"The fact that you don't have something published doesn't mean you haven't been writing."

Having walked the dog and fed her beloved chickens - "they're far more intelligent than people think" - English crime writer Minette Walters has settled down to talk with Weekend about her first full-scale novel in a decade.

But it's not what fans of her psychological thrillers - like award-winning, best-selling and adapted-for-TV books The Ice House, The Sculptress and The Scold's Bridle - may anticipate. Walters has defied conventional wisdom about sticking to what you know and swapped genres to write her first historical novel.

She says fans shouldn't panic, though, because instead of a contemporary crime novel, she's created a suspense story set 700 years ago.

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"Analysing historical documents is similar to analysing crime scenes," Walters says, matter-of-factly. "It's as much about the motivations of the people of the past as anything; crime writing is also about motivation and trying to figure out why people do what they do."

Approaching The Last Hours like a crime thriller means it has the pace of one, plenty of plot twists and a strong female protagonist faced with a life and death mystery: what, in the searing hot summer of 1348, is killing everyone around the village of Develish, Dorset?

Lady Anne of Develish, remarkably well-versed in the importance of isolating the sick from the healthy, gathers her people inside the moat surrounding her manor house, refuses her diseased husband entry and puts a freed serf in charge.

Is it only a matter of time before this "Black Death" - whatever it is - takes hold, or will bands of desperate survivors plunder the village first? As time ticks by, they face a choice: stay within the estate and starve or leave and risk coming into contact with those infected with the pestilence.

Though the redoubtable Lady Anne may seem years ahead of her time - even Walters admits in the 1400s, it would have been unusual for a woman to be so well-educated - the story makes salient points: united we stand, divided we fall and ignore "female wisdom" at your peril.

"You can read anything in history and see the same emotions and emotional reactions appearing all the time," Walters says. "We might become more civilised; through laws and education, we learn to control aspects of ourselves but, ultimately, Cain still wants to kill Abel."

A fan of suspenseful, compelling and well-told stories which keep readers turning the pages into the small hours of the morning; Walters has created exactly this with The Last Hours. She also aimed for a fair measure of authenticity, taking pains to use words and dialogue that were current when the bubonic plague hit England, starting with Dorset, in 1348.

Inspiration was found close to home. When Walters, 68, and her husband bought their 18th century home some 20 years ago, she was told there was a plague pit - a mass grave for those who succumbed to the virulent infection - on land somewhere near the village church.

It left her equal parts curious and concerned; curious about how the plague spread so quickly and why it was so deadly and troubled by the fact that she was, no doubt, daily walking across the unmarked graves of dozens of poor souls purged from the historical record.

"I got the idea in my head to write something and it kept eating at me so then I had to make a decision about whether to keep going with crime fiction, and become endlessly frustrated because I hadn't followed what interested me the most, or take a bit of a break to be absolutely certain I wanted to go down the historical fiction route."

The latter won out, in part because, like anyone engaged in historical research, Walters kept discovering intriguing tales and characters missing from history. She learned the Black Death entered in England via Melcombe (Weymouth) just 9 miles from where she lives and while the Dorset History Centre provided enthusiastic help and support, local records were in shorter supply than neighbouring counties.

"It killed so many people here so fast that there was no one left to record what happened."

Walters originally toyed with the idea of making her lead character a man but decided it would be more effective to have a heroine whom people followed out of love rather than duty. Instead, Lady Anne is modelled on nonconformist scholars like John Wycliffe, while her theories on hygiene and isolation came, in part, from Jewish communities of the day who seemed to weather the Black Death better than other groups.

"Of course, they became scapegoats but the fact was they had more thorough regimes of cleanliness and lived isolated in ghettos so were, sometimes, less at risk," Walters says.

Hooked on history, she has decided The Last Hours will be followed by a sequel which she is putting the finishing touches to. A self-confessed perfectionist, she acknowledges the genre switch proved challenging but also immensely worthwhile and satisfying.

"I hope it encourages a few other authors to try something different because if people have an idea that is not within their genre, they should feel free to pursue it."

THE LAST HOURS
By Minette Walters
(Allen & Unwin, $37)