Image Credits: Many thanks to Helen Matthews for supplying author and book cover images. Other photos created in Book Brush using Pixabay images.
Most of us have experienced small world syndrome when you re-meet someone you haven’t met for ages or discover the person who is sitting next to you at the cafe (now possible but suitably distanced of course!) went to the same primary school you did thirty odd years ago.
Recently this has happened again to me.
I first met Helen Matthews, novelist and short story writer, at the Hursley Park Book Fair as her table was near mine and we got chatting.
I’ve also met her at the Winchester Writers’ Festival. And now I’ve re-met her thanks to a Twitter group – #writingchat. This is on every Wednesday night between 8 and 9 pm where writers get together online and chat about a range of topics. We also share experiences and tips (including sometimes on what not to do). It is a friendly place to “hang out” and I always learn something useful from the discussions. (And it is wonderful being able to share with other writers the frustrations as well as the joys of the writing life).
Now a recent topic which came up on #writingchat led to a discussion about blogging and whether having authors on your blog or you going on theirs ever helped with marketing, sales etc.
Naturally I put in a good word for Chandler’s Ford Today here and Helen messaged me to make contact again and the idea of an author interview came up. I am always happy to chat to other authors as no two writers ever have the same writing journey even if they write in the same genre.
There is always something to learn from the experience of others here. And that I think is the big plus to guesting on another writer’s blog because writing keeps you on your toes, stretches you, and you learn about other opportunities from your colleagues too. None of us can know it all!
Also from a reader’s viewpoint, you get to see something of the creative process. I love reading interviews with favourite authors precisely because of that. I find the whole world of books and publishing fascinating.
As well as the above things Helen and I have in common, we both give Zoom talks (though this is a recent and most welcome development for me).
One of Helen’s is called A Writer’s Journey and What I Learned Along the Way. This talks covers Helen’s research for her novel about human trafficking, After Leaving the Village. Helen is also an ambassador for the anti-slavery charity Unseen that works with survivors of what is a horrendous and despicable crime.
So then I am delighted to welcome Helen Matthews to Chandler’s Ford Today. Helen is also published by Darkstroke and I’ve interviewed other authors from that stable here before (Paula R.C. Readman, Jen Wilson, and Val Penny to name but three so small world syndrome strikes again here too).
Introducing Helen Matthews
Helen Matthews is a published author with Darkstroke and has a suspense novel, Facade, out with them. She won the opening pages of a novel prize at the Winchester Writers’ Festival and the book from that went on to become After Leaving the Village. She has also written domestic noir in Lies Behind The Ruins.
Helen’s short stories have been shortlisted and published in Artificium, in the Reflex Press anthology The Real Jazz Baby, in EllipsisZine, and in Love Sunday magazine. She has published an e-book collection of stories and travel writing called Brief Encounters and this is available on Amazon. You can find Helen’s Amazon Central page here.
And now over to Helen…
1. When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? When did you start writing seriously for publication? (The two aren’t necessarily connected, mine are several years apart!).
I’ve been writing since childhood and always wanted to be an author but life got in the way. My first degree was in English but I ended up working in a profession that was about as far from creative as you can get. I wrote fiction and freelance articles in the evenings (many of which were published) but in my day job I wrote reports, legal documents, strategy papers and financial analyses.
All this business-speak impacted my creativity. Eventually I fled corporate life to do an MA in Creative Writing and changed career direction to freelance copywriting which fits well with writing fiction.
2. Can you tell us more about what you write and why you love writing in your chosen genres? What are the particular challenges? How have you worked out how to deal with these?
I write suspense thrillers, psychological suspense and dark women’s fiction sometimes called domestic noir. When I first started writing novels I didn’t really understand about genres, I just thought I was writing ‘a novel’.
So I’d say the first challenge is to understand the market and be very clear where your book fits in. If you don’t know this it’s almost impossible to pitch a book to a literary agent or publisher because they want you to be able to say where you’d see your book sitting on the shelves i.e. which authors would it be next to.
Although I’m happy that many readers enjoy my books as gripping page turners I always like to have some deeper underlying themes for book groups to discuss.
In my first novel, After Leaving the Village, I wrote about the dark world of human trafficking (but on a human level so readers could relate to the character). I wanted to raise awareness of this hideous crime and the plight of victims. My latest novel, Façade, is twisty family noir but has some deeper themes of guilt, jealousy, family secrets and the meaning of home.
3. How long have you been involved with Unseen? Had you decided to write about human trafficking for After Leaving the Village before discovering Unseen or was involvement with the latter which led you to write this novel?
When I was researching human trafficking and modern slavery for After Leaving the Village, I discovered the charity Unseen which runs the modern slavery helpline; provides safe houses and services for survivors and works with opinion former to bring about change.
I started sponsoring a room for a survivor and asked contacts at the charity is they would answer some of my research questions. Their inspirational MD read and reviewed the whole manuscript for me and was sufficiently impressed that she volunteered to write a foreword for the novel.
I offered to donate a percentage of my royalties to Unseen and I also donate any fees I receive from giving author talks. Unseen appointed me an ambassador as my talks help to raise awareness. I’ve also been involved in mentoring a (male) survivor who wanted to write a memoir and poetry as part of his rehabilitation.
4. Winning the opening pages of a novel competition at Winchester must have been such a special moment but what led you to enter the competition? What tips would you give for people thinking of entering writing competitions?
Any author will tell you It takes a vast amount of determination and persistence to write a novel but to get that novel traditionally published, multiply that effort by a hundred! On my MA in Creative Writing we were hardly told anything about other options available to writers, such as self-publishing. We were encouraged to aim high and go the traditional route by finding a literary agent who would then find us a publisher.
For years I wasted energy chasing that elusive species – literary agents. I had numerous requests for the full manuscript but often after waiting months it would all fizzle out with a nice email saying, ‘I loved your book but I don’t see where it would sit in my list’.
I’d been to Winchester Writers’ Festival a few times and it was a great place to meet agents for one-to-ones so I decided to enter the competition. It was judged by an editor from one of the top four publishing houses and my prize included a meeting with an editor at the publisher, who loved the book, called it ‘a strong new voice in women’s fiction’ and told me to come back and submit to them when I found an agent.
Guess what? Even with a solid expression of interest from a publisher I couldn’t find an agent. I’m published by small presses.
My tips for entering a competition would be make sure your novel or short story is ready. Don’t waste time or the entry fee submitting work that isn’t your best. I recommend critiquing your work with writer friends or beta readers.
5. How do you start on a new short story or novel? Do you plot or are you a “pantser”? Or does the approach differ depending on whether you write long or short fiction?
I’m around 70 per cent plotter, 20 per cent pantser, and the rest is just generally confused. When the words are flowing, the characters come into their own, I love that moment when they stand up on the page and tell me what direction the story should take.
6. Where do you stand on the question of having a writing routine? For me it’s crucial but I know of writers who do just “go with the flow” (or say they do. Can’t see how that would work but there you go!).
This working-from-home life has become normal for many of us since lockdown, with more people discovering you no longer need good hair or even a shower in the morning so I postpone personal hygiene until later in the day after I’ve walked the dog or been cycling.
With no commute or make up to do, I can have a lie in and still be at my computer by nine. I’m a night owl so I do work on in the evenings and often at weekends. I write most days usually for at least three hours but often for the equivalent of a full working day. Not all of that is creative output. I spend time critiquing for other writers or meeting in writers’ groups and lots of time is spent on admin, marketing and social media.
7. What aspect of writing do you love the most?
I’m part-introvert, part-extrovert so writing suits me perfectly because I can hide away and live in the world of my characters. But I also like to come out of my study regularly to meet up with other authors for critiquing and events. It’s a perfect life for me. I’ve never been happier.
8. What aspect of writing do you hate the most? (There will be something – or at least something you don’t like as much as the rest!).
I enjoy meeting up with readers in person and giving talks to book groups and at literary festivals but I’m less keen on promotion by social media. It can be draining what with blogging, chatting on Twitter, posting on Facebook and Instagram and sending out newsletters. We all have to do it. I do enjoy this type of interview with you as a fellow author and professional, Allison, because it’s interactive and feels like we’re having a proper conversation.
Allison: Thanks, Helen, and that is the point. It should be a proper conversation because the lovely thing in talking with other authors, is you will learn something useful and helpful even if you don’t realise it at the time of the chat.
9. Do you enjoy marketing? What have you found works for you? How do you balance writing and marketing time? It is never an easy thing to get right.
I think I’ve partly covered this in the answer above. When I’m gearing up for a publication date, I enjoy the buzz of writing articles for blog tours and appearing on local radio stations. It’s the week in, week out grind of marketing that exhausts me.
Allison: With good reason – marketing is invigorating and tiring.
10. Re your book covers: what was the inspiration behind them? What do you think your book covers “say” to a potential reader? Name one top tip for a great book cover you have found works for you.
Because I’m published by small presses I’ve had more input into my covers than an author would normally have with a large publishing house. I think Darkstroke nailed the cover of Façade really well. It suggests the ‘behind closed gates’ vibe of The Old Rectory that features in the book and is perfect for a psychological suspense story.
My first two covers for After Leaving the Village and Lies Behind the Ruin were originals drawn by a professional cover artist. I love the covers and they really stand out but they might be slightly ‘off kilter’ when it comes to signalling the genre. I suspect that a clichéd cover (scary dark staircase, a closed front door) is best for a genre like psychological suspense so readers know what to expect.
Allison: This is one of the joys of working with an indie press – you do get more input. I’ve been able to have input to my two covers for my flash fiction books with Chapeltown Books. Loved that (and the covers!).
Many thanks, Helen, for a fascinating peek into your writing life. I look forward to sharing Part 2 of this wonderful interview next week when Helen will share with us what drew her into writing domestic noir, social media preferences, and her top three tips for writers amongst many other things.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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