Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Pirates & Kings - An Interview with Helen Hollick

  1. Welcome to the Court of Sir Read-A-Lot.  May I ask what made you become a writer?
Thank you for inviting me kind sir [curtseys] I don’t know what made me become a writer – it’s just something I have always done. I have loved books ever since I was very young, and have always told myself stories. I wanted a pony, we couldn’t afford one, so I made up stories about owning a pony. I can’t remember when I started writing these, but I was writing them at 13 years old. (Mostly at school when I was supposed to be doing lessons or homework).  When I had my school career interview at 15,  I said I wanted to be a journalist – I knew I wanted to write, but I thought only clever people who went to University and had degrees and such wrote books. My lowly Secondary School, failed 11 plus education was not in that league. The career teacher told me not to be silly, I couldn’t possibly be a journalist as I couldn’t type.   I still can’t, I use two fingers – doesn’t seem to have stopped me though.
Helen Hollick with Stuart "Sir Read-A-Lot" MacAllister

  1. You have written books that are set in several different eras, from the Dark Ages to the 18th Century and also featuring vastly differing characters, both real and imaginary.  Do you have a favourite period of time?
Easier to answer with the periods I don’t like #laugh! I can’t stand the Tudor period, and Victorian has no interest for me whatsoever, nor am I particularly drawn towards anything from Victorian to present day.  I am very fond of the Post Roman era of Britain – between the going of the Romans and the coming of the English, and I love my Pirate-based “window in time”.  The 11th century is interesting, and I loved writing about Queen Emma and Harold – but I shall concentrate on the early 1700’s, and am seriously thinking of returning to 6th century Britain for my next book.

  1. How do you go about researching a particular project?
Read, read, read. Primary sources where they are available, but secondary source text books in particular (I have quite an expanding library of my subjects here in my office) I like to visit the locations where possible – not necessarily to look at what is there now, a lot of post-Roman buildings, for instance, are no longer there – but to get a feel of the area. My husband once drove me on a 300 mile trip just to see a river crossing, and I was so glad I went because I had no idea that the opposite bank was so steep! You can get an idea of the smells and the landscape from visiting a place. I went to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia USA just to understand what the area is like for my third Sea Witch novel, Bring it Close.
I also use a little psychic research with the Akashic Records (time travel without the time machine). Although I am not yet experienced with using this method of looking into the past with the aid of a very gifted friend, I am learning how to use this window into the past. Not for detailed research, but for ideas to spark the imagination. (see my blog  for details of the Akashics and transcripts of my sessions. Fascinating reading.)

  1. Your attention to detail is impeccable and, in the case of   Harold the King (UK title) /  I am the Chosen King  (US),  you try to remain close to the facts surrounding your subject.  How much artistic licence do you feel is acceptable for a novel set in a bye-gone age?
I personally think the story should come first, then the facts. The word Historical FICTION is the give-away. I feel a little uneasy that readers are expecting historical fiction to almost be historical faction now. An author gets slammed for not writing true, accurate down to the last dot history. I don’t write history, I write stories set in the past.
Having said that – as authors of historical fiction we have a ‘duty of care’ to ensure that if we are writing details, then we have got the detail accurate. In other words – that the Roman eating his supper while off duty on Hadrian’s Wall  is not eating roasted potatoes and smoking a pipe; that someone in 11th century England is not wearing a gown fastened with buttons. Or stating that the Battle of Hastings was fought in September 1067.
I do feel, however, that going as far as checking the phases of the moon to see if it really was full on Tuesday 6th May 1329 is taking detail a little too far. Does it really matter if it was a full moon or first quarter?
Helen giving a talk at Westminster Abbey

  1. Tell us about that scallywag, Jesamiah Acorne.  I understand you had a moment of epiphany when creating him?
Yes – I saw him on a beach in Dorset. Maybe I have a slight gift of seeing into the past as well? Or maybe I just have a very fertile imagination. Either way, I was on holiday in Dorset and went for a walk on the beach to work out the plot for an idea for a story about a pirate. I had the plot, most of the characters – the name of the ship (Sea Witch) and most of the detail. But I did not have my main protagonist – my pirate. I sat on a rock, looked up, and there he was, standing a few yards away, fully resplendent in Pirate-type gear and complete with a golden earing shaped like an acorn. “Hello Jesamiah Acorne” I said….
And I swear that is true.

  1. You have been critically acclaimed for all of your books, so much so that one is being made into a film. Can you give us any details on this exciting project?
Yes,  Harold the King (UK)/I am the Chosen King (US title)  - although it is not exactly the book being made into a movie – just the subject, which is the Battle of Hastings, 1066.
I was approached by producer Robin Jacob of Tiger Films several years ago now ( ) Robin had written a draft script but needed additional material and deeper characterisation, so he looked for what novels were available and found mine. He invited me to become co-scriptwriter, so obviously a lot of the script is similar to my novel.  The movie, as with all movies , is taking a while to put together, get the funding etc, but we are moving forward – and this movie is going to be made (Watch this space, as they say!)

  1. As Editor of the Independent/Self-Published Review Panel for the Historical Novel Society, what are your views on the standard of independently printed books?
Unfortunately there are too many novels written by self-published or Indie writers that fall short of being quality books. Not necessarily because of poor writing, grammar, punctuation etc, but because the author has not taken care to ensure that the end product – the book – is produced to match mainstream standard. I get books submitted for review that have the text left aligned (or even centred), double spaces at paragraph breaks, poor to awful covers … and far too many books that have not been professionally edited. No one worries about the occasional typo – even mainstream books have those (unfortunately), but page after page of blatant errors, lazy ‘tell not show’ writing and continuity not checked is an instant reject. (I have even found books where the main character’s name has changed half way through.) This is laziness on the part of the author. Get someone who knows what they are doing to edit your book. Yes it costs money, but to do anything properly it costs. You have a choice, produce something amateurish and not worth reading, or take the trouble to ensure your book is something of a professional quality.  The gems we come across, though, are a treat to find! Superbly written books that are fabulous to read.

HNS Submission Guidelines:
Anyone interested in Indie Writing Historical Fiction may enjoy the London 2012 Historical Novel Society Conference to be held in September.
I will be at the conference with Indie Publisher Helen Hart of graphics designer Cathy Helms of  and Richard Denning, who self publishes as

  1. What advice would you give to a writer to ensure their work is presented to the best possible standard?
Pure and simple;  if Indie publishing get an editor and don’t cut corners. If submitting to an agent or publisher, do your research. Ensure the agent accepts the genre you are writing, make sure you submit what the agent wants submitted – and Google for “How to Submit A Manuscript”.  Agents will not even look at pages and pages of tiny print that is single spaced in a comic sans font.  Want a reject slip? Ignore all the above.

  1. If you were only allowed to have three books on your bookshelf, what would they be and why?
Rosemary Sutcliff’s Mark of the Horse Lord because I adore her books, and she has been such an inspiration to me. I’ve read this particular book many times – and I still cry at the end.

Seamanship in the age of sail by John Harland because I couldn’t write my Sea Witch Voyages without it. It is a book about how to sail Tall Ships, full of minute detail. I bought it for £5 in a charity shop – serendipity sent me into that shop. It’s a treasured book.

My third book would be my Dad’s diary which he kept during WW II. The pencilled writing is getting a bit faded now, and the diary should really be in a museum. Dad wrote it – and added drawings and paintings, while a POW. It has his hand-drawn view of inside a prison huts during and after the famous “Wooden Horse” escape attempt, where the men used a wooden vaulting horse to disguise the entrance to the tunnel they were digging. Men would hide inside the horse, be lifted to the “entrance” and start digging. The sand was transported out of the tunnels inside the horse and initially hidden under the roof of the huts…. until the ceiling caved in. Dad was sitting in a hut drawing minutes before this happened – then added a second “afterward” drawing. After that the famous “emptying the bags hidden down the trouser legs” was used.

And added to this – my dad’s diary is not written in his own name. He was Corporal Fredrick R Turner – the diary is written as Flight Lt Rex Reynolds. Dad changed identity with the real Rex Reynolds so that he could escape. Officers, you see, did not join work parties outside the camps – so to change with an ordinary squaddie gave the officers a chance to escape. They switched identity while being transported from one camp to another. The real Rex did escape, got back to England and continued flying fighter planes. My Dad spent the rest of the war pretending to be him. If Dad had been discovered he would have been instantly shot.  That is my definition of a hero. Dad died back in 1992, just before my first book The Kingmaking was published. I miss him very much.

1        10.   Fun Question – if you could be a fly on the wall at a specific event in history, which one would  you choose?
I would like to be in Normandy in circa 1064 when Harold Godwinesson was a guest of Duke William.  Just what did those two men say to each other? And why was Harold there in the first place? (and to find out my view of these answers…. read my book!)



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  1. Great interview. There is a lot to be learned from this very interesting lady. Thank you,Sir, for providing your readers with this opportunity.

  2. Michele- thank you, and thank you Sir Read Read-alot for inviting me onto your blog!

  3. Lovely true life story about your Dad Helen. you must be so proud. Good luck with the movie

  4. Fantastic interview! Fascinating information about your father too. What a treasure you have in his war diary!

    You are certainly my inspiration each and every day, Helen.