Hannah Dennison is the author of the Vicky Hill mystery series. Like Vicky, Hannah was an obituary writer for a small English newspaper before crossing the pond to try her hand at screenwriting. Fortunately for us, she switched to long-form narrative and a mystery writer was born!
Now that your third book is in print, does the writing process come easier to you, or is it more difficult to keep a series fresh?
I love this question. It couldn’t be more timely! For me, it is just as hard meeting a deadline with my fourth book—due mid March—as it was my first. If anything, the pressure is worse because I want the book to be better than the last one! Keeping the series fresh is always a challenge but having a “season long mystery” (to borrow a TV phrase) is a useful. Vicky’s ongoing story arc is how to deal with her criminal parents who are increasingly encroaching on her life. Having Vicky gradually mature as a young woman also helps. She starts off being somewhat “naive” in the romantic department but as time moves on, Vicky starts to grow up.
Your books each revolve around an eccentric English event—snail racing and hedge jumping to name two. Were these sports popular when you lived in England, or have you had to dig to find these gems?
I came across hedge jumping completely by accident. I overheard a conversation in a restaurant between a couple that was fighting over “Charlie’s ridiculous hobby.” Eavesdropping – which is what we writers do best—I learned that Charlie had an obsession for jumping over hedges. His enthusiasm was so great that weekends were spent scouring the English countryside for suitable specimens—a neat, box privet, a comfortable, springy laurel or the deadly blackthorn for Charlie to leap over. My editor liked the idea so much, I thought, well, I’m English (and eccentric by default) so I wondered what other sports American readers would not know about. Once I started digging, I was stunned by the unusual sports my fellow countrymen enjoyed—hedge cutting, Naked Farmer competitions, worm charming, bog snorkeling, flaming Tar Barrel racing and Morris dancing. The list is endless. These plot backdrops inadvertently provide my series with a “hook.” A sort of … good grief, let’s see what she’s writing about this time.
Each book adds new depth to your protagonist, Vicky Hill, as she learns about betrayal and disappointment. How do you keep developing her character and yet retain the naivety and optimism that makes Vicky so loveable?
I’m happy you feel she is developing. Walking that fine line between naivety and being TSTL – (too stupid to live) is a constant challenge for me. But like everyone, Vicky has to grow up at some point. I hint at the battles she faces ahead on dealing with her father’s criminal activities but most of all, each book does bring her nearer to the Great Seduction scene that I am very excited about writing. I’ve even thought about conducting a reader survey to see who that lucky man might be!
Gipping-on-Plym is the village where Vicky currently resides. A product of your imagination or based on someplace you know?
I lived and worked in the real town of Tiverton as an obit writer for the Tiverton Gazette—no surprises there—so yes, it is an amalgamation of Tiverton in East Devon and Totnes in South Devon (an area that has taken recycling to a new level). I have included a few places that do exist. How could I not set a scene at The Nobody Inn pub in Doddiscombleigh. They have a delicious menu for anyone who might find themselves in Devon.
I love how you bring forward minor characters from previous stories and spotlight them in later books. How do you determine which minor characters are worth expanding on?
To add to your earlier question, expanding some of the minor characters really helps keep the series fresh though I don’t know which ones will make the cut ahead of time. They tend to tell me. They also don’t do as they’re told. I have a loveable paramedic called Sexpot Steve who is infatuated with Vicky Hill and who I have tried to kill off in both Scoop! and Expose! … but he just won’t listen!
The “Cabot Cove Syndrome” says that if you have a small village and you keep killing the residents off or jailing them for murder, soon the village will be empty. On the other hand, you don’t want the new guy in town to be the killer or victim every time. How do you avoid this writing pitfall?
Yes. That’s a hard one. One thing I’ve learned about human nature is that everyone has some kind of skeleton in the closet. As my plots are character driven, it is immensely satisfying to exploit those skeletons. I’ve always given every one of my characters – major or minor – a secret. It can be as small as being an obsessive collector of vinyl records to someone who has an unreasonable dislike of hedge jumpers. Sometimes a newcomer can survive but simply act as a catalyst. I feel that making the familiar characters fascinating can at least help soften the inevitable.
Tell us what’s next for you.
My fourth book—THIEVES!—will be out January 2011. I will be submitting a proposal to my publisher, Berkley Prime Crime, for two more in the series. I’d love to see our Vicky through her first real romantic encounter especially as one of her greatest fears is dying an old maid, “pure and unsullied.” I am determined to do everything in my power to make sure that won’t happen!