Today, we have another amazing interview to share with you - this time, with author Hannah Hendy! We talk all about Hannah's festive and cosy murder mystery, An Unfortunate Christmas Murder, her experience of writing this Dinner Lady Detectives sequel, and what we can expect next from this wonderful author. Let's crack open a tin of Quality Street and dive in!
Thank you so much for featuring on our website! First of all, let’s get to know you a little better. Tell us about you and your work.
Hello! Thank you, Ivy and Rachel, for including me in the 12 days of Queermas! I’m Hannah Hendy. I write a cosy crime series called The Dinner Lady Detectives, which is a sort of whimsical take on the genre. I’m also a professional chef so I spend most of my time either cooking or writing and any other free time is spent hanging out with my wife and our cats.
Your latest release, An Unfortunate Christmas Murder, is a festive murder mystery out now. Tell us about the book and what inspired you to write it.
When I pitched The Dinner Lady Detectives my editor Sian asked if I had any ideas for sequels. An Unfortunate Christmas Murder is the result of my panicked ten-minute brainstorm of what I could pitch back to her! It’s a Christmas-themed cosy crime mystery and leads on from my first book. I absolutely love Christmas (I’m the sort of person who has the tree up mid-November) so it was a no-brainer really.
An Unfortunate Christmas Murder begins with kitchen manager, Margery, and her wife Clementine looking forward to the school’s Christmas holiday. Unluckily for them, drama teacher Mrs Smith has roped all the staff of Summerview Secondary into performing in a special Christmas concert. Unfortunately, at the first practice the stage lights collapse and kill the school’s music teacher, Mrs Large. Mrs Smith is the prime suspect but she’s convinced that the stage was sabotaged by her rival, Mrs Blossom. It’s left up to Margery and Clementine to clear her name.
The book is set in a small British village named Dewstow. Is this a real or fictional village? What made you choose to use this background and how does it play into the atmosphere of the book?
There’s a small area near where I grew up called Dewstow Gardens and Grottos, which is a lovely place to visit and I’ve always liked the name. I was using Dewstow as a placeholder name when I pitched the first book and it stuck. I always wanted the town the dinner ladies exist in to be fictional because I’m terrible at sticking to anything when I plan. I thought I could always add anything the town needs plot-wise if it’s not a real place. The real Dewstow is a very lovely area that doesn’t have a secondary school or lots of murders, fortunately - no need for real dinner lady detectives! I started writing the first book when I lived in Bristol, but it didn’t really shape up into anything until I moved back to Wales (dragging my wife along with me!). The town in the book is very much inspired by the little Welsh town I grew up in, with all its small-town gossip and the chaos that goes with that.
What is your favourite trope of festive fiction as a reader, and is your favourite as a writer any different? If so, why?
My favourite Christmas trope ever is, ‘I’m a successful businessperson who doesn’t give a damn about Christmas, but I’ve got to go back to my tiny, picturesque hometown for the holidays – I hope I don’t accidentally fall in love with the local Christmas tree farmer!’ I don’t really like to plan anything as a writer so any tropes in my writing tend to happen by accident.
What about your favourite trope in the mystery genre, and what was it like to bring both festivity and mystery into one book? Was there a certain aspect that you loved the most about marrying together the contrasting genres? How did you maintain the balance?
I really love an underdog story and the killer being the one they least suspect. I thought blending Christmas and mystery together would be much easier than it was! I tried to find a balance between a seasonal book and a book you could read as part of the series, keeping storylines that were set up in book 1 going and adding to them. Book 3 is going to continue with the characters’ lives and the town so I really wanted to ensure that it wasn’t just a Christmas book. Though I have stuck as many Christmassy things in it as I possibly could and the side plot with Mrs Smith’s needlessly dramatic Christmas concert and her rivalry with Mrs Blossom were my favourite parts to write!
An Unfortunate Christmas Murder is the second book in your series, The Dinner Lady Detectives. Did you find any new challenges in writing a sequel? Were there any aspects you enjoyed more this time around?
I really struggled with the second book to begin with. It was easier in a way because I already knew who the characters were and what they were all about, but my Grampie died just as I began writing it. I was trying to write a vaguely humorous cosy mystery when I didn’t feel very happy at all really. It was also the first time I’d really had a proper writing deadline and I really wound myself up worrying about it and whether I’d finish it on time, or if it would be terrible and they’d put my publishing contract in the bin. That being said, I knew I could do it because I’d already done it before! Once I had gotten over my initial panic it all seemed to flow a lot easier than book 1.
What came first when plotting your books: the characters, the mystery, or the idyllic setting? Or perhaps something else?
When I wrote the first book, I thought of the title, The Dinner Lady Detectives, then wrote the first chapter with Margery, Clementine and Seren and then everything else kind of fed from that – Margery and Clementine tend to lead the way story-wise. I don’t really have any control over them! As I’ve said, I’m absolutely terrible at plotting anything. At first, I tended to go with the flow and see what happens, with varying degrees of success! When it came to editing book 1 I realised that I had one word document with three things written in it and nothing else to help me remember any details. I’m much more organised with that now and keep an excel document for each new book with all the character details, plot points and chapter synopsis. I try and plot before I write now too, though it very rarely stays the same because the characters seem to take me to different places.
Do you have any holiday traditions/activities, and do they also feed into your work?
I’ve stolen loads of Christmas traditions from family and friends for the book! Some of my wife and I’s personal traditions include the many tubs of Quality Street and having birthday cake on New Year to celebrate the year's birthday. We also try and do a family photo in front of the tree with both our cats, who absolutely hate each other, so that involves a lot of cat treats and bribery.
Speaking of feeding, how about festive food and drink?
Speaking as a chef, by Christmas Day I’m usually absolutely sick of looking at Christmas dinners, but I’ve always got time for Quality Street, mulled wine and mince pies!
Do you have a favourite festive movie, show, and/or book and has it influenced your own work at all? Bonus points if it’s queer!
My favourite Christmas film of all time is The Muppets Christmas Carol, it never gets old! Last year we watched Happiest Season, which is a queer Christmas film starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis and it’s definitely going to go on the rotation of things we watch every Christmas. I try and read at least one Christmas book every year. Last year I read I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day by Milly Johnson and it was lovely! This year I’m going to read A Cornish Christmas Murder by Fiona Leitch.
How about your favourite crime/mystery shows? Have you found it difficult to find other queer characters in this genre?
I love the Agatha Raisin series (book and show) so that’s my ultimate favourite. We watch a lot of crime and mystery tv shows at home. The latest mystery show that I really enjoyed was Dispatches from Elsewhere. I think queer representation can sometimes be difficult to find if you aren’t looking, but things seem to be getting better. Hopefully in a few years there will be even more representation for the LGBT+ community in mystery and crime fiction.
With New Year just around the corner, can you tell us anything about your next project, even if it’s just a little hint? What can readers expect from you in 2023?
2023 is going to be quite busy, I think. I’m currently writing the as-yet-unnamed book 4, and book 3 The Terrible Village Poisoning is out on the 18th of February - you might be able to surmise the plot a little from the title!
Hannah Hendy is a professional chef by day and writer by night! She is the author of ‘The Dinner Lady Detectives’, a cosy crime series published by Canelo Crime. Hannah lives with her wife and cats in South Wales, UK.
Instagram/Facebook - @hannahhendywrites
Twitter - @hendyhannah