In this really interesting blog, Crime Cymru’s Katherine Stansfield not only reveals how she became a crime writer, but also reflects on what actually defines a crime novel.
My Path to Becoming an Author (of Crime Fiction)
When does fiction about a crime become crime fiction? Does the presence of illegal activity in a novel’s plot automatically mean that novel is a crime novel? Does the crime make the genre? These are questions often asked by my students at Cardiff University where I teach writing crime fiction modules for the Lifelong Learning department, and they get to the heart of what crime fiction both is and isn’t. I also grappled with these questions when writing my second novel.
They didn’t enter my head when I wrote my first novel, The Visitor. This book is set in the past, with the story spanning the years 1880 to 1936, so I knew it was historical fiction. That seemed pretty straightforward as a way to understand what kind of book I was writing. It’s set in Cornwall and tells the story of Pearl, an elderly woman living in a coastal community whose memory is beginning to fail. The fishing village in which she’s lived her whole life is being re-built to meet the demands of the new tourism industry. This leads to her grip on the present faltering and she feels more connected to the past. But the past is an uneasy place to revisit, because there are secrets in Pearl’s early life which might best be left there.
So far, so historical. Plus it’s a bit ghostly and pretty literary too in its exploration of memory. The novel was published by Welsh independent press Parthian in 2013 – my first book and I learned a lot from the experience, both the writing and the process of the book making its way into the world. It was seven years from the initial stirrings of the idea to the book being published, and the day I first saw the finished hardback with my name on remains one of the best days of my life.
From 2012, a year before The Visitor was published but after it had been accepted by the publisher, I was back at it with an idea for a new novel. I wanted to write about a real event that had taken place in 1844 not far from where I grew up, on Bodmin Moor. This planned book was still historical, still Cornwall, so in some ways it seemed like a spiritual successor to The Visitor. Even though there were no direct links between the stories or characters, it seemed to me the two books would exist in the same kind of fictional universe and the project made sense to pursue because it was more historical fiction set in Cornwall. Maybe this was what I did as a writer. I liked the idea.
But this book was different in one fundamental way that would change almost everything about how I wrote fiction, though it took me years of writing and many failed drafts to realize this.
My second novel was about a murder.
A real murder at that. In 1844 a young woman called Charlotte Dymond went missing from the farm where she worked as a domestic servant, high on Bodmin Moor in north Cornwall. Ten days later, her body was found in the same place she had last been seen: by the side of a ford, not far from the farm. Her throat had been cut, the wound so extensive that she had almost been decapitated. The violence was recent: she had not long been dead when she was found.
This was a much-publicized story at the time, reported in national newspapers, and it remains a well-known tale in the area where I grew up. The question which had always fascinated me was, where was Charlotte Dymond for those ten days she was missing? The area was, and still is even today, very isolated, but it’s hard to hide anything in the exposed uplands of the moor where animals roam freely, regularly checked on by farmers. The community was physically scattered but it was also small and close-knit. Secrets were difficult to keep. Someone knew where Charlotte was when she was missing – who was it? Did they keep her against her will? And to then ‘spirit’ her back to the place from which she had disappeared, newly and violently dead, but with no witnesses – how was this done?
These were the questions I was thinking about as I started work on the book, which led – quite naturally – to the idea that a character was going to look into all this to find the answers. It seems obvious now that the D-word should have occurred to me: detective. But it didn’t. This character looking into Charlotte’s disappearance and murder would surely have to search for information, ask other characters questions, examine clothing, retrace journeys and seek medical information. In other words, investigate. But I didn’t quite make this connection either. Not until my partner, who is also a writer, gave me his thoughts on the first draft of the book.
The bad news was I’d written 150,000 words of a crime novel with no investigation. Very little happened. It was all atmosphere and people wandering around asking each other what happened, but no practical efforts to find the truth. But there was good news: everything was in place to make this a crime novel if I could just give these characters some practical tasks and be a bit more organized with what they were looking for and when they found it.
Though the prospect of re-writing the book was intimidating, it was made much easier by the fact I’d now realized I was writing in a well-established field which had conventions and reader expectations that the fledgling writer could learn. So I did. And I saw that I’d been trying to write a crime novel without knowing that was what I was doing, which was why the first draft was so waffly and purposeless. My detective was wandering around the moor desperate to get on with solving the case, but I kept them stalling. Once they had specific things to do, the book came together more easily, because one interview leads to another, one piece of evidence brings to light new information, even seemingly dud leads can produce unexpected insights. And all the time, the detectives have a clear goal: to find out whodunnit, why they dunnit and how they dunnit. This is what makes a crime novel. Not just the crime, but the degree to which the story focuses on that crime, with characters attempting to find out what happened via a series of linked steps.
This second novel became the book Falling Creatures which was published by Allison & Busby in 2017. It was five years, start to finish, so a bit quicker than writing The Visitor but still quite slow. Two sequels followed: The Magpie Tree (2018) and The Mermaid’s Call (2020). Each of these was written in less than a year, partly because I was contractually obliged to get quicker but also because I could write more quickly, because I’d learned the conventions of the genre I was working in.
And looking back now, I wonder if that was what I always wanted to write, because though The Visitor isn’t a crime novel in an obvious sense, at its heart is a mystery: what happened to Pearl’s lover Nicholas? Was he killed accidentally in a riot that took place in the 1890s, another real event in Cornish history? Or was he was murdered by the man Pearl ended up marrying? What fascinates me now is that The Visitor can be read as the ghost of a crime novel: there’s an investigation there if you read it in a certain way. The book is haunted by an unacknowledged genre, much as Pearl becomes haunted by the missing Nicholas, which seems quite appropriate, in hindsight.
Katherine Stansfield is a multi-genre novelist and poet. Her historical crime series Cornish Mysteries has won the Holyer an Gof Fiction Prize and been shortlisted for the Winston Graham Memorial Prize. The most recent instalment is The Mermaid’s Call. She co-writes a fantasy crime trilogy with her partner David Towsey, publishing as D. K. Fields, and has also published two full length poetry collections and a pamphlet with Seren. Katherine is co-editor, with Caroline Oakley, of Cast a Long Shadow: new crime short stories by women writers from Wales, published by Honno.
You can read more about Katherine here