helencareybooks

A site for readers and writers

Welcome to Helen Carey’s blog

Hi, welcome to my blog. It is designed for readers and writers. I am a published author (see my book page above), an avid reader, and I teach creative writing at university level. In the past I have also worked as a reader for a couple of publishers and a literary agent.

If you would like to subscribe to this blog, just click the ‘Sign up by email’ or ‘RSS’ box on the right, I will only be posting a few times a month so you won’t be inundated and you can unsubscribe at any time.

I have just discovered that one of my Lavender Road novels, ON A WING AND A PRAYER, has been shortlisted for a ‘Best Historical Fiction’ award. If you had time or inclination to vote, the details are below … THANK YOU!!

Happy reading!

Helen

Any chance of a vote?

WAAP0-123Just to let you know that my second world war novel, ON A WING AND A PRAYER, has bobbed up as a finalist in the eFestival of Words ‘Best Historical Fiction’ section.

ON A WING AND A PRAYER is the third in my London wartime LAVENDER ROAD series. It covers the period 1941-1942 and follows the lives of the people living in Lavender Road through that eventful year, leading to the German occupation of Vichy France and the blowing up of the French Fleet in Toulon harbour. One of the key characters in this novel is Helen de Burrel who, having joined the SOE, soon finds herself in difficult circumstances. As she faces up to the rigours of war and the treachery of her colleague, she realises she may have to make a tragic decision, between her country and her love.

I’m obviously delighted to be shortlisted for this award – it is particularly nice that this has happened without me knowing anything about it!!

The only thing is (and there is no point in beating about the bush!) … now I need people to vote for it …

I’m so sorry, I know my heart sinks when anyone asks me to vote for anything, but if you had two minutes I would be so grateful if you would cast a vote? It really is pretty quick and easy.

This is how you do it:

Go to: http://www.efestivalofwords.com/2014-finalists-for-best-of-the-independent-ebook-awards-t513.html
I’m afraid you have to register first, (click on the tiny ‘register’ box at the top of the page,) but it is very easy, just the usual user name/email address business.
Then you go back to the original page, or re-enter the address in your browser, find On a Wing and a Prayer in the ‘Best Historical Fiction’ section, and …. vote!!

THANK YOU SO MUCH!

For anyone who hasn’t yet read ON A WING AND A PRAYER, you can find it at viewBook.at/B006OUEUDI.

Wildlife in war

While I have been researching the novel I am writing now, the fourth in my Lavender Road series, among the trauma of WW2, I have discovered one small, unexpected, beneficial aspect of war. (And I am not just talking about winning and ridding the world of the Nazi/fascist cruelty of Adolf Hitler and Mussolini.)housemartins

It is an odd fact that, even as people are fighting wars, the natural world gets on with its own routines and migrations. During WW2 there was a cessation of shooting wild birds in Europe. The inhabitants of Italy, Greece, Malta and the other Mediterranean islands were too busy shooting each other, or their enemies, to carry out their traditional, brainless slaughter of migrating birds. As a result, the populations of song birds, swallows and swifts etc., increased considerably, (only, sadly, to be targeted once again the minute the war was over.)

I found other odd side benefits too. In prisoner of war camps across Europe, British POW amateur ornithologists kept meticulous records of birds passing by, creating a comprehensive log of species, some of which were previously unrecorded.

While fighting the Japanese in the jungles of Malaya, a British SOE agent, Freddie Spencer Chapman, recorded the wildlife he encountered with scientific dedication.

In London, for years after the WW2, the broken, damaged buildings and undeveloped over grown bomb sites provided homes for a plethora of birds and insects. Nobody was too bothered about appearances at that time. Certainly not to the extent of knocking off under-eaves house martins nests because they made a bit of mess on the walls, as so often happens now.

When we visited the Falkland Islands a few years ago we were interested to see how the failure to clear the mines off the beaches there has had a beneficial effect on sea bird populations. Protected from human interference, too light to set off mines, their numbers have increased steadily.

Most modern warfare seems to be more detrimental. The on-going unrest in Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East has devastated wildlife habitats. Oil waste from damaged vehicles has contaminated land and natural water sources. Deforestation and pollution are rife, and conservation largely impossible.

But on the other hand, there are reports that, like the migrating birds of WW2, and perhaps due to people being too busy shooting each other to bother with slaughtering other species, the survival rate of Asiatic black bears, grey wolves, leopard cats and porcupine in certain areas of Afghanistan has improved.

I am (clearly) no expert. But while I can understand the inevitable effects of warfare on wildlife, I do wish that, where war or privation isn’t to blame, people would try to give wildlife a chance, whether it be welcoming a martin’s nest under their eaves, leaving a gap in a converted barn roof for an owl, cutting down on the use of slug pellets, or signing a petition to stop the relentless slaughter of migrating birds over the Mediterranean.

Veterans ( 6th June 1944)

helen carey:

To commemorate D-day I am reblogging Marc Mordey’s wonderful, moving poem. Find more of his work at: http://themarcistagenda.wordpress.com

Originally posted on themarcistagenda:

70 years before…….

Young men stumbling into the shell bound surf

Silver flying fish

Stunned

The boys, wading on and in

Falling, camouflaged no more

Booming, battling forth

Whistling bullets, the siren song of war

Deafening the ocean’s unerring roar.

Years ago

in Juneau

I watched ‘Saving Private Ryan’

With Pete Bibb

Self appointed ‘old timer’

Who left the movie house

“Cannot watch this, have to go”

he muttered

As the faux machine guns

Cinematically stuttered.

This D Day morning

The robes of priests, clustered

The coat tails of politicians

And hats of royalty

Fluttered

As the bemedalled veterans

Mustered

Attendant, attentive,

Old men now

Memories shared, perhaps, despairs

Some stood and stared

As the peace yearning prayers

Were uttered.

In the fields at home

The buttercups, the thistle heads

Were bowing in the stiffening wind

That blows across the Channel

Westward, ho!

The clouds scud seawards

A breath of memory passes

View original 69 more words

Filling the creative well

One of the nice things about being a writer is the opportunity to go to places you wouldn’t normally go to and experience things you wouldn’t normally experience, all in the name of research.

well actuallyJulia Cameron refers to this process of seeking of new experiences as ‘filling the well’ of creativity and considers it an essential aspect of a creative life.

If she is right, that gives us authors carte blanche to do pretty much whatever we want.

But, hey, why not? We only live once (as far as we know) and we might as well make the most of it.

I was tempted to apply for a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship grant recently. They were looking for writers to go to Antarctica for three months, and what a great opportunity it would have been.

Or would it? I love penguins as much as the next person but I’m not sure I want to spend three months in their company. Okay, there would probably have been a few scientists and oil speculators and maybe even another ‘creative person’ thrown in too, but even that didn’t quite swing it for me. Had it been three months in the Caribbean, well, obviously that would have been another story. But looking back I actually think I should have gone. It would have taken me out of my comfort zone and although being out of your comfort zone is by definition uncomfortable, (and in this case possibly rather chilly,) it is no bad thing for a writer. Or for anyone else come to that.

To a greater or lesser degree we all tend to get stuck into a pattern of living. But in order to write convincing and entertaining fiction most of us need to experience more than our ordinary day to day lives. We shouldn’t dismiss out of hand art that challenges our taste. It’s good sometimes to see films we wouldn’t normally choose. At the very least we should read books that aren’t written by our top twenty favourite authors.

The other week I found myself lying flat on my back (on a specially provided mat) in the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate to try to experience Edmund de Waal’s concept of ‘skying’. To be honest, I’m not quite sure I got completely into the spirit of it, although it was rather nice to have a little lie down after a hard day’s socialising. But perhaps that was the part of the point. Lying down on the floor of a crowded public space is not something I have ever done before and it was a strangely exhilarating experience.

Of course you don’t have to be a writer to try to experience life more fully, there are benefits for everyone. On a macro level encouraging a more open and understanding viewpoint is surely good for society, but on a private level it is surprising what pleasure can be gained from even the smallest attempt to pop something new into the creative well.

Too many choices?

There are so many choices involved in writing a novel. Too many for comfort. What time period? What setting? What structure? What genre? What characters? Where do they live? What is their past life? What motivates them? What events? How true should it be to real history? What is the time frame? What is it all really about?

All, or most, of these need to be answered before even starting out. No wonder wannabe writers are often put off at the first hurdle.smashing keyboard

And as soon as you’ve made those decisions, (assuming you haven’t given up in despair or put a hammer through your keyboard,) another wave of questions immediately comes hurtling towards you.

How are you going to tell the story? Whose point of view? First or third person? What tone? What voice? Where should it start? What is going to kick the whole thing off? Where is it going to end? How are you going to layer in the clues to make that ending satisfactory? And, horror of horrors, what are you going to put in the middle?

Obviously there are even more choices to be made further down the line. Choices about style, dialogue, punctuation, action versus exposition, amount of description and what words to use. But for now I am going to focus briefly on the question of what to put in the middle. Or, as it is more commonly called, the plot.

Plots are tricky things to get right. But when they work, they really work, engrossing your readers in your make-believe world so effectively that they keep turning the pages, even at chapter endings, and finish up by feeling that their lives have been enhanced in some way, their spirit lifted, and, best of all, eager to start reading your next book.

There are lots of things that can go wrong with a plot. The basic premise of the story might be too weak. The concept may lack believability. The story might be too predictable, too yawn-makingly obvious. The inherent conflict set up by the opening may not be sufficiently escalated. Readers also lose interest when crucial bits of information are missing, key scenes avoided, or if there is too much repetition. On the other hand there may be too many red herrings, inconsistencies or loose ends. As Chekhov said: ‘One must not put a loaded rifle on stage if no-one is thinking of firing it.’ The ending should not appear random or insubstantial, or, as so often seems to happen nowadays, to have been plonked in by the author just to get the whole damn thing over with.

There is no magic formula for a great plot. And no quick fixes for a bad one. It is the individual decisions that writers make that are the key to success. So take time to ask yourself if your story is genuinely interesting. Are your characters’ quests worth pursuing? Is there plenty of variety in your twists and turns? Is the writing crisp and focussed? Is the whole thing leading somewhere?

If the answer is yes, then you are well on the way to a bestseller.
If the answer is no, then I give you permission to go and get that hammer from your tool box!

How do you learn to write?

inspirationIt’s a funny thing with writing, some people think they can just write without doing any learning at all and others feel they’re not going to be able to write successfully without doing an MA in Creative Writing at a top university.

Both approaches have validity. There are successful writers out there who have never attended a single writing course or read a How To book. There are also successful writers out there who have MA’s and PhD’s in English Literature and Creative Writing coming out of their ears.

There are also a lot of writers somewhere in between.

What there aren’t many of, I would suggest, is many successful writers who aren’t also voracious readers.

One of the first things I do when I start teaching my Novel Writing courses is ask the participants what they are currently reading. You might (or might not) be amazed by the number of blank looks I get.

Tip 1. So my first tip for wannabe novelists (or any writers, really) is to read. And not just books in your favourite genre, read widely and eclectically, modern and classic, thrillers and romances, literary and popular. And don’t just read. Analyse. Sometimes this is hard to do if you are swept away by the story, but that it just the moment when you need to stop and think to yourself, ‘Why am I so engaged? How is the author achieving this page turning power?’ (If you can’t stop, just treat yourself to one enjoyable read through, and then read it again to analyse!)

Tip 2. My second tip is to read some How To books, blogs and writing magazines. Some are better than others. Some of what you find will help you, some will make you want to jump off a cliff. But it all adds to your portfolio of tips and techniques.

Tip 3. Have a go. Until you have tried to write a novel you won’t really know what you find difficult and what comes easy. You might find you are a dab hand at story structure but can’t write descriptions for toffee. (Or, slightly more worryingly, in my view, you might be able to pen a beautiful, emotive description but be unable to create engaging characters or a compelling plot.)

Once you have worked your way through tips 1-3, then, if you feel the need, the moment may have come for (Tip 4.) a writing course. There are masses available, varying from practising writing exercises at a monthly local writing group through to full time University postgraduate degrees. Just make sure you choose one to suit your needs, and check that it is taught by someone who knows what they are doing and who has some kind of reputation.

Tip 5. Practise makes perfect. I was talking to a group of published writers recently and we all agreed that we had written about a million words each before writing our breakthrough novels. Don’t give in to the temptation to publish your first novel straight away, just because nowadays you can. Work at it, or preferably write another, and publish only when you have something that’s really going to make your name.

Good luck!

Look out for:
Robert McKee’s courses:
The Arvon foundation writing courses
Julia Cameron’s creative rekindling – The Artist’s Way
Bridget Whelan’s book – Creative Writing School
Writing magazine:

Romance is in the air

Everywhere I go at the moment there are hearts and roses. Love is in the air and we might as well enjoy it. Some of us are lucky enough to have our own Valentine waiting for us at home (!) but whether we have or not, reading a romantic novel is another great way to celebrate!AOL0-600

As an author I am often asked about my favourite books and whether they have influenced my writing. I have always been a big, and eclectic, reader. My reading has definitely influenced not only what I write about, but also how I write it. I might add here how amazed I often am when I talk to other writers (especially wannabe writers) and discover how little they read.

I’m convinced that analysing how successful authors structure their stories, how they create characters and achieve that all important ‘page turning power’ is the best training a writer can have. ‘But I get far too engrossed in novels to stop and analyse them,’ people say. But of course it is exactly those extra-engrossing novels that we should be learning from – so read them twice! Certainly all the novels on my favourite romantic reads list below are ones I have read at least twice.

Stone Virgin by Barry Unsworth – a very clever, beautifully written, literary novel set in Venice in three different periods of history.
The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif – a sweeping desert adventure set in N Africa, wonderful writing and compelling story.
Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough – a big Australian saga about impossible love. Choose this for a long and engrossing read.
Eightsome Reel by Magda Sweetland – an intensely emotional sweeping Scottish saga.
The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye – a hugely satisfying romantic historical saga set in 19th Century India, amazing sense of time and place.
Frederica by Georgette Heyer – a Regency romance with humour, elegance and style, one of her best.
The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller – if you are short of time, read this and weep!

My own books all have elements of romance in them too, Some Sunny Day is probably the most emotional of the Lavender Road wartime series. The Art of Loving is specifically designed to make you laugh and cry. And of course Slick Deals contains the enigmatically sexy Nick Jardine!
Enjoy!

Why are we so shy about romance?

wartime romanceOver the last few years there has been a big rise in sales of romantic novels. For a while the industry was puzzled, but gradually the reason has become clear. With the advent of Kindles and iPads people have suddenly found themselves able to read romantic fiction without detection. Gone are the days when you had to conceal your Mills&Boon in the pages of War and Peace in case your boss sat next to you on the tube. Now you can upload romances to your heart’s content (as long as you can still talk knowledgeably about The Catcher in the Rye in an emergency!) and romance sales have consequently boomed.

So why are we so shy about our love of romantic fiction? Perhaps it is partly because the so called trashy romances gave the genre a bad name. But there’s also plenty of badly written crime fiction around (not to mention shockingly poor Ian Fleming imitations) and that hasn’t given the crime/thriller genre a bad name. Of course the British literati have turned their noses up at romance for years, often refusing even to acknowledge it as an important element in the popularity of certain ‘literary’ novels. Runaway bestsellers such as Birdsong and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin are praised by literary critics for the quality of the writing, the historical accuracy and powerful characterisation, but very few praise them for including a cracking love story!

And why shouldn’t we relish a romantic novel or two? They are just as difficult to write. What is any novel, after all, but a means to escape the real world and lose ourselves in an exploration of make-believe, whether it be exciting cliff top chases (Slick Deals), gun battles, gruesome murders, wartime life (Lavender Road), psychology, fantasy, science fiction or romantic relationships (The Art of Loving)? Whether we like to admit it or not, romance, in one form or another, plays a huge part in our lives. We humans are emotional beings and it’s not surprising that we seek out novels that allow us to explore our feelings and fantasies. What is more surprising is that we still feel the need to have The Catcher in the Rye up our sleeve!

So as we head towards Valentine’s Day once again, why not treat yourself to a really good, engaging, romantic read? You might be pleasantly surprised.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS

This is just a quick message to wish a Happy Christmas to all you lovely followers of my blog.Sampler_3

I have been hard at work over the last couple of months writing the fourth novel in my LAVENDER ROAD series. I feel as though I have been living in 1942 so it comes as quite a surprise to find myself about to celebrate Christmas 2013!

And what a difference. In London in 1942 there were no whole, fresh turkeys or chickens to be had for love or money (or food ration book tokens!) And of course there were no frozen ones either in those days. The best most people could manage for their festive lunch was a chicken and dumpling pie. Sugar, suet and dried fruit was in short supply too so Christmas puddings were either very small or non existent. The toy shops were pretty much bare of everything except cardboard models and most fathers found themselves making toys and/or dolls from salvaged bits and pieces for their kids. One old lady I spoke to told me of a treasured necklace she had been given by her fiancé made from cherry stones!

Crackers and paper hats were often made out of newspaper. And if you fancied a festive tipple, the likelihood was that your local pub would have asked you to bring your own glass! It was easier to buy Wellington boots than shoes and, because of the difficulty in finding them, women no longer had to wear hats in church.

The British government encouraged people to give each other War Bond savings vouchers as gifts, and the Red Cross encouraged people to ‘Adopt a Prisoner of War’ (rather in the same way as people sponsor endangered wild animals nowadays!)

At Christmas 2013, millions will have been been spent in the UK on pet food alone. In 1942 it was illegal to put breadcrumbs out for the birds.

So there you go – enjoy the festivities, and remember to relish your freedom and your food and your gifts – and don’t forget to raise a glass to all the stalwart souls (like my characters in LAVENDER ROAD) of 1939 – 1945 who made it all possible!

Do you have a distracted writer in your life?

decisionsThere’s nothing worse than indecision. It is debilitating, frustrating and exhausting. All those ‘Should I/shouldn’t I’s, ‘But what if’s, ‘Which’s, ‘When’s and ‘How’s cause our little brains to work overtime, jumping from one option to another like demented fleas.

And those demented fleas are especially active at night, about 4 o’clock in the morning in my experience.

For any normal person that is bad enough, everyone has decisions to make, things to worry about. That is a fact of life. But it seems to me that writers have even more than most.

Not only do they have the usual day to day issues, like ‘Should I take Fido to the vet or will the bramble wound heal on its own?’, ‘Has Little Johnny got in with a bad set?’, ‘How can I get out of this awful job?’ or, (for the lucky few,) ‘Shall we join Mr and Mrs Moneybags on their yacht in Barbados at Christmas or would the Seychelles be nicer?’ Those are enough to keep anyone awake at night. But writers, especially novelists, also have another whole layer of decisions and anxieties to cope with, ranging from ‘Is this the right word?’, ‘Shouldn’t that be a semi colon?’, through ‘Is this scene (the one I’ve just spent two days writing) really necessary?’, ‘How much back story do I need?’ to ‘Oh no, I think I’ve lost track of the main theme,’ or ‘Should I just give up and get a job as a dog groomer?’ and so on and on and on …

Sometimes those decisions are easy to make and sometimes they niggle away for days (and nights) waiting for a flash of clarity, which normally comes just as you’re negotiating a contra-flow on the M4, or just as you are falling asleep with no pen or notebook on your bedside table.

And then, eventually, when all those decisions are made, new ones pop up, like what publisher, what cover, what promotion, what kind of launch party, will anyone buy it.

I’m not complaining. Far from it. Being a writer is a wonderful thing. But it’s not the stress free, soft option that some non-writers imagine.

All I can say is that if you are a writer then be sure to give yourself a complete break from time to time, and then go back and make those choices. Don’t give in to indecision. Work it out as best you can and press on. You can promise yourself time to improve it a few months later when you are doing your first edit. And don’t feel guilty for neglecting your friends and family – explain what’s going on, if necessary direct them to this article!

And if you are a non-writer with a writing friend, relation or partner, then be patient. Exhaustion, distraction, forgetfulness and grumpiness are normal, the writer in your life still loves you and they will rejoin you soon, but just now they have an awful lot on their mind.

Post Navigation

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,689 other followers

%d bloggers like this: