Helen is a master of bringing memorable characters to life, and I’ve wanted to ask her for a while about her inspiration, and how she got her start as such a popular author. Welcome, Helen. Now, let me ask you…
What is the first book that made you cry?
Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons. I pulled it off the local library shelf because I saw the broadsword on the spine and thought it could be a novel about King Arthur. I read the blurb, discovered it was about Prince Llewelyn of Wales and King John – both of whom I knew nothing about. This was 1985, when the book was new released. I still had that ‘wanna-be’ wish of becoming a writer back then and had been scribbling my own (poor) attempts at a novel about King Arthur. Until ‘Dragons’ I’d only read ‘Arthurian’ fiction, sci-fi and fantasy. This, aside from Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart, was my first foray into adult historical fiction. I devoured it, couldn’t put it down and realised half way through that I had utterly, hopelessly, fallen in love with Llewelyn.
The scene that made me cry? When Joanna turns he back on her father, John, and shows her loyalty to her husband by making her obedience to him instead. Oh I loved it!
I wrote to Sharon via her publisher – this was well before the internet and email days – thanking her for writing such a wonderful novel, and to my surprise and honour, received a letter back. We started to exchange correspondence, then met up in London where we talked history and writing non-stop. Sharon, bless her, offered to read my first chapter and give me some tips – which she duly did (lots of tips!) and after I’d re-written the thing, passed me over to her agent. The agent informed me that I had enough material for a trilogy (I was truly taken aback – yes there was a huge pile of typed paper and quite a few thousand words – but a trilogy? Wow!)
From there I was picked up by William Heinemann. I had the rights back in the mid 2000s, and republished the books myself (disastrously at first, but vastly improved when I went to a company that did not rip me off!) I was also picked up by Sourcebooks Inc in the USA during this time. I am considering re-publishing in the UK with new covers – a new look for books that have been out there since 1992!
To add, I cried buckets when I had to write the final scene of the third book, Shadow Of The King. I’d lived with Arthur for over ten years, and now had to kill him off. I couldn’t do it. In the end, I wrote the last chapter first, then went back to the beginning of the book. Yes, Arthur certainly knows how to keep his story alive!
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you building a body of work with connections or themes between each book?
I believe that books in a series must totally be stand alone stories – in other words have their own plot and ‘adventure’ (be that as a thriller, mystery, romance or historical fiction) but like a nest of coffee tables or a matching dinner service, each should neatly tie in with the other, have many of the same main characters and keep the continuity and flow.
Readers do not always start at Number One in a series, so the skillful inclusion of enough back story to know what is going on whatever book in the series is picked up first is essential, as is also the tying up of any dangling loose threads in the final book of the series. (Assuming there is a final one – some series don’t actually end as such.) My Pendragon’s Banner Arthurian Trilogy was an ongoing story told through the passing of time, a steady progress from Arthur as a boy in The Kingmaking through the second book, Pendragon’s Banner to his final days in Shadow Of The King.
My Sea Witch Voyages, nautical pirate-based adventures with a dash of fantasy, (if you enjoyed the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, you’ll like my series,) is also a series led by the passing of chronological time, but each is its own adventure – although tied in with an ongoing story line where the reader finds out more about the two main protagonists (Captain Jesamiah Acorne and his girlfriend/wife, the white witch, Tiola Oldstagh.) I bring in enough back story from the previous adventures to make sense of the present read – but without giving away too many spoilers. I see the series very much as a journey (well, in this case, a voyage!) for my readers, myself and my characters. I have to be honest – I only have a very vague idea of what is to happen in the next books of the series. I guess I get as surprised at what happens while writing as my readers do while reading.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Probably too many! I have a few left over ideas and notes from my early -re-published days (pre 1992) and a couple of ideas for young adult stories, which alas, now will never get written. I have one story of about ten chapters. It is a science fiction and my poor characters have been left marooned in space for nearly forty years now. Then I have a couple of tentative starts to historical novels, and a few mish-mash ideas for a couple of murder-mystery tales. Oh and the next in the Sea Witch series, and the one after that in note form… One of these days these other non-Sea Witch novels might get written, but time is ticking on and I’m sixty-seven this year… Still who knows what inspiration is on the next page…
Quick Q & A
Tea or Coffee: Coffee but Tea after Three.
Dark or Milk Chocolate: Dark
When were you the happiest? Since 2013 when we move to Devon
Favourite Children’s Book: Mark Of The Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff
Favourite Adult Novel: The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart
Thank you Helen. Great chatting – and Helen’s books and blogs can be found here:
Amazon Author Page https://twitter.com/HelenHollick
Discovering Diamonds Historical Review Blog (submissions welcome): https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.co.uk