Over the many years I’ve been writing and reading, I’ve been fascinated by other authors and their journeys, and I always want know why they decided to start writing, what keeps them going, what keeps them writing in the face of the inevitable difficulties of life. This month I am so pleased to welcome someone with quite a story – my friend and the prolific author of the Island Sisters Mysteries (Minotaur), the Honeychurch Hall Mysteries (Constable) and the Vicky Hill Mysteries (Constable) 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.
As a child, my mother always accused me of telling “fibs” which sounds much kinder than being accused of being an outright liar. I didn’t think I lied at all but I admit that I was prone to exaggeration because I thought things sounded far more interesting if they were highly embellished.
I loved reading and enjoyed taking English literature at school but we had to accept the opinions of the teacher. I was often in trouble because I asked too many questions about why a character would do this or that. Even at a young age I must have been interested in character motivation. Which brings me to English grammar. You may find this hard to believe but at the Shrubbery Secondary Modern School for Girls, grammar was not on the curriculum! As you can imagine, I rely heavily on my copy editor.
I didn’t go to University. I didn’t feel I was clever enough and besides, I yearned to be a flight attendant so I could travel the world. I applied to British Airways at age 16 even though the minimum age was 21. Obviously, I was rejected so I ran away to sea instead. After a year of grueling interviews, I was accepted as one of twelve officer cadets and joined the WRNS (the Women’s Royal Naval Service). When I realized that Wrens didn’t go to sea and I’d be stuck shore-based as a secretary to an old Admiral, I slunk back home and had to return all the going away presents that had been showered on me by the friends of my proud parents. There were an awful lot of travel clocks.
At 19 I applied again to British Airways but yet again, their minimum age hadn’t changed. I knew I had to find work so I answered an advertisement in the classified section of the Tiverton Gazette for a trainee reporter and got the job.
The typewriters were circa 1945 and the air was thick with cigarette smoke because everyone (except me) smoked back then. The training involved a sandwich course i.e. 8 weeks away in Cardiff to learn the nuts and bolts of journalism. I still have my NUJ Press Card. There, I learned Pitman shorthand (120 wpm, which is very fast) and can still “touch type” at 70 wpm with my eyes closed. I would have made a very good secretary to that old Admiral. But I was bored stiff. Not much happened in Tiverton, Devon.
I covered a lot of weddings but funerals were my specialty. In the late 70s it was the tradition of the newspaper to send a reporter to the church to stand at the door and note the names of all the mourners, paying particular attention to spelling. These would be listed in the newspaper and believe me all hell broke loose if you left someone off. My first series, the Vicky Hill Mysteries, are based on those years writing obituaries.
The moment I turned 21 I applied to British Caledonian—I couldn’t stand another rejection from British Airways—and was accepted. At last I was a flight attendant! Unfortunately, my routes were primarily short-haul to Europe (night-stop Amsterdam, night-stop Paris – both 30-minute hops across the English Channel), and long-haul Gatwick-Lagos-Gatwick—seven days in Nigeria, not exactly the destination I’d imagined. So, I set my goal higher. I wanted to fly on private jets.
It took me several years to get a break but it was worth the wait. I loved it, but there was a downside. I had a pager and was available 24/7. My daughter was still young and as a single parent, I relied heavily on my mother. Sometimes I wouldn’t fly for six weeks, but then there would be days of back-to-back trips.
During those years, I was a huge letter writer and, on many occasions, the recipients would say, “have you ever thought about writing a book?” and I’d just laugh. Yes, I enjoyed writing but the idea seemed ridiculous with a background like mine.
But, the Universe must have been listening. I spent a month off-and-on flying Steven Spielberg and the cast of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on location. (And yes, Harrison Ford is lovely). The plane was very small – just 8 seats – so I got to know them all really well and would often hang out on the set or join them for dinner. I had no intention at that time of moving to Los Angeles (that’s another story).
One night, we were flying back from the Middle East and Steven asked me about my life and I confessed how guilty I felt about leaving my daughter. He asked me what my interests were and what I felt passionate about.
I mentioned that I enjoyed writing letters and he asked more and more questions about my writing. I told him the truth, namely that my mother had often scolded me for having too much imagination, my English teacher had crushed my confidence and that I’d never been to University. Steven reminded me of a scene that they had just shot where Indy has to save his father—played by Sean Connery— who is dying on the other side of a deep ravine. Indy is told to “have faith, take a step and the bridge will appear” and of course, In the movie it does.
Steven inspired me to do just that. A few years later, along with my daughter and two cats, we moved to Los Angeles. By some miracle, I secured a green card (thanks to my training as a Journalist!) and got a job as a receptionist with New Line Cinema through an old friend who was best man at my first wedding. My parents were horrified “You’re moving to California to answer the phone?” As it happened, promotion was very fast for me and I became a story analyst, writing coverage and reading hundreds of screenplays for a variety of studios and independent producers. It was a great education in storytelling.
I never asked Steven Spielberg for any favors, I would never do that—but when he won a slew of awards for Schindler’s List in 1994 I wrote to him. A courier hand delivered his reply, a letter I still keep in my wallet. Steven said, “never lose the intensity and passion for your art that brought you here.” I read that often when I am feeling discouraged.
My screenwriting career did not work out as I had hoped so I switched to long form narrative and took five years of classes with the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and the rest, as they say, is history.
The funny thing is that when I moved back to England after twenty-five years away, my sister had been storing a box of letters and journals for me. “You know, you’ve always wanted to be a writer,” she said. I hotly denied it of course. But then she handed me a faded scrap of paper titled “First Draft.” It was a murder story that I had penned when I couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13. It was about two sisters who discover the body of a gamekeeper in the woods. I was shocked. What is more bizarre is that Danger at the Cove, the second book in my new Island Sisters Mysteries, is about two sisters who become amateur sleuths! Perhaps I’d been a writer all the time.
I fantasize about tracking down that English teacher but then I wouldn’t have had so many adventures. I truly believe life happens the way it is supposed to, and, thanks to Lynne Truss’ brilliant book, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”, I’m getting much better at grammar.
Hannah’s Social Media Links: