HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY
Hi everyone, today I have the very great pleasure of inviting Alis Hawkins onto my Welsh Murder Book. Over to you, Alis.
I write historical fiction in two different periods – medieval fiction set largely in and around a fictitious medieval university city in South East England, and mid-nineteenth century crime fiction set in the area of West Wales where I grew up, the Teifi Valley.
To give you an idea of what my bit of Wales looks like, here’s a picture taken outside our farm house.
The Teifi Valley includes parts of Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire and all three counties feature in my books. (If you’d like to know more about why I chose to set my Victorian fiction in West Wales rather than in London like everybody else, you can find out here.)
I set the first in the series, None So Blind (described by the BBC Radio Wales’ book programme Phil The Shelf as ‘the most interesting crime fiction creation of the year’) in and around my hometown of Newcastle Emlyn, just below the river, here…
… and I situated the book’s central murder on a footpath through woodland on a farm next to the dairy farm where I grew up, somewhere I have often walked and which is actually a very peaceful, tranquil place. In real life, it’s called the Wenallt – the white or fair wood but, in None So Blind, it becomes the Alltddu – the dark or black wood and the setting for an act of ultimate treachery. The murder takes place in the dark during a thunderstorm so you can imagine how different the scene below would look:
The second book the Teifi Valley Coroner series, In Two Minds (shortlisted for the 2020 Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger) is set in the Teifi Valley hinterland on the coast above Cardigan where the Teifi meets the sea. A naked, unidentified body is found on a beach with a consignment of limestone for the local kiln at Tresaith. Modern-day Tresaith is a small village but, at the time, there were only four buildings on the little cove – the Ship Inn (still there), the limeburner’s cottage and two limekilns. The coast is wild and rugged now and it was no different in the mid nineteenth century when Harry and John are investigating, but nearly every little sandy beach was used to land produce of one kind or another and, often, ships were built on the sand. Here’s a photo looking down the coast towards Tresaith from above the larger beach of Llangranog:
The third in the Teifi Valley Coroner series, Those Who Know, takes us further up the Teifi Valley to Tregaron, Lampeter and Llanddewi Brefi where a controversial schoolteacher has fallen (or has he been pushed?) to his death from the loft of what he calls his ‘cowshed academy’. The landscape above Tregaron is wilder and more rugged than the lower Teifi. This is the kind of windswept hillside where Schoolmaster Rowland has his makeshift school:
By the way, If you’d like to know more about why I made my central investigator a coroner rather than a policeman, you can find the answers here.
My Writing Life
How does writing fiction work?
For me, writing comes in two varieties – conscious and largely subconscious. Almost every word of my novels is written by a process which involves me having a vague idea of where the current scene might go then setting off and seeing where it actually goes. I don’t plan much and, if I do, I certainly don’t feel the need to stick to the plan if something better reveals itself. I’ve learned that the more I try to stick to any plan I might have come up with, the less well the scene/chapter/whole book works.
In crime writing circles, writing from the subconscious is known as ‘pantsing’, ie writing by the seat of your pants. It’s an odd process, more like discovering things you already knew than making things up. It’s analogous to something Michelangelo said: ‘The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.’ It feels as if the story of my books is there, somewhere in my head, and I just have to let my subconscious find it.
Here’s an example of how it works. One day, during the writing of a scene in Those Who Know, I realised that I needed a break in the dialogue to allow the reader to re-focus for a second or two. So I decided to have a robin pecking at the window. So far, so definitely conscious. But the bird’s appearance did far more than just provide breathing space. Yes, the necessary re-focus was achieved but also – and this was subconscious – the underlying aggression in the scene was echoed by John’s comments on the ferocity of the robin. But third, and most strikingly subconscious, when John looked beyond the robin he saw somebody listening at the window. As soon as John (and I) saw who it was, the character concerned was immediately taken in a new and unanticipated direction which changed the shape of the book. And all from a need for a break in some tense dialogue.
Weird. But it works for me. Also, it’s fun. I’m not sure how much I’d enjoy writing to a plan – all the fun would have been used up in coming up with the ideas in the first place and then it would be like painting with numbers. So, even though setting off not knowing where you’re going or how you’re going to get there is nerve-wracking (what if it doesn’t work? is the question in your mind every time) it’s great fun. And writing has to be fun because, unless you’re constantly in the best-seller lists, it isn’t going to make you rich (or even, frankly, a living).
In case you were wondering whether I ever do any of the other kind of writing, conscious writing generally lies on the periphery of the novels. It’s not creative and, as it’s more like the kind of writing I have to do for the day job, a lot less fun. It’s the kind of writing where you’re cudgelling your brains for a logical and succinct communication style for things like synopses, blurbs and writing for marketing purposes. That kind of writing is hard work because you can’t just set off and see what happens. With only 500 or 800 words at your disposal, you’ve got to know exactly what you want to say, say it pithily and then desist, preferably with a few amusing turns of phrase or original ideas in there somewhere to make it worth the reader’s while. Oh, and you have to remember that you’re basically marketing your book/s!
I’m the kind of reader who likes to start at the beginning of a series and, if you’re the same, the first in the Teifi Valley Coroner series is None So Blind. However, as my publisher has just been taken over by a bigger company which will be re-jacketing all the books and bringing out new editions on the 25th of March, None So Blind isn’t available at the moment as all previous copies have sold out.
However, all three books will be available on the 25th of March as Canelo paperbacks and all are available as ebooks in the new, Canelo edition, now.
Here’s the link to the paperback version of None So Blind
My first medieval novel (also my first published novel) is Testament, currently available in Kindle or paperback via Amazon from Sapere Books here
Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Ceredigion (West Wales). Though her parents, from Pontypool in South Wales, did not speak Welsh, she and her brother were both fluent within a year of starting school. Essential because, otherwise, they wouldn’t have been able to speak to the other kids.
After a very enjoyable seven years at the local comprehensive Alis relocated to Corpus Christi College, Oxford where she acquired a degree in English and an interest in psychology and communication which led her to train as a Speech and Language Therapist. Snce the early nineties, she has been working with autistic children and their families, bringing up her two sons and writing historical and crime fiction.
Now living with her partner on the Welsh/English border, Alis loves walking, collects rucksacks and can’t resist an interesting fact. Though she does resist putting them all in her books…