Where does Hannah Dennison find creative respite?
What jobs has Hannah Dennison had that inspired cozy mystery series?
British-born, Hannah Dennison originally moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. She has been an obituary reporter, antique dealer, private jet flight attendant, and Hollywood story analyst. Hannah has served on numerous judging committees for Mystery Writers of America and teaches mystery writing workshops for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program now on Zoom. After twenty-five years living on the West Coast, Hannah returned to the UK where she shares her life with two high-spirited Hungarian Vizslas.
Hannah writes the Island Sisters Mysteries (Minotaur), the Honeychurch Hall Mysteries (Constable), and the Vicky Hill Mysteries (Constable).
Visit Hannah’s website www.hannahdennison.com to find out more about Hannah’s books and where to buy them. You can also sign up for her very rare newsletter on her website’s home page.
Her latest book, Danger at the Cove: An Island Sisters Mystery (The Island Sisters Book 2) is available now and releases August 17, 2021. Listeners can buy it here for US and here for UK.
Get to know Hannah - The Tart Words Baker's Dozen:
1. Plotter or Pantser? Combo? Combo - plot until the midpoint and then fly by my pants to the ending (which I know)
2. Tea or Coffee? Coffee - from my Keurig machine
3. Beer, Wine, or Cocktails? Pinot Noir (I'm very specific!)
4. Snacks: Sweet or Savory? I'm a chocoholic
5. Indie Published, Traditionally Published, or Hybrid? Traditionally published by Minotaur and Constable
6. Strict Writing Schedule: Yes or No Yes - every morning
7. Strictly Computer or Mix It Up? Computer now - my handwriting is illegible these days
8. Daily Goal: Yes or No Yes - between and 2 and 3 hours a day when not on deadline.
9. Formal Track Progress: Yes or no Yes - I keep charts!
10. Special Writing Spot? I can write anywhere - even in the departure lounge
11. Writer’s Block? No - if I am stuck it means I don't know my characters well enough
12. File of Ideas: Yes or No Yes. It's huge.
13. Favorite Author(s)? M.M. Kaye (rediscovered), Mary Stewart, Anthony Horowitz, Barbara Pym, Rhys Bowen, Kate Carlisle - I could keep going.
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Transcribed by Otter.ai; Lightly edited by Linda. Please forgive typos or grammar errors.
Episode 344 - Hannah Dennison
Welcome to Tart Words. I'm your host, Linda Hengerer. And I'm a writer, a reader, and a baker. I talk to writers about their latest book and what inspires them, chat with fellow author Suzanne Fox about what writers can learn from reading their favorite authors, and share fast and easy recipes for anyone looking for a sweet treat. Join me as I share Tart Bites, Tart Thoughts, and Tart Words.
Today on the Tart Words podcast, I'm speaking with Hannah Dennison. British-born, Hannah originally moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. She has been an obituary reporter, antique dealer, private jet flight attendant and Hollywood story analyst. Hannah has served on numerous judging committees for Mystery Writers of America and teaches mystery writing workshops for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program now on Zoom. After twenty-five years living on the West Coast, Hannah returned to the UK where she shares her life with two high-spirited Hungarian Vizslas.
Hannah writes the Island Sisters Mysteries (Minotaur), the Honeychurch Hall Mysteries (Constable), and the Vicky Hill Mysteries (Constable).
Visit Hannah’s website www.hannahdennison.com to find out more about Hannah’s books.
Upcoming releases in 2021 include Danger at the Cove, August 17, 2021, which is the second in the Island Sisters mysteries. She also had Death of a Diva at Honeychurch Hall come out in May 2021, which is the seventh in the Honeychurch Hall mysteries. Sign up for her very rare newsletter; the subscribe button is on the homepage of her website.
Hi, Hannah. Welcome to the podcast. I'm looking forward to talking with you today.
It's really lovely to be invited. Thank you very much.
You're quite welcome. Tell me about the book that's coming out.
I have a new book coming out on the 17th of August called Danger at the Cove. It's the second in my new series, the Island Sisters mysteries, and it's set on the Isles of Scilly for those people that perhaps don't know England, and if you might guess I'm actually British. This is a tiny set of islands on the southwest coast of Cornwall, anyone who's a Poldark fan might remember seeing that part of England. And there are about 28 miles as I say out of which you have to catch a ferry. It's quite remote. The series is set on a fictional Island there. And it's about two sisters who have inherited an Art Deco hotel. It's very much like a locked room mystery because it's very difficult to get to, you can only get there at low tide. So it's been a bit of a challenge to write I have to say, I wish I probably shouldn't have made it so remote I think.
Decisions that you make in the beginning that come back to haunt you in the end.
Absolutely. I should know that by now that it's sort of anything you do with the first book is going to play out throughout the whole series.
Right. Everything you said about that series though, makes me want to read it. I love Art Deco, I love sisters, I love locked rooms. And the Scilly Islands are S C I L L Y, correct? Not S I L L Y.
Exactly. And originally I'd hoped to call it the Scilly Sisters mysteries. But I was out-voted by my publisher. But of course it's based loosely on my sister and myself. As the characters have evolved, I've noticed that really, it's two sides of me, as opposed to my sister per se, apart from her very, very funny kind of one-off comments that are family jokes. You know how that is?
Yeah, I do. I have two sisters, and I write a series about three sisters who run a tea shop. So I think when you grow up with that dynamic…t's an interesting dynamic.
It’s an interesting dynamic. Are you an older sister, or in the middle, or what?
I'm the oldest of the three.
I'm the eldest sister too. Yeah. Exactly.
So we talked about your latest book, and that it's a part of a series. Where did the idea for your main character come from, aside from the fact that it's sort of loosely on you and your sister and loosely you also?
It's a good question because my sidekick in it is who I was imagining myself to be. Because when you're writing and the first person and you have a strong protagonist, it's so easy to make it about you, you know, because we all do that. It's like and you just automatically default don’t you, to being you have sort of thinly veiled version of you, my sidekick Margot, the sister is based on my experiences when I worked in the Hollywood film industry. So she's a film producer who's actually given up living in LA which is what I did too. So I then wanted somebody that will be completely a different character to the sidekick, who is going to be a much more grounded practical. I think if anything she’s like my daughter, actually, who's very sensible, nothing like me. And so Evie, Evie Mead is my protagonist. And she is definitely the absolute opposite of Margot. Evie is actually a widow, you know how it is in writing these mysteries, we, we seem to have to have widows or they've just been got divorced, or they've moved to a new town, you know, it's like the absolute trope of writing a Cozy Mystery. And so Evie has actually just lost her husband in the first book. She's quite young, she's in her late 30s, she is a photographer, she's sort of adjusting to a new life along with Margot, who's also starting a new chapter in her life. And that's how they come to the Scilly Isles, and they start this new hotel business there in this Art Deco hotel.
I think it's interesting that you raise the point about series generally starting with women in transition, they're either single or have just broken up or gotten divorced or have been widowed. And I think partly that's because you want to catch a character in that moment of transition. And if they're in a long term relationship, where's the point of entry?
Absolutely. Yeah, I agree. And also, it gives you so many places you can go with the character too, because there's lots of opportunities for future relationships, or how you are changing and evolving when you do start to reinvent yourself. I've always been very interested in reinvention, actually, and I've noticed that with my other two series I write, there is definitely a theme. And it's not that I've set out to write this theme, it just seems to be something that I find very interesting is how people, they you know, we're always everything is about change. But it's how people react to change that I find interesting, because I actually did move back from America following a divorce. The journey has been quite personal for me to try and reinvent myself after something like that happening and hopefully inspire as well that you know, you just get on with it really and pick yourself up and it has a much brighter future ahead. So that's part of the message I think in my books.
Yes, there is life, you will laugh again, even when bad things happen.
Exactly. So that has been a sort of theme I've noticed in my work.
I think writers tend to have certain themes that they like, and that they come back to time. And again, I do the same thing. You know, there are things that I'm interested in that I want to explore in different perspectives. But I think that's what makes part of a writer’s voice their voice is that if you come to this author, you know, you're going to get some of x, whatever x is.
Absolutely true. It's almost like a brand. And I feel that those sorts of themes are relatable to so many of us, because I think that's what makes it more appealing, stories that have those kinds of things to them.
I think so too. And you mentioned you write two other series, tell me a little bit about them.
My first series, there's five books in that one, is called the Vicky Hill mysteries. They are based on my experience when I was an obituary reporter working for a tiny newspaper in Devon, all I did was go to funerals, it was quite a long time ago, you had to have to stand at the church and take down the names of all the mourners. It's really old fashioned. I wrote a murder mystery series about that. And of course, I almost was able to get my character’s dream of discovering a dead body that was not in a box. It was actually a real investigation. And of course, she too, was reinventing herself because her parents were criminals. They were on the run. And so she was sort of like moving to a new town to get away from that. That's my first series. And then my second series is the Honeychurch Hall mysteries. And there are seven books in that at the moment. And that's about a mother and daughter who relocate from London to the West Country where I live. They again start again, her relationships over her mother's her father's died. And so her mother and her get to know each other again, obviously there's loads of bodies around but she's an antique dealer. Iris, her mother is a secretly she writes really steamy romance novels. So again, reinvention, both of them up cozies. So they’re light, Midsomer Murders type of thing.
I like writing cozies. I like the idea...they tend to be more familial. And I like the dynamics between family members, whether they are long-standing or when you're reinventing yourself, how does that play against the family dynamic when it's easy to fall back into the way you were with kids, you know, with siblings, you're together again, even though you're adults, the same sort of rivalries, and long-simmering tensions rise up.
That is so true because it's funny because I was away for 25 years I lived in the States. So when I moved back about, it's about three years ago now, my relationship with my own family was very not superficial, but more because I only came over maybe once or twice a year. And so my visits were like the event, everyone's on their best behavior. We just do, we absolutely fall back into those familiar roles. How I am around my mum, how I always whenever I go over to the – my mother who's 91, by the way – the first thing I do is head for the biscuit tin, the cookie tin, because that's what I used to do when I came home from school, you just remember all those things. And the other thing too, which I find so interesting about going back to families, is how our memories of what happened are so different. That's something I have with my sisters. Like, I don't remember it being like that. And she said, but this is how it was. And so what you remember, sometimes has a totally different interpretation. And I found that kind of interesting to notice.
I think that's interesting, too. It's like you just revert back to the way you were because that's how you grew up. That's the groove that your mind automatically reverts to.
Exactly. It feels familiar and comfortable.
And comfortable is something that's interesting, too, because even if you didn't like it, you're used to it.
Exactly. It's an interesting thing being around family again, I have to say it's nice at the same time.
Do you see your family often?
I play canasta, a fast game of canasta every Sunday night with my mother and my sister and my daughter. Oh, that's so fun. Yeah, it's fun, actually. And my mom who's still driving, although she can hardly see over the steering wheel because she's so small. It's actually amazing for her age, I feel very lucky that I'm back here to be able to be part of her last years of her life, you know.
I think doing cards and things like that keeps you going or keeps your mind sharp. My grandmother played bridge for quite a long time. She used to play quite a lot. And at the end, she was still playing once a month. She died right before she turned 103. And she was still sharp as ever. And I think because she played cards for so long and continued to do so, both it gave her companionship and gave her a way to keep her mind sharp.
That is so true. My mom is very sharp. She also plays Mahjong as well. And I think twice a week she meets her friends and she's the youngest of her friends. And sometimes you pass her in the car and she's got like three other old elderly ladies in there. And you're thinking God, there's like 350 years worth of elderly ladies in that car – it’s quite something. Yeah, the experiences that they've had. Yeah, exactly. I love talking to older people that have lived so and it's such amazing lives, you know, it's it really is something.
Especially for your mom at her age, she went through the World Wars, she went through quite a lot of world history.
She lived through the Blitz, and she was evacuated during the war to begin with as well. And it's definitely shaped her, it shapes her who she is. And I that's something too, that I'm always interested in is how an environment of how where we were born shapes who we are as well, there are so many things that add to that.
And how each person reacts to the same circumstance, you know, like the Blitz happened to a large cohort of people and how different people were affected by it, how they coped with it, how they moved on from it.
Exactly. I'm absolutely fascinated by what makes people tick.
I think a lot of writers are that way. You know, we're curious about just that thing, like what makes people tick. And why does someone do this when someone else would never think of doing that in the same circumstance.
And I found too that all my friends now, I would say 99% are writers because I feel I found my tribe, you know, like kindred spirits. We all think the same way about things. And I know a couple of times I tried to I think I was trying to ask my sister and my daughter something about who would be a villain in there, you know, who would they like? And my sister said, I don't know why, who cares? And I'm thinking, Okay, and yeah, if I had a conversation with a writer, friend, we'd be going through all of them. You know, I'm very excited about it. Before I discovered this wonderful community of writers that I felt quite isolated and alone a little bit strange, like I never fitted in, and then suddenly, you find this incredible community. It's really amazing. And it's a bonus to with Zoom and, and online to be honest. I know COVID has been awful and I wouldn’t have wanted to be in a positive way. But it has allowed the world to open up more virtually hasn't it that we can all communicate more.
And I think getting back to your point about writers, your writer friends understand why you want to kill someone, why they have to die a certain way. How you can kill them creatively.
Exactly. It's funny, and it's – I get so excited about stuff like that. Anyway, I haven't been arrested yet. So I suppose that something?
Absolutely. Do you have a writing routine or schedule?
Yes, I do. Actually, I'm really strict as well. I get up very early and I write in the morning till about I don't know 10 or 11. I started doing remember Julia Morgansen's morning pages – no, Julia Cameron [Julia Cameron: The Artist’s Way]. So I years ago, that's how I got into the habit of writing early because I did my morning pages. And then over time, as I was doing them, and I reread them, I thought, oh my god, I sound like a broken record complaining about the same old thing. And then I moved into writing stories, I suppose that is my best time. And I find at night, it's I'm just too tired, actually, because I have a job as well.
Do you outline?
I have a weird, I’m like a combination, I outline the first half. And I'm really quite strict about it, because I know what certain things have to happen in the first third of the book for sure. So I definitely follow that. And then I have no idea what happens after I don't know page probably at page 80 or something. And then I know the ending. So that freefall in the middle of the book, or the plot droop, and the soggy middle and all those other things we call it as you know, it's the worst time for me, but it's just my process. And I accepted that now that that's how I do it.
And I think when you get into process, each writer has their own way that works for them. I tend to do a pretty broad outline from beginning to end. So for, let's say a 20,000 word novella, it might be four single-spaced pages. But one of the things I do with that, too, is make sure I've got my days straight and my actions occurring on the right day so that someone's not trying to find information from a government office on a Saturday or a Sunday when those offices are closed. Yes. But it often changes somewhat in the actual writing. So I'll keep like the broad strokes, but the fine details tend to shift as you're writing because as you're writing stuff comes out that you didn't think of or didn't consciously think of, but that really enrich the story.
Exactly. I had something like that happen with the Honeychurch book that I've just finished which that doesn't come out till the end of the year. In January, my editor had said, we're designing the cover – the book cover. So can you write a summary of what the story is about? Well, I wrote it, but I hadn't actually really started the book at that point. They use that for the book cover and stuff. But then as time went on, the story was completely different. And so I had to actually – I got the book cover and I thought, Oh, I need to put that in because it's on the cover now. I did say I can't guarantee that the story is going to be like that. Because just like you say, as we write and as we move along, things happen and the characters go in a different direction, and you just have to follow them.
You really do. Do you have a creative outlet that gives you respite from the writing?
I thought about that. And I know some of my friends are like artists or painters and things like that. And I think the only outlet I have is I have two dogs, I have Hungarian Viszlas, they take up a lot of my time. So I suppose being around nature is an outlet for me. Plus, I really enjoy movies. And I really watch a lot of television because I you know normally dark bit of like dramas and murder mysteries and stuff because I actually get a lot of oddly enough, it's like a filling the well, when I'm watching something, it's the way I fill the creative well, which I at one time I felt guilty, thinking I shouldn't be doing this. And then I realized that actually, I did need to do that. It was – that was my way of getting back into the zone.
When I watch TV or see a movie. I like thinking about how either I would do it differently or if I can figure out who the bad guy is or who the killer is or how they're going to get caught. So I look at it as research.
Yes, me too – that makes me feel a lot better actually. I do completely get into the story as well and sort of living it and I know that again, my family are sort of saying But why? It's like I am actually there. But I've always felt that way about anything I read as well. like going over The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe I'm actually Lucy going through the back of the wardrobe. I wish I'd known all those years ago that that was who I was as opposed to all these years later because I thought I is a bit weird always wanting to live in my imagination – better late than never.
And I think that's typical of writers. Also, we're making up stories in our heads, or we're writing them down, we're making things up out of whole cloth, or we’re taking something that happened and creating a different version of it. Writers are curious people by nature and that's what we like to do.
Exactly. That's so true. I definitely feel as well that my sister particularly she says, The thing that I have, she said, You have to watch is the fact that your imagination is becoming your reality more than living in reality.
I'm not sure that that's exactly true. But I think that's one way for non-writers to think about writers because I think writers do look at things a little bit differently.
Actually, yes, we do, always.
I think one way we look at things is how can we use this in my story?
Oh I know, it's very annoying, because I know that I've always got a notebook. I'm sure you do, too. And so I had to write that down. Let me just write that down.
And if I don't happen to have a notebook with me, which, you know, if we're out at an event or something, I'm reaching for a cocktail napkin.
Yes, me too. Me too. I have loads and loads of ideas I've put in a big document, I used to keep it all in paper files I had so much, I was very good. And I started scanning it into my computer so that I've got it all to hand now.
That's perfect. I think on that note, we'll end our discussion today. But I'd love to have you back on the podcast when you have another release towards the end of the year.
I would love that, Linda, thank you so much. You've been so easy to talk to. It's been really nice to chat.
Thank you for joining me this week. To view the complete show notes and the links mentioned in today's episode, visit tartwords.com/tart. Before you go, Follow or Subscribe for free to the podcast to receive new episodes when they're released. Follow now in the app you're using to listen to this podcast or sign up for email alerts through an easy signup form for Bakers, Readers, and/or Writers at tartwords.com/about. Thank you again for joining me, Linda Hengerer, for this episode of Tart Words.
British-born, Hannah originally moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. She has been an obituary reporter, antique dealer, private jet flight attendant and Hollywood story analyst. Hannah has served on numerous judging committees for Mystery Writers of America and teaches mystery writing workshops for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program now on Zoom. After twenty-five years living on the West Coast, Hannah returned to the UK where she shares her life with two high-spirited Hungarian Vizslas.
Hannah writes the Island Sisters Mysteries (Minotaur), the Honeychurch Hall Mysteries (Constable) and the Vicky Hill Mysteries (Constable).
Visit Hannah’s website www.hannahdennison.com to find out more about Hannah’s books. You can also sign up for her very rare newsletter on her website’s home page.