Image Credit: Many thanks to Helen Matthews for supplying the author and book cover pics. Other images either created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos or are direct Pixabay images.
Welcome back, Helen, to Chandler’s Ford Today. This week Helen shares with me what drew her into writing domestic noir, her social media preferences, and reveals her top three tips for writers amongst other topics.
Noir as a genre has taken off in recent years. It lives up to its name by being on the darker side of life and is often connected with crime fiction/thrillers though not necessarily confined to that branch of writing. To name one example, there is Tartan Noir and, as you might expect, that relates to dark criminal writing relating to Scotland and Scottish writers. But almost any form of writing can have a dark side to it and Helen begins this week by explaining how she started writing domestic noir and more about what it is.
Over to you, Helen.
11. What drew you to writing domestic noir and can you explain more about it to CFT readers?
I’m fascinated by the darker side of human nature and by crime but I don’t want to write police procedurals. There are plenty of authors who have the right credentials and experience for that. I’m lucky to have a police officer in the family and when I do have police scenes I can get the details checked.
Overall I’m less interested in the murder victim story solved by a detective and more interested in flawed characters and the harm that people can do to one another and to themselves. Sociopaths, unreliable narrators and quirks of human nature intrigue me. Dark family secrets, lost or dead children, guilt, grief and abandonment all make great stories.
There are plenty of classic examples from Dickens’ Great Expectations through to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The protagonists must be exposed to serious threat but not necessarily death or murder. Some characters die in most of my books but this is rarely the point. It might just be a trigger for something else that’s going on. Novels like Gone Girl and Girl on a Train reignited interest in psychological thrillers – long may it continue.
12. Did you have any online book launches in 2019/2020 and, if so, how did these go? What events have you missed being able to do/go to during the pandemic? I’ve missed in person events especially.
In 2019 I got together with two authors, Katharine Johnson (The Suspects) and G D Harper (Silent Money) to form The Noir Collective. We did an event at a literary festival in Bracknell in autumn 2019 and pitched our author panel to several small to medium literary festivals and secured five bookings for 2020 in fabulous places including Ilminster and Mere.
When 2020 arrived, the pandemic and lockdowns hit and all live events were cancelled. One of the festivals, ReadFest organised by Barking and Dagenham went virtual and we delivered our panel in September. My book Façade also came out in September and I had an online launch in collaboration with other Darkstroke authors. My previous two novels were launched in Waterstones, Basingstoke and Farnham with cake, Prosecco and lovely friends to celebrate with. I can’t wait to do live events again.
Allison: Live events have been what authors have missed most. I had an online launch for my second flash fiction collection last year, which was great, but you can’t beat the vibe of interacting with an audience in person.
13. What are your preferences regarding social media? Why do you these platforms? (I use Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube as these work well for my flash stories especially. I’ve never “got” Pinterest or Instagram so am not on there). What do you think the advantages are for the choices you’ve made here?
I use all the established platforms – Twitter, Facebook, my own website including a blog and online shop, Instagram, which I find a kinder place than some of the others. I also have a mailing list on MailChimp and send out occasional newsletters. Tell me more about how authors can make use of a YouTube channel. I’ve not tried that.
Allison: For details of Helen’s newsletter there are two ways of signing up for this.
Allison: How authors could use a Youtube channel could make a further CFT post on its own (duly noted and will probably write one!) but Youtube can be used in a variety of ways. I use it to share mini videos for some of my flash fiction tales. It advertises what I do. Other authors will put up talks on there and then be able to share visual content on their websites. It can also be used for writing classes, hints and tips on a specific aspect of writing etc. Oh and don’t forget author readings. That could work here too.
14. How do you think your writing has developed over the last five years? Where would you like it to develop further in the next five years?
I do think it has developed but I wish I knew how. I think the process might be organic. Every time I start a new novel it never feels good enough and I panic in the early stages until I’ve honed and crafted it through many drafts. I usually do at least seven drafts before it goes to my publisher. I’ll continue to study the craft and read widely in my genre.
15. Pretend you’re on a desert island, necessities supplied etc. You can take three books with you. Which would you choose and why? (I will throw in Shakespeare, Dickens, and P.G.Wodehouse, because someone has to lighten the mood a bit, for you). NO Kindles!
I’ll take the books that are next on my to-be-read pile – Hamnett by Maggie O’Farrell, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller (who is a Winchester-based author) and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.
16. I always ask this of authors I interview so no getting out of it! Can you share your three top tips for writers?
1.Read, read, read – sounds obvious, doesn’t it, especially if you’ve been a reader all your life. But if you haven’t read much since school you’ll find tastes and styles have changed. The omniscient narrator, popular in Victorian fiction, has been out of fashion for a long time. Learn how to show not tell and read in the genre you plan to write and more widely. This will develop your critical eye and help you distinguish good writing from indifferent.
2. Find your writer tribe. Writing can be lonely so writers’ groups – local ones that meet in person and online groups on Facebook or Twitter (like #writingchat) – can give us the support we need. Our close friends may not understand our angst when a character isn’t working or when we’ve deleted 40k of painfully crafted words by mistake. Other writers share our frustrations and can advise on how to fix it.
3. You don’t have to write what you know. Draw on it, by all means, but give your imagination a free rein to be creative. Books would be very boring if we only wrote about the narrow confines of our own lives.
Allison: Indeed. And what would fantasy and science fiction writers do?!
17. What kind of genres do you like to read?
My first degree was English Literature so I’ve always read widely across a range of genres including the classics. I’m drawn to the darker side in my own writing and in my reading choices: flawed characters, unreliable narrators, unexplained deaths and hidden secrets.
As well as psychological thrillers, I also read what I’d call ‘state of the nation’ novels by the likes of John Lanchester, Ali Smith and Jonathan Coe. I’ve been lucky to meet so many other brilliant authors since my books were first published and if they are writing in a genre I understand and can do justice to I will read and review their novels. I try to keep up with literary fiction and the books shortlisted for major prizes.
18. Which authors do you like to read and why?
Helen Dunmore is a favourite. I discovered her in the early 2000s, initially through her psychological suspense novels. Long before Gone Girl, Dunmore was writing atmospheric twisty novels that stripped away layers from the characters to expose the darkness of their hearts. Your Blue-Eyed Boy, Zennor by Darkness, Mourning Ruby, and With Your Crooked Heart are all dark reads but they’re Iiterary in style with breath-taking imagery that gives a visceral satisfaction to the reading experience.
Elena Ferrante, author of My Brilliant Friend and the other Neapolitan novels. When My Brilliant Friend was published a few years ago the author’s identity was a closely guarded secret. There are four books in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels including Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: The Story of a New Name, and The Lost Child.
The novels became word of mouth best sellers and have since been broadcast and filmed but I’ve not felt the need to watch the film because the books were so vivid. Reading these novels was an immersive experience and I can only compare it with the joy I felt as a child when I first discovered the thrill of reading.
Writers I admire in my own psychological suspense genre include Lisa Jewell, Louise Candlish and Clare McIntosh. They have masterful and intriguing plots and their writing is high quality.
19. How much research do you do? (I should imagine there was so much to do for After Leaving the Village). How do you decide you have carried out enough research?
In an earlier question I’ve talked about how I researched the human trafficking and slavery aspects of After Leaving the Village. My main character came from Albania and initially I researched with guide books and articles, Google Earth maps and YouTube.
After my novel was accepted I decided I needed to go there to make some last minute checks that I’d got the facts about Albania right. I went with my journalist son which worked out brilliantly as we were able to connect with people of all generations. We also spent an afternoon with a village family so I could check what I’d written about the rural way of life my character, Odeta, wanted to escape from was accurate.
20. Last but not least, is there any aspect of writing you would like to try at some point in the future and, if so, why this aspect? What is its appeal?
I love to travel – don’t we all – and I’ve published some travel essays in a little eBook called Brief Encounters. My travel writing tends to be more upbeat than my dark fiction and is about the more unusual people and quirky experiences I’ve had on the road. I especially love exploring countries like Albania that few people I know have been to. I’d love to travel more and develop this strand of writing in the future if we’re ever again allowed to leave the country.
A huge thank you, Helen, for such wonderful insights to your writing life over the last couple of weeks. Every writer’s journey is unique and I know I learn something useful for every writer I talk to, whether it is in person or for interviews like this one. All the best with your future writing ideas! And I look forward to chatting with you again on Writing Chat soon.
And if you would like to check out Helen’s books, you can do so here at her Amazon Central page.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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