Mari Hannah. Succeeding in her life of crime.
If you are a writer who has tried for many years to get their book published and in the process reworked your writing more times than you care to mention, then take heart. When Mari Hannah’s persistence finally paid off, DCI Kate Daniels was not only alive and well, but very much a key part of a growing number bestselling crime novels.
Your knowledge of police procedure is extensive. Although this is helpful in terms of accuracy, did it get in the way of the flow of being able to write the story?
Not at all. Living with a detective for as long as I have, police procedure is so ingrained in me that I couldn’t imagine writing crime fiction without making references to it. When I wrote my debut, The Murder Wall, I put a lot in. I’ve since pared that back as I have a tendency to overdo it on occasions, especially in first drafts. Fortunately, I have an eagle-eyed agent who keeps me right if that happens and it is cut before it reaches my editor.
This is the type of helpful advice my agent might impart, lifted from his notes on a first draft: The set up itself is SO good! I just fear you’re over-explaining and overdetailing at the expense of action and pace.So, I have learned as I’ve gone along. The trick is to edit out or keep procedure to a minimum. It should almost be invisible.
You describe crime scenes very vividly. Is this to create an atmosphere that permeates the investigation for the duration of the story or more to do with the start of drip-feeding clues?
Both. In either case, I imagine myself looking over Kate Daniels’ shoulder as she arrives at a crime scene. That way, the reader (I hope) gets the feeling that they are actually standing there too, witnessing events unfold through her eyes, experiencing her first impressions. Not only what she sees, but also what she hears, the trauma she feels, the general mayhem in the first stages of a murder enquiry.
How do you work out what forensic and police procedures to include and what to leave out?
As I said above, less is more. The inclusion of any forensic/procedural detail is wholly determined by the storyline. I know from my mailbox that many crime fiction fans are fascinated by it, so long as it doesn’t detract in any way from the plot. It’s advisable to have your finger on the pulse of the world you are writing about, but no one wants extraneous detail where writers go overboard to show how clever they are. It ceases to be interesting and slows the pace.
Courtesy of programmes, like CSI and Silent Witness, readers have become much better informed on police and forensic procedures. As a crime writer how much do you think you can rely on this when mentioning a particular procedure and how much detail do you think you have to go into?
My research is done in-house with my partner, a police officer for many years. If it’s not police-related, I research and seek out experts to help me. For example, in Settled Blood, it was necessary to speak to a mineral expert about minute trace evidence found in the shoe of a murder victim in order to pinpoint where it might have come from.
You do work quite a bit with internal dialogue, particularly with your main character DCI Kate Daniels. How do you create a balance between needing to drive the plot forward and providing your characters with some depth?
I’ve been told that my greatest strength is dialogue, but it’s necessary to get inside Kate’s head on occasions, to know how her mind works, what makes her tick, how she sees the investigation moving forward, and to experience her thought processes. She’s a conflicted individual, hard on the outside and soft on the in, more often than not at odds with herself rather than those around her. She cares deeply for her team but she’s also the boss, a leader not a follower. Consequently, the murder investigation team are constantly looking to her for direction. That’s tough on her mentally. By going inside her head, we get to see the real Kate Daniels.
When you’re writing a book that is essentially plot driven, how do you decide how much backstory to write about the characters, bearing in mind some may only be reoccurring during the course of the story in the periphery or only seen once?
Backstory is always determined by the importance of the character. Before embarking on this series, I wrote The Murder Wall as a crime pilot for television. My BBC mentor suggested that I write biographies of the main characters ahead of writing the script. That was good advice as it nailed Kate’s character in my head, helped me understand her and how she’d act in any given situation. Just as well, as I threw everything at her in that story.
In addition to Kate, I wrote bios for her sidekick, DS Hank Gormley, and for their guv’nor, Superintendent Philip Bright who was a major figure in that book. As the series has progressed, other members of the murder investigation team (MIT) have taken centre stage. For example, DC Lisa Carmichael played a much bigger part in Settled Blood and so we got to know her better. Everyone loves Lisa.
This happens with civilians too. In Deadly Deceit I reused a character called Fiona Fielding who’d been introduced as a witness in Settled Blood. And in Monument to Murder, we saw much more of criminal profiler, Jo Soulsby. In KD5, Kate’s second in command, Hank Gormley, really comes into his own. So, as I’ve worked my way through the series, the backstory of others has come to the fore or faded into the background as the story dictates.
Would you describe the different methods you use to build a picture of a character in a reader’s mind?
It is building a character in my mind that’s important. They come from all over the place. I often start with a name. Names conjure up images in my head – although they can change at a later stage in the writing/editing process. If it’s not a name, it could be a photograph of someone in a newspaper, or someone I’ve known. Or even two people I still know rolled into one, heavily disguised of course. It could be someone I’ve seen on a beach, in a café, or at an airport. It’s not the physical description that interests me. It’s usually their behaviour, their body language and personality type that I’m after. If they appear real to me, they will to a reader.
Kate Daniels appears to be a very sympathetic character who seems to have a quality where people seem prepared to let her into their personal space and yet she doesn’t take any nonsense. Is it challenging to get the balance between her professional detachment and the fact that she seems to care so much about people?
I’m pleased you see Kate as sympathetic. A blogger once wrote that she didn’t warm to her initially but by the end of the book (I think it was The Murder Wall) she wanted Kate to be her best friend. As a debut author, that was so good to hear.
It’s not so difficult to get the balance right. In my former career as a Probation Officer, I met many police officers like Kate. And, as I said, I’ve lived with one. Some hard-nosed murder detectives are the nicest, most approachable and caring people, despite what they do for a living. They’ve dealt with some horrific incidents and it takes a special kind of person to cope with that.
Most crime novels have a protagonist with some angst. How do you think you’ve prevented cliché with regards to DCI Kate Daniels?
When I created Kate, I knew she had a special something that would set her apart from the stereotypical SIO. I’ve always been fascinated by divided loyalties. Consequently, I made her ambitious AND gave her baggage, a private life she’s fiercely protective of – something she fears may affect her ability to rise to the very top. It’s given me a lot of scope for character development further down the line.
What do you think a general description of a place, as characters pass or move through it, brings to a story?
A sense of place is important to me. It provides an extra dimension to the reading experience. I’m currently reading MR Hall’s novel, The Burning, getting a glimpse of the Wye Valley as Jenny Cooper investigates the case. This is fascinating as I’ve never been to that area. The writer draws it so clearly that I feel I know it well. The same could be said of David Mark and Hull, Peter James and Brighton. Now, through my writing, I have the privilege of sharing my own part of the world with new readers, both here and abroad.
But setting has other functions too. It’s so much more than geographical, or cementing a character in their surroundings. Crime novels can be grim and dark. Setting can be used, almost like a pause in the proceedings, allowing the reader to get their breath back, before moving on.
Do you have an overall story arc for your series of books, in terms of the way the characters are going to develop, or do you find that the act of writing does this, taking you in directions you did not expect?
My books are all about the investigation, so the priority is solving the crime. I have a general idea of the series arc but nothing cast in stone. I tend to know what the next couple of books might contain in terms of Kate’s character development, but that’s as far as it goes. I’ve already hinted that she’s is in a very bad place in the next book to be published, so maybe I’ll give her a break in the one after that, or maybe I’ll be mean to her all over again. Whatever I decide, her personal conflict is guaranteed to provide added drama.