We love writers here, and like nothing better than to find out about how they go about their writing business. Penny Hancock’s new book The Darkening Hour is a tense and topical tale of slavery in contemporary London. It’s the follow-up to her debut novel, Tideline, an equally sinister tale of abduction, and a Richard & Judy Bookclub pick.
Tell us about The Darkening Hour – where did the idea come from?
A news story about a doctor who kept another woman slave in her London home. I was baffled as to how one (highly educated) woman could abuse another in this day and age, and wanted to explore the dynamics between the women. I wondered how far one woman go to maintain control over the other, (and what her motivation would be) and how far the oppressed would go to survive? I realized I had the ingredients for a thriller.
What’s the secret of a gripping psychological thriller?
For me the interest is in watching someone I can relate to go down an unwise path, due to some personality flaw or obsession. It has to have that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ feel to it.
What’s your writing process? What comes first – plot or character?
Character is enormously important to me although I find it often takes a whole first draft of a novel before I really feel I know them. It’s like getting to know a real person, until you’ve seen them in a variety of situations you don’t know what they are really capable of. I am not someone who can plot out a whole novel in advance, I have a premise, characters and, often, an ending, and then the rest falls into place as I write.
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
I get up and see my son off to school then stick my laptop in my bag with any notebooks, research or editorial notes, and cycle to the station. (Good thinking time!) I take the train to town and cycle to a café where everyone is on laptops and the music is gentle background classical or jazz rather than intrusive, and I write in there until about 2.00pm.
I then get back on my bike and go home again. Although he’s a teenager I like to be there for my son when he gets home. I catch up on admin, and domestic jobs and often visit my mum, then once we’ve eaten, write again in the evening if we’re not going out, or sometimes in the middle of the night. Once I’m on a roll I’m quite obsessive about it.
Who are the authors or you love, and why?
At the moment I love Louise Doughty, because Apple Tree Yard is a book I wish I’d written. I love big name literary writers like Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain, Bery Bainbridge (who does dark domestic like no one else in my opinion!) and in the crime/psychological thriller field I like Barbara Vine, Julie Myerson, Nikki French, Julia Crouch, Kate Rhodes, Karin Fossum, Erin Kelly, the Italian crime writer Gianrico Carofiglio, and of course Graham Greene.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
That you have to draft and redraft and redraft, and when you think you’ve finished, you have to redraft again. It gets to a point where you think, NO MORE, but still you have to push on. I liken it to the last stage of childbirth. You’re exhausted and beginning to wonder if the whole thing was such a good idea after all, but there’s no turning back at this stage, so you summon that last burst of energy from somewhere!
How do you deal with feedback?
I have about two or three ‘ideal readers’ who I trust to give me honest and helpful feedback after draft two. I listen to their ideas and responses and take them on board. It’s essential as you can’t put yourself in the shoes of a reader when you’ve been working on something for months. I’ve learned not to ask for too many opinions, however, as this can drive you crazy – one person will inevitably contradict another.
How have your own experiences shaped your writing?
I’m interested in relationships, families, growing up and growing older and I put personal experiences about these things into my writing. I also have a strong attachment to certain places (South East London and the Thames is one), and lived in Italy and Morocco so use these in my writing too. When I feel strong emotion I try to record this. I may need to remember how someone would feel in a particular situation, and the physical manifestations of those feelings, anxiety or anger or love, for example.
Give me some advice about writing…
Go for a long invigorating walk, run, or bike ride with your characters in your mind and let them show you where they are going to take you. Exercise is crucial for ideas.
What’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace?
Be true to yourself and write what you feel passionate about. Don’t try to second guess the markets.
What’s next for you?
My next novel about a woman who becomes convinced she’s caused a hit and run accident and gets tangled up in a web of deception, ‘The Road Behind Me’ comes out in August.
I’m happy to say Crime Thriller Fella will be reviewing Darkening Hour later in the week. Look out for that!
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