helencareybooks

A site for readers and writers

Welcome to Helen Carey’s blog

Hello and welcome to my blog,

I am a published author (see my book page above), an avid reader, and I occasionally 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 only post once or twice a month so you won’t be inundated and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Good news! On February 25th 2016 my new, long-awaited novel LONDON CALLING was published by Headline Books. They will also be re-publishing the three previous Lavender Road novels in paperback over the next few months. My latest post is about my working day and which foibles I share with one of my literary heroes, William Boyd!

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Happy reading!

Helen

My Writing Day

waiting for inspirationThis morning I read an article about William Boyd, one of my literary heroes. He was outlining his working day in the Guardian Review and it made me feel even more affinity with him than I did already. I already knew that, like me, he is a bit of an artist as well as a writer, but now I discovered with some delight that his writing methods follow much the same pattern as mine.

 He, as I do, assumes that most writers are larks, preferring to get up early in the morning and crack on with their novels with vim and vigour, sometimes before daybreak.

I have always had a secret envy for larks. I am very different, and so it turns out is William. We both prefer to limber up more gently, undertaking easier, more mundane tasks like our admin, emails, dog walking and and phone calls in the morning. We then like to enjoy a leisurely lunch and finally in early afternoon we feel that the muse is sufficiently on us to start putting pen to paper, literally in his case, as it turns out he writes his daily 1000 words (give or take) in longhand before using the evening to transfer it, with inevitable edits, to his keyboard.

On the whole I write straight onto the keyboard, but often from hand written notes I‘ve made while lying in bed savouring my early morning (in my terms obviously, not that of a lark) cup of tea. I have a number of special notebooks standing by for this purpose, which need to conform to a general rule of pretty cover, ring-binding, relatively narrow line spacing, and not too large, thereby making them comfortable for use in bed, on journeys, or at other inconvenient moments when I’m not at my computer. You never know when an idea will pop up.

 William prefers a larger A4 size of pad without margins, but he stipulates a ring binding, which again show how much we have in common, although he didn’t specify a pretty cover. He also uses a very specific pen (a Rotring Tikky Graphic with a 0.2mm nib, just in case if you are wondering!)

 Now I suspect that many of you will think that finding the most satisfying pen or writing pad is a ridiculous thing for a writer to become fixated on. You will assume there are other much more important things to worry about, like story structure, plot and characterisation, and indeed whether anyone will actually want to read what we have written.

And yes, of course these are also considerations the novelist has to grapple with. But it is perhaps the very existence of all the nerve-wracking unknowns and difficult-to-accomplish feats of invention that makes the few things we can actually control so important to us. As William himself puts it, ‘It’s a toiling, messy business writing a novel,’ and anything that makes it easier for us must be taken seriously!

 

Helen Carey’s latest novel, LONDON CALLING, has recently been published. It and her other novels are available in all good bookshops.

 

 

 

WW2 in pictures

babies in shelter

Underground maternity unit – note babies on shelf!

During my research for my second world war Lavender Road novels I’ve come across some extraordinary photos. I sometimes share these on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, but I realised I haven’t shared many of them with my Blog readers yet.

Some of them relate directly to my novels, some of them don’t. But they all give a flavour of that incredible time when people (and animals) in Britain were struggling to survive under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances.

Here are just a few …

 

war carrots on sticks

Tough times for children too

 

farringdon market V1

Keep calm and carry on

 

bombed library

Keep reading ….

 

ats with princess

Do you recognise the ATS girl centre back (the only one sitting on a chair)? Yes, it’s Princess Elizabeth – our current Queen!

 

balham tube station bus

The Balham Bomb, 1940

 

wvs rifle practise

WVS rifle drill

 

eton ww2

Eton rifle drill!

 

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Nurses disembarking in Normandy soon after D’Day

 

wartime pet

Battersea Dogs Home trying to rehouse dogs orphaned in the bombing

 

dog and soldiers

Awww!

 

This is just a small selection – more to follow in due course …

 

 

Helen Carey’s new novel LONDON CALLING is now available at Amazon and in all good bookshops.

A poem for St David’s Day

I have to reblog this – wonderful!

themarcistagenda

014August and sept 2015 034 

My angels were singing : a poem for St David’s Day 

This poem was written a few years a go now – and I have shared it previously. I wondered about ‘recycling it ‘ but (rightly or wrongly) I love this poem, and, given that St David’s Day is an annual event, well….here’s to him, to Wales and the Welsh, and ultimately ; to us all!

Ddiwrnod da ac yn flwyddyn wych I ddod.

I stood near the house

where Grace once lived,

My angels were singing.

 

I watched as birds

and daffodils dived.

My angels were singing.

 

It’s spring and the sun

bursts fat and alive.

And my angels were singing.

 

Old crow, silhouetted against Carningli rock,

purple shadowed on blackened burnt bracken,

gorse and heather reeling :

the after shock.

But my angels were singing, still.

As seagulls wheeled across the bay,

catching sea…

View original post 75 more words

Nineteen years later …

london calling final 3[1]Nineteen years ago my novel ON A WING AND A PRAYER was published. It was the third book in my LAVENDER ROAD series about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the residents of one London street during the second world war.

That novel ended with one of the main characters, Helen de Burrel, having been injured in the battle for Toulon harbour in France in 1942, escaping the advancing Germans on a French submarine.

And there she has been, stuck on a French submarine, for nineteen years!

But now she is finally about to be liberated (like France ultimately was,) because on Thursday (25th February) , LONDON CALLING, the next novel in the series, is coming out!

And no, before you ask, it didn’t take me nineteen years to write it! For various reasons, after finishing ON A WING AND A PRAYER, I moved on to other things, (not least living on a boat in the Caribbean for while,) painting, getting married, and teaching creative writing at various universities. And then, for the last ten years, caring for my mother who was beginning to suffer with Alzheimer’s.

But then the digital revolution happened. And when the previous Lavender Road books became popular again as Kindle books, both in the UK and in the USA, I decided the moment had come to write another in the series.

LONDON CALLING is the result. My literary agent loved it, and a wonderful deal with Headline Books quickly followed. Not only are Headline publishing LONDON CALLING on Thursday, but over the next few months they will be republishing all my earlier Lavender Road novels as well. They have also commissioned me to write two more (one of which is already finished, and will come out in 2017).

My mother sadly died this year, so she won’t see the publication of LONDON CALLING, but I know she would be happy that I have gone back to writing, because she loved my Lavender Road books, and also loved reminiscing about her wartime experience as a nurse.

Some of the things she told me appear in LONDON CALLING, which opens in December 1942. As well as picking up on the stories of my other favourite residents of Lavender Road, it also follows the story of Molly Coogan, a young trainee nurse, who longs to escape both the oppressive discipline of the Wilhelmina hospital in south London and an ill-advised infatuation for an unobtainable man. But when Molly’s wish comes true and she finds herself on a troopship on the way to North Africa, she soon realises she has jumped out of the frying pan into a very dangerous fire …

LONDON CALLING is now available for pre-order at Amazon.  CLICK HERE for more details.

Do some moves!

gleb dancing.jpg

Gleb!

As my regular readers will know I am very interested in the process of writing. But instead of banging on about the importance of story structure, character motivation and pace, today I am more concerned with the actual physical process of sitting down for the length of time it takes to write a book.

As my regular readers will know I am currently in the process of writing my seventh novel. And I am not talking about short, little novels. My last novel came in at 200,000 words, which is (hopefully) a nice, fat, satisfying read. (Or, as I discovered at the weekend when the new unabridged audio version of LAVENDER ROAD popped through the letterbox, a fifteen and a half hour listen!)

So we are talking long hours at the computer. And that can bring its own problems. As well as grappling with which extraneous adverb to expunge, what to do with the dog unwisely introduced in Chapter Three, and how to surreptitiously layer in the clues for a dramatic denouement, novelists are also often grappling with painful backs, strained eyes, tired brains and numb bottoms.

So here are six tips to help keep you going without the necessity of a visit to the doctor/ chiropractor/ nearest cliff.

1.  Take regular breaks. Walk about, look at distant things, and flex. I find dancing around the kitchen while making coffee (or raiding the biscuit tin) very therapeutic – this worked especially well during the Strictly season, although I carefully refrained from imitating any ‘Gleb specials’, that would certainly have necessitated a trip to Accident and Emergency.

2. Set a timer to ensure that those breaks happen. I find it’s all too easy to get involved, and the next thing I know, three hours have passed and I have barely moved.

3. Try to use a different part of your brain at some stage during the day. Sketching, gardening, cooking, walking or having a jigsaw on the go are all ways of giving the your brain a rest from words.

4. Give the eyes a break too. Closing them is a good idea, especially when combined with a little lie down. Although, in my case, once again, several hours may elapse without barely moving! On the other hand, good ideas often pop up when I am trying to relax away from the computer, so maybe it’s sometimes worth ‘wasting’ time on a little nap.

5. Use down time, chore time and journey times to think. Quite a bit of writing is thinking and that can be done away from the computer. In fact I believe it should be done away from the computer. I find it saves on a lot of bottom numbing if I arrive at my desk knowing more or less what I want to achieve that day.

6. Treat yourself to a laugh. If necessary watch a comedy show or Michael McIntyre DVD. There’s nothing more therapeutic than laughing!

Happy Writing!

 

*Helen Carey’s latest wartime novel, LONDON CALLING, will be published by Headline on 25th February 2016.*

 

 

 

 

WARTIME CHRISTMAS

Snoopy xmas cardThis is just a quick message to wish a Happy Christmas to all my lovely blog followers.

I can’t believe another year has nearly gone by. It’s been an up and down year for me. I signed my new amazing book contract with Headline Books in the early part of the year. Then almost immediately after that my mother died. We had looked after her for eleven years so it was a terrible sadness for us, and left a big hole in our lives.

It took me a while to be able to get back to writing, but now I’m glad to report that my latest contracted novel, the fifth in my LAVENDER ROAD series, is coming along well.

And once again I can’t help comparing what life was like at Christmas in London during the war years.

In 1942 there were very few fresh turkeys or chickens to be had for love, money, or food coupons! And of course there were no frozen ones either. In my next novel, LONDON CALLING, which is being published in February, one of my characters preserves a gifted turkey in salt ready for Christmas Day!

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.

Toy shops were pretty much bare of everything and fathers found themselves making toys and/or dolls from salvaged bits and pieces. 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 tipple, the likelihood was that your local pub would have asked you to bring your own glass!

The British government wanted 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!)

This year, in the UK alone, millions have already been spent on gifts for pets. In 1942 it was illegal even to put breadcrumbs out for the birds.

So there you go – enjoy the festivities, and remember to relish your freedom, 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 possible!!

 

*Helen Carey’s new novel LONDON CALLING will be published by Headline on 25th February 2016. It is now available for pre-order on Amazon.*

Remembrance

poppy planesLast year I had terrible trouble with my poppy. The first one’s stalk broke within ten minutes. I replaced it with a stick-on one which disappeared before I had even got home. The third one fell to bits as I put on my coat after lunch in a tapas bar. As I scrabbled under the tables to retrieve the various bits, the red flower, the flimsy leaf and the black centre button, I heard someone mutter, ‘Why do you bother?’

Straightening up I glanced at him wondering whether he meant why did I bother rescue the poppy pieces, or why did I bother wear one at all. I was tempted to say that I bothered because, whatever the rights and wrongs of it, young men like him had died fighting in wars. But my friends were waiting at the door and I didn’t want to get into a big discussion (and judging by the look of him it wouldn’t have been a fruitful discussion anyway). So I just smiled apologetically and left. Later of course I wished I had said something.

Several years ago we spent a week in Sicily with some friends. Before setting off we happened to visit my elderly aunt who reminded me that her brother Basil (my uncle) had died during the invasion of Sicily in 1943 and was buried in Siracusa.  ‘It would be so lovely if you could go and put some flowers on his grave,’ she said and we promised that we would if we could.

Unfortunately when we arrived in Sicily we discovered that we were staying right at the other end of the island. ‘It’s too far,’ we said to each other. ‘It would take hours to drive all over there.’ And we tried to settle down to enjoy the holiday.

But we felt guilty – after all my uncle had sacrificed his life and we wouldn’t sacrifice one day of our holiday. So we decided to go.

It took us seven hours solid driving to get from from Capo San Vito to Siracusa. (Sicily is somewhat. bigger than it looks on the map.)

We arrived at about 3 in the afternoon, bought two bunches of flowers and made our war to the cemetery.

We were unprepared for the emotion that hit us. Lines and lines of small white headstones, each engraved with a young man’s name. We found my uncle’s grave quite easily, it was in the front row. Capt Basil Beazley, 29 years old.

The glider assault had been a disaster. They were launched from too far out to sea and the winds were too strong. Most landed in the water, some even crashed into Mount Etna. Many, like my uncle died soon after landing attempting to defend positions with inadequate support.  Military planning at its worst. Those young men must have known their chances were slim, but they did it anyway.

Seven hours later we arrived back at the villa in the pitch dark. For some reason I wasn’t on the car insurance so my husband had had to drive the whole way. Did you have a good day?’ Our friends asked as we staggered in.

We looked at each other. ‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘We drove for seven hours, cried for twenty minutes and then drove seven hours back again.’ But it was worth it.

We had picked up some pebbles and a bit of dry earth from the grave and when we gave these to my aunt a few weeks later she cried too. ‘I still miss him so much,’ she said.

That’s why I rescued my poppy.

It was this experience that made me write LONDON CALLING, my next novel, which will be published by Headline in February next year. Catch up on the series at http://viewBook.at/B0066DLQGM

My little brain devil

brain devilI wonder if there’s a novelist out there somewhere who doesn’t occasionally (or more than occasionally) suffer for their craft?

It’s so easy being a reader. You just read. Of course, if you have the energy, you can do a bit of thinking too, have a bash at guessing the denouement, working out ‘who dunnit’, or appreciating the writer’s subtle humour.

But what about literary critics, you may ask. Surely they do more than that? And yes, of course they do. Critics and reviewers not only read, they assess, analyse, compare and ultimately judge. Their challenge is in understanding that different readers have different tastes. There is no point judging a Harlequin romance, for example, by the standard of the Man Booker Prize. Likewise most romance lovers would take a pretty dim view if they bought what they thought was going to be bodice-ripping tear-jerker and found they were reading Wolf Hall.

The best critics know that it is not about value judgements, it’s about readers. If the target readership of a particular genre is satisfied, then, whatever the reviewer might privately think of the content, style or choice of language, the book must be considered a success.

But even standing back, trying to be impartial and writing a useful review is pretty easy work compared with writing a novel.

A reader only sees what is written on the page. Nobody (except perhaps the writer’s close friends, partner or children) can possibly know what has gone on before those words get there. All the painful decisions the writer has had to make – about concept, theme, structure, character, point of view, setting, period, time scale, humour, length. Let alone which actual words to use.

Even a top notch reviewer can’t know what the writer has been through over the preceding months, possibly years. Most of the writers I know possess some kind of internal demon, a nasty (often nocturnal) character who delights in questioning those stylistic and structural decisions, and who enjoys nothing more than pointing out the flaws in yesterday’s plot twist, or casting doubt over tomorrow’s planned character development.

So why do we put ourselves through it? Fame? Fortune? Possibly. For me, the pain and the struggle and the constant niggle of worry is mostly outweighed by the pleasure that comes from exactly the same thing that a good reviewer will judge – the feeling that I have succeeded in writing what I set out to write, and have therefore satisfied myself, and hopefully my target readers.

Yes, I love getting emails, Tweets and Facebook messages from my fans. Who wouldn’t? The only slight problem is that as well as letting me know that they have enjoyed my latest novel, they inevitably start pleading for the sequel. And that means more research, more planning, more decisions, and my little brain devil immediately starts rubbing his hands with glee at the thought of another year of sleepless nights.

Helen Carey’s next novel, LONDON CALLING, will be published by Headline Books  in February 2016

Can anyone write?

creative-writingIt’s an odd thing. When I mention at a party, or some other gathering, that I occasionally teach creative writing courses, people quite often put a sceptical smile on their faces and ask me whether creative writing can really be taught. Now, I’ve never heard anyone ask whether science can be taught, or dancing, or yoga, or French.

Of course creative writing can be taught. What can’t be guaranteed is that someone enrolling in a creative writing course will become a successful novelist, poet or playwright. Just as taking science or French at school, or even at university, doesn’t mean you are going to become a nuclear physicist or a translator at the UN. As far as I know nobody in my weekly yoga class is aspiring to becoming a Hatha guru. And even though Anne Widdecombe was (eventually) able to master a few dance moves in Strictly, nobody seemed to expect her (or indeed any of the other contestants) to be the next Flavia Cacace.

So what is it that makes people treat creative writing differently? There seem to be two somewhat contradictory attitudes. First is the commonly held belief that almost anyone could write if they only put their mind to it. Several writers I know have complained of people who say things like ‘I’d write a novel if I had the time.’ The second is that the ability to write is somehow innate and no amount of classes or lectures is going to make any difference.

There may be an element of truth in both these positions. It’s a difficult one to prove either way. But I feel that if someone is drawn towards creativity, (just as some people prefer Maths to English,) that interest/talent should be nurtured. It would be a poor art teacher who, finding a child able to represent a 3D figure instead of a stick picture, just said, ‘oh there you go, you obviously know how to do it,’ and then leave them to their own devices. That cavalier approach might work for the child prodigy, but most of us would expect any self respecting teacher to give some advice on form, style, appropriate media etc.

As far as I can see it is pretty much the same with creative writing. Yes, some people may have more natural ability than others, but that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from some understanding of how to handle story structure, characterisation, tension, imagery etc. Some writers, especially the ones who are also prolific and analytical readers, may glean these skills from other people’s books. But for others a creative writing course, or a good ‘how to’ book would at the very least save some potentially time wasting trial and error, and perhaps some disappointment too. Not everyone is going to win an Oscar for best screenplay, but in my view a few handy building blocks and a bit of helpful advice never goes amiss in any venture.

Going, going, gone …

otterRegular followers of my blog will know that I am concerned about words fading out of the English language. So imagine my dismay when I read recently that the Oxford University Press has expunged several words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. And no, the deleted words are not out of use or particularly outdated, they are just apparently not ‘relevant to a modern day childhood’. The missing words include acorn, adder, bluebell, dandelion, kingfisher, otter and even conker. And the words taking their place in the new edition include broadband, blog, bullet point and, wait for it, celebrity!

It worries me that so many of the excluded words refer to our countryside, our fauna and flora. Do we really want to educate the next generation to give priority to cut-and-paste, voicemail and chatroom, over pasture, cowslip and cygnet?

Of course it is not just the younger generation who are at risk of losing vocabulary. Robert Macfarlane, the author of the fascinating book, Landmarks, believes that our language has the power to shape our sense of place. Robert Macfarlane has been on a eight year quest to find lost, or nearly lost, words pertaining to the natural world. So he gives us ammil – a Devon term for that thin film of winter ice that lacquers leaves and twigs and makes the whole landscape glitter; zwer – an Exmoor term for a the sound of partridges taking flight; and the English dialect word, smeuse, for the hole under a hedge made by the regular passing of small animals. Is the loss of these words a sign that we are losing our connection with the natural world? Certainly we are losing our ability to describe it.

Once we were able to rely on poets to coin new words, Gerard Manley Hopkins used shivelight for the lances of sunlight that penetrate the canopy of a wood, and John Clare invented crizzle for the light freezing of a pond.

As we have already lost so many words, perhaps the onus is on us writers to invent more. Or maybe we should just borrow them from other languages. It wouldn’t be the first time. Gaston Dorren, author of the language-lovers book, Lingo, points out that English has been borrowing foreign words for years.

Spanish has for example given us cork, guitar, chocolate and barbeque – where would we be without those? Czech gave us robot, German, quartz, glitz and (perhaps not quite so welcome) blitz. Dutch has given us cruise, coleslaw and smuggler.

Not only does Gaston Dorren tell us the words we have already taken, he also suggests others we could usefully steal – one of his favourites being the German, Gönnen, the exact opposite of envy, to be gladdened by someone’s good fortune. It existed in old English, but it seems we have lost the habit!

Maybe it is time to get some of the old words back, and the old habits, including our powers of observation. So next time you are relishing your own good fortune in taking a walk through the British countryside, keep a look out and see if you can spot a smeuse

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