Saturday 21 April 2018

Guest Interview With Katherine Stansfield
© Keith Morris
Today, I’m delighted to be chatting to novelist and poet, Katherine Stansfield. I first met Katherine when I attended her excellent crime writing workshop at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea. On the strength of that, I enrolled on her ten week ‘Writing Crime Fiction’ course at Cardiff University last Autumn. Her latest crime novel, ‘The Magpie Tree’, is the second in her Cornish Mysteries crime series. 

Katherine, welcome. Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your writing journey to date.
Bodmin Moor
Thanks so much for having me, Jan! So, a bit about me to start. I grew up in a very rural place: Bodmin Moor in north Cornwall. You could see our nearest neighbours across the fields, but only just. It was quite an extreme landscape in many ways – great open tracts of land on which animals grazed, no trees to speak of, huge outcrops of granite, abandoned mine and quarry workings. But it was also beautiful and a place of great freedom for me growing up. I spent a lot of time walking, exploring, being by myself, and reading. I was one of those children who read by torch under the duvet after being told to put the lights out. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to write my own stories and I’ve been scribbling for as long as I can remember. It wasn’t until I went to university, which also marked my leaving Cornwall, that I started writing seriously. After my undergraduate course I did an MA in writing, followed by a PhD, and then I went into university teaching while writing alongside. I’ve been living Wales since leaving Cornwall and it’s home for me now, but I can’t seem to stop writing about Cornwall. It’s become an obsession and the roots must be in my childhood experiences.

Perhaps, you’d like to tell us about your road to publication.
My PhD was in Creative Writing and as part of that work I wrote my first novel. I’d been focused on writing poems up to that point and, bar the odd short story, had never attempted any fiction. But I really wanted to write a novel – it’s such a huge challenge! So I had a go and the result was The Visitor – a historical novel set in a coastal village in Cornwall between 1880 and 1936. It’s about an elderly woman suffering from dementia who starts to believe she has the answers to a mystery in her youth: what happened to her lover Nicholas who disappeared in the aftermath of a riot? I was pleased with the book, though it was a steep learning curve to write it, and set about trying to find an agent, with no luck! I submitted to something like fifty-five over a year and didn’t get anywhere which was very demoralising, but the book did eventually find a home with Welsh indie press Parthian who published it in 2013.
I started writing a new book, a crime novel that eventually became Falling Creatures, and I was determined to get an agent. I’d published two books without one but those experiences had only shown me how necessary an agent was for trying to get anywhere with writing fiction. Not everyone feels that way and it’s important to make these kinds of decisions for yourself and your own work. For me it was the next step so once I had a solid draft of the novel I submitted it to one agent, someone I really wanted to work with. He said he liked my writing but the book needed a lot of edits. He gave me his ideas and said see what you think, and I loved them! So I got back to work and went through three more major re-writes over the course of a year, and at the end of that process the agent signed me. It was hard-going, I won’t lie, and very much an act of faith. But I believed in the book and I trusted the agent’s judgement so I kept going, and it worked out!
       I’d planned Falling Creatures as having the potential to be the first in a series, and it was pitched that way to publishers. I was thrilled when Allison & Busby signed me for the book plus the sequel as the series fits perfectly in their list: they publish lots of long-running historical crime series. The sequel became The Magpie Tree, which is just out.

Although 'The Visitor' is historical and set in Cornwall, it’s not a crime novel but a love story. What attracted you to change to the genre of crime writing?
Rather naively, I didn’t even realise I was writing a crime novel when I started Falling Creatures. I really should have done because it’s about a murder . . . But it was the story that attracted me rather than the genre. The case at the heart of the book is based on real events that took place near to where I grew up but way back in 1844: a young woman was found on the moor with her throat cut. It was only after I had a really dreadful 150k first draft with a pair of detectives who didn’t do any detecting that I thought, I should probably learn more about crime novels. Once I did, it was eye-opening, and my writing has changed quite a bit. The plotting expectations of crime fiction are quite demanding but it’s taught me a great deal about storytelling.

This is the second in the series. Can you tell us what was your inspiration for ‘The Magpie Tree’?
Clouties left for St. Nectan
When I was a teenager I came across the story of a pair of mysterious women who moved to a wooded valley near Boscastle. The time-frame is unknown – it’s one of those tales that’s been drifting around forever – and I’ve been haunted by it ever since reading it. Nothing is known about the women but strange and unsettling things start happening once they arrive, and they meet a sad end. The valley has long been associated with an early Christian saint, and I’ve been interested in beliefs involving these figures, their holy wells and ‘clouties’ (charms or offerings) left for them, for as long as I can remember. That definitely comes from growing up in Cornwall – there are holy wells everywhere! I’ve wanted to write about the women for years and when my detective duo Anna and Shilly got a second outing, I knew they’d be headed for the woods. The question of why the women were there was a good way into a new detective case. The setting is in north Cornwall again, where Falling Creatures takes place, and I’m enjoying bringing the stories and places of that part of the county to readers. Lots of people know about the south coast and the Poldark re-boot has made the mining heritage famous again, but people don’t know much about the north of Cornwall. It’s become my mission, through Anna and Shilly’s adventures, to tell everyone what an amazing place it is!

Can they stand alone or do they need to be read in sequence?
They’re standalone books in terms of the stories so you don’t need to have read Falling Creatures to enjoy and follow The Magpie Tree. If you’re looking for the background to Anna and Shilly’s relationship, it’s in Falling Creatures.

I’m fascinated by the character of Shilly and her working relationship with Anna. Is there a character in Cornish folk-lore on whom she is based?
I’m glad you’re a fan! Shilly has an unusual provenance. When I was researching the murder case that Falling Creatures explores, I read about a probable error in one of the witness transcripts. The owner of the farm where the murdered girl, Charlotte Dymond, lived and worked is recorded as having said there was a second girl working there at the same time, and that she sent her to fetch some washing after Charlotte had gone missing. But we know that Charlotte was the only women living at the farm then aside from the owner so it’s likely that whoever was transcribing the witness statement made a mistake. When I read the statement, for a heartbeat there was someone else working at the farm alongside Charlotte, someone who could mourn her, avenge her. And that someone became Shilly.

The setting of Victorian Cornwall with its legends is a very important feature of your novel. How much research did you do and how much did you know from having been brought up there?
Trethevy Woods
Both novels started life with something I already knew and had carried around with me for years. In the case of Falling Creatures it was a real murder, and for The Magpie Tree it was more of a legend without a basis in historical fact (to my knowledge). With The Magpie Tree I let the things I did know guide me to the things I found out. For instance, I knew St Nectan is the saint associated with the valley but I didn’t know much else about him. I read up on the stories about him and worked the things I learnt from those into the story of the mysterious women. I did lots of text-based research for the book but I’m also a great fan of old maps and getting out and about. I visited the wooded valley of Trethevy twice (both times in terrible weather!) but didn’t take any notes. I just walked and looked and things, touched the trees and smelt the air, and then trusted my brain would start the alchemical process that transforms those experiences into the world of the story.

The local dialect and vocabulary used by the characters appears to make them more authentic and takes us back in time. Because the book is set so long ago, where did you go to get help on this?
The way the characters speak is actually based on the way many people in Cornwall speak today so the voices of the characters are actually very modern in some ways. I don’t go in for trying to render the accent on the page – lots of errs and zurrs would be really tedious to read. I’m more interested in the actual words people use and that’s where the dialect comes in, and there’s a bit of Cornish in there too.

Are you a planner or a pantser? If the former, how did you set about planning the novel?
For each novel I’ve written since my first, I’ve always been a planner, and the plans keep getting longer. For the new novel I’m working on I’ve got a fifteen page plan which is really a scene-by-scene breakdown and even includes some lines of dialogue that have occurred to me in the planning stages. I can’t imagine starting a novel without a plan now, especially for crime fiction where the plot has to be so tight. When I’m on contract for a book there isn’t usually time to do huge amounts of re-writes if the plot goes wrong so I tend to front-load the work to try and guard against problems later. It doesn’t always work of course and what seems perfectly believable for a character to do in the abstract can make no sense at all once you actually get to the relevant scene. So I plan and then the plans change, but without having a plan I don’t think I’d have the confidence to start. Novels are so daunting.

On a more general note, do you have a particular writing routine when writing and where do you write?
I try to do 10k words a month and as long as I get that done then I can meet my deadlines. Sometimes I’ll do it in a couple of feverish days and other times it will take longer, with more gaps between stints. I’m constantly getting up from my laptop and wandering off but that seems to help with knotty plot problems so I’ve stopped fighting it. I tend to write at the kitchen table as I haven’t had enough space for a desk for the last few years. One place I absolutely can’t work is a cafĂ© – too much distraction.

Thank you so much, Katherine, for taking time to chat to me about your wonderful book. I wish you good luck with the sales of 'The Magpie Tree'. 

‘The Magpie Tree’ is published by Allison and Busby.
Links to the book on Amazon: 
Twitter: @K_Stansfield

My thoughts on 'The Magpie Tree': 5 stars *****
I loved this book. The second in a series of crime mysteries set in 1840s Cornwall, it has everything to keep the reader turning the pages - an intriguing mystery, fascinating characters, witchcraft, local myths and folk-lore. It gives us an insight into life in Victorian Cornwall. All this is set against an atmospheric Cornish landscape with all its contrasts so beautifully evoked in the author's prose. We are transported into the world of eerie dark shadows and unexplained happenings. As readers, we are right there accompanying the detective duo, Anna Drake and Shilly, as they investigate the crime, based on a real events in Cornish history. The multi-layered character of Shilly is particularly well-developed. She has an empathy with her surroundings and nature and is learning to trust her instincts and judgments. The story has so many twists and turns that the reader is gripped until the last page. An excellent read, highly recommended!

Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed learning more about Katherine and her writing. Have you written or read any novels based on real events? Have you given your novel a sense of place that impacts on the actions/mood of the characters? I'd love to read your comments. Thanks.

You may also follow me on @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.