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 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 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 reaction to a few sleepless nights over my latest novel!

And good news! I have just signed a fabulous deal with Headline in London for the publication of my next three books. The first, in Feb 2016, will be the long awaited fourth novel in my Lavender Road series, LONDON CALLING. Headline will also be re-publishing the existing Lavender Road novels in paperback during 2016. Hurrah!!


Happy reading until then!



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

A tribute to Terry Pratchett

I am sharing this tribute to Terry Pratchett – courtesy of the wonderful poet, Marc Mordey. terry pratchett

    The colour of magic

What’s this?
The Discworld suddenly stilled.
The Librarian utters a muffled, choking Ook!
Angry mutterings issue from a star dusted, rainbow crazed, magical book.
The Luggage lifts its lid in silent tribute.
In the Assassins Guild, knives and other such Thieves of Time
are lowered.
A Golem glowers, breaking the mould,
dwarves, goblins, werewolves, trolls,
gone the stories, gone the gold.
Witches lower their broomsticks,
to fly no more.
Lord Vetinari is blacked out,
the clacks have nothing to shout about,
The Nightwatch nowhere to walk about.
Sam Vimes, Lady Sybil
all left to doubt.
The cast of characters too many, too bold,
how much story, how far the masterful imagination,
must remain,
The great turtle, serene, untroubled perchance
paddling its huge flippers
in the ever changing celestial dance,
notes, a wide brimmed hat
a grey beard, a whispered hint of black,
an author, happenstance?
Ah, maybe, but are you sure?

Find more of Marc’s poetry at http://themarcistagenda.wordpress.com

In celebration of St David’s Day

helen carey:

Happy St David’s Day everyone – I wanted to share this to celebrate …

Originally posted on themarcistagenda:

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


Concocted over the last few spring like days, out walking the dogs, watching the birds, and thinking of those who have died : Derek, who loved Pembrokeshire and rode on Carningli most days, and also of my grandparents (and others), who do – I believe – watch over me.


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 breezes,

tumbling at will.


The Irish Sea lies beneath

becalmed and silvered…

View original 100 more words

Fight the fear

balanceMost writers I know live in a semi-permanent, somewhat schizophrenic state, swinging between confidence and terror. You have to have confidence to write, and especially to show that writing to the world. But on the other hand there is always that insidious thought eating away at you that what you have written is meaningless tosh at the best and total rubbish at the worst.

For some, probably many, the fear is almost completely debilitating, it is often the cause of writers’ block, and certainly it is responsible for numerous unfinished stories festering in bottom drawers or on (more likely nowadays) hard drives around the world. At its most severe it can lead to depression and worse.

The actual writing is bad enough, but once the piece is finished and the editing process begins there are even more agonising decisions to make. What should be left in, what should be cut out, is there too much dialogue, or too little description? Does the plot work, do the characters come alive? Or is it basically just boring?

All this is quite enough to keep even a self confident writer awake at night. But then the moment comes when someone else has to read it. And the moment they say they love it, you start doubting their expertise. Or, if they are some poor hapless family member, you immediately assume that they just being kind.

And when you are over that hurdle and the novel is in the hands of a professional reader, agent or publisher, you suddenly have to endure weeks of waiting. It’s only 200,000 words you say to yourself, it doesn’t take that long to read. It must be so crashingly dull they can’t even struggle to the end.

And then finally it’s published and it’s in the hands of real readers. And now, even though it has happily jumped through all the hoops, you are convinced it will inadvertently fall into the wrong hands – horrid, random readers who only really like sci-fi or horror, and who will therefore give your insightful, literary novel the big thumbs down in a scathing, but widely publicised, review.

And even when the fan mail and royalties start to pour in, you still wake up in the middle of the night wishing you had taken out the unfortunate reference to Adolf Hitler, or toned down (or up) the sex a little bit.

So what can writers do to help themselves? The only advice I can give is to work at the craft of writing as much as possible, read and notice what works. And then, if you can, take your time. Don’t rush the process. Getting a book out there should not be the aim. Getting a good book out there is the key.

Because, if you manage that, then you are a real writer, and on top of all the other anxieties will be that nagging thought that before long you have got to go through it all again!

Helen Carey’s new novel, London Calling, will be published in 2015 – catch up on her

Time flies?

Nearly everyone I meet at the moment comments on how quickly this year has gone. At first I thought it was an age thing. But then my teenage niece (great niece actually, but I don’t dwell on that!) said the same thing. The old adage says that time flies when you are enjoying yourself. In that case, everyone I know must be having a very jolly time.

And then I began to wonder if people felt the same sense of time passing too fast during the Second World War. But I can find no mention of it in wartime diaries or letters. On the contrary, there are lots of comments about how slowly everything was progressing; the interminable Blitz, the endless backwards and forwards of the North African campaign, the pitifully slow Allied crawl up through Italy, and the long wait for the invasion of France.

If the old adage is right then the obvious conclusion is that people were not enjoying themselves. But, however odd it may seem, much of the evidence says they were.

Indeed many of the people I have talked to during my research look back on the war years with fondness and a sense of nostalgia. Yes, unbearably awful things happened, friends and family were lost, people suffered horrendous ordeals, privation and tragedy, but on the other side of the coin there was a sense of comradeship, both on the home front and on the battlefield, of being in it together. There was also a life affirming sense of surviving difficult odds, and of playing a part in a great struggle for justice and freedom. A Hungarian doctor attending survivors of the bombing of the Bank underground shelter said afterwards, ‘If Hitler could have been there for five minutes with me, he would have finished this war. He would have realised that he has got to take every Englishman and twist him by the neck – otherwise he cannot win.’ Another old Londoner who had been bombed out of his house was asked if he wanted to be evacuated. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘Nothing like this has ever happened before and it will never happen again. I wouldn’t miss it for all the tea in China.’

Nevertheless, it is clear that everyone was longing for the war to end. And perhaps it is the act of waiting for something that makes time go more slowly. Maybe nowadays, in our quick, convenient, instantly gratifying world, we lack that sense of expectation and anticipation. It is rare that we have to wait very long for anything.

I certainly know that some of my fans feel they have waited quite long enough for the next novel in my wartime Lavender Road series.

But it is finished and will be published next year. It’s called LONDON CALLING and takes the story up to Christmas 1943. I am so sorry it has taken so long, but I hope it will give you something to look forward to and perhaps make the intervening time pass a little more slowly!!

Snoopy xmas card

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!

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