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Happy Christmas

Hello to all my friends and readers. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch for a while, I have been having a little rest from book promotion, but I do want to thank you all for continuing to buy my books, for all the wonderful messages I receive, and most of all I want to wish everyone a very Happy Christmas and all good things for 2022.

It now looks as though we are about to enter a new lockdown here in the UK, our government is a complete mess, and we still have the awful effects of Brexit to deal with, but I am ever hopeful that this horrific period of turmoil will end, and then there will be new lovely things to look forward to …. possibly including a new wartime series from me! I have (what I think) is a good idea and I have done some research, now I just need to summon the energy to write it all down!

I’m making no promises, but whether it comes to fruition or not, I still want to wish you all the very best for 2022 and lots of Happy Reading.

Helen Carey


serendipityOne of the wonderful things about writing novels is that serendipity often lends a helping hand.

When I was starting to write my first book, LAVENDER ROAD, my car had broken down and I bumped into a wonderful local lady, Laura Boorman, at a bus stop on Clapham Common. Inevitably the bus was late, and we fell into conversation. It turned out Laura had lived in London right through the war years. She was a mine of information, and many of her memories crop up in the Lavender Road books.

A couple of days later the garage owner introduced me to an actor who in turn put me in touch with the lovely Mary Moreland who had been a celebrated concert artiste in the 30’s and 40’s. Much of Jen Carter’s turbulent career in SOME SUNNY DAY and the other books is based on Mary’s experiences.

Just as I was beginning to think about the SOE angle for ON A WING AND A PRAYER I was invited to an uncle’s birthday party at the Special Forces Club in Knightsbridge. There, I not only discovered the tragic staircase of pictures of agents killed during the war, which was a salutary reminder of the incredible dangers those men and women put themselves in for the sake of their country, but I also found information about certain young female agents and was therefore able to base Helen de Burrell’s adventures much more on reality than invention.

While I was researching the early development of penicillin for LONDON CALLING, I discovered by chance that an old family friend, Antony Jefferson, had been a medical student at the time (1942) and actually visited the laboratory in Oxford where Professor Florey and his small team were attempting to create a therapeutic drug. Things were so short in those days that they had to resort to using bedpans to grow the cultures in as they simply couldn’t find any other suitable receptacles. Antony had also survived a torpedo attach in mid Atlantic. Some of my readers will recall Jen and Molly’s dramatic escape from their sinking troopship in the Mediterranean, all based on Antony’s experiences!

I had already begun writing my most recent Lavender Road book, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET, and was trying to find useful details about the women’s services during the war years, when I asked Eirian Short (a famous local embroiderer) for some advice on a tapestry I had recently inherited, only to discover that Eirian had joined the ATS in 1942 and remembered every detail! Although I should add that Eirian’s military service history was exemplary, and my character Louise Rutherford’s various high jinks are entirely her own!

Now, as I draw to the end of writing Book 6 (as yet unnamed) I’m glad to report that the same kind of thing has happened again. I won’t tell you exactly what because I don’t want to give the story away yet, but suffice it to say that serendipity has once again played a part, and for that I am profoundly grateful!



Helen Carey’s latest novel, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET, was published by Headline on 6 April 2017 and is now available at your local Amazon store.

Uk editions combo 2          US Editions combo


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.

Why do people write novels?

chicken motivationBy any standard writing a novel is a long hard grind. Despite popular opinion, very few novelists ever hit the real mega buck level (many don’t hit any buck level at all). But yet judging from the plethora of wannabe novelists on Twitter and Facebook, it appears that almost everyone nowadays is an aspiring author. So why do so many people do it?

I often ask the students on my writing courses what their motivation is. And here are some of the answers: ‘I want to make sense of the world, to explore my emotions, something awful happened to me and I want to write about it, because I love using language, it’s something to fill the time, I love books, I want to inform people about something, create another world, explore an issue, I’m bursting with a story to tell, my family is so funny I want to write about it, I see it as a kind of therapy, I want to share my knowledge, I want fame and fortune, I want to create something that lives on, a legacy,’ and so on.

These are all perfectly legitimate reasons for having a go at writing a novel. They do not, however form a good basis for writing a successful novel.

Let’s see what what the same students look for in a novel.

‘That feeling of getting completely immersed in a good story, I look for a clever plot, an escape, I love getting to know new characters, I want to laugh, I want to explore different worlds, to live other people’s lives, being be emotionally engaged, I want to be entertained.’

So I think we can see there is a bit of a mismatch. The word entertain, for example, rarely appears in the first list and yet always appears in the second list. This doesn’t matter at all if the writer realises that the hilarious exploits of their family are unlikely to bring them fame and fortune. But it does matter if that’s what they are aiming at. They are pretty much doomed to disappointment.

On the whole, people read books because they want to be entertained. Now, some people are entertained by dismal accounts of other people’s private misfortunes, some people even like being lectured to about obscure issues, but what most people really want is a book that grips them from beginning to end, about a subject that they find interesting and peopled with engaging and believable characters.

So if you are on the brink of starting to ‘write a novel’, stop for a moment and ask yourself what your motivation is. Then ask yourself what is the outcome you hope for. If you are going to aim for the fame and fortune option, then you are going to have to study your craft very carefully and prepare to write a lot of novels during the learning process. If, on the other hand, this is a one-off for your own pleasure or to amuse your family, then fine, just go for it.

In either case, knowing what you are up to will help you do it better. And I wish you the very best of luck with it!

historical novels – how accurate are they?

I was talking to an elderly lady yesterday who complemented me on the accuracy of my wartime novels. ‘It must have been especially hard for you to get them right,’ she said. ‘As you weren’t there at the time.’ And that made me start thinking about how ‘right’ historical novels ever really are.

Clearly all historical fiction is fabricated in some way. Hilary Mantel was not present in the Tudor court (as far as we know), nor did Steven Saylor ever don a toga and wander the streets of ancient Rome. Mary Renault was never pally with Alexander the Great, and I wasn’t even a twinkle in my mother’s eye during the Second World War.

So would it have made any marked difference to my novels if I could remember cowering under a Morrison shelter as a child?morison shelter

Personal memories are clearly useful, but we also all know that memory can be faulty. People often ‘remember’ things that other people have told them, or that they have read about. Our recollections are always in some way overlaid by our own ‘world view’. My sister’s memories of our childhood often don’t correspond with my own (I’m quite sure I never pretended to be a puppy living in the wardrobe!) I have equally found in my own research that people’s retrospective view often varies wildly from letters and diaries written at the time. For example, the post war mantra of ‘We all pulled together’ sits oddly with numerous diary gripes about petty theft, looting and prejudice.

Received wisdom and the wisdom of hindsight is often a problem for historical novelists. I believe that a crucial part of the writer’s job is to re-explore the era and to re-examine what people really were feeling, thinking and doing at the time the novel is set. The most effective way to do this is to study the history, investigate different reports of specific events, read diaries, letters, magazines, newspapers, listen to old radio shows (I still giggle at the idea of the indefatigable Sandy Macpherson and his everlasting organ!), and yes, if possible, to talk to people who were there.

When you pull all this information together you get a real feel for the specific era you are writing about, but of course, even then, it is still only background material. The key skill of any successful novelist is the ability to create three dimensional, empathetic characters and to weave them into a plot which will not only transport readers to the time and place of the story but will also give them a compelling reading experience.

So, yes, when writing any type of fiction it’s clearly vital to get it as ‘right’ as is humanly possible, but I don’t believe it’s necessary to have ‘been there at the time’ in order to create a sense of authenticity. If that was the case the number of historical novels on our shelves would be very limited – and science fiction novels nonexistent!

The Next Big Thing

Last week I was tagged by Laurie Gilbert to take part in The Next Big Thing. This is a viral blog chain which apparently you ignore on pain of death!! So here I go answering the questions …

1 What is the working title of your next book?

2 Where did the idea come from for the book?
It follows on from my previous three Lavender Road novels – the original idea was suggested by Rosemary Cheetham at Orion who to publish a wartime series set in London. We had a brief wrangle about where it was to be set (she wanted it to be in the East End of London, but I managed to convince her that Clapham in South London was an equally (or perhaps even more) interesting area!) She then commissioned me to write the three book series, which was great.

3 What genre does your book fall under?

4 Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’d choose Dan Stevens (Mathew from Downton) for Ward Frazer, Dani Harmer (brilliant on Strictly) would make a great Molly Coogan, Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame) would be perfect for Helen de Burrel, and I think Ryan Gosling could play André Cabillard. Emma Thompson would be fab as Celia Rutherford, Jenna-Louise Coleman (from Dr Who) would make a wonderful Jen Carter and how about challenging Meryl Streep to play Jen’s mother, Joyce?! Any other suggestions gratefully received!

5 What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
As the war enters its fourth year the people of Lavender Road long for peace, but instead they find themselves right up against it, challenged by privation, love and unexpected danger.

6 Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m not sure yet. Previously, for my physical books, I have been represented by an agent (A.M. Heath) and published by a big publisher (Orion). But when the digital revolution began I decided to set up a small publishing imprint (TSAP) to publish eBook versions of my novels myself. These have done so well I may well decide to go on down that route.

7 How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I haven’t finished it. It will probably take at least six months.

8 What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
William Boyd, Wendy Robertson, Freda Lightfoot, Sebastian Faulks and Jack Higgins have all written great Second World War novels / family sagas, they aren’t the same but if you like them you might like mine and vice versa!

9 Who or What inspired you to write this book?
When I was first thinking about writing the Lavender Road series I was living in South London and had got to know quite a few people who had lived through the war years there. I was fascinated by their stories of the courage and resilience that people showed during those difficult years and thought I could weave some of them into a wartime street saga. The success of the first three books in the series has encouraged me to write LONDON CALLING, set in 1943.

10 What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
My readers seem to love with my characters. I try to make them as ‘real’ as possible so the reader can engage with them and experience their highs and lows. Most of the old favourites will feature in this next novel – Jen Carter, Katy Parsons, Helen de Burrel, Joyce Carter (and of course the gorgeous Canadian Ward Frazer) – but I will also be taking up the story of the young nurse Molly Coogan who has only had a small role in the previous novels. Exhausted by her relentless wartime routine and compelled to live with an awful secret, she longs to get away, only to find when her wish is granted that she has jumped out of a very calm frying pan into a tumultuous and life threatening fire.

Thanks for reading! I am now passing The Next Big Thing baton onto my friend and up and coming writer Natalie Lloyd Evans … at http://www.wordyhood.com and her connected blog http://natmegevans.wordpress.com

Managing expectations

‘It’s the taking part that counts’ says the Olympic motto, but all we seem to see and hear is regret about missed medals, or even (amazingly) about the bitter disappointment of getting silver instead of gold. 

It’s a similar story with writing. ‘So, how are the books doing?’ people ask. Is it enough to say you have finished a new novel, or have just got one published and that readers are enjoying it? No. We long to say we have a top agent, publisher or film company sniffing at our heels, or that we are in the bestseller lists (or the Amazon top 100 at least), or that we have recently won one of the prestigious literary prizes. But usually we can’t. So, somehow, despite all the effort of writing the damn thing, all the satisfaction of finishing and getting a good book out there, we writers somehow end up feeling disappointed. 

Yet, clearly not everyone can write a bestseller every time. Not everyone can write a bestseller full stop. But then not everyone can write a readable book at all. It sounds easy – if you haven’t tried it. ‘Oh yes, I’d write a novel if I had time’ people sometimes (clearly unaware of the danger they are in) remark airily to writers. But it takes grit and determination, inspiration and a considerable amount of luck to write a novel, let alone a really good one. It is certainly not plain sailing (as British yachtsman Ben Ainslie is finding today as he tries to secure his apparently ‘certain’ gold in the Open 49er class). 

So why has the ‘winning’ (and not the taking part) suddenly become so important? In some countries just being a writer is a cause for some acclaim. And how nice that is! Because writing isn’t a competition, it is a personal, private endeavour. The truth is that, despite all the judging and criticism that goes on, you simply can’t compare one book with another. Not with any real objectivity at least. They are all completely different, they appeal to different audiences, at different times, in different moods. We all have books on our shelves that we enjoyed in the past that we wouldn’t touch with a barge pole now. In my teens I loved The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse – I can barely get past the first page nowadays. And yet Great Expectations, which I utterly loathed at school, has (rather appropriately for this post) seen me through a recent illness with total absorption and delight. 

I know people crave success (and financial reward) and there is nothing wrong with striving for it, but, as with the Olympics, there are only so many places on the podium. We should try to be content with our capacity to take part, and celebrate even the small achievements. We writers are doing a great thing. We are providing entertainment, escape, excitement, learning, humour and a myriad of other wonderful things to our readers – what more acclaim do we really need?

Beating the Bounds – living history rather than fictional history

I imagine that it is not every day of the week that a young boy is beaten by a mayor on top of a mountain! But before you start to reach for your telephone, please be re-assured,  no children are harmed in this ceremonial event (apart from a few sore feet perhaps).

No, this now purely symbolic assault on a young lad takes place during the annual August re-enactment of an ancient tradition – the perambulation, or ‘beating’ of the bounds of the Barony of Newport, our local town. 

In his book, ‘The Ancient Borough of Newport in Pembrokeshire’, local historian Dillwyn Miles explains:

‘The custom of perambulating the boundaries of a parish is said to date from the fifth century when the incidence of plague and tempest prompted the Bishop of Vienna to lead a procession chanting litanies and imploring divine protection on the three Rogation Days preceding Ascension Day. The custom continued with the parish priest being followed by the parishioners and children, all carrying white willow wands bedecked with the rogation flower, the milkwort and ribbons. The procession halted at boundary marks where small boys were beaten so they would always remember where the boundaries lay, and they were afterwards rewarded with cakes and sweetmeats.’  

These ceremonial perambulations ceased in 1888 and it was not until 1964 that the custom of beating the bounds was revived in Newport. The full circuit is about 26 miles but nowadays a slightly shorter route has been adopted. So each year a band of walkers and horse-riders congregate in the town square in order to follow the Barony flag for a (mere) 9 mile ‘perambulation’.

Heading off first along the beautiful, rugged coast path, the group then climb up through ancient lanes and fields to the wilds of Waun Fawr common. It is at the Bedd Morris boundary stone that some poor unsuspecting youth is ceremonially beaten by the Mayor and the perambulators are offered ‘cakes and sweetmeats’.

Thus refreshed, the party then heads on up over the remote heather, gorse and sheep covered hillside to patrol the boundary behind the dramatic crags of Carn Ingli (Mountain of Angels – the location of one of the key scenes from my novel SLICK DEALS), and finally back to Newport.

Everyone who completes the circuit is rewarded with a Certificate presented by the Court Leet (a body of ‘Burgesses’ and ‘Aldermen’ who traditionally serve the Newport Barony). Participants also take away an abiding memory of a walk (or ride) undertaken with a sense of purpose and of being part of living history.

Last year about 35 walkers, a dozen or so riders and a selection of dogs successfully ‘beat the bounds’ on a particularly lovely August day.  

If you are in the Newport, Pembs area do join us this year. We will meet in Market Square at 1 pm on Friday 17th August. Young boys are especially welcome!

Welcome to Helen Carey’s blog

Hello, 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.

I hope you are all staying safe and coping with the lock down. Please feel free to get in touch if I can answer any writing or reading questions.

With all best wishes, Stay safe.


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