Lynne Patrick talks with Mari Hannah
Mari Hannah was born in London, She now lives in a small Northumberland
village with her partner, a former murder detective.
Mari became a writer after her career as a Probation Officer was cut short following an assault on duty. She began using a computer because it was too painful to write with a pen. Ironically, the idea that she might one day become a writer then began to form in her head. She tried different forms of writing before settling on prose, and spent several years scriptwriting. She then turned her attention to the BBC, pitching a television serial based on characters in her then unfinished debut crime novel The Murder Wall. After completing the TV script, she went back to the book she had started years before but somehow never thought she’d finish.
What is it about certain locations that attract the attention of crime writers? ‘Tartan noir’ is rapidly becoming a sub-genre. London, of course, has the endless complications of the Met. And now the North East is proving fertile ground, and has produced its own intriguing crop of sleuths. Mari Hannah is one, and after four books in her award-winning series featuring maverick DCI Kate Daniels, she already has a substantial following. What is it about the North East, I asked her? The varied Northumberland landscape plays a large part in the novels, as do the less salubrious parts of towns in the North East. Does she spend a lot of time researching locations?
Mari: Yes, and it’s essential. Without it the books would lack authenticity. I once heard a writer talk about taking a stroogle (a stroll around Google) for research. But writing police procedurals requires knowledge of vehicular access, footfall, demographic detail and that type of thing. If a crime scene is discovered at night, I need to know how it feels in the dark and you can’t get that from the Internet.
Lynne: Likewise the police procedural aspects: it must help to have a former murder detective on tap, as it were, but how do you go about keeping your knowledge up to date?
Mari: I meet regularly with serving and retired police officers but I like to concentrate on how Kate’s detective mind works, rather than scientific and technological developments or how police procedure has changed over the years. Yes, it’s worth knowing that Scenes Of Crime Officers have become Crime Scene Investigators in her stamping ground, but it’s more important, and more interesting to readers, that I explore how detectives operate, how to ask the right questions, which people to ask, how they go about their daily routines and the methods they employ to collect intelligence.
Lynne: Scriptwriting played a large part in your early writing career. How does that impact on writing prose fiction? Were there useful lessons to be learned from writing scripts which you feel have made you a better novelist?
Mari: It has had a huge influence on my novel writing. My debut was written for the screen as part of a BBC drama development scheme. When it wasn’t commissioned, I adapted it. The screenwriting process was simple: from idea to premise, short synopsis to treatment with the story beats in place before embarking on a project. That didn’t change when I switched to prose. Writing for the screen – big or small – makes you think visually. It cuts out all the extraneous stuff and keeps the pace up. Screenwriting teaches you to write good dialogue that is clipped and tight. Now my books are out there, people tell me it’s not hard to imagine them on screen. That’s good to know as Sprout Pictures – a company owned by Gina Carter and Stephen Fry – have just picked up the TV rights.
Lynne: Your work is firmly based in the 21st century, but there are quite a few successful authors of
historical crime. Have you ever considered taking a trip into history? Or in any direction which doesn’t involve Kate Daniels and her supporting cast?
Mari: There are certain periods in recent history that I believe are underrepresented in crime fiction. I may well have a go in the future but at the moment I have my work cut out writing contemporary fiction with Kate Daniels at its heart. However, I’m in possession of a letter that has always fascinated me. I’d love to build a book around it.
Lynne: They say writers are born, not made, but you set off down a quite different career path. What brought you to writing in general and fiction in particular? Was it always in your blood?
Mari: Not really, although I used to amuse myself writing as a child. There must have been something in the
water in the eighties and nineties because there was a big explosion of new and exciting crime writers. Someone gave me Michael Connelly’s debut The Black Echo shortly after it was published. I loved it and was hooked. That sent me off on a hunt for other crime writers: Ian Rankin, Patricia Cornwell, Val McDermid. So I was a reader first. When an assault on duty ended my career in the Probation Service, I began to amuse myself making stuff up. I caught the bug. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Lynne: You’ve won several awards for your novels, and places on the BBC’s drama development schemes aren’t easy to achieve. How does that kind of success compare with simply selling lots and lots of books?
Mari: Most writers don’t earn a living wage. So if I was doing it for the money I might try something else. Every writer wants to be widely read, of course, but when you get an award it is validation for all your hard work. That really matters to me.
Lynne: At least two novels a year is a substantial work rate by any standards. Many aspiring writers would want to know how you fit it all in.
Mari: I don’t write two novels a year. The truth is, I’d written the first three in the Kate Daniels series before I found a publisher. When Pan Macmillan offered me a three-book deal they decided to bring out a book every six months. The strategy worked. I’ve built up a following quickly and my readers haven’t had to wait long to get their hands on the next instalment.
Lynne: Your first novel was a long time coming – it spent a lot of time side-lined while you did other things. How did it feel to hold the advance copy in your hands?
Mari: The Murder Wall is the only book of mine that’s had a proof copy. That makes it very special. I pick it up occasionally to remind myself of the years I spent waiting for this wonderful thing to happen. It felt amazing holding it for the first time. Dream come true may be a cliché but it describes my feelings exactly. Although I’d been writing for many years I could finally call myself a professional writer.
Lynne: Do you have a regular writing routine? Take us through a typical day while you’re in mid-novel.
Mari: I’m actually mid-novel now and doing nothing to progress it. With Killing for Keeps just out I’ve had to stop writing to promote it with the signings, radio interviews and appearances. I’m also taking part in the Northern Writers’ Awards/Channel 4 Roadshow. I was lucky enough to win an award in 2010 and this is my way of giving something back. In January and February I’ll be going into hibernation to finish my work in progress and meet a looming deadline. A typical day means I sit at my desk and write. If I’m on a roll, I don’t take enough breaks and end up with an aching neck.
Lynne: How does a new book start in your mind? Do you know whodunit before you start writing? Or do you plunge in and wait to see how things pan out?
Mari: I’m a planner. I could never write blind as some authors do. As I said above, I write a synopsis with all the story beats and I know the ending before I begin. Ideas come from everywhere: things I see, conversations I overhear and items in the newspapers or on TV. Writers are magpies, aren’t they? I also have an ideas box so big it will last until they carry me out in mine.
Lynne: It can’t be easy to keep a series fresh and new. What steps do you take to ensure each Kate Daniels book is different from the others?
Mari: The geographical area Kate works in is vast and contrasting. Northumbria is one of the largest police
forces in the country. I set books in the wilderness, in the inner city, or a combination of the two. These locations give the novels a different feel. I also play around with the kind of book I write. Sometimes I feature one case, sometimes multiples incidents merging together. The majority of my readers seem to like that. I wouldn’t be
doing them justice if I wrote the same book over and over. I also have to keep an eye on the story arc of my
characters, how they are changing and shifting through the series.
Lynne: Who do you think is your typical reader?
Mari: I don’t believe there is such a thing. I haven’t noticed one group in particular emerging. What I do know is they appreciate the time I spend with them face-to-face at events or virtually on social media. Readers put me on the Dagger in the Library longlist this year. Librarians and previous winners voted me on to the shortlist. These are all people who know their crime fiction and I’m grateful to every one of them.
The fifth and latest in the Kate Daniels series is Killing for Keeps. The series begins with The Murder Wall, and continues with Settled Blood, Deadly Deceit and Monument to Murder.
Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.