Helen Hollick was born in Northeast London
and began writing at the age of 13.
She is the author of the Arthurian trilogy,
The Pendragon's Banner, and the Jesamiah Acorne Sea Witch series.
More recently Helen has turned to crime and in January 2023,
she published her third book in a series of murder mysteriesfeaturing library assistant Jan Christopherand her detective boyfriend, Laurie Walker.
Lizzie: The third book in your mystery series A Mistake of Murder featuring Jan Christopher was published 18 January 2023. Can you tell us a little about this book?
Helen: Hello Lizzie – and everyone. Yes, this ‘episode’ in the series takes place at the start of 1972 in the North London library where my lead character, Jan, works as a library assistant. She is preparing to go off on her Book Delivery Service, taking books to the housebound. All goes well, except for the rain and a rather irritating driver – oh, and somewhere on her round she loses her engagement ring. (She accepted DS Laurie Walker’s
proposal of marriage in the early hours of New Year’s Day.) No spoilers about the ring but she also becomes involved in two murders. Naturally, she tries her best to help her DCI Uncle, Toby Christopher, and her fiancé,
Laurie, to solve the crimes – hindered by an altercation by a naughty pony and a cat or two!
Lizzie: Prior to this new series you have written twelve historical novels. And prior to that I read that you started writing Science fiction in the 1970s. So, what in 2021 turned you to crime?
Helen: I wanted to do something different during the tedium of the Covid Lockdowns. I’d had it in mind to use my twelve years of working as a library assistant during the 1970s in a novel of some sort, so the idea of using my library experience as a background setting to a cosy mystery series rather appealed. Quite a few of the events in the stories are based on ‘what really happened’ (although the characters – and the murders! – are very much made up!) I’ve had quite a bit of fun recalling several anecdotes about ‘library life’. The setting, South Chingford Library is – well, was – a real place. The building is still there, but alas it is no longer a library. Such a shame when council authorities close popular libraries.
Lizzie: I am aware how much research must be involved when writing historical fiction, but how different was it writing in a much later period?
Helen: I had this rather naïve idea that writing a cosy mystery series set in the 1970s would be a doddle – how wrong I was! Yes, I can recall most of the (often very funny) events, but the detail needs just as much research as when I’m writing 1066 or the early 1700s. How much did things cost in the early 1970s? What did we wear, eat, drink? How on earth did we manage without computers or mobile phones! I’ve been very fortunate to have quite a bit of help from my old school Facebook Page: for instance I couldn’t remember what bus number ran through Chingford and how much the fare was from A-B ... I put up a post and an ex-bus conductor and several other bus users got back to me. (An in case you’re interested, it was the 69 bus and the fare was 5p for about 3 miles.) I’ve even found myself researching what type of floor cleaner was used, (turns out only lavender or pine scented.) I’ve found that I needed to look up what films were released and what were the most poplar chocolate bars!
Lizzie: What prompted you to set the new series in the 1970s? Is this a period that particularly interests you?
Helen: I chose those years because that’s when I worked in the library – from 1969 to 1981.
Lizzie: Is Jan completely made up, or based on someone you have met?
Helen: Oh as a character she’s very much made up, although some of the things she does I did do! (Not the murder bits, I hasten to add!) For instance one of Jan’s hobbies is horse riding, well I had horses in the 1970s (still do, actually, although technically they are my daughters – I merely pay the bills!) Jan, like me, wants to be a writer, although she’s busy scribbling away at science fiction. By the early 1970s I had moved to historical fiction and had started writing what would eventually turn out to be my King Arthur trilogy. (I was eventually accepted by William Heinemann in April 1993 – one week after my 40th birthday, so 30 years ago!) Unlike Jan, my uncle was not a policeman – although I have called DCI Toby Christopher ‘Toby’ in honour of my own Dad, who had always wanted to be a policeman but was not tall enough. If you look very closely at the photograph on the mantlepiece of A Mistake of Murder, that’s also my dad! (Although in the story he’s meant to be a chap called Albert who was killed in WWI).
Lizzie: Jan’s boyfriend is a detective. Did that involve a lot of new research, or have you got a friend in the police force?
Helen: I absolutely haven’t a clue about police things – apart from what we all know by reading good old Agatha Christie and watching the TV dramas. So I do try to avoid detailed police procedure. The internet can be very useful for looking certain things up, though, and I do have a couple of friends who Beta Read for me and spot the occasional blooper. I do have a couple of policeman friends who were in the force in the ‘70s, so I can get some ‘insider’ information.
Lizzie: Your last historical novel was published in 2017. Will you be continuing with that series?
Helen: Ah, that would be the Sea Witch Voyages, nautical adventures with a touch of supernatural fantasy. I was delayed in writing the sixth Voyage by misunderstandings with the US publisher who picked the series up.
Outcome was, he has retained the rights to the first five published books in the series, but from there on I’m going my own way and independently publishing anything new. Voyage Six, Gallows Wake was published last November, 2022 – I’m very pleased with it, and there will be more in the series soon. (Well, I’m totally in love with my ex-pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne, so I couldn’t abandon him, even if I wanted to!)
Lizzie: What triggers the idea for a new book? Something that you see or read about, or a personal experience ….?
Helen: It is a sort of mixture. The Jan Christopher mysteries are triggered by events that happened in the library or the 1970s (the three day week will feature – oh and the month we had the decorators in repainting the library ... quite a bit of fun there, I can tell you. People insisted on stepping over paint pots and looking for books under the dust sheets...) For my nautical series my characters’ adventures evolve around the events of history. For instance, Voyage Three, Bring It Close, featured that famous pirate Blackbeard. Voyage Seven (Jamaica Gold, probably to be published in early 2024) will include the female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
Lizzie: Are you a disciplined writer i.e., do you write for a certain number of hours each day, or set yourself a target of x amount of words?
Helen: ‘Oh’ goodness, no, I’m a prolific procrastinator! I do tend to write of a late afternoon and on into the evening though. I sort of figure that most other people are watching TV so that leaves more imagination floating about for me to grab quick.
Lizzie: I notice all the titles in your Jan Christopher series have the same pattern. Was this deliberate?
Helen: Not at first. The first two titles, A Mirror Murder and A Mystery of Murder just sort of happened. Then I came up with A Mistake of Murder and A Meadow Murder for #3 and #4, so the pattern evolved. I have in mind A Memory of Murder and A Mischief of Murder, maybe A Macabre Murder? ... it’s actually turning out to be quite fun thinking up suitable titles. Suggestions always welcome!
Lizzie: So, what’s next?
Helen: Jan Christopher #4 is already under way - A Meadow Murder. This one, like Jan #2 A Mystery of Murder, will be set in Devon with DS Laurie’s family who live there. I had the idea for this one two years ago when we were haymaking in our top field, which has quite a slope to it. “Hm,” I thought as I was heaving bales of hay in the wake of the tractor and baler, “if there was a body down that slope, hidden by the as yet uncut hay, what would happen once it was discovered?” You’ll have to read the book, once I’ve written it, to find out the answer! I’ve got Jamaica Gold to write and a couple of short stories, so I think the next few months are going to be a tad busy.
Lizzie: Thanks for chatting with us Helen.
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