ responses to Daf: I wanted to create a loving man conscious of his own flaws and trying to solve not just crimes but the conundrums of his own life. Though I recognise and respect the established trope of the isolated detective devoting all his energies to his cases, I am not sure that works well if the man in question is a member of a close community such as rural Montgomeryshire. There are not many of us and lots of roles to fill so living in moody solitude is not much of an option, which is why my credibility was stretched by ‘Hinterland.’ The character of Matthias lives in Mid-Wales for at least three years without ever even buying a raffle ticket. It’s hard to keep up your dark night of the soul if people keep asking you to help coach the under 12 football team.
I’ve also observed the trend for family circumstances to impact far more on female than male protagonists in detective stories so I wondered what it would be like to create a policeman who has to nip to Tescos for nappies, wipe the sick from the face of drunken teenager and go straight from a Press Conference about a murder to a meeting of the High School Governors. Daf’s integration into his community is a vital part of the story: he is policing the people he has known all his life, navigating old rivalries and uncovering hitherto unimagined aspects of the lives of his neighbours. As a result, the series of novels have developed into somewhat of a family saga though each case stands alone.
And hence the dilemma which I am wrangling in this first draught. I am looking to find a balance between the frequent requests of my loyal readership to find out what happens next to certain characters and the need to deliver a punchy story which will attract a new audience. I have the full story arc of all the characters in my head but am acutely conscious that it is highly unlikely that a browser will pick up Book Five in a shop, take a quick look and commit themselves to reading the four previous instalments to catch up. Therefore, I resolved to try to keep this story tight and keep sub-plots to a minimum.
The characters themselves, however, are having none of this. Perhaps I should have known that, by setting this story at the Royal Welsh Show, I was giving opportunities for any number of old friends to elbow their way onto the stage, or into the Members Pavilion, rather. There is plenty of scope for cameos but I hadn’t quite anticipated the ability of previously significant players to develop their bit parts. I suppose I should not have expected anything else: I take great pains to present characters in such a way that the readers feel as though they are sharing just a part of their lives. The price you pay for readers engaging with your creations is that they want to know what happens next, particularly for those whose stories end in ambivalence.
After much consideration, I have resolved, under strict orders from the goddess amongst women who is my editor, to cut down on the sub-plots. This is made easier by the story’s location: the Show is a very rich environment, full of incident, scandal and rivalry, so the main plot itself benefits from this glorious lobscouse. And I have several intriguing new characters buzzing around in my head and am determined to give them every chance to develop on a stage uncluttered with the cast of previous productions stubbornly refusing to return to their dressing rooms. Then one of the new characters falls in love with someone from Book Two and I fear a Romeo and Juliet style bloodbath if I attempt to stand in their way.
If you have been wondering whether I am writing a story set at the Royal Welsh Show because the Show has been cancelled for two years running due to the pandemic, I have to admit that there is some truth in that, but the setting had been discussed with my publisher back in the days when such a cancellation was unimaginable. In fact, I have set all of my stories against the background of occasions which interest me, from the National Eisteddfod to the local Young Farmers’ Rally. Daf is embedded in both his community and his nation and though the stories are far from political, they are set in a small nation at an interesting time. I’m not party political but I do worry about tribalism and one of the joys of developing characters is exploring their contradictions. Daf is passionate about justice and his culture and therefore finds himself in a certain political corner, but he is wise enough to appreciate the good qualities of those whose beliefs he does not share. I’m secretly rather proud of creating a couple of ‘good Tories’ because such creatures are vanishingly rare in Welsh literature and to me, one of the beauties of crime novels is the way in which the narrative can lead the reader into a variety of social groups and settings. And besides, it is very good for any detective to have his pre-suppositions challenged: Daf is forced to admit that the paternalistic actions of a wealthy family, for example, may achieve more in practical terms than his own high-minded notions of justice even if this generosity is inspired by their adherence to a Bronze Age spirituality.
I write my novels in rural Wales because that is the place I know and love but I do have another motive. I’m not sure rural life is well understood or explored in our culture, and I often find attempts to portray the contemporary countryside deeply infuriating which is why I have to rant on The Archers’ fan pages at times. From conversations with my cosmopolitan friends, I know that there is a general assumption that rural life is somehow fixed in the 1950s and that the challenges of modern life fade away beyond areas with streetlights. There is another trope which describes country dwellers as feral, only redeemed by their contact with civilised in-comers. I’m trying to tell a more nuanced story, exploring themes of personal conflict in a context which brings its own richness. A particular annoyance is the lumping together of farmers as if they all held the same opinions, like their sheep. My experience is that farmers are no more homogeneous than any other occupational group: underneath the oilskins, you’ll find a great variety of motivations, desires, histories and secrets, just like other people. I’m not for one moment suggesting that I write stories to highlight rural problems because that sounds like a recipe for the dullest books imaginable, but I want to take my readers into a real world, where farmers are as likely to be working on enrichment activities for their chickens as wielding a pitchfork. So this time, I’m getting my teeth into rewilding: if conflict creates drama, there’s certainly plenty of possibility there.
All of which is rather interesting to discuss but there is the small matter of this first draught…
Read more about Myfanwy Alexander.
Discover Myfanwy’s books on her Amazon page.