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Serendipity

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

Being shortlisted

I am late posting about this, as the news was announced last week, but I wanted to let you know that my latest novel LONDON CALLING has been shortlisted for this year’s RoNA Awards. london-calling-high-qual

rona_logo

The RoNA Awards, sponsored by Goldsboro Books, are the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s annual awards for excellence. There are several categories. LONDON CALLING, set in the Second World War, is in the category: Historical Romance.

The prize-giving event is taking place in the Gladstone Library, in Whitehall, London on 13th March. (Tickets are £65 each so I am expecting it to be a glittering party! Luckily my publishers, Headline, are treating me to my ticket!)

It is a real honour to have been shortlisted and a lovely vote of confidence from the Industry. Years ago I was shortlisted really nice that LONDON CALLING has been picked up for this award.

Many of my friends and readers know that I took a long break from writing to nurse my mother through Alzheimer’s. Eventually, after eight years, as her condition deteriorated, we had to get full time care, and it was then that I began writing again. Sadly my mother died last year, but she knew that I had finished LONDON CALLING, and would have been delighted to know about it being shortlisted for the award.

Next week am off on a trip to France to do a little bit of research form my next book, the sixth in the Lavender Road series. But I will be back in London in time for the Awards ceremony. I am not expecting to win as there are obviously lots of great books on the shortlist, but I am expecting to enjoy the canapés and bubbly!

 

London Calling is now available in paperback or ebook

Helen’s next novel THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET comes out 6th April 2017.

Tricky choices for authors

otterThere are so many choices for an author to make when embarking on a novel. What time period? What setting? What structure? What genre? What characters? What events? How true should it be to real history? What is the time frame? What is it all really about?

Many of these need to be answered before even starting out. No wonder so many potential novelists are put off at the first hurdle.

And as soon as you’ve made those decisions, (assuming you haven’t given up in despair,) 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, about style, dialogue, punctuation, action versus exposition, amount of description, and what actual 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 engross 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, 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 might be too weak. The concept may lack believability. The story might be 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. In my view, the very best endings grow out of the story, giving the reader what they want, but not quite in the way they expected.

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?

 If the answer is yes, then I reckon you are well on the way to a bestseller!

 

 

Helen Carey’s latest novel LONDON CALLING is now out in paperback.

All her books are available from good booksellers, or on line.

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.

 

 

 

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.*

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

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

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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