In this week’s post, I’m pleased to share an interview with my author friend Helen Hollick, who during lockdown took to crime! Cosy crime, that is (or cozy, if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic from us).
Also new this week: an interview with me has just gone live on the website of Saga Egmont, the award-winning audiobook publisher currently in the throes of publishing audiobooks of the first seven Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries. Click here to read my interview on Saga Egmont’s website. (Link will open in a separate window.)
Helen is a longstanding author friend of mine, and I’ve enjoyed reading her historical and pirate fantasy novels. So I was delighted when she told me that she’d decided to start writing cosy crime novels, even more so when she told me they’d be set in a 1970s public library, just like the kind that I used to love visiting when I was a child.
As a prelude to my interview with her, in case you’re not already familiar with Helen Hollick and her work, here’s an introduction. You’ll also find an extract of her latest mystery novel at the end of the post.
Helen Hollick’s Author Bio
First accepted for traditional publication in 1993, Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) with the sequel, Harold the King (US: I Am The Chosen King) being novels that explore the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she writes a nautical adventure/fantasy series, The Sea Witch Voyages. She has also branched out into the quick read novella, ‘Cosy Mystery’ genre with her Jan Christopher Murder Mysteries, set in the 1970s, with the first in the series, A Mirror Murder incorporating her often hilarious memories of working as a library assistant.
Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales and Life of A Smuggler. She lives with her family in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon and occasionally gets time to write…
Now, on with the interview …
Debbie: Your latest fiction writing venture has been quite a departure from your previous historical novels and historical pirate fantasy – what made you decide to sidestep into cosy mystery?
Helen: Well, to be honest – it’s all your fault, Debbie! I found myself hooked on your Sophie Sayers series, and during the first Covid lockdown I found myself wondering if I could also write a cosy mystery. I had been thinking about setting a novel in a library for quite a while, but had never got beyond the ‘hmm, I wonder?’ stage.
Lockdown created an urge to do something different, so the ‘thinking about it’ became ‘DO it’!
Debbie: Who are your favourite cosy crime authors and why?
Helen: You are top of my list (I am being truthful, not just currying favour!) I also quite like Helena Dixon’s Miss Underhay mysteries, Katie Gayle’s Julia Bird Mysteries, Rhys Bowen’s Constable Evans, and the Eve Mallow mysteries by Clare Chase. I quite enjoy Pauline Barclay’s new Gardner & Chattaway series as well. I like these because they are easy reads, the sort of books to go to bed early with when there’s nothing much on TV. I snuggle under the duvet with my Kindle, let the cat finish her ‘piano playing’, then curl up beside me. My favourite teddy is propped under my arm, and sometimes there’s a box of chocs to hand…
Debbie: What are the particular challenges of writing in this genre? What do you like most about it?
Helen: My intention, when initially setting out, was to enjoy myself – and hope potential readers would have fun too. So I try to have some humour mixed in amongst the serious murder mystery stuff. I hadn’t intended to do much detailed research – that silly idea soon went out the window! I discovered that my memory wasn’t as good as I thought it was, so I had to research the 1970s just as diligently as if I was researching the 1770s. It is quite challenging to keep a balance between writing the serious business of a crime, adding a touch of romantic development between the main characters and slipping in those touches of humour, whilst ensuring that the pace keeps steady and that ‘page turner’ quality isn’t lost.
Debbie: Aspiring writers are often told to “Write what you know” – yet this is the first series that can have drawn on your own life experience! To what extent do you agree with that advice?
Helen: I started off with writing historical fiction, and I’ll never forget my ten-year-old daughter saying to me when I was first accepted for publication back in 1993, “Mum, do you remember any real stone-age people?” Er… no, I’m not quite that old, and I don’t remember any Romano-Britons (My King Arthur Trilogy), I wasn’t there at the Battle of Hastings and I’ve never sailed aboard an eighteenth-century pirate ship! Apart from what I watch on TV (Vera, Foyle’s War, Lewis etc.,) I know nothing about murder or police procedure, so no, you do not need to write what you know about, that is where good research comes in.
BUT … historical fiction (or any fiction, come to that!) is not merely a case of stringing a series of ‘this, this, this’ facts together; an author has to create a readable story, and the best way to do that is to make use of what you do know in between all the made-up and well-researched bits.
Bring your characters to life by tapping into your own experiences. Use your pleasures or fears, your interests or knowledge. Although I do not personally know about the fifth, eleventh or eighteenth centuries, I do know about relationships, doubts, confidences … and horses. Horses feature quite often in my books. Except for the pirate stories, unless you include sea horses!
For what I ‘know’ in my Jan Christopher series: read on…
Debbie: This series is partially set in a 1970s public library. Tell us more about your former career as a library assistant. How different was the role in the ‘70s, compared to in the 21st century?
Helen: One reason why I decided to write my cosy mystery series was the fact that I wanted to make use of my twelve or so years of working as a library assistant during the 1970s. I have a wealth of anecdotes to draw upon, and, as with the above question, I do know about working in a library. However, writing about this period brought home just how much has changed since then.
No computers for a start. No mobile phones – we had one telephone at home which was in the hall, so no privacy for conversations with a boyfriend. One black-and-white television which Mum and Dad had priority over. (I remember being devastated because Dad wanted to watch something that was on at the same time as the Beatles were live on Top Of The Pops.)
As for the library – again no computers, everything was done by hand with cards and tickets. Filing index cards was a boring job. Who remembers those wooden filing cabinet draws? When a book was borrowed the individually numbered ‘charge card’ was taken from the pocket at the front of the book and slipped into the borrower’s ticket (yellow for adults, pink for juniors. I can’t remember if there was another colour for pensioners? Blue?) These were rough-sorted into pigeon holes along the wooden counter according to the charge card numbers, then, of an evening, put into numerical order in long trays. Once in order, the day’s ‘issue’ was counted. I got quite fast flicking through the tickets to count them.
When books were returned the date on the date label was checked, the corresponding tray found, and then the charge card in its ticket located. All of which worked fine apart from cards that were in the wrong order, or cram-full date labels which should have had a new one put in but hadn’t. Usually because the glue pot was empty.
As an assistant (note: I was only an assistant, not a qualified librarian,) the work was quite hard. Books weigh a lot, and I reckon we walked a good few miles each day round all those library shelves! The librarian was Mr Xxx, we used his surname, never his first name. And dealing with the rudeness of some members of the public was not always a pleasant task. Unfortunately, I doubt that bit has changed much. The public is still capable of being rude.
Debbie: Please tell us a little about Jan Christopher’s background and character.
Helen: Jan’s full name is January, for the month she was prematurely born – but she rarely uses it. Her father was a detective inspector in the local police force and was fatally shot when Jan was a small child, with her mother ‘disappearing’ soon after. (No spoilers: I’ve not said much about her Mum or Dad – yet. That’ll be for A Memory of Murder, when I get round to writing it.) So Jan was adopted by her father’s brother, DCI Tobias Christopher and his wife, Madge.
One rainy evening DCI Christopher collects Jan from work. His new Detective Constable, Lawrence – Laurie – Walker is driving the car, and for Jan and Laurie it is love at first sight. Their first proper date, however, is marred by the discovery of a murder, the victim being someone Jan knows from the library. Jan is only seventeen, she went to a lower-grade secondary modern school for girls, and didn’t do very well at her GCE exams. She is somewhat shy and naïve and lacking in self-confidence. She is, however, much brighter than her teachers gave her credit for, and she has an ambition to become a successful writer of science-fiction.
One reviewer for A Mirror Murder, the first in the series, said that she cries a lot, (actually, I dispute that,) but she is a young, not very worldy teenager – and she has just come across a rather nasty murder. I think readers would have been surprised if she didn’t shed a few tears!
I did smile at another USA reader’s comment, when she mentioned that the characters drink a lot of tea. The reader was delighted to discover that ‘The Brits really DO drink a lot of tea!” (Yep, we do!)
Jan will mature and get more confident as each story progresses and her life is punctuated by humorous things that happen in and around the library, her romance with Laurie flourishes and her, hopes and dreams either fail or come to fruition.
Debbie: To what extent is this series autobiographical – are you Jan?!
Helen: Ah… do I divulge an answer? Some, yes, is me. I hated school as much as Jan did, and was as bored by it (apart from English.) I wasn’t bullied but, like Jan’s, my school days were not ‘congenial’. I was frequently teased for always either reading or writing. Jan is shy and lacking in confidence – like I was, and quite a bit of what happens in the library is sort-of autobiographical. (Apart from any murders or law breaking scenes – these are totally fictional!) I also had my own horses and rode in Epping Forest, (and yes, dealt with ‘flashers’!) There really was a potential tragic accident when the car I was in careered, driverless, down a hill. I did hate a posh party I went to, although in the story it is a policeman’s ‘do’, in reality it was the Lord Mayor of London’s annual children’s party. I hated it because I was shy, scared, and knew no one! Most of the humorous library anecdotes are based on real events too. (I really did find a rasher of uncooked bacon used as a bookmark!)
My aim is to change locations for each story, so I intend to alternate between the library in the North London suburb of Chingford and more-or-less where I live now in North Devon. The library scenes are based on experience and memory. In Jan #3 A Mistake of Murder, Jan goes off to deliver books to the housebound. The people and events are fictional, but I did do a library Book Delivery Service for many years, taking books to some lovely elderly or disabled people.
Most of the Devonshire scenes are made up because I don’t want to inadvertently offend any of my neighbours. The village shop, now, is Community run, in my stories it is a large general-store/post office. The village pub will be today’s pub, but slightly altered to give it a 1970s feel. (Who remembers the popular pub meal of chicken in a basket?) Whatever period, though, life in the country doesn’t change much. Pigs escaped then and escape now. Hay had to be cut and baled then as it does now. In libraries nice people and the not-so-nice still borrow books. New additions have to be processed, returned books put back on the shelves. Today, library assistants watch the clock near closing time just as we did in the ’70s, and I still have occasional nightmares about people trying to climb in through the windows once the main doors have been shut!
Oh, and I do have a favourite teddy bear, just like Jan has.
Debbie: Why are libraries still so important today?
Helen: Why do we need libraries? After all, we have Google and Wikipedia instead.
But as the author, Neil Gaiman, says: “Google can bring you 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you the right one.”
Libraries are not just ‘book’ places. Today’s libraries have computers for people to use, newspapers, magazines; events such as talks and coffee mornings, fun things for children to do during school holidays. Libraries are somewhere warm to sit and relax. Somewhere to meet pleasant, likeminded people.
There are still many (too many!) people who cannot afford to buy books, or pay a Kindle Unlimited subscription for ‘free’ books. A library can become the hub of a community, a place for entertainment, pleasure and all-important education. It should be totally unacceptable for local councils to close libraries. It is thoroughly shameful that Waltham Forest Borough Council CLOSED South Chingford Library some years ago for lack of funding. The building is still there, but is now offices. A local group started a community library but they are struggling to keep it going. Why is the Council not financially supporting them? Not enough money? Well, think on these quotes:
- “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Benjamin Franklin
- “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” Walter Cronkite (US Journalist)
And don’t forget, libraries need us as much as we need them, so give your support by visiting your local library.
Debbie: My readers love hearing about the writing process. How do you write your books? eg plotter vs pantser, writing by hand or typing, edit as you go or get the first draft out first, where do you write, what time of day do you write, etc.
Helen: Oh, I’m haphazard, I write when I have ideas – and the rest of the time I could win a gold medal for procrastination. Once I’ve got going, I usually write of an afternoon and evening, ensure the draft is saved, then edit it the next day to correct, cut or expand.
I am visually impaired (glaucoma) so writing and reading with wonky sight is a challenge. Thank goodness for Alexa with her verbal assistances, my PC with its big screen, my large-keyed yellow keyboard and my Kindle with its large font. I think about the next scene of a morning while still cosy in bed!
Debbie: What’s your top tip for anyone wishing to start writing cosy mysteries?
Helen: Stop talking or thinking about it – get on and do it!
Debbie: Helen, thank you so much for that in-depth interview – now let’s whet everyone’s appetite for a Jan Christopher mystery with an extract!
EXTRACT FROM A MISTAKE OF MURDER
(The third Jan Christopher mystery), giving the flavour of a bus ride in the 1970s)
Was murder deliberate – or a tragic mistake?
January 1972. The Christmas and New Year holiday is over and it is time to go back to work. Newly engaged to Detective Sergeant Lawrence Walker, library assistant Jan Christopher is eager to show everyone her diamond ring, and goes off on her scheduled round to deliver library books to the housebound – some of whom she likes; some, she doesn’t.
She encounters a cat in a cupboard, drinks several cups of tea… and loses her ring.
When two murders are committed, can Jan help her policeman uncle, DCI Toby Christopher and her fiancé, Laurie, discover whether murder was a deliberate deed – or a tragic mistake?
I only just caught the bus – I had to run the last few yards, but the conductor, bless him, delayed those few vital seconds so, puffing like a labouring steam locomotive I made it onto the bus and slumped into a vacant seat.
“Saw you coming, love,” the conductor grinned, “so held it for you. Usual? The Ridgeway?”
I knew him fairly well, as he was often on this evening route of the 69 bus from somewhere-or-other in London to North Chingford. He was a friendly, good-looking man. I think his name was Joe – I’d heard someone call him that once. He often held the bus if he saw me coming. He was nice, friendly and chatty and I did sometimes wonder if he fancied me, which was extremely flattering but I never gave him any reason to be hopeful – too old for me for a start, he must have been in his thirties.
The bus smelled of chips. Someone two seats in front of me was eating them out of the paper wrapping. The aroma suddenly made me realise how hungry I was, and I wondered what Aunt Madge had cooked for dinner.
“Had a good Christmas and New Year?” he – Joe? – asked as he twirled the handle on his ticket machine, rolled out the printed paper ticket and handed it to me.
“Yes, lovely, thank you. You?”
“I was working for most of it. I volunteered for the extra shifts. Need the money. And my sister had Mum for Christmas. She’s elderly, disabled.” He shrugged, “My mum that is, not my sister.”
“If you’re local I could add your mother to our library book delivery service. I take books to the housebound.” I offered.
“She’s not much of a reader. Prefers the telly, them daft soaps: Coronation Street with Elsie Tanner and what’s-his-name? Ken Barlow, but thanks for the offer. That’s where you work, then is it? The library?”
I confirmed I did, and he wandered up to the man with the chips, told him, somewhat gruffly, that passengers were not allowed to eat on the bus – then cheekily helped himself to a few…
A Mistake of Murder, and the Jan Christopher Mysteries are all available from an Amazon near you, or order the paperback from your local bookstore. (Or see if your library will stock them!)
Amazon Universal Link: https://mybook.to/MISTAKEofMURDER
Helen’s Website: https://helenhollick.net/
Helen’s Amazon Author Page: https://viewauthor.at/HelenHollick
Subscribe to Helen’s Newsletter: https://tinyletter.com/HelenHollick