Published by The Dome Press
Available in ebook and paperback (15 November 2018)
Welcome to my turn on the last day of the blog tour for None So Blind – the first in a new historical crime series from Alis Hawkins. My thanks to Emily of Dome Press for the tour invitation and to Alis for taking the time to answer my questions. My review is at the end of the post.
| About the Book |
West Wales, 1850.
When an old tree root is dug up, the remains of a young woman are found. Harry Probert-Lloyd, a young barrister forced home from London by encroaching blindness, has been dreading this discovery.
He knows exactly whose bones they are.
Working with his clerk, John Davies, Harry is determined to expose the guilty, but the investigation turns up more questions than answers.
The search for the truth will prove costly. Will Harry and John be the ones to pay the highest price?
Welcome to the blog Alis. Can you tell us a little of your background
Thanks so much for having me, Karen, and for hosting the last stop on None So Blind’s blog tour!
I’m of what you might call dual heritage. I know that’s usually applied to people whose parents are of different races but with a Welsh mum and an English dad, growing up in West Wales did feel as if I had two very different sets of ancestors – one from the mining areas of South Wales and one from Kent which knew nothing of Wales, its language or customs. I grew up speaking English at home and Welsh at my primary school which was great for me and my brother as we had a secret language we could speak when we didn’t want our parents to know what we were saying!
I then moved on from the local comprehensive, which was bilingual, to Corpus Christi College, Oxford which – as you might imagine – was a wee bit of a culture shock. I loved my time at Oxford and, though I read English language and literature, I studied a fair amount of linguistics and became fascinated by language change – something I’ve been watching in my home area for the last thirty-odd years as Welsh is changed by the close proximity (not to say dominance) of English.
My main protagonist, Harry, shares this bilingual heritage – his dad is an Englishman who marries a Welsh girl and Harry also leaves home for the big city. However, unlike me, he is forced back to West Wales as a young man when he goes progressively blind and is no longer able to practice as a barrister.
Until I started reading None so Blind, I had never heard of the Rebecca Riots. What inspired you to write the story – did the idea for the characters or the period come to you first or were you always going to write about this aspect of Welsh history?
I’ve been wanting to write about the Rebecca Riots for years because I think they are both fascinating and woefully unknown! They came right at the end of a very riotous century and a half where people who didn’t have the vote, and therefore found it difficult to make their voices heard, rioted about everything from monarchs marrying Catholics to theatre ticket prices going up (seriously!) But the Rebecca Riots were the longest lasting series of riots as they went on for months not days. They were also the most geographically widespread and involved hundreds, if not thousands of people in small bands all across south west Wales. And I’ve always thought that that was a story that was worth telling!
I’ve written more about the riots and my reasons for writing about them in two of the guest posts I’ve done for this blog tour. Readers can find the first one at www.BooksOfAllKinds.weebly.com dated Saturday 17th November and the other at www.hairpastafreckle72.blogspot.co.uk dated Sunday 18th November.
None So Blind is the first story in a historical crime series. What is about this genre that appeals to you as a writer, say, as opposed to writing modern crime fiction?
Though I love contemporary crime fiction and read a lot of it, I think you can do so much more with historical crime. For a start, you get to do lots of lovely research! In common with most of my fellow hist-fic authors, I love the research aspect of writing – not just the whats and wheres of what happened in the past but the different attitudes that prevailed in previous eras and where they came from.
I think one of the things I like most is discovering people who bucked the trend of their time. People tend to think of the past in stereotypes – the Tudors were like this, the Jacobeans thought that, the Regency period was all… You get the picture. But, imagine trying to sum up our own day and age – where would you begin? There are almost as many opinions and ways of doing things as there are people. It’s only in looking back that you can make generalisations. But I like to write historical fiction not from the point of view of now – I think that can be a bit like watching gorillas in a zoo, they look an awful lot like us in some ways but they’re also very different and definitely not us. I try to write my nineteenth century fiction as if I was there, feeling those things, seeing those things, as if it was bang up to date, as modern and cutting edge as you can imagine. Because, when you’re living in a particular period – as we are living in the second Elizabethan age now – you don’t have the sense of living in history. You’re just living. It’s all happening now. That’s what I’m trying to convey.
The other really great thing about setting crimes in a world that’s now more than a century and a half ago is that the attitude to crimes, then, was so very different to our attitude, now. We take having a police force for granted and tend to believe that every murder will be solved and the murderer brought to justice. But in the nineteenth century, the police, as a uniformed force, were only just beginning. Cardiganshire (now Ceredigion) got a police force in 1844 but Pembrokeshire lagged behind, not creating theirs until it became mandatory to do so in 1856. Even then, police officers didn’t do much investigating. They were really there to keep the peace and they tended to confine themselves to things like arresting vagrants and prostitutes, sorting out breaches of the peace and chasing up obvious crimes where the suspect was known to all. Investigating murders, unless there was an obvious culprit or suspect, just wasn’t part of their brief. Which means that it was a time in which people literally got away with murder. In None So Blind, Harry Probert-Lloyd takes it upon himself to try and find out who killed Margaret Jones – a young woman with whom he had been romantically entangled when he was a teenager – because nobody else saw it as their job to do so. And because he doesn’t have the necessary authority, he finds it quite hard to get people to talk to him.
Do you plan in detail or just write and see where the story takes you
What I tend to do is research in detail, so I know a lot about the background against which my story is taking place. You’d be amazed at how much of the plot can be suggested by what you find out when you’re doing your research.
Then I tend to just come up with a body and the place it’ll be found and let Harry and John have at it. They come up with much better actions than I could ever have planned and I get to find out about the characters with them, as they investigate.
If you’d like to read more about my non-planning technique, have a look at the guest post I wrote for www.ilovedreadingthis.wordpress.com dated 23rd November.
What is the best writing advice that you have received? And what advice would you give to anyone trying to get their novel published? Is there anything that you wished you had done differently?
Advising other writers is tricky as everybody has their own way of writing and you just have to find yours. Lots of how-to books will give you reams of advice which might very well have worked for the person who wrote the book but won’t necessarily work for anybody else. Those kinds of books tell you to plan in detail, for instance, and to write pen-portaits of your characters so that you know them in detail before you start. That doesn’t work for me – I have to get to know my characters as I go along, just as you would with somebody you’d met in real life.
But one piece of advice, given to a friend of mine by the editor we shared at Macmillan, was helpful. Think more and write less. I think that’s good advice as, sometimes, you can write yourself into trouble whereas if you just sit at the beginning of the scene and ask yourself what you want your characters, or the reader, to know at the end of it that they don’t know at the beginning, that can be very focusing.
As for doing things differently – I’d have worked a lot harder, when my first book came out in 2008, to promote it. I’m not making that mistake this time.
Is there any part of the writing process which you enjoy the most (or find the most difficult) – i.e. researching, writing, editing?
As you’ll have gathered from what I’ve already said, I love the research aspects of writing a book but, while I’m researching I do get itchy about starting to write and I’ll sketch out ideas. Most of these never make it to the book but some take root and become the germ of something. Others might spark off another, completely different angle. I always have to write these things down because that’s how I think best – with a pencil in my hand, or in front of a keyboard.
Writing the first draft of a book is hard work. [I know, poor me, right? What a first world problem to have, the hard work of making things up!] So, though there are (very occasional) days when your characters just make it all up for you and scenes just write themselves, on the whole this tends to be the most difficult part of the writing process. Some speedy, efficient and focused writers get this done in a matter of weeks or a small number of months but I’ve never written a book in less than a year. In my own defence, my books tend to be longer than the average – 135,000 words compared to 80-90,000 – and I do need to fact-check my history as I go, but still.
But, once the first draft is complete, the fun starts. I love the process of getting the whole thing to work as well as I can. And, by that, I mean everything from the level of single words and similes right up to the overall structure of the book. Stephen King famously said that you write the first draft of your book to find out what it’s about and I agree. And it’s only once you really know what it’s about – both plot and underlying theme – that you can make it work properly.
I spend months making sure all the scenes are in the right order, that they all earn their place, rewriting and rewriting, sometimes writing new scenes or cutting scenes completely. I’ve never yet cut a whole character (unless they only appeared in one scene) but I do sometimes do quite drastic things. I once binned the first 30 000 words of a novel and started again from scratch. And I’ve had to go through a whole novel of 130 000 words, changing the viewpoint from third to first person. That was surprisingly difficult and it made me realise that even close third person where you get to describe a character’s mental state from inside, is very different from a first person narrative.
There’s a phrase that writers bandy about that says we must ‘kill our darlings’ (Attributed to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch as ‘murder your darlings’.) This means that you have to sacrifice some of your favourite characters or scenes because you’ve been self-indulgent and, though the said character/scene may be beautifully written, it doesn’t earn its place in your novel. That’s the hardest bit of rewriting. But I find it gets easier as you write more books because, in the end, the finished book needs to be your darling, not particularly cherished bits.
Are there any authors whose books have made an impact on you? What type of book do you enjoy reading for pleasure, and what are you reading now?
I’ve always read a lot of crime books and, that way, I’ve come to understand the conventions of the genre. But, as much as that has influenced me, I’ve also been impacted by writers in other genres. Joanna Trollope is a wonderful exponent of dialogue and uses key, telling details to imply a whole range of things. Geraldine Brooks writes historical novels as if she’d been there, with language appropriate to each of the different eras in which she sets her novels. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a masterclass in how to sustain a narrative arc over many books but to have sufficient resolution in each individual book to satisfy the reader. Sue Gee immerses her reader in the lives of her characters so deeply that you feel you know them and mourn their loss when the book is finished. Jane Austen proves that sly linguistic humour does not detract from the seriousness of her social investigations. Phil Rickman develops his engaging characters and lets you in to their relationships alongside the solving of crimes. I could go on and on – I feel I learn something with every book I read, even if it’s only ‘I’m never making that mistake’!
At the moment I’m reading Jean Levy’s What Was Lost. It’s about a woman with a very strange case of amnesia and I’m utterly hooked on finding out what really happened to her!
Finally, if you could only keep 5 books on your bookshelf, which ones would it be and very briefly, why?
Oh my goodness, this is like Desert Island Discs! 5 books… yikes.
OK, just as long as you understand that, in a year’s time my 5 would probably be totally different, here’s a stab.
JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – the whole messianic purpose of the series finally comes to a very fitting climax. And Dumbledore’s words to Harry –‘Oh you brave boy, you brave, brave man,’ always make me cry.
Sue Gee’s The Last Guests of the Season – you are there, in the South of France, in the heat both physical and emotional. I was up till 3am finishing that book.
Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition – a wonderful evocation of both the artistic temperament and what a failure to understand each other and our motives can do to a family.
Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders – a masterpiece of historical writing as she tells the fascinating and compelling story of Eyam, the Derbyshire village that quarantined itself from the plague in 1666.
Phil Rickman’s Wine of Angels – the first of his Merrily Watkins series, in which we are introduced to vicar and future diocesan exorcist, Merrily, and her daughter, Jane. Not to mention a cast of other characters who come with the reader from book to book. I love his ensemble casts and his supernatural-tinged crime investigations.
Thanks so much for having me in the Reading Corner, Karen. It’s been such a pleasure!
Thank you Alis!
| My Thoughts |
“Perhaps blindness is a just punishment for I did not see what I was doing. As they say, there’s none so blind as those that will not see”.
I’ve always had a love of historical fiction and crime but have not read much of the two genres combined. Until that is, I came to None So Blind. This is the first story in a series of the Teifi Coroner and gets off to a promising start.
It seems unusual to have a barrister investigating a suspicious death but in the 1850’s, crime investigation was so very different to now. No forensics or DNA analysis. There was not even a proper police force in every area.
Harry Probert-Lloyd comes from a privileged background and is the heir to the Glanteifi estate. He has always had a strained relationship with his father, a landowner and magistrate, and had previously been sent away in disgrace. His legal career in London is being cut short because of his increasing blindness (a fact which he tries at first to keep secret); he has very little remaining by way of sight and as a result he is forced to return home to the estate. When told that the remains of a young woman have been found Harry is devastated. He has a very good idea who the remains belong to and the question mark over the death eats away at him.
Following a hastily convened coroner’s hearing to determine the manner of death, Harry is asked to investigate further. Enlisting the assistance of a solicitor’s clerk, John Davies, to be his eyes, he sets out to discover why the woman died and how.
Alis Hawkins has written a complex and detailed story which covers a good deal of ground but which flows easily, bringing to life the characters and landscape and in particular the background to the ‘Rebecca Riots’. This campaign of civil disobedience came about when a group of farmers took action against the tollgates that were introduced and, feeling that their concerns were being ignored by the authorities, began to dispense justice of their own. But as can happen, people get carried away and something which was introduced for perhaps justifiable reasons, turns bad. As Harry and John are to discover, people’s prejudices and fears are not easily forgotten and the spirit of Rebecca lives on. With certain people so determined to keep their secrets hidden, there was an unsettling undercurrent throughout.
Harry in particular, was an engaging character, and unusual of his class. Although he was a squire’s son, he had always felt comfortable around servants and had treated them almost as equals – often blurring the lines, something his father could never understand. Chapters are narrated from the perspectives of Harry and John. The partnership between the two worked very well with John learning to anticipate when Harry needed some extra help, however it is clear that both of them are hiding things from each other – whose secrets will be found out first?
This isn’t a quick read (my paperback copy was over 460 pages) but it is an engrossing one, written in a very readable style and it never felt like a history lesson. There are lots of Welsh terms used throughout however there is a very useful glossary at the beginning of the book explaining these – and a map – I always love a map! There were occasions when I felt that the story was overcome by perhaps a little too much detail but that is a purely personal view. Having said that, I did enjoy it very much. I would like to follow Harry on his further adventures and look forward to reading the next book in the series.
| About the Author |
Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire. She left to read English at Oxford and has done various things with her life, including bringing up two amazing sons, selling burgers, working with homeless people and helping families to understand their autistic children. And writing, always. Radio plays (unloved by anybody but her), nonfiction (autism related), plays (commissioned by heritage projects) and of course, novels. Her current historical crime series featuring blind investigator Harry Probert-Lloyd and his chippy assistant John Davies, is set in her childhood home, the Teifi Valley. As a side effect, instead of making research trips to sunny climes, like some of her writer friends, she just drives up the M4 to see her folks. Alis speaks Welsh, collects rucksacks and can’t resist an interesting fact.