Today we’re talking to Alis Hawkins, writer of the Teifi Coroner series (historical crime) and founder of Crime Cymru
What motivates you to write?
Writing is a compulsion for me – a need. Popular wisdom tells us that we shouldn’t identify ourselves by what we do but who we are – but a writer is who and what I am. If I don’t write for a week or two I’m itching to get back to it, which makes the periods of research necessary for historical books a bit of a trial on occasion.
Which do you like to write, series or standalones? If you write both, what do you find the difference?
Both have their merits but I seem to have had most success writing series and there is a huge amount of pleasure – for me at least – in returning to characters who I know and the world in which I’ve placed them. It’s exciting to be able to move the relationships between my characters forward from book to book and to watch them develop. The two main protagonists in my Teifi Valley Coroner historical crime series, John Davies and Harry Probert-Lloyd are both very young men – 19 and 26 respectively – and still getting to grips with their place in the world which makes following them from book to book very appealing, and sometimes surprising. For instance, in the most recent book in the series (due to be published later this year) I sent John off to 1851’s Great Exhibition in London and was quite surprised by his reaction to the whole thing!
But there are obviously difficulties in writing series too. At a basic level you have to remember what you’ve said in previous books – everything from biographical details like birthdays to the main plot events and how your characters reacted – but there are also issues which relate to the reader’s experience. For instance, most people don’t read series chronologically because, for stocking reasons, most bookshops will only have the most recent book in a series on sale at any one time. So if somebody’s coming to your series with book three or four, you have to give them enough detail to understand the characters’ backstory without annoying readers who have been with you from the beginning. That’s a particular issue for me because Harry Probert-Lloyd has a form of partial sight called macular degeneration which means that he’s not completely blind but doesn’t see detail, and that has to be explained in each book. I aim to get around the need not to annoy loyal readers by trying to show different examples of the impact of his condition on Harry in each book.
Is there anything you wouldn’t write about?
I don’t think there are any topics which I would absolutely refuse ever to refer to but there are things I will never write about in graphic detail – for instance sexual crimes against children. Often, if something like that comes up in a book, I find it’s enough to allude to things and the reader’s imagination fills in the rest.
Who is your favourite of your characters, why and in which books do they appear?
I’m going to have to cheat here and name both my central characters from the Teifi Valley Coroner books – John Davies and Harry Probert-Lloyd – because they’re an indivisible pair. When we first meet them, Harry is heir to the Glanteifi estate and John is a solicitor’s clerk but, despite their different social status, they’re so much more than the investigator and his sidekick. John and Harry are equal partners in the business of investigating sudden death and both tell the story in each book in alternating chapters. That way, the reader always knows what both of them know but John and Harry often aren’t aware of what the other is thinking which can make for interesting conflicts.
Who is your least favourite of your characters, why and in which books do they appear?
It depends on what you mean by least favourite because awful characters can be really fun to write. Hob Cleeve in my Black Death-set novel The Black And The White is cunning, manipulative and ambitious – not somebody I’d want to spend much time with in real life but fabulously fun to write!
Tell us about your last book…
My most recently published book is Those Who Know. The third in the Teifi Valley Coroner series, Those Who Know sees Harry dabbling unwillingly in politics as he stands for election as Coroner for the Teifi Valley (In the first book None So Blind, Harry was investigating a murder as a private citizen, in the second, In Two Minds, he was asked to stand in as corner due to the illness of the incumbent.) now he’s been acting as stand-in due to illness). To his surprise, Harry finds himself with Liberal party backing but it’s not just the Tories’ candidate for coroner that he’s fighting against, it’s also the magistrates and the police force who would rather that their coroner were slightly less thorough – and expensive.
And party support doesn’t come without its downside. Jonas Minnever, Harry’s election agent, wants him out pressing the flesh and wooing the electorate, so when a sudden death is brought to his attention on the campaign trail, Harry finds himself in a bind. Does he give all his attention to the inquest as his conscience and his inclinations tell him he should? Or does he take Minnever’s advice, leave things to John, and confine himself to electioneering?
A middle-way compromise proves equally damaging to both causes and Harry finds himself going into the inquest on Schoolteacher Rowland’s death disastrously badly prepared. The inquest runs out of his control and the outcome threatens to see an innocent man hanged.
In the final week of campaigning, as Harry tries to find a way of re-opening the inquest, his Tory rival suddenly disappears, and new evidence comes to light which takes John off to London to investigate. What he discovers leads to an explosive election day and yet more pressure on Harry to act.
In a morally complex case where, it seems, nobody is truly innocent, Harry struggles to find the most just outcome.
What’s coming next…
I’ve just finished book 4 in the Teifi Valley Coroner series (working title is Not One Of Us). It’s scheduled for publication in September this year but after the events of 2020, we all know that publishing schedules can be a bit mutable!
Anything else you want to share?
Last year I was enormously thrilled when In Two Minds, the second of the Teifi Valley Coroner series was shortlisted for the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger award. Slightly less thrilling was the online ceremony which replaced the usual gala awards dinner!
Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in West Wales where she learned Welsh from the other kids in her primary school playground. After a very enjoyable seven years at the local comprehensive she was whisked off to the ivory towers of Oxford University 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. Since the early nineties, she has been working with autistic children and their families, bringing up her two sons and writing historical and crime fiction. Find out more at www.AlisHawkins.co.uk
Thanks Alis, always lovely to hear from you. Looking forward to seeing more of Harry and John.
Tomorrow we’re joined by Jackie Baldwin