Tomorrow I will be joining three other authors for a Writers’ Forum at Tregwynt Mansion in Pembrokeshire. As well as talking about our books, part of the format is that we each answer pre-set questions, so I thought it might be a good idea for me to answer mine here on my blog as a kind of practice for the actual event. Apologies to anyone coming to the event, but I promise there will be lots of other chit-chat too!
Question One: How long does it take you to write a book?
My contract with my publishers, Headline (Hachette), gave me a year to write each of my Lavender Road novels. That included research and editing. And I have to say it was a push. I probably take three months to research and to create my characters and to work out the plot. I am a very careful plotter because I hate editing. I don’t see the point of writing thousands of words only to cross them out later. So I make sure my story and my story structure works before I start. Not every detail of course, but I make sure I know where I am going, what the ending will be. Actual writing time is perhaps six months, working 10am – 7pm every day. And then I step away for a couple of weeks before going through the manuscript once or twice more for adjustments and tweaks, and to make sure it works as a story.
Question Two: How did you get published?
I was working as a management consultant, running courses in various British Universities. I was driving down the motorway one Friday after a particularly gruelling week and I said to myself ‘I’m sure there was something else I wanted to do with my life.’ I remembered that I had always had an ambition to be a novelist. Even as a child I had written pony stories, but somehow real life had got in the way. So I began writing – mostly rubbishy stuff , it takes time to learn how to create a page-turning novel – and after a while I was shortlisted for a new writers’ award. That led to my getting an agent. When we first met I had talked to her about an idea I had for a novel starting at the end of the Second World War, so when an editor at a big London publishers asked her if she knew anyone who might be interested on writing a series set in world war two she immediately thought of me. As it happened I knew very little about the war, but I was so excited about the idea of writing a series I did a massive amount of research in about five minutes and created a story outline which seemed to do the trick. The publisher commissioned me to write three books, and so the Lavender Road series was born.
Question Three: How important is the cover?
I think it is really important. And it is an issue which I am finding particularly interesting just at the moment. Book publishers are really into branding. And they love to jump on a lucrative bandwagon. It is much safer for them to add a book into an existing brand than to take the risk of starting a new brand, or genre as they would probably call it.
My UK publishers have taken the decision to put my books into the wartime romantic saga genre even though my books aren’t really like many of the other books in that genre. So, to fit the genre, they have produced covers with pretty young women’s faces on the front and a wartime scene in the background. Romantic sagas form a huge market in the UK, especially in supermarkets, and my publishers feel this is the best way of achieving the highest number of sales.
In the US we have taken a different approach. My American covers, with their wartime poster style, are designed to be perhaps more middle of the road, more historical fiction than romantic saga, and to appeal to a wider range of reader, including men.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating of course. There is also a big difference between the paperback market and the eBook market. Time will tell how the books all do longer term. But as it stands today, four of my novels are in the top 100 historical fiction chart on Amazon US. So the American covers are doing something right!
Question Four: Which books have inspired you? Who are your Favourite authors?
I am an eclectic reader. Over the last couple of months I have read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The Leopard, the Italian classic, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child, a couple of spy thrillers, a Mary Stewart novel, and Eligible, the Pride and Prejudice pastiche, by Curtis Sittenfeld. I love beautiful or clever language, and compelling characters, but the books that most inspire me are books I can’t put down. My interest in story structure draws me to writers who can keep me hooked from beginning to end. I also love it when readers contact me complaining that my books have kept them awake all night.
The Writers Forum will take place in Tregwynt Mansion, nr Fishguard, Pembrokeshire at 7.30 on Thursday 26 July.
Helen Carey’s latest novel is Victory Girls, the 6th novel in the Lavender Road series. It is out now out worldwide as a Kindle eBook. The paperback will follow in October.