Helen Cadbury is a crime fiction author, poet and playwright whose debut novel, To Catch a Rabbit, won the Northern Crime Competition and was subsequently chosen as one of the Yorkshire Post’s top novels, since the millennium, that best reflect Yorkshire. Her second novel is Bones in the Nest. Both books have been optioned for TV by Red Planet Pictures. Before writing fiction Helen was an actor and teacher, including spending five years teaching in prisons.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on the third book in the Sean Denton series.
What has inspired your most recent novel/writing?
Two unrelated things inspired the current book, one was a visit to the hairdresser and the other a visit to a greyhound track. The fun part of building the plot of this book has been working out how the two worlds intersect.
How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life?
My books are very much set in the real world. I’ve written about contemporary social issues such as migration and people trafficking (To Catch a Rabbit), the rise of far right groups in South Yorkshire communities and racism in the police (Bones in the Nest) but always in the context of stories about people: families, lovers, work-mates. The difference between fictional crime and real crime is that the latter is messy, sad, and doesn’t always end the way we want it to. The joy of fictional crime is that we can see justice done and we can have a happy ending, if we want it.
Five tips for writers?
Here are my 5 tips on character (because I think plot, dialogue and description all follow, if you can get character right).
- Let characters come to you. There will be someone hovering in your imagination; perhaps you see them in a certain place or doing a certain job. Do some free writing in their point of view to help you to get to know them at first.
- Make some decisions (bearing in mind that you can change your mind a hundred times before the final edit). Name them, give them an age, a profession, a family – or no family, because they all died in a motorway crash – hair colour, eye colour (although you may only ever need to mention those features once, or not at all.) List what they love, what they want, what they fear, what they believe in. List ten things that their colleagues would say about them, or their sister would say about them. This is your information, to keep in mind when writing. It’s the iceberg below the water, of which the reader may only see the tip.
- Repeat step 2 for all key characters, even minor ones. Keep this character information somewhere safe but accessible. It will be the bible against which you test whether any character is consistent, while you are creating your story and especially when you are editing and re-drafting.
- Minor characters can often be bigger, more described, than the major ones. With major characters we get to know them by what they DO (this is crucial) – so you don’t need loads of description, in fact it slows the reader down. However, if you want the reader to remember the girl in the stilettos and green hair who staggered out of the night club just after the murder, then,… You see what I mean?
- Again, what the characters do gives you plot. What they say gives you dialogue. Keep their actions and language true to the person you are creating. If you are a writer, the chances are you already do this, but remember to watch and listen. Notice how people speak, on the bus, on the train, in pubs. Notice how people interact with others.
How would you describe your writing process?
I would describe my writing process as slow! Although I can actually write quite quickly and it’s not unusual to manage 2000 words in a couple of hours, the problem is the rest of my life, and its habit of intervening and interrupting the process. Long gaps are a disaster because it’s hard to pick up the thread, not just of the story, but more crucially the tone and style of the book.
What helps you to write/what gets in the way?
It helps to have plenty of time. Not just the writing time, but thinking time and planning time. I don’t work well if I’m trying to squeeze it into an hour before I rush off to do something else. My perfect day, and I sometimes manage this, would be to start work after breakfast, with wifi turned off, and write for 45 minutes. Then I break for a coffee and go back for another 45 minutes, which often stretches into an hour or more, because then I’m in the zone. Then I have lunch, do all that bitty admin stuff that takes up a different part of the brain, or freelance work that needs doing. Perhaps go for a walk and then relax in the evening. I’ve had breast cancer treatment over the last year, so my energy levels are not great. Before that, I would have had a late afternoon writing slot too, on a clear day, but now I recognise that’s not feasible. Mornings are definitely the best time for me.
Things that get in the way: health issues; being surrounded by reminders that I should occasionally clean the house; my young adult children living at home, who are great company, so I get drawn out of my writing room and into the kitchen to chat with them; meeting friends for coffee; agreeing to do too much freelance work; Facebook, Facebook, Facebook.
What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it?
I tend to do research when I need to, rather than in advance. For example I’ve just written a scene in a hospital from memory (nothing is wasted). I will check with a friend who is a nurse if I’ve got the language right. I research forensic science when I can, by going to talks, reading or Googling technology and terminology. I don’t want to overload my narrative with research, it can make it a very boring read, but a sprinkling of the right terminology and things happening in a believable order is reassuring to the reader. For my first book, To Catch a Rabbit, I found a PCSO, who was the mum of a friend-of-a-friend, who kindly read an early draft, which was very helpful. While I was writing Bones in the Nest, I met a response officer who gave me great tips, especially about the state of the squad cars, which went straight into the opening chapters. Before I was published, I didn’t know any police officers, now I seem to know several, so there is always someone to ask about procedure.
If you are traditionally published, could you say something of your journey and your experience?
My debut, To Catch a Rabbit, was originally published by Moth Publishing, as one of four winning novels in the inaugural Northern Crime Competition. It was later bought up by Allison and Busby, who re-issued it with a new cover in January 2015, and followed it with the second in the series, Bones in the Nest, in July 2015. I didn’t have an agent at first, having had about 12 rejections before the competition, but after it, I was helped by New Writing North, who took the competition winners to a ‘meet the agent’ event in London. My agents, MBA Literary Agents, also represent playwrights and TV writers, which is very useful to me. They were able to sell my TV rights and also represent me when I got a Youth Theatre commission.
The question you wished I’d asked you.
Is it worth it? That might sound strange, but if the goal is to be published, it’s worth thinking about ‘what next?’ It doesn’t suddenly change your life. You still have to put the bins out, the money isn’t great, and the dilemma of how to pay the bills when you’d rather be writing doesn’t disappear overnight. I’ve got to know a lot of other crime writers, (and it is a wonderful community), but they all, regardless of their level of commercial success, have doubts and fears about whether the next book will be good enough, whether they wouldn’t have been happier sticking with the day job. But yes, I think it is worth it; the self-doubt just goes with the territory, but if you’re a writer, you write.
How can readers find you and learn more about your writing?
I can also be found on Twitter @helencadbury
To Catch a Rabbit: https://goo.gl/Qlm4a4
Bones in The Nest: https://goo.gl/OHa8SH