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.

My current post is a piece about the similarities between novelists and magicians!

And good news! My novel ON A WING AND A PRAYER, has just been announced as the winner of the E-Festival of Words Historical Fiction Award. A big THANK YOU to everyone who voted! 2014winner1

Happy reading!

Helen

It’s all one big magic trick

magic bookI was delighted to see that 22 year old Megan Knowles-Bacon has just become the first female officer of the Magic Circle.

I have recently developed an interest in magic myself. Not in performing it, I hasten to say, but in watching it and in analysing its techniques. My curiosity was initially sparked by being given free tickets to a couple of fabulous magic shows in Las Vegas a couple of years ago. Inspired by those shows, I decided to include a little bit of magic in my latest novel, London Calling, (yes, I hope I will soon be announcing a publication date!)

Earlier this year we went to see Derren Brown. We were blown away by his illusions, mind trickery and sleight of hand. We’ve also recently seen the excellent magician Ian Keable, (thank you, Ian, for the helpful tips,) and last week we went to a show by Morgan and West (don’t miss them if they are on in your area).

All these shows are completely different. But they all struck a chord with me as a novelist. This initially puzzled me. But now I understand why.

It has taken me a while to realise that a novel is, in itself, a little bit of magic. A good novelist is creating an illusion, something from nothing, something that doesn’t exist but which seems (hopefully) incredibly real to the reader. With structural trickery, and linguistic sleight of hand, we pull our readers into our web of benign deceit. We employ ruses, clues, secrets, bluff and misdirection (or Miss Direction as the young character in my book calls it!) Like magicians we pull the wool over our readers eyes, hypnotising them into believing that they are not just looking at words on a page, but are miraculously entering a whole new dimension, peopled by characters they almost (if all goes well) think really exist, and experiencing emotions that we have apparently conjured from nowhere.

When it comes down to it, writing fiction is one big confidence trick. And whether it is successful or not depends on the extent to which the author can convince the reader that the illusionary world they have created is not only worth entering but also worth believing in.

Derren Brown is so supremely confident in his techniques and the power he creates over his audiences that he is able convince them that he is dealing with the supernatural, mind-reading or talking to the dead, even while he is explaining that it is all trickery. (See his book Tricks of the Mind.)

Some novelists use a similar technique, employing an authorial voice to address the reader directly, while simultaneously ensuring that the reader engages with the characters they are discussing. Others rely on the illusion of watching characters act out their story. Others draw their readers into their characters heads by telling the story in the first person. The methods vary, but the overall trickery doesn’t. Perhaps what I’m really saying is that novelists ought to be admitted to the Magic Circle!

Does all this constant judging spoil our pleasure?

not judgingYesterday I had a brief telephone conversation with a young customer service person at my bank. Afterwards I had to rate the poor boy 1-5 on a number of criteria, his speed of response, his effectiveness with dealing with my query, his general helpfulness, his manner, and whether I would recommend him to my friends.

Returning to the edit of my latest wartime novel (yes, it is coming soon!), I reflected that nobody in 1943 was ever asked to rate anything, never asked to mark a customer service operative out of 5, (5 being delirious, 1 being disappointed) never asked to give a star rating, or to fill out a satisfaction form.

My research indicates that most of the petty frustrations of life in those days were either accepted with a kind of gritty resignation, or firmly laid at Adolf Hitler’s door. Nobody expected too much. Rationing and privations inevitably made perfection difficult to achieve. Queues and delays prevailed. But people were prepared, eager even, to try to enjoy what pleasures they could find. Shows were well attended despite ragged costumes and bomb-damaged sets. Restaurants served dull, utility meals, but it was still a treat go eat out. And holidays consisted of a week in a strict, under heated guest house, where you had to be out of the building between 10 and 5, whatever the weather. Nobody minded. Or if they did, they didn’t feel obliged to say.

It is so different for us. We all spend so much time assessing and critiquing, I sometimes think we have forgotten about enjoying.

We are so used to giving star ratings or marks for customer service, utilities, television programmes, hotel rooms, books, holidays, products and contestants on TV shows, that we are quick to notice when things fail to come up to our exacting standards.

Instead of relishing a meal out, we are wondering what Michel Roux might think of it. We have been programmed to expect so much that almost everything is a disappointment. There are a few ‘Fab-u-lous’es but they are few and far between, outweighed by the frequent longing to say ‘You’re fired’ to irritating waiters, salesmen, public servants or doctors.

But I am doubtful whether this critical thinking really helps to make anything better. It certainly doesn’t make us any happier. Especially when it transfers, as it inevitably does, to things that probably shouldn’t be judged, like friendships, colleagues, people in our community, our family.

The mantra of the war was that everyone pulled together. That may or may not be true, but what is certainly true is that people expected less. They hadn’t been influenced by endless soap operas to fight with their neighbours, nor to find fault with their friends and families. Perhaps as a result, communities were tighter, and friendlier. The war helped of course. They really were all in it together. But in a sense so are we. Maybe the time has come when we should try to expect a bit less and to enjoy a bit more!

Lauren Bacall – the passing of an era

There are lots of wonderful aspects to researching the Second World War, the stories of the indomitable spirit that people showed even in the worst of time, the grim humour and the accounts of extraordinary courage and derring-do.

I never know quite where my research will lead. But I do know that one of the most amazing things of all is talking to people who were actually there at the time. And one of the saddest things is that so many of the people I have spoken to during the course of my research have since died.

A few years ago I found myself talking to Lauren Bacall.Lauren_Bacall_Harper's_Bazaar_1943_Cover

I was in Italy researching my Lavender Road series. We were staying in Roncade, a small town in the Veneto. It was New Year’s Day and most of the cafés were shut. But there was one place open, so we went in for a coffee before leaving for our flight home. The café was called Il Grillo, not, as we thought, something to do with the cooking methods employed there, but after its owner, whose nickname was ‘il grillo’ (the Italian word for a cricket.) He was indeed a very lively (and amusing) man! He was fascinated to hear about my research and told us proudly that Roncade was a famous place because not only did Ernest Hemingway pass through the town towards the end of the war but that Lauren Bacall was also a frequent visitor and had, over the years, become a personal friend.

Apparently misinterpreting my somewhat bemused expression as one of scepticism, he took out a mobile phone and dialled a number. A moment later he handed me the phone and, to my astonishment, there was Lauren Bacall on the other end, apparently quite happy to have been woken up in the middle of the night in Los Angeles to wish me Happy New Year! She couldn’t have been more charming.

At the beginning of the war, at the age of seventeen, (rather like my Lavender Road character Jen Carter,) Lauren Bacall took acting lessons at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she was classmates with Kirk Douglas. To make ends meet, she was, at the same time, working as a theatre usher and a fashion model. In 1943 she was chosen to appear on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. The following year she appeared for the first time as a leading lady in the Humphrey Bogart film To Have and Have Not and her career was launched.

But now, like so many of the icons of the wartime years, she has passed on, leaving the world a less glamorous, less stylish and, perhaps, a less wonderful place.

It is the passing of an era. And it is the job of us novelists to try to capture some of that history, some of those people’s lives, some of that spirit and humour, to enable our readers to transport themselves, albeit briefly, back into those extraordinary times.

Historical Fiction Award

2014winner1Great news! My wartime novel ON A WING AND A PRAYER was voted winner of the E-Festival of Words Best Historical Fiction Award. WAAP0-123

It’s great to know that stories about the Second World War are still so popular, especially as I am just in the process of finishing the sequel to ON A WING AND A PRAYER! It will be the fourth in my LAVENDER ROAD series and is called LONDON CALLING. It should be out later this year or early next year. I just have the final chapters to write …. and then the editing process begins!

I know some of my fans are getting impatient, but do bear with me. It is coming, but I want it to be just right. I am sorry for the delay but I hope it will be worth the wait.

In the meantime a great big THANK YOU to everyone who voted for ON A WING AND A PRAYER – you are all stars and I really appreciate your support.

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:

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