Hannah Dennison’s Honeychurch Hall mystery series set on a crumbling Devon estate has been described as Downton Abbey meets Midsomer Murders. It could just as readily be called Midsomer Murders meets The Antiques Roadshow.
Whatever TV show you liken it to, Honeychurch Hall is for those who enjoy story lines that incorporate secret chambers, hidden treasure, eccentric aristocrats and inevitably – murder.
You can listen on the link above or on iTunes or Stitcher.
Want to know how Steven Spielberg helped Hannah get her writing career started?
Keep Reading for full show notes of the entire conversation . .
Show Notes Summary
In this interview you’ll discover:
How Hannah became captivated by vanishing history as a child.
What part Steven Spielberg played in getting her writing.
Why “cosy” mysteries are so popular.
The mystery in her own life that could be a plot line for a book.
Her list of “Not To Be Missed” stately homes to visit. (You”ll find surprises.)
Her favourite binge reads and current recommendations.
Hannah can be found at at www.HannahDennison.com
And on Twitter https://twitter.com/HannahLDennison
For more detail, a full transcript follows: A “close as” rendering of our full conversation with links to key points.
And now to Hannah: Hello there Hannah and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
In your Honeychurch Hall series you bring a fresh vibe to the nostalgia around the disappearing world of stately homes.
Tell me, was there ONCE UPON A TIME moment when you as a young girl or young woman became aware of vanishing history?
Very much so. My sister and I we grew up amongst the shadow of the ruins of Old Basing House in Hampshire. Old Basing House was one of the last strongholds of the English Civil War in the 17th century. As kids we were allowed to play in the secret passage ways and climb up the turrets – of course you can’t do anything like that now – and that sparked my interest in old buildings and vanishing buildings which has stayed with me. And I’m a great supporter of the society for preservation of historic buildings and that sort of thing.
It comes through very strongly in your books and your heroine the former TV host Kat Stanford worked on a TV antiques show and she also has a crazy Barbara-Cartland like romance writer Mum. What is it that you like best about these key characters?
When you’re a writer you are part of every single character you write whether or not it’s a villain or a victim and Kat Stanford is based on my daughter is extremely sensible, very grounded, nothing like me.
And then the mother character – there has always been a part of me that wished that I was as wild and reckless as Iris who is the romance writer type. I’ve always wanted to write crazy things. Being a writer you are able to live out your fantasies in your different characters
Honeychurch Hall’s young heir Harold Rupert who is one day going to be the 16th Earl of Grenville has an obsession with the fictional World War I ace pilot Biggles. I wonder – where did he spring from?
Full disclosure here. I wanted a young boy who was a little bit quirky and originally he was going to be a Spiderman character. One of my daughters had a friend who was crazy about Spiderman and I don’t think I saw him out of a Spiderman costume. I never saw his face for about two years until he grew out of it. And then one day one of my friends, Clare Langley Hawthorne, who is also a writer – she writes historical mysteries and has twin boys – said to me you know you could do something like Biggles,
That is much more exciting and more fun, because her sons were completely into Biggles It was just a little different. As it turns out there are lots of books about Biggles and I really loved the flying aspect I’ve always been obsessed with planes and it was much more fun.
There was an article in the Daily Mail that showed that Biggles did exist I’m not sure his name was actually Biggles but it was very interesting.
Devon has featured in your other mystery series as well – the Vicky Hill mysteries about a bumbling young female reporter. What attracts you to Devon in particular, and sleepy village settings in general?
I moved to Devon when I was about 18. Devon is in the south west of England so if you are looking at a map it’s like a shoe that pokes out before you get to Cornwall which is next. For all those people watching Poldark right now, there’s quite a Cornwall thing going on. The south west is very different from the rest of the country and it tends to be fifty years behind the times.
I liked the slow pace of life but more than anything what really attracts me is the small communities where you set a mystery. Instead of a serial killer coming to a big city it’s a community where everyone everyone else… It’s more like solving a puzzle That’s always appealed to me – the under current of relationships in a small community Devon is completely perfect for that environment.
Agatha Christie had quite a connection with Devon, didn’t she, if we’re talking about puzzle mysteries.
Yes she certainly does. Actually her home Greenway is now open with the National Trust and my Mum who is 88 has been a docent there ever since it opened. I think part of the attraction has to do with the countryside, the beauty the coastline some of her books were set on. And Then There Were None was set on Burgh Island, a real island on the south Devon coast. (It’s called Soldier Island in the book)
The bad side of all this is that whenever I am stuck on a book My Mum says “Well Agatha would do this,” and “Agatha would do that” because she knows everything about Agatha Christie.
Have you read much of Agatha Christie yourself?
I have and she is just so amazing. Her autobiography for those who haven’t read it shows she had a tremendous sense of humor which doesn’t always come across in her books. She was a very amusing woman, and she had a very dry sense of humor. I can never figure them out till way down the line in the plot. She really is the Queen of Mystery
What do readers tell you they like most about the Honeychurch stories?
I think they like the setting which is often a character in itself the whole country house thing. Also the dynamic between mother and daughter because that is quite a special bond. The other thing is that often those people closest to us – we think we know them, but we often really don’t know them at all.
My mother only recently told me she belonged to a nudist colony – she waited till she was 88 to tell me that and I really can’t believe it – you know crazy stuff like that.
Your biography reveals you’ve done a lot of very interesting jobs, including working for a Formula One World Champion and script writing in Hollywood but there’s one encounter in particular I’d love to hear about. Can you tell us about the role Steven Spielberg played in getting you started as an author?
I’d love to. It was amazing because at the time he wasn’t as famous as he is now. At the time I was working as a flight attendant on the corporate jet that was being used for the locations scouting for the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade movie and I had the option of flying Prince Charles or Steven Spielberg. Harrison Ford was included in the Spielberg deal soof course I could not turn that down.
I spent a month with Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford, just them, like being on location with them and it was during the long flight home that we started to talk about my dreams. I was a single mother with a daughter and Steven asked me “Do you plan on doing this all your life?” I really loved flying, it was a real joy to me, but I did say “Well I’ve always wanted want to be a writer.”
He started to make me really think about because he said if that’s what you want you have to take a leap of faith and do it. There is this scene in Indiana Jones where his father is about to die and the only way he can get to him is across this huge chasm but there is no bridge.
There’s this iconic scene in the ‘Last Crusade’ movie where Indie takes a step over the cliff (to reach his father) and magically this bridge appears. Steven was such an inspiration to me, so I started looking and all sorts of odd things started to happen that got me to Los Angeles. Not many people know this but when Steven Spielberg decided to be a film director he just set up a caravan on the back lot of Universal Studios. He wasn’t really employed there and didn’t have permission, he just went ahead and did it. He had the gumption to go there and start operating. Of course you couldn’t do that today because of security.
But he told me “If you are really passionate and you really want to do something and you show the universe you want to do it, extraordinary things will start to happen.” And then about seven years later he won some Academy Awards for Schindler’s List and I wrote to him and said “I took your advice, and I am now working for New Line Cinema.” He replied saying “you took that leap of faith and I am just really happy that it worked out for you.”
I keep that letter in my wallet. It reminds me to never forget the passion that you felt that got you here. Sometimes it’s been hard being a writer but I take out my little letter and remember
That’s a fabulous story – a spine tingling kind of story and obviously your bridge did appear. Tell us a little bit of what you were doing in Hollywood.
It’s funny. Things often work out differently, they never work out how you expect, and I think it’s really important to be open. Its sometimes a different way to get where you want to be. How I got there was just random.
Someone asked me if I wanted to work on a reception desk answering the phone in a movie studio. I was on this loop of faith. I just have to get to LA so I said yes. But my Dad was going “Oh my god you are actually moving to America with your daughter to answer the phone! This is terrible! Once I got to LA , and of course that was more complicated than I have time to tell now, I was answering the phones for about two months and then I immediately got into international sales and marketing.
From that point I learnt everything I could about screen writing. I read hundreds and hundreds of scripts and everything worked out. That’s the wonderful thing about America, if you are willing to work hard you can get places but that leap was pretty scary. I don’t know I must have been crazy moving with my two little cats in a cat basket and my one way ticket with my daughter, who was ten. Her school in the US was quite different from her English school but it has done her well. ..
What mystery in your own life could be the plot for a book?
I worked for Robert Maxwell, the newspaper tycoon who vanished over the side of his boat. Did he just fall, or was he pushed, or was he murdered? We don’t really know. I did work for him for a few weeks while his usual flight attendant was on vacation. It was a very interesting time because the Soviet Union was still operating, the Wall had not come down, and we flew into Eastern Europe a lot.
There was a lot of political intrigue going on in the period before his death I was in the Soviet Union and in our hotel for example I was talking to another flight attendant and I said “I am so cold, I must get another blanket.” The next thing there was a knock on the door and a woman was standing there with a blanket. Our rooms were all bugged! It was a very interesting time.
Tempting topic for book?
I have a list of story ideas. I had quite a few adventures when I was flying and I have kept diaries or journals ever since I was 14 – so yes maybe one day I could do a collection of the adventures of…
If you were going to organise a literary mystery magical tour for your series, where would you Tripadvise people to go? Have you a must see list of stately homes?
The obvious place to start is Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey was filmed in New bury near London. Lady Carnarvon if you have any Downton Abbey fans, is the chatelaine of Highclere and she has this incredible blog at Lady Carnarvon.com
She really opens up her life, and about what it’s like running this enormous stately home. You can get married there
If you are interested in “upstairs downstairs” Petworth House has all these amazing servant’s quarters. They have a tunnel which goes under the house and they have two different dining rooms – just like in the movie Gosford Park. Two different servants’ dining halls, one for kitchen staff and one for butler and upper house parlour maids and so forth.
Agatha Christie’s home Greenway as we’ve already mentioned is now open to the public and run by the National Trust. It is a much smaller house but all about Agatha Christie.
I love Hever castle because this is where Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s wife very unfortunate wife, who lost her head, grew up. It’s an adorable castle with moat. It’s very small, it’s just like a fairytale castle.
The thing I like about these houses is you get a real sense of the people who created them. They are mainly lived in still, usually by a family member who might have a wing of the house. You get that sense at Hever for example that everything there is as it was when Anne Boleyn was there.
Setting is such an important part of series books often isn’t it?
When you get attached to a book you have a feeling you want to go there and walk around and imagine yourself there.. Is there anything else that draws people to series books?
You’re right setting is a big thing. But also they know what they are going to get when they open a series book. It’s almost like watching a soap opera in a way, and I feel it’s the appeal of a series.
I didn’t set out to write a series. My first book was a standalone and then I realised how much I loved writing series because you get really attached; you go off into their world Like the show Doc Martin set in Cornwall you feel you know all the characters there or Midsomer Murders the same thing – it has a great appeal to readers…
HANNAH AS READER.
Tell me do you now or have you ever binge read yourself?
Absolutely! I do find it harder when I am writing on a deadline because I can only read non fiction when I am writing fiction
One of my passions when I was younger was Dick Francis. I read every book he wrote when I was a teenager.
And the Diana Galbadon series
She wrote these huge 700 page books – you know them – The Outlander is on TV now. I know I wanted to be attached to these characters. It makes you very anti-social, you just want people to leave you alone.
Do have you a current series – or more than one – you’d like to recommend? And why do you like it?
I’m working on deadline so I don’t have much time for fiction right now, but I do enjoy Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness books. they deal with upper class 1920 Nancy Mitford type things. And for humor I like her Angela Raisin series. But if I am writing I read a lot of non fiction. I think it’s a way of switching off my mind.
Or sometimes read the classics like Jane Austen. She was amazingly amusing although we didn’t necessarily understand that when we were forced to read it at school.
In Honeychurch you convey such a strong sense of appreciation for things past. I’m wondering if we’ll ever see a series which reflects your varied life experience in a totally contemporary setting– say in the world of Formula One racing, or executive flying? Both could make for very interesting reading.
Right now I’ve got another new series that I’ve heard is going to happen, set on the Isles of Scilly, about two sisters who inherit an old Art Deco hotel. That will a be a cozy mystery with everybody knowing everybody else. The first of those will come out in 2019, and I am doing two stand alones. One of them is based on my flying experience and the other one is about a woman I met on a plane. She was Russian and had to get out during Perestroika. I would like to write more stand alones and write the mysteries in between because they are fun.
At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything?
I think things sometimes happens at the time they are supposed to happen even though we are impatient and want to push it, but I think they often fall into place when one is able to handle it.
There is one thing though, looking back over the last ten years. I would like to have written more books, because I write slowly. When I look ahead to see how many books I might write in my lifetime, I realise I have to get cracking.
Usually I only do one a year but I have friends who write two or three!
Book Four in the Honeychurch series – called Murderous Mayhem at Honeychurch Hall – was published in May. I’m writing a sixth Vicky Hill and a fifth Honeychurch Hall and then this new series and now I feel quite sick knowing how much I said I was going to write
You can find Hannah at www.HannahDennison.com and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HannahLDennison
Hannah also have a newsletter that she sends out when she’s got something to say (not every month so you don’t get bombarded) where she has contests, books, English tea, tea pots and all that sort of stuff. Sign up on her website.
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