Sunday, January 17, 2010

Guest Blogger Hannah Dennison

Vicky Hill is back!  Expose', Hannah Dennison's third Vicky Hill mystery is set in the exciting world of snail racing.  I knew the Brits love their sports, but really...?  How does one come up with such an idea?

“Road Closed in Bridge Drama” screams the front-page headline in the Herald Express, “the voice of South Devon.”  A three quarter page color photograph shows a pedestrian footbridge straddling a two-lane minor road with an ambulance and a Panda car pictured in the foreground. The road is taped off. Traffic is at a standstill.

Gripped, I read the accompanying caption. “Man, 24, breaks ankle in fall.” Ah, that kind of drama. A further paragraph explains that the man only suffered a suspected broken ankle after police failed to “talk him down” before he finally plunged 20 feet onto the tarmac. 

What made him jump? Why did he do it? Will we ever know?

When Donis invited me back to guest blog for Type M for Murder, she said, “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that question. 

The Vicky Hill mysteries are set in the fictional world of Gipping-on-Plym, some two hundred and fifty miles southwest of London. My first job was as an obituary writer for a weekly rural newspaper called the Tiverton Gazette. Coincidentally, my protagonist, Vicky Hill writes the obituaries for the local newspaper, too, and, rather like the old me, dreams of excitement, a murder and a front-page scoop. I escaped by becoming a flight attendant, then moving to Los Angeles. Vicky is still in Gipping-on-Plum but I’m having a lot of fun rewriting my past aspirations and throwing in the odd murder here and there. 

These days I write “cozies” which, by definition, are mysteries containing no explicit sex, excessive gore and gratuitous violence. They feature an amateur detective, a confined setting, and the characters all know one another. Hence reason why the poor man on the footbridge got onto the front page of the Herald Express. It’s also why my Mum sends me all the local newspapers to see what’s going on in the real world back home. 

I’m particularly partial to the The Totnes Times that runs a regular column called “Peep at the Past” chronicling village life 100 years ago. I enjoy The Dartmouth Packet and the Yeovil Clarion, both of which have feisty “Letters to the Editor” sections and list a slew of upcoming events. Where else would I have discovered that the 27th International Festival of Worm Charming was going to be held in Blackawton? There is even a website.

Worm charming? Whatever next? My latest book, EXPOSE! introduces snail racing to American readers. Frankly, I’m surprised that no one had heard of it. I thought everyone knew about the annual British Snail Racing Championships. My friend’s ancestors gambled away their entire family fortune on snail racing. Even The Guinness Book of Records reports that a mollusk called Archie still holds the record for the fastest speed achieved over a 13-inch course of 2 minutes and 20 seconds.

Yes, I rely heavily on my English friends for ideas. Just this morning I received an email from a commodity broker in London telling me of his weekend plan to drive up to Cambridge to take part in an amateur outdoor speed racing competition across the frozen fens. Apparently, the fierce cold weather has meant the marshy lands, drained for agriculture in the 17th century, have not been raced on since 1997. He tells me there is already anger among the locals who resent Londoners competing in tight-fitting lycra on their flashy top of the line speed skates. The regular farmers favor boiler suits, woolen hats and vintage leather skates. What a great premise for a murder!

Eavesdropping can provide a mine of delicious ideas. Hedge jumping, (A VICKY HILL EXCLUSIVE!) was the result of overhearing a conversation between a frustrated soon-to-be ex-wife, and her wayward husband. Apparently, his desire to jump over hedges—particularly a neatly clipped, box privet—was interfering in their marriage. “No,” he told her, he “did not want to take up topiary.” For him, there was nothing more exhilarating than executing a perfect Fosbury Flop over a pristine six-footer. Oddly enough, the man in question (now living in Australia with his new wife) tracked me down with a great suggestion. Since I held hedge jumping in such high esteem, he wondered if I’d be interested in co-authoring a book with him. Tentatively called, “The Pursuit of Hedge Jumping-An Official Guide for the Country Enthusiast,” I have to admit I’m tempted. 

An informal survey in Los Angeles revealed that no one had heard of the ancient art of Hedge Laying (SCOOP!) On one of my many trips home, John Vickery, secretary of the Blackdown Hills Hedge Association in Devon—— very generously spent hours teaching me the intricacies of fraithing, steeping and gapping. Did you know it takes five hours to lay just ten to twelve yards of hedge? When the hedges are divided up prior to a competition, lots are drawn. No patch of hedge is the same. It’s a bit like bull riding—those cowboys never know what kind of animal they’re going to get until they’re riding into the ring. Family rivalries are rekindled. Tempers flare. Billhooks are brandished. Loppers waved about. Heads will roll … hopefully.

My editor thought the English eccentric angle in Vicky Hill’s adventures rather intriguing. This led me to explore other British traditions, customs and foibles. 

There’s plenty to choose from—Morris dancing, tar barrel racing, swamp soccer, bog snorkeling, to name just a few—though I’m still weighing up the pros and cons of introducing the naked Luge.

And sometimes, my ideas just arrive on my doorstep. For those readers who remembered the lovely Helen Mirren starring in the movie, “Calendar Girls,” look no further. There is a male version. My mother always sends me the British Farmers Calendar to start off my year., created and photographed by a neighbor of hers, Nicola de Pulford in Totnes. If anyone yearns for a glimpse of rural male British flesh, I have three 2010 calendars I’d like to raffle off. Simply contact me with your email address. The draw will be held on January 31, 2010.

Finally, when I’m stumped, I’ll always find something in the Classifieds. Here is a clipping of one of my favorites.

“Among £50,000 worth of items left at a Travel Lodge in Surrey in 2009: A blow-up sheep, a prosthetic leg, a monk’s habit, a selection of whips, a gas stove, an inflatable sumo wrestler’s outfit and eight posters of Oprah Winfrey.” 

Maybe these curious discoveries had something to do with why that man jumped off the bridge?


nancy martin said...

8 posters of Oprah might have triggered any number of crimes in my household, Hannah. I bet you come up with a doozie!

I love life in Gipping-on-Plym, BTW. Well done!

Hannah Dennison said...

Thanks for stopping by Nancy -- ha ha ... love the Oprah comment!

Msmstry said...

While I find your contests unusual, I'm sure there are equally bizarre "sports" in other places, but we're just too familiar with them to be amused. Thank you for making delicious stories from these happenings—and remind me to tell you about a greased pig race sometime.

hannah Dennison said...

Greased pig race? Tell me more!

Donis Casey said...

Greased pig races are an American tradition, Hannah. We must go to a rodeo together sometime

Hannah Dennison said...

Yes. Count me in. I'd love to go to a greased pig rodeo!

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