Meet a Welsh Author: Alis Hawkins on historical research and second novels
Q. You’ve just published In Two Minds — the second book in your Teifi Valley Coroner Series. How would you describe in one sentence.?
Two very different deaths teach acting coroner, Harry Probert-Lloyd, that, while post mortem examinations can tell you the mechanics of death, you have to dig deep into personal relationships to understand its causes.
Q. Some authors think their second novel was harder to write than the first. Was that your experience?
“Yes and no. Whilst I didn’t have to do all the very basic historical research into the period that I’d had to do for None So Blind (I knew next to nothing about mid nineteenth century west Wales before beginning the series) I still had to research the specific background to the deaths which occur in In Two Minds. That meant familiarising myself with the nascent practice of autopsy in Britain, as well as getting to grips with Welsh emigration to the United States. And, though I love research, it takes time which can be an issue when you’re working to a deadline.
It was the same with the characters. While I now knew Harry and John to some extent, having spent a lot of time with them when writing None So Blind, they are both young men at the beginning of their careers and their opinions and actions are likely to change and be a bit unpredictable, so I couldn’t be confident that I knew how they’d react in the situations they would find themselves in. (Seeing how my characters react is one of the real joys of writing for me – I never know exactly what they’re going to do, say or think.)
And then there’s the particular kind of difficulty which comes with writing a series. Each book has to stand alone because bookshops tend to stock only the latest title in a series which makes it unlikely that people will have the luxury of reading them in the right order. (Kindle users are at a big advantage here as they can easily access books in sequence.) So you have to give readers who are new to the series enough of the background to allow them to understand where the characters are coming from, without boring people who’ve been with you from the beginning.
There was an added issue with In Two Minds as there’s a particular revelation in None So Blind that changes the way Harry sees many things and I didn’t want to give that away in In Two Minds lest it spoil the earlier book for people, so I’ve had to refer to it tangentially. And that proved a bit tricky!”
Q.How do you avoid one of the common problems with historical fiction — overloading the narrative with so much historical information many readers end up irritated?
“I read a lot of historical fiction and I’m one of those readers who finds it irritating.
So, how do I avoid it?
I try to be light on detail and only put something in if it really earns its place.
For the stuff of daily life – clothes, household stuff, food etc – I tend not to mention them unless flagging them up serves a purpose. If I wouldn’t mention something in a novel set in the present day, I don’t mention it in my books. So there are never gratuitous descriptions of what people are wearing, eating or using. (You’d never get Val McDermid going on about the material Karen Pirie’s clothes are made of, or where the buttons are.)
But, if it serves to illustrate something about the character – eg how rich/poor/modest/vain they are, how greedy or abstemious, or some anomaly, then details earn their place. Details like that can tell you about the person being described, or about the person doing the describing – just why have they noticed that detail, what does it tell you about them?
For bigger, background stuff, I try to avoid exposition and just weave information in to the narrative for readers to pick up. I figure my readers are smart enough to aggregate these details into a whole without me painstakingly (or do I mean painfully?) laying it all out for them.
Then again, for some things – like the practice of autopsy in In Two Minds — it’s such a new thing that one character explaining stuff to another is entirely reasonable. But, even then, you’ve got to allow them do it in a way which adds to an understanding of their character rather than just putting a paragraph of explanation into their mouths and pretending it’s dialogue.”
Q.Have you ever written thousands of words for your novel or short story, only to throw most of them away?
“Yup. Thirty thousand words once. That’s half a book for some people. A bit less than a quarter of a normal length novel for me. I’d started the story in the wrong place and I couldn’t make it work. Ouch.
Mind you, that’s nothing compared to ditching half a book. When I was writing Testament, my first published novel, I had three goes at getting the contemporary strand in a split-time structure right.
But I’ve never had to do that for any of the Teifi Valley Coroner books.”
Q.Do you tend to give up on books or are you someone who feels that once you’ve started reading you should get to the end even if you’re not enjoying the book
“Life’s far too short (and I’m too slow a reader) to persevere with a book I’m not enjoying. I used to say that, if I’d happily machine gun everybody in the book by page 60, I’d stop but I’ve modified that, slightly, in recent times. Now it’s page 30.“
Q. Which authors have you changed your mind about over the years?
“That’s an interesting question. I’ve always read a lot of crime fiction but before I started writing it myself, I tended to read the more nitty-gritty, examine-the-bodies end – Patricia Cornwell, Karen Slaughter, Kathy Reichs. Now, however, I find those a bit light on character development and too plot- and forensic detail-heavy and I’ve come to appreciate a better balance between narrative and the relationships that drive a book. Consequently, I tend not to read many of those forensic pathology novels any more.“
Q. What are you reading at the moment?
“I always have two books on the go – one on my Kindle to read in bed so I don’t disturb my other half with reading lights, and a physical book for downstairs reading over breakfast and lunch.
My current Kindle book is by fellow Crime Cymru author Chris Lloyd and is the latest in his Catalan mystery series: City of Drowned Souls. I’ve read all three of the books in the series so far back-to-back – I’ve become addicted to them and now want to go to Girona where they’re set!
And my paperback of the moment is The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. It’s a wonderful historical novel, full of fantastic characters and entirely lacking – thank God! – in the kind of ‘everybody’s dirty and miserable’ trope that you so often find in historical fiction. Her characters leap off the page as real people and she paints the world in which they live and all the social realities of the day with a brilliantly light touch. I’m loving it.”
Alis Hawkins: The Lowdown
Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley where her Harry Probert-Lloyd series is set). She trained as a speech and language therapist but spent three decades variously working in a burger restaurant, bringing up two sons, working with homeless people, providing support to children and young people on the autism spectrum.
She is a founder member of Crime Cymru, a collective of crime writers in Wales.
Learn more about her books at www.AlisHawkins.co.uk or on Twitter @Alis_Hawkins
See my reviews of None So Blind here and In Two Minds here
3 thoughts on “Meet a Welsh Author: Alis Hawkins on historical research and second novels”
I was so interested in the part telling how she decides what historical details to put in and why.
That must be one of the most difficult aspects of writing a historical fiction novel – deciding what to leave out….
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