Continuing my series of chats with authors featured by The Guardian in their Self-Publishing Showcase, I’m delighted to welcome indie author Helen Hollick to my blog.
Helen was born in Walthamstow, North East London, in 1953 and began writing at the age of 13. Desperately wanting a pony of her own, but not able to afford one, she invented an imaginary pony instead, writing stories about their adventures together at every spare opportunity. In the seventies she turned to science fiction – this was the age of Dr Who, Star Trek and Star Wars. She still has an unfinished adventure about a space pirate who travels space with his family, making an honest(ish) living and getting into all sorts of scrapes. Perhaps one day she might finish it!
Helen had wanted to become a journalist when leaving secondary school, but her careers advice was not helpful. “Don’t be silly,” she was told, “you can’t type.” (She still can’t.) Instead, Helen worked in a library where she remained for thirteen years although she was not happy there – realising she wanted to write. The one advantage of the library, however, was the access to books, and it was there that Helen came across the Roman historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, the Arthurian trilogy by Mary Stewart, and the historian Geoffrey Ashe. She was hooked on Roman Britain – and King Arthur.
Reading everything she could, Helen eventually became frustrated that novels were not how she personally felt about the matter of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere). By this time, she was married with a young daughter and had time on her hands, so started writing her idea of Arthurian Britain, deciding not to include Merlin and Lancelot, magic or Medieval myth. Helen’s story was to be a “what might have really happened” historical novel, not a fantasy. What she did not know, was that the intended one book was to become a complete trilogy.
Helen found an agent who placed her with William Heinemann – accepted for publication one week after her 40th birthday.
Jane: Helen, I’m interested in your transition from traditional to self-publishing. What were the key factors that influenced your decision to become an indie author?
Helen: My backlist was dropped by my UK mainstream publisher, William Heinemann, and simultaneously my agent ditched me. I spent two weeks sobbing because I thought my career as a writer was over – then decided I had nothing to lose by going Indie. Best decision I ever made! I am now under the wing of a Bristol-based assisted publisher Helen Hart of SilverWood Books but remain mainstream with my historical fiction in the US.
Jane: Your biog mentions historical fiction. Is that the genre you generally write in and have you ever experimented with other genres?
Helen: I write historical fiction and nautical adventure. I have experimented with fantasy – I might return to that one day!
Jane: What was your first recognition/success as an author?
Helen: I had a small success with a children’s personal safety book (stranger danger) called “Come and Tell Me,” a little story written for her young daughter. I was immensely proud when the story was taken up by the British Home Office to be used nationally by the police and schools. Unfortunately “Come and Tell Me” is now out of print.
For my mainstream books, when I hit the US Today best seller list with my novel The Forever Queen (the UK edition title is A Hollow Crown). As an Indie published author, though, I was thrilled to be included among the few authors selected by the Guardian Newspaper as recommended self-published authors. http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/dec/05/readers-recommended-self-published-authors
Jane: Where is home and how does your environment influence your writing?
Helen: My family and I moved from London to Devon in January 2013. (We moved in during a heavy snowstorm!) We were fortunate enough to win a small windfall so took the opportunity to escape London for our dream life in the country. We now live in a gorgeous 18th century farmhouse.
Jane: With the number of self-published books increasing by 59% last year alone, it is increasingly difficult for authors to make their books stand out. How do you go about this?
Helen: Marketing your own books is really hard – apart from the demand of the time factor it is difficult to reach the right balance of promoting yourself and your books – while not over-egging the pudding and boring people with your novels. I am regularly on Facebook and Twitter, and have a website and several blogs – which I try to keep active with interesting articles on a daily basis.
Jane: Do you think the media gives enough coverage to books?
Helen: No – and certainly not to indie and self-published books.
Jane: As a self-published author, how do you divide your time between writing and marketing?
Helen: Marketing seems to be taken precedence, which is an issue I have to address soon because I really must get on with my next novel!
Jane: Have you ever seen a member of the public reading your book… in any unusual locations, perhaps?
Helen: I haven’t, but my husband was on a train and sat opposite someone reading my Harold the King, my novel about the events that led to the Battle of Hastings of 1066.
To buy click here
Jane: Do you think having an agent is vital to an author’s success?
Helen: If you have a good agent who fully supports you, yes, but having been sold down the river once, I would not trust one again.
Jane: Do any of your books have dedications? If so, to whom and (if appropriate) why?
Helen: All my books have dedications to people who have been significant, one way or another, to my writing career. Included are my family members, several close friends, authors Sharon Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick, graphics designer Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics, and my editor, Jo Field.
Jane: Who designs your covers? What brief did you give them?
Helen: Originally when I first went Indie I used covers designed by a family member. They were OK, but were somewhat amateurish. I soon realised that for a novel to look professional it had to be professionally produced. A fan of my Arthurian trilogy contacted me to say how much she enjoyed my interpretation of the Arthurian Legend, and after a brief exchange of e-mail correspondence I discovered she was a qualified graphics designer. She offered to re-design my Arthurian covers, which I was so delighted with I asked her to re-design all my indie published books. She now does all my marketing material and designs the images for my website. She is Cathy Helms of www.avalongraphics.org I highly recommend her.
To buy click here
Jane: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Helen: My ex-agent did not like my venture into writing a pirate-based novel with a touch of fantasy – even though the project was her idea. She wanted me to write the story for teenage boys; I was determined to write it for the adults who had enjoyed Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow. I wanted to read an adventure story that was similar to the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie – and could find nothing suitable, so I wrote my own. I did tote the result, Sea Witch, round a few publishers, but they insisted that adults were not interested in pirate adventures with a touch of fantasy. (Do publishers live in the real world I wonder?) So I went Indie. Self-publishing saves all those rejection slips!
Jane: What are you working on at the moment?
Helen: I have recently published a small booklet about tips for writing called Discovering the Diamond, but I must now move on to completing the fifth nautical adventure in my Sea Witch Voyages, a series about ex-pirate Captain Jesamiah Acorne. These are a blend of Hornblower, Jack Aubrey, Jack Sparrow, Sharpe and Indiana Jones! Good fun to write and read.
Jane: What is your ‘writing routine’ – if such a thing exists?
Helen: What is a writing routine? *laugh*
Jane: Where do you get your inspiration from?
Helen: If anyone could truly answer that question I think they would make a fortune. The ideas just come. Maybe they filter through from another dimension?
Jane: Do you plot your stories or do you let the story grow organically?
Helen: I have done both. For my historical fiction I use known historical facts as the basic plot and build the story from there. For Sea Witch, the first of Jesamiah’s adventures, the story just popped into my head as I wrote.
To buy click here
Jane: Do you have a method for creating your characters’ names and what do you think makes them believable?
Helen: My main characters come to me. I met Captain Jesamiah Acorne while walking on a Dorset beach. I was thinking about the story I wanted to write (Sea Witch) I had my basic idea but not my pirate. I sat on a rock, looked up, and there he was in full pirate regalia, standing a few yards away. OK, so I might have imagined him – but at what point does imagination become reality?
Jane: Who is the first person you first show your work to?
Helen: My main editor, Jo Field, and my proof-reader editor, Michelle Kelley.
Jane: Do you write your first draft on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Helen: Oh computer; much easier to cut, paste and delete!
Jane: Some writers listen to music, others the bustle of a coffee shop and some, like me, need complete silence. Which camp do you fall into?
Helen: I prefer to listen to music when actually writing, but quiet when I am thinking. Unfortunately my study, at the moment, is right next to the living room and my retired, slightly deaf husband has a passion for watching old westerns on TV….
Jane: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Helen: Third, for writing and reading.
Jane: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Jane: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Helen: Starting a new novel is always the most difficult part of writing. It is like going to a party where you know no one at all, have no idea what to wear, what to say and really only want to go home to watch TV. Then you start getting to know the other party-goers and suddenly you are all great friends….
Jane: I like that description very much! What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Helen: Four things:
- Stop talking about writing and get on with doing it.
- Always use a professional editor
- Ensure your book is produced to the highest quality standard
- Do not expect to become a best-seller, but do not lose sight of the possibility!
Jane: What do you like to read?
Helen: It depends on what mood I am in. More often than not I read historical and nautical fiction, but I like the occasional fantasy, science fiction or murder mystery.
Jane: My favourite books when I was growing up were The Owl Service by Alan Garner, Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery and The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. What were yours?
Jane: Are there any books that you would describe as ‘life-changing’?
Helen: Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave/Hollow Hills. They introduced me to how I think of King Arthur – which led to my own first published novel.
Jane: Regardless of genre, what are the elements that you think make a great novel?
Helen: The ability to tell a good story that from the first page suspends belief and takes you into the world of that novel.
Jane: The publishing industry recognised in 2003 that reading as a pastime was in steady decline and that for some, book buying and reading had ‘little relevance to their lives’. How do you respond to that?
Helen: One word. Nonsense.
Jane: How do you see the shift from paperback to digital books? Will the trend continue to go upwards or will it plateau?
Helen: I think it has already plateaued. Both have their place: e-books are ideal for traveling or if, like me, you have a sight problem (I love being able to make the font larger on my Kindle). But a machine does not have the soul of a book. Good books are here to stay.
Jane: What is your favourite bookshop and why?
Helen: Any independent bookshop. They are addictive.
Jane: Is there a quote about writing that you particularly like?
Helen: “Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents and everyone is writing a book” ~ Cicero, 43 BC
Jane: I saw for the first time a few days ago and I thought, how wonderful! What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?
Helen: We have four horses and a thirteen acre farm, so usually I am outside doing something or other!
Jane: Are there any books on writing that you find useful and would recommend?
Am I permitted to suggest my own? Discovering the Diamond http://www.helenhollick.net/revudtd.html
I wrote it, with assistance from my editor Jo Field, because we were getting so many e-mails from hopeful authors wanting some advice. We started off with an A4 sheet, which expanded to several pages, and then booklet length, which we decided to publish.
Jane: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Helen: I find Facebook and Twitter very useful because you can network with readers all round the world. I tend to stay away from forums as I do not have time to interact as much as I would like to.
Jane: What do you think the future holds for writers?
Helen: I think self-publishing will continue to grow and become accepted as quality reading as more indie writers realise that they must produce their work to mainstream standard: which means in addition to good writing, books are produced to a professional standard. I am the UK Indie Review Editor for the Historical Novel Society. I am amazed at the number of novels submitted that are incorrectly printed: double-spaced, text left-hand justified, typos on every page. One novel was completely in italics, another with the text so small you needed a magnifying glass to read it.
To be taken seriously as a writer, indie authors must produce their work to the highest standard. (I must add here, I made ghastly mistakes when I first went Indie. Going it alone is a huge, very steep learning curve!)
You can find out more about Helen and her writing life here:
Main Blog: http://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com/
Leaning on the Gate – Devon Diary: http://leaningonthegate.blogspot.co.uk/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/HelenHollick @HelenHollick
Thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to me, Helen. And for those readers not familiar with Helen’s writing, she has very kindly given me permission to reproduce an excerpt from Bring It Close the Third Sea Witch Voyage. Enjoy!
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Thursday 10th October 1718
There was a distinct chill in the air in the quiet hour before dawn. Jesamiah stood under the trees, his hands tucked beneath his armpits, staring across the dew-wet lawn at the balcony and window from where he had just climbed, leaving Tiola asleep, her body curled, contented, hair tousled. A smile on her face. He had not woken her but had dressed quietly, placed one of the less wilted flowers in the dent of the pillow where his head had been, and left her.
“I’ll come for you when you are ready,” he had said as he had felt the shudders of ecstasy coursing through him, and had grinned as she had cheekily answered, “I am ready now, and you are about to come.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he had repeated later, after she had crept down to the kitchens and stolen him some food; after they had sat in bed, naked, together, devouring the spoils and leaving crumbs on the sheets. “When you are finished here I’ll fetch you.” And had added, suddenly doubtful; “If you want me to?”
He smiled up at the blank darkness of the glazed window.
“Of course I do,” she had assured him.
“I want to know about my father,” was the other thing he had said. “I want to know why he did nothing to stop Phillipe. Why he allowed a boy – a man, he was all those years older than me – to do what he did. I thought Phillipe was my elder half-brother, and I thought he did those things because being the elder somehow gave him the right. But he had no right. He was not my brother. He was not my father’s son.”
“Leave it,” Tiola had urged him, her palm on his chest. “They are gone, it is done. Leave it.”
He puffed air through his cheeks, his breath visible in the coldness. If only he could. If only he could!
He was fiddling with his right earlobe, realised suddenly that the hoop of his gold earring was loose, that the attached acorn charm was not there. He cursed as he fastened the hoop, hoped the acorn had fallen off in Tiola’s bed. That she would find it, keep it safe.
Lost in thought, he did not hear the whispered breath at his back until it was too late. “Move a muscle an’ thee be dead, bastard.”
Jesamiah froze, willed himself to keep still as the pistol barrel pressed into his right temple. He forgot all about his earring as he heard the double click of the hammer. Prayed that his voice would not betray the fear thudding through him as he responded as nonchalantly as he could; “Hello Teach; you really have to learn how to move quieter if you want to creep up on people.”
It was a lie, he had not heard a sound, but Edward Teach, Blackbeard, would not be knowing that.
“What be thee doin’ ‘ere, Acorne, skulkin’ aroun’? Gotten thy eye on tha Guv’nor’s silver, hast thee?”
Slowly Jesamiah lowered his hands to his waist and felt surreptitiously for the slender blade concealed inside the facing of his coat. “I would wager I’ve been doing the same as you. Taking my pleasure with one of the ladies of the house.”
“Tha Guv’nor bain’t be pleased to be hearing tha’.”
“The Governor ain’t goin’ t’be ‘earin’ of it, is ‘e?”
“No’ ‘til ‘er belly swells.”
“When that happens, Teach, I’ll be long gone. Or I could put the blame on your nocturnal activities.”
The bigger, older man snorted, pushed the pistol harder against Jesamiah’s head. “Thee tried t’kill me. Thee crippled my sloop an’ made a gurt fool out o’ me in fron’ of my men. Give me a reason why I shoul’nay shoot thee ‘ere an’ now. An’ make it quick, I’m in no mood fer parlour games.”
With his left hand, Jesamiah eased the weapon aside. “You fire that an’ you’ll wake the entire household. You’ll probably think of an excuse to explain why you’re standing over a dead body, but saying why you are here, in the dark, an hour before dawn will be more difficult. Add to that, you owe me. Seeing as how you reckon I owe you, that makes us quits.”
Teach snorted again, but he un-cocked the pistol, lowered it. “An’ just how doos thee fathom tha’n? Thee lost me my ship. She were’n a fine vessel, tha Queen Anne’s Revenge.”
“I didn’t lose her. You were pissed out of your skull and you sailed her over a sandbar. You wrecked her, not me.”
A snarl began to pucker Teach’s lips. “An’ what of my sloop? Adventure? Thee nigh on scuppered ‘er an’ all, thee bastard.”
Slipping the knife into his sleeve, from where he could retrieve it in a hurry should he need to do so, Jesamiah tipped his hat back slightly. “Be that as it may. For some fokken stupid reason I saved your life, mate.”
“Fuckin’ tripe, thee bilge rat!” Raising the pistol Teach reversed it suddenly and brought the butt down hard into the curve where Jesamiah’s neck met his right shoulder. Jesamiah cried out and slumped to his knees. Willpower and gritted teeth made him ignore the agony shooting down his arm and stabbing up into his brain. He held his breath to ride it out.
A couple of deeper breaths and he forced himself to his feet. Halfway up he moved quickly. Stepping forward he thrust the blade up and under Teach’s waistcoat, pushed it against the lower ribs.
“You even think of blinking and it’ll be in to the hilt.”
“Thee casn’t kill me Acorne, nay un can. I ‘as made a pact with tha Devil.”
“I’m willin’ t’put that claim to the test.” Jesamiah was very close to Teach, his face almost in his; the smell of bad breath and body odour was nauseating, even with the general stench of uncleanliness a familiarity. Through the concealing bush of his beard ulcerous sores were spotted around Teach’s mouth and nose, a few blackened teeth were loose in his gums.
“I could kill you,” Jesamiah said, taking half a step backwards, but not removing the dagger. “Send you to the Devil to find out if he lied. Or are you goin’ t’throw the pistol into that flower bed over there and talk to me like a civilised gentleman?”
“Thee bain’t got tha guts t’kill me, worm.”
“Ah, but I have. Only, the price on your ‘ead ain’t ‘igh enough yet. Give it another month an’ you’ll be worth killin’. Now, do you want to know why I stopped you attacking the Fortune of Virginia or not?”
Teach growled, tossed the pistol away.
Jesamiah removed the dagger, but kept it in plain sight. “She sailed from Nassau, where she had been commissioned by Woodes Rogers who, as you know, is a bosom pal of Virginia’s Governor. The pair of ‘em ‘ave got bees buzzing in their bonnets about pirates who ain’t sworn an oath of amnesty. Are you listenin’ to me, Teach? They’ve got it into their ‘eads t’be rid of scummers like you.”
“I be list’nin’.”
“You were going to attack the Fortune of Virginia – you see, Blackbeard me old mate, you’re too fokken greedy. What had you assumed? That she was laden with rum; molasses; passengers? Slaves maybe?” Jesamiah shook his head, tried to ignore the throbbing ache in his shoulder.
“You’d got it wrong. She was packed to the gunnels with armed militia. Her orders were t’draw you in, wait fer you to board. Then finish you off. Savvy?”
“An’ thee,” Teach sneered, “out o’ tha goodness of thy putrid heart decided t’save me? Pull tha other leg, it has a bell tied to it!”
“I decided to warn you ‘cause I figured if I did you a favour you’d stop sendin’ your bloody men to spoil me pleasant evenings with a bottle and a blonde.” Jesamiah slipped the dagger into his pocket, spread his hands. “I ain’t got no quarrel with you, Teach, and I don’t p’ticlarly like the way these bastard governors are tryin’ to run us out of the Caribbean. This is our patch. Let ‘em bugger off if they don’t like the way we do things.” He folded his arms. “I came here specifically to warn you, but if you don’t want to listen, I’ll not waste m’breath.”
Blackbeard grunted, nodded, fell for it. Every untruthful word. He put his arm around Jesamiah’s shoulder and steered him away from the house, heading through the boundary trees to walk up-creek along a gravel path of crushed ballast that crunched beneath their feet. Began boasting how he had made the girl he’d been poking scream with delirious pleasure. “Left she crumpled in a heap sobbin’ an’ wantin’ more. She’m nait been drubbed like that afore. Takes a man to show as how it be done prop’ly.”
“Indeed it does,” Jesamiah responded, wondering who the unfortunate victim was, then wondering if it was true. He could not see any woman willingly bedding with this odious man. And Teach could not have been ashore long. They must have taken a good while to limp home, and there was fresh tar on Teach’s hand, Jesamiah noticed, while his boots were mud-caked. Come to see Governor Eden perhaps? To arrange the secret offloading of cargo?
Stopping at the bank beside a wooden jetty, Teach indicated a bum boat, four men were huddled together in the stern, snoring.
“I be goin’ home to me bade, Acorne. I live’n o’er to there,” he pointed in a vague direction across the creek, “at Plum Point. I be wantin’ thee to row back tha way thee came, an return to thy little ship an’ get off m’river. If’n I catch thee here again I’ll string thee up from thy own yardarm by thy balls. Be thee understan’in me?”
Jesamiah touched his hat, turned on his heel. “Aye Cap’n.” He walked away, heard the sound of a hand slapping against faces to wake up sleeping men. Heard grunts and grumbles and then the splash of oars.
Sweat trickled down his spine. That had been close. Thank God for his ability to think quickly and lie convincingly!
Peering over his shoulder, Jesamiah saw Teach’s men rowing across the creek, Teach standing in the stern, one arm outstretched. Saw a flash, heard a loud bang and remembered belatedly that Teach always carried more than one pistol.
Felt the impact of a lead ball slam into his right shoulder. As he crumpled to the ground, heard a man laugh, then shout. “Nay’un tries t’better me Acorne! Nay’un!”