Helen Hollick – Indie icon

Helen Hollick and her family moved from north-east London in January 2013 after finding an eighteenth-century North Devon farm house through being a ‘victim’ on BBC TV’s popular Escape To The Country show. The thirteen-acre property was the first one she was shown – and it was love at first sight. She enjoys her new rural life, and has a variety of animals on the farm, including hens, ducks, geese, dogs, cats, goats, Exmoor ponies and her daughter’s string of show jumpers.

First accepted for publication by William Heinemann in 1993 – a week after her fortieth birthday – Helen then became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) with the sequel, Harold the King (US: I Am The Chosen King) being novels that explore the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she also writes a pirate-based nautical adventure/fantasy series, The Sea Witch Voyages. She has contributed to two short story anthologies, 1066 Turned Upside Down and Betrayal.

Despite being impaired by the visual disorder of Glaucoma, she is now branching out into the quick read novella, ‘Cosy Mystery’ genre with her new venture, the Jan Christopher Mysteries, set in the 1970s, with the first in the series, A Mirror Murder, incorporating her often hilarious memories of working for thirteen years as a library assistant.

Her non-fiction books include Pirates: Truth and Tales and Life of A Smuggler. She also runs Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, a news and events blog for her village and the community shop, sometimes assists as ‘secretary for the day’  at her daughter’s regular showjumping shows. Occasionally, she gets time to write…

Welcome back to the writing blog, Helen!

Thank you for inviting me again!

Let’s go back to the ‘the olden days’. What started your fascination with Harold, Arthur and the Saxons? There must be a link between them and also a strong tug from history.

I wrote my Arthurian Trilogy because I couldn’t find the story I wanted to read. This was while I was working as a library assistant in the London suburb town of Chingford during the 1970s. I have never particularly enjoyed the ‘traditional’ tales of King Arthur, I can’t stand Lancelot, could never figure what Guinevere saw in him, and never understood why Arthur didn’t just execute or exile the pair of them – nor why a king in his position would go off and abandon his kingdom. Frankly, the knights are all too ‘goody-goody’ for my taste. (Give me a charmer of a rogue, like my ex-pirate sea captain, Jesamiah Acorne in my nautical Sea Witch series, any day!) Of course, these Medieval tales of Arthur reflect the Medieval way of life, and in particular, the various Crusades. It’s my belief that King Arthur and his knights were a form of marketing to encourage men to take the cross and fight. I must add, I’m not a Norman or Plantagenet fan either, so this might have had some influence.

Then I read Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills – and that was it. Hooked. In her author’s note she mentions that if Arthur had ever existed (I stress the if) it would have been during that period of British history between the going of the Romans and the coming of the Saxons, the mid-400s to early 600s. This made much more sense to me!

Working in a library meant I had unlimited access to books, so I started researching the end of Roman Britain and the mystery of Arthur. I also delved into the fiction about him and grew more and more dissatisfied. Nothing matched what was expanding as my own thoughts of ‘what might have really happened.’ And then I read Marion Zimmer Bradleys Mists Of Avalon. I know a lot of people love this book, and it is a wonderful story – but oh goodness, did her Guinevere irritate me! To the extent that at one point I threw the book across the room, shouting ‘For goodness sake pull yourself together, you silly woman!”

And that was it. I had to write my own version – my Gwenhwyfar (as I call her) was not a ninny who screamed at everything, but a capable, fiery woman who had a sword and knew how to use it! My Gwenhwyfar and Arthur loved each other but had a turbulent relationship. My Arthur was a proud, capable commander but a man with flaws.

It took me ten years to write what eventually became book one (The Kingmaking) and half of book two, (Pendragon’s Banner). Kingmaking was first published by William Heineman in 1993, and has been printed by various publishers since then – the trilogy is still going strong almost thirty years later.

Heinemann then wanted a fourth book. I toyed with several ideas, then two events coincided. I visited near to where I lived then, Waltham Abbey and discovered that Harold of the Battle of Hastings fame founded the original abbey, and also joined a coach trip organised by my mother to visit Hastings and Battle – which is where the battle was fought back in 1066. I had the opportunity to explore the English Heritage site of the battle by myself – the place was deserted because it was raining. (All the ladies on the Townswomen’s Guild coach trip made straight for the cafes and tea rooms.)

I had such a strong feeling of the past on that battlefield, the distraught  echoes from the ghosts of the English… that was it, I had to write Harold’s story, the events that led to that dreadful day of 14th October 1066 when our last English king was butchered by the followers of a usurping psychopathic tyrant. (In case you haven’t realised, I despise Duke William of Normandy! I figure I must have had ancestors there on that battlefield to feel this immense rage against him.)

So Harold the King (UK title – I Am The Chosen King in the US) was published in 2000. Heinemann dropped the title in 2006. I was devastated – but Indie publishing was on the rise. With nothing to prove I embraced the new way of publishing and in September 2021 I am taking the next step and publishing Harold myself under my own Taw River Press logo.

Something dear to my own heart – alternative history. What prompted your idea of an alternative outcome from the events of 1066?

The blame (laugh) lies with author Joanna Courtney. We were both at one of the annual October Battle of Hastings re-enactments, and during a lull between author talks and book signing we started discussing alternative outcomes for the events of 1066. From there, producing an e-book of alternative stories came about. Anna Belfrage, known for her acclaimed timeslip Graham Saga joined us, as did sci-fi writer Richard Dee and highly successful writer of Anglo-Saxon historical fiction (and non-fiction) historian Annie Whitehead, among other known authors.

And here it is!

I suggested including different authors who were not necessarily connected with straight historical fiction, so you, Alison, came on board with a Roma Nova story – I recall saying to you that if Roma Nova had survived to present day then they must have been involved, somehow, with the events of 1066.

Interrupting… Helen was the one who ‘persuaded’ (dragged me kicking and screaming) into writing a short-ish story, something I’d avoided for years. But she said that as I was an alternative history specialist, I had to take part. Now I regularly write short stories. Thank you, Helen.)

The result is eleven alternative ‘what if’ stories that take us from January to December 1066. As an e-book, it has rarely been out of the Amazon top 100 short story/alternative story lists, but the good news is that we are now also publishing it in paperback. If you go to https://myBook.to/1066TurnedUpsideDown you should be able to find it!

How did a girl from Walthamstow (which I visited recently!) end up in Devon? And what keeps you there?

I love it here in Devon! The air is fresh and pure, our farmhouse, built in 1769, overlooks part of the beautiful Taw Valley. From my study windows I can see trees and fields, the rolling hills on the other side of the valley. Our orchard is laden with fruit, and the bird table (pause to count…) has at least twenty sparrows on it,  which alternate with chaffinches, blackbirds,  great tits, blue tits, robins, nuthatches… the partially-tame male pheasant was there earlier. I can hear a buzzard calling somewhere. Our geese came up to the veranda a little while ago for their tit-bit breakfast. The three goats are out in their field, along with the horses (we have thirteen acres in all.)

Our nearest neighbour is about quarter-of-a-mile away. Alongside the sound of distant tractors, sheep, cows and owls at night it is always quiet and peaceful. Compared to Walthamstow? A north-east London very busy, nosy, smelly (and litter-strewn) suburban town… no comparison! I escaped. I intend to stay escaped!

We did, literally escape! Frustrated at not being able to find a new place to live I applied to BBC TV’s Escape To The Country. We were accepted and this was the first property they showed us. My daughter and I instantly fell in love with ‘Windfall Farm’ – the alias public name I give to our lovely home.

Why windfall? Well, you see, on the opening night of the London Olympics back in 2012 we won the UK National Lottery Raffle. £1,000,000. The money’s mostly gone now as we bought the farm outright, plus a few more horses… But the place is ours. And I love it. I also love our resident ‘guests’. We have several ghosts here, the people of the past who love the place as much as we do.

Now you’ve been changing direction recently, not from your core activity as historical fiction writer and mastermind (mistressmind?) of Discovering Diamonds Reviews, but in the way you’ve been publishing. Tell us more!

When Heinemann (and my ex-agent who let me down by the bucketload) dropped me back in 2006 I sobbed for two weeks, not knowing what to do. Then I picked myself up, brushed myself down (as they say) and decided to go ‘indie’.  I found a company which would do all the technical publishing stuff and went for it. As it turned out that particular company’s MD was not as honest as he made out. In 2010/11, after several changes of company name the bailiffs moved in and the company closed. Not before some of the lovely staff (who also didn’t get paid!) had quietly transferred as many files as they could back to the very disappointed authors. I found a different, honest, company (Silverwood Books Ltd) who republished all my books, and now, in 2021 I have plucked up courage to go D.I.Y. (with some help from two very dear friends for the formatting aspect. Thank you both of you!)

Successful indies all!  Antoine Vanner, Laura Fergusson, Helen, Alison

These bad experiences of the past were shattering and traumatic BUT I learned a lot about self-publishing/indie very, very quickly. The main ones being how NOT to do it! Check out the company – listen to your head giving warnings, not your heart saying ‘oh, it’ll be ok’. Use a good editor. Use a professional cover designer. Produce your books to the highest possible standard.

You see, there are still far too many literary snobs out there who condemn indie writers as third or even fourth-rate. They are still saying that if a book is good enough to be published a mainstream publisher will pick it up. I’m sorry but that is not the case. Much indie fiction is as good as – even better than – far too many less-than-good traditionally published books. The difference? We indies struggle to market our books. We do not have the financial clout of the ‘big boys’. We can’t pay to have our books noticed on BBC Radio 4 or on the front table at Waterstones, or to have that glowing advert in the top newspapers. We do it all ourselves, and sometimes we feel like giving up because it is hard, hard, hard constant work. Then a lovely e-mail comes in from an enthusiastic reader … and we know why we don’t give up…

Our advantage over mainstream authors who are trapped in their publisher’s requirements is that we can write what we want to write. Want to make a change from historical fiction to a cosy mystery? Just like that (I’m doing a Mary Poppins finger snap!) we do it. And we do it very successfully!

During lockdown I wanted to write something very different – a ‘cosy mystery’, basically, a light-hearted who-dun-it with an amateur sleuth as the main protagonist. For quite a while I had been toying with the idea of how could I use the twelve or so years that I worked in a public library back in the 1970s as a basis for a novel. A Mirror Murder the first in my new Jan Christopher series is the result. Episode 2, A Mystery Of Murder is just out. There will be more…

Connect with Helen
Website: www.helenhollick.net
Blog: www.ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/HelenHollickAuthor
Twitter:  https://twitter.com/HelenHollick  @HelenHollick
Amazon Author Page (Universal Link) http://viewauthor.at/HelenHollick
Discovering Diamonds Historical Fiction Review Blog :


Hot off the press – A Mystery of Murder

‘Had I known what was to happen soon after we arrived at Mr and Mrs Walker’s lovely old West Country house, my apprehension about spending Christmas in Devon would have dwindled to nothing.’

Library Assistant Jan Christopher is to spend Christmas with her boyfriend, DS Laurie Walker and his family, but when a murder is discovered, followed by a not very accidental accident, the traditional Christmas spirit is somewhat marred…What happened to Laurie’s ex-girlfriend? Where is the vicar’s wife? Who took those old photographs? And will the farmer up the lane ever mend those broken fences?

Set in 1971, this is the second Jan Christopher Cosy Mystery. Join her (and an owl and a teddy bear) in Devon for a Christmas to remember.

Will the discovery of a murder spoil Christmas for Jan Christopher and her boyfriend DS Laurie Walker – or will it bring them closer together?

Available now from Amazon: https://mybook.to/AMysteryOfMurder


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. Double Pursuit, the sequel is out on 19 October 2021.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines and taste world the latest contemporary thriller Double Identity… Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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