Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Guest post: Alis Hawkins, CWA Dagger shortlisted historical mystery author

Cathy Ace here: Please welcome today's guest blogger - Alis Hawkins. Alis is the author of the CWA Historical Dagger shortlisted Teifi Valley Coroner series of books. She's also one of the founding members of Crime Cymru, a collective of Welsh crime writers.

I joined the group as soon as I heard about it, which was over dinner at CrimeFest in Bristol in 2018...or was it 2017? Wow, the pandemic gap in reality is making it even more difficult than usual for me to recall which year it was that certain things happened. Either way, I was thrilled to be enveloped by Alis's enthusiasm and organizational skills. Earlier this year the first Gwyl Crime Cymru Festival took place, online - thanks in no small part to Alis's efforts - and there'll be an in-person festival in Aberystwyth in 2022. Check out the festival website here:

Now - over to Alis...

Alis Hawkins, author of the Teifi Valley Coroner series

Before I start, I’d just like to say cheers to Cathy Ace for giving up her spot to me in the week that the fourth in my Teifi Valley Coroner series – Not One Of Us –  click here for amazon link to this book is published. Many thanks, Cathy! 

So, today’s question is:

Which book that you’ve read has had the most profound effect on you? And why?

Before I get into it, let me give you some context. I’m a slow reader. My silent reading speed is barely faster than my reading aloud speed. So, because life is short and precious, I don’t persist with books I’m not enjoying. When I get to about page sixty, if I’d happily see every character in the book gunned down, I stop reading. Sometimes, I don’t get close to page sixty…

That means that every book I finish is guaranteed to have at least a moderate effect on me; I just don’t get to the end of ‘meh’ books.

More context. I have two categories of ‘top books’. One is ‘books I admire’: books whose structure, characterisation, effective use of pace and prose raise them to the level of things of beauty.  The other is ‘books I really enjoy’: the ones that keep me up way past my bedtime. And a few – a tiny few, maybe 5% of the 100-120 books that I’ll read in any given year - fall into a third category. The superbooks. Ones that I ache to have written. Those books wrap up admiration and enjoyment in a way that will have me ignoring the phone, going without meals and paradoxically both wanting to reach the end and never wanting them to finish.

What was the question again? Oh yes…

I’m going to cheat slightly and tell you about two books in the ‘superbook’ category that, indirectly, made me into a historical crime writer. Unsurprisingly, there’s a historical one and a crime one.

Historical first: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague: Brooks, Geraldine: 9780007743032: Books

Historical fiction is a hard act. Not only do you need to be able to write halfway decent novels in order to get them published, you also need to know a lot of history. (Or, at least, be good at convincing your reader that you know a lot of history.) Year of Wonders is a masterclass in both. Click here to link to the book on amazon

The novel tells the story of Eyam – the Derbyshire village that self-quarantined during the Great Plague of 1665-6. Brooks read all the records, noticed one tiny reference to an unnamed servant, and wrote a whole book about her. All the events of the novel are seen through her eyes, and we understand what is happening in the way she understands it.

The book taught me two huge lessons.

One: the ‘big ticket item’ isn’t what your book is about. Like Jaws isn’t really about the shark.

Two: convincing your readers that you know your stuff is all about the detail.

The narrative of Year of Wonders isn’t primarily about the plague or the quarantine, it’s about Alys Gowdie’s complex relationship with her master, Eyam’s vicar, Michael Mompelion. But that relationship is played out against, and dictated by, the catastrophe that’s engulfing the village.

I took the same line when I wrote the first in my historical crime series, None So Blind. I’d wanted to write a novel about the Rebecca Riots for years because they happened in the area where I grew up, but it wasn’t until I read Year of Wonders that I realised that what I really needed to do was write a book about the people who took part in the riots. I needed to focus on them, their relationships, and what happened as a result of them getting caught up in the riots, not the riots themselves.

Brooks showed me that the way to immerse your readers in a historical narrative - to make them feel as if they’ve been transported to that other country we call the past – is to get the details right. I have no idea how much Brooks knew about the wider world of 1660s England when she wrote Year of Wonders. But, because of the telling details she uses, she gives us what appears to be a completely authentic seventeenth-century Derbyshire.

And that’s what I’ve tried to do with my Teifi Valley Coroner novels. If you understand the minutiae of people’s daily lives, you’ll understand the way their minds work. It’s not about who was prime minister or who we were at war with at the time (we seem, perpetually, to have been at war with somebody). It’s about what people ate, where they went to the toilet, how they kept their clothes clean, what they believed, how men and women related to each other, how they tried to keep themselves alive in an age without surgery or antibiotics or an understanding of how microbes work.

Oh, and how easy or otherwise it was to get away with murder. That’s a pretty key point for a historical crime novelist.

The other book is a contemporary crime book that has something in common with Year of Wonders in that it’s not really about the crime. It’s about the people.

Midwinter of the Spirit (Merrily Watkins Mysteries): Rickman, Phil: 9780857890108: Books

Phil Rickman’s Midwinter of the Spirit is the second in his Merrily Watkins series, though it’s sometimes considered to be the first, because the book that precedes it – Wine of Angels – was meant to be a standalone. Click here to link to the book on amazon

But readers loved Rickman’s main protagonist and that standalone spawned a series which now numbers more than a dozen. In Midwinter of the Spirit, Church of England vicar Merrily Watkins - Rickman’s central series character – becomes the diocesan exorcist for the Herefordshire Diocese and gets dragged into a highly unusual murder investigation.

The thing I learned from Midwinter of the Spirit – or, more accurately from the series that followed it – is that if you’re going to write a series, you’d do well to develop an ensemble cast. People the reader is going to care about and want to spend time with again and again. Plots come and go but characters endure, and it’s the characters that pull people back each time. Ask any successful crime series writer.

But Phil Rickman’s books are more than usually character-based. I probably couldn’t outline the plot of any of them, but I can tell you in detail about the series’ through-line which develops the characters and their relationships.

So there you go. The novels that have had the most profound effect on me are the ones that taught me how to write historical crime. And why not? What more effect could a book have than to change the way you make your living?

(Thanks for having me on Criminal Minds. If you’d like to know more about me or my books, please see my website: or follow me on Twitter Instagram or Facebook.)



Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Alis. A very interesting post.

Susan C Shea said...

Welcome Alis and thank you for the two books - new to me - that I now must read (in addition to your new one, of course). They sound delicious and the lessons you took away from them are so valuable for us as writers. Great to have your voice on Minds today.

Cathy Ace said...

Welcome, Alis! An insightful and interesting post - which is just what your books are, too! Best of luck with the publication of number 4

Brenda Chapman said...

Some good insight into your creative process, Alis. You make me want to write a historical murder!

Terry said...

What a treat to read your take on historical fiction. I've been itching to write one for years, but freeze at the idea of making some stupid mistake that brings on a flurry of angry mail.

But you give me heart, realizing that in fact it's about relationships, which are timeless.

Good luck on your fourth book. I look forward to reading, beginning at the beginning.