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Friday 2 November 2018

Interview - Kate Helm

talks about ‘From Romance to Crime’ with Radmila May

Kate Helm is a successful writer of women’s fiction under her real name Kate Harrison. She has written for national newspapers and magazines including the Telegraph, Mail on Sunday, Red and Cosmopolitan. Kate also teaches creative writing and TV development in the UK and abroad, when time allows.
Her first crime novel, The Secrets You Hide, written as Kate Helm, has just been published as an e-book and will be available in paperback in February 2019.

Radmila: Kate, could you tell us something about yourself?
Kate: I’m a TV-journalist turned author with 20 books under my belt – I live in Brighton with my partner Richard, a dog and a cat. I was a total bookworm and storyteller as a child and became a journalist because it was the only way I could imaging writing for a living. My first novel, a dark comedy about a school reunion, was published in 2003 and since then I’ve sold almost a million copies of my books world-wide, across many different genres, including self-help, recipe books, teen drama and women’s fiction.

Radmila: Your first crime novel, The Secrets You Hide, has just been published as an e-book and will be available as a paperback in February 2019. Could you give us an idea of what the story is about?
Kate: The Secrets You Hide is about a female courtroom sketch artist whose job is to capture the faces of the evil and the innocent in the most shocking criminal trials. But her own past means she’s out for revenge. She believes that everyone is guilty of something and makes it her mission to ensure she portrays those accused in the worst light. Until she realises that the wrong person might have been convicted in the first case she ever drew – and she is partly to blame… It’s a psychological thriller combined with a legal drama: readers have also commented on it being emotionally powerful, which maybe comes from my previous genres.

Radmila: You have written a number of romantic novels and some non-fiction books? What led you to make this change from romance to crime?
Kate: It’s always about the idea rather than the genre for me: I get super-excited by a topic or idea and then go all in, before moving onto the next thing. I also think a lot of readers are like this, picking topics that suit their mood at the time. People love variety. With The Secrets You Hide, I heard a couple of crime podcasts that inspired me and I realised the dark idea that began to form wouldn’t work as women’s fiction. So, I embarked on my first adult thriller, and later we decided to move away from my real name, Kate Harrison, to Kate Helm, so readers didn’t end up with the wrong kind of book! 

Radmila: Apart from the fact that in romantic fiction there is generally not a crime whereas in crime fiction there must not only be a crime, but the crime must be serious, how would you describe differences between the two?
Kate: Readers always pick up novels of different genres hoping for a different experience: fear, comfort, escape. So that means that as an author you need to be very aware of this. I think a lot about the emotional content of a story – how do I want my reader to feel as they start the story, when they reach the dramatic moments, after they’ve finished? In a crime novel or thriller, it’s all about tension: that sense that something is wrong but you’re not sure what or why. Ideally that builds and builds till it’s almost unbearable but also unputdownable. My previous novels were women’s fiction than pure romance – so the central characters face problems resulting from work, family and friendships as well as love. But in those books, the reader often wants either to empathise and be moved by the characters, or to escape to a more dramatic world. There’s pressure in women’s fiction for your characters to be ‘relatable’, even likeable, but crime gives you much more leeway.

Radmila: And what about the similarities?
Kate: You must have compelling and engaging characters in difficult and conflict-filled situations. Engaging doesn’t mean ‘nice’ but your protagonist and antagonist – and everybody else – must be enjoyable to spend time with, even if that enjoyment comes partly from shock at the way they behave. I should add: I mean shock at how audacious or brave or frightening they are, not surprise when someone acts completely out of
character for the sake of a plot point. The story also has to have lots of momentum. Our world now is fast-moving, and there’s so much choice when it comes to how you want to be entertained. Books -certainly commercial books - can’t be ponderous. They have to be as thrilling and surprising as the best boxed set on Netflix, and more absorbing than social media. That applies to every genre.

Radmila:           Your protagonist is a courtroom artist which is an unusual and interesting choice. What led you to choose such a protagonist? Tell us about her. 
Kate:                  I’ve always been fascinated by legal drama and justice, and I trained as a journalist, working in courts when I was a cub reporter and later at the BBC. But then I heard a podcast about courtroom artists in the USA and it planted a seed in my mind, imagining what it would be like to stare at the faces of those accused of terrible crimes, and try to capture them in drawings. I pictured a person who is motivated to do this work by their own dark past, a young woman with a warped view of the world. This developed into Georgia who becomes obsessed with the first case she ever drew, and whether the right person was convicted. Georgia is loyal and talented, but her creativity has been channelled in a very damaging way.

Radmila: Do you envisage a series?
Kate: I loved writing about Georgia and the cases she follows, but I see it as a standalone for now, though some reviewers have said they want to know what happens next for her. She’s a very determined character and so I do think she could make a difference to other trials. Watch this space. I have already finished the first draft of my new thriller, though, which is another standalone and focuses on the toxic effects of groups: what happens when the wrong people meet and bring out the worst in each other?

Radmila: Will your protagonist be in/enter into a relationship in the course of this novel? If there is to be a series, will the relationship continue?
Kate: Georgia is still close to her ex-fiancé in the book, but as he’s now married with a baby on the way, their relationship is more about the past and why she wouldn’t commit. Georgia is desperately lonely, and there is someone who tries to break through that, but love is definitely not a priority for her while she confronts demons – real and imagined.

Radmila: You gave a most interesting talk (to the London chapter of the Romantic Novelists Association) about ways in which a writer can attract the attention of agents/editors/readers. Do you think that the suggestions you made apply as much in the field of crime fiction as in non-crime fiction?
Kate: Definitely – it applies to all stories or forms of entertainment.  It all comes back to needing to fight for a reader’s attention, against tough competition from other media. That competition starts at submission stage – if you can’t explain what makes your book brilliant, then how can an agent or a publisher hope to? Having said that, coming up with a great title or a compelling ‘pitch’ is something even the bestselling authors can struggle with, so I’ve used my experiences working in TV and journalism to come up with a formula for writing book descriptions and ‘hooks’ – it’s the method I use whenever I am planning a new book. It focuses first on the title, then the hook or story question – what is the mystery or issue faced by the character in the book and what will your reader be desperate to know the answer to? I also look at how the story is told (point-of-view, tense, language and your own unique perspective), the emotional impact on the reader, and evidence that there is already an audience for the kind of story you’re telling. Sometimes with a new genre or topic, you can look at TV or current trends to prove there’s a readership. I don’t see it as selling out, instead it gives me confidence when I embark on a new book because I feel it’s something I want to write, and readers will hopefully want to read! There’s more about it on my website,

Radmila: How will you be publicising The Secrets You Hide?
Kate: Anyway I can think of – my publishers, Bonnier Zaffre, have done some brilliant things, including hiring a sketch artist to do portraits of readers, and working with me to produce a sheet with the kind of notes that Georgia – and any court artist – has to make during a trial to help them recreate a dramatic moment in the middle of a case. They’re banned from sketching anything so have to rely on ‘word portraits’ to memorise a face. I love doing radio, appearing on panels and also talking to new writers, so will be hoping that some of those opportunities come my way as well! I have a free book club for thriller readers with contests to win signed copies of not only my books but also novels by writers I love including Ruth Ware, Erin Kelly and C.L. Taylor. You can join via my website.
       Twitter: @katewritesbooks

Radmila: Thank you so much, Kate, for answering my questions so fully and so thoughtfully. Mystery People readers will really enjoy reading your answers.

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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