6Ws, Author Series

6Ws with Author Helen Matthews

After a reprieve, I am relaunching my 6Ws series to give some well-deserved attention to my fellow authors. With a nod to my former years as a journalist, I opted for the 6Ws of the business: who, what, when, where, why and how, which counts as it ends in W. And Helen Matthews, whose book Girl Out of Sight has an Oct. 4 release, is the first. Helen is a fellow darkstroke books author. You might have read her novel, The Girl in the Van, which was released earlier this year. I did and I highly recommend it. Anyway I will let Helen take over.

Who is author Helen Matthews?

Thanks for inviting me, Joan. I’m a British author, originally from Wales but I now live with my husband in a village in Hampshire, about an hour away from London. My son is a journalist and my daughter’s a police officer – handy when I need some detection and crime scene details checked. 

My novels sit within the crime genre but are page-turning psychological suspense and domestic thrillers rather than police procedurals. Although people die or face life-threatening danger in my books, investigating a crime isn’t the main plot driver. The books are more whydunnit than whodunnit. I’m fascinated by the darker side of human nature, flawed characters, unreliable narrators and how a life can change in an instant.

What is your latest book?

My latest book Girl Out of Sight is being published Oct. 4 by darkstroke books. It’s a suspense thriller with a theme of human trafficking and tells the story of seventeen-year-old Odeta, who leaves her remote village in Albania with a man she believes is her boyfriend. She thinks she’s going to begin an exciting new life and career in London, never imagining that her dream is about to descend into a nightmare. Odeta’s life isn’t especially grim but it’s colourless and lacks opportunity. Since leaving school, she’s been working in her father’s shop and thinks nothing interesting will ever happen to her again. Girl Out of Sight is a human-scale story not a vast-canvas international organised crime thriller. I wanted readers to relate to Odeta and walk in her footsteps, sharing her hopes and dreams as she travels to the UK and discovers what awaits her behind the doors of an ordinary London street.

Odeta is the central character but there’s a second storyline about Kate, a London journalist, whose  seemingly perfect life is filled with anxiety for her son, Ben. He’s obsessed with online gaming but struggles to make friends. Kate, who comes from a village in Wales, wants her son to experience the simpler childhood she enjoyed. In desperation, she disconnects her family from the internet and tries to build a community on her London street. But danger lurks behind closed doors. Perhaps her neighbours are not the friendly community they seem …

This book was first published five years ago by another press, under the title After Leaving the Village, and won first prize in the opening pages of a novel category at Winchester Festival. Because I’m passionate about raising awareness of the hideous crimes of human trafficking and modern slavery, I’m delighted darkstroke is publishing this new edition to bring the book to more readers.  

When did you begin writing?

I might seem like a late starter but I think of myself as someone who has served a long apprenticeship to get my novels published. From early childhood, throughout my teenage years and into adulthood I was always writing. I won a few competitions and had pieces published in teen magazines. A first degree in English was a setback due to years spent reading great literature but the urge to write didn’t go away. After long days in a busy corporate career, I wrote late at night after my children were in bed with a glass of wine by my side. My job conditioned me to business-speak, empty of emotion and I found it harder to write fiction. I didn’t give up. I switched to non-fiction and had some success with articles accepted by family and lifestyle magazines, a couple in national newspapers and even on BBC Radio.

Finally when my children were almost grown up I quit my job with no redundancy package, too young for my pension and went to Oxford Brookes University to do an MA in Creative Writing. I was lucky to get freelance consultancy work for several years alongside developing my writing.

How do you write?

Probably due to my corporate background, I’m instinctively a planner. I’d say I’m 70 percent planner: 20 percent free flowing ‘pantser’ and the remainder is just generally confused. I don’t always stick to my plans. Once my characters take on a life of their own, the book can go in an unexpected direction.

I keep a notebook with me and jot down ideas as they occur. Sometimes, if I’m out walking the dog I’ll record thoughts on my phone. When I have an idea for a new novel I do some mind mapping, assemble my notes and start initial research. Then I’ll do character sketches and a rough plan before  starting writing to see if the idea has legs and will sustain 90,000 words. Not all stories can. I don’t use any tools like Scrivener just Word on my laptop and lots of notebooks and post-it notes. 

Where do you write?

I’ve tried writing in cafes and on the move but I’m distracted by noise and other people’s conversations so I write better at home where I can close the door. I tend to move around rooms so I might write in the kitchen for a while or move upstairs to my daughter’s old bedroom. In summer, I  write outside in the garden if I can keep the glare of sunlight off my screen.

My ideal working environment is alone in my house so I can go deep into the world of my characters and live with them while figuring out their lives, plot and conflict. Having an empty house is rare unless my husband goes to France without me. The minute the door closes behind him I whizz around and tidy up so I’m not distracted by dirty dishes or piles of ironing. Then it’s head down and on with the writing all day and late into the night.

Why do you write?

No one holds a gun to our heads and forces us to write but, for me, the writing habit is impossible to kick. It’s even harder than ignoring the bottle of wine in my fridge that will be empty before bedtime. On a bad day, the urge to write feels like a disease: a virus that inhabits my body and steals my soul.  When writing is going badly, feelings of rejection can be crippling. It’s tempting to despair, press delete or stick an unfinished novel in a drawer. But do we give up? Of course not.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that writing can be both an addiction and a source of joy. The writing life, even when it’s not lucrative, is a total privilege. As well as the creative side of the work, I’ve met some amazing writers on my MA course, locally and in the online world  and built a new network of author friends.

 More about Helen: parting words

My previous novel The Girl in the Van came out with Darkstroke Books in March and made the Finalist list in the 2022 international Pageturner Book Awards. It also has a theme of modern slavery around the grooming of young people by gangs to deliver drugs out of cities into small towns and rural areas. In the UK, this is called ‘county lines’ exploitation, named after the mobile phone lines gangs use to control their young victims.

As well as novels I occasionally write short stories and flash fiction and these have been shortlisted and published by Flash 500, 1000K Story, Reflex Press, Artificium and Love Sunday magazine.

My rescue puppy, Homer, originally a street dog from Romania, arrived during lockdown and keeps me fit as he needs to walk at least three miles every day. I also cycle long distances with my girlfriends, sing in a choir and once appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall, New York in a multi-choir performance. In the year 2000, my husband and I impulse bought a tumbledown cowshed in France to renovate into a holiday home. It took years! We’re still tinkering with it now and spend several weeks there each year.

When I was researching the original version of Girl Out of Sight, I became a supporter of the charity Unseen UK which supports trafficking survivors and works towards a world without slavery. I’m now an Ambassador for the charity and donate my author talk fees, and a percentage of royalties, to them.

Link to Girl Out of Sight

You can download Girl Out of Sight at: Mybook.to/girloutofsight

Check out my other novels by clicking through to my Amazon page.

Helen Matthews on social media

https://www.helenmatthewswriter.com

Twitter: @HelenMK7

https://www.Instagram.com/helen.matthews7

https://Facebook.com/HelenMK7Writer

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Following the Lead, Isabel Long Mystery Series

Killing off a Character

This is a true story although I can’t divulge names because that would give away too much of the plot for Following the Lead, no. 6 in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. But even so, it’s one worth telling.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that our son, Zack owns Floodwater Brewing in our village of Shelburne Falls. And this where I met, oh, let’s call him Mr. X, one of the regulars.

Mr. X, who lives within walking distance of the brewery, loves to play cribbage. So does Hank. And they will often coax one or two people to join them playing a game I don’t understand that involves moving pegs around a board depending on what cards you and the others are holding. Floodwater has a cribbage board that resembles a small table so the players gather around on chairs.

Originally from Canada, Mr. X has lived in Western Massachusetts for many years. He’s got a great sense of humor that sometimes borders on him being a wise guy. He also reads all of my books, including the Isabel Long Mystery Series

Mr. X likes to dish out the wisecracks, especially when I was the editor-in-chief of the local daily newspaper. One day, I decided to dish it back. I told him, “I’m gonna put you in one of my books and kill you off,” or something close to that. He laughed.

Then, I forgot I said it.

But I guess others didn’t. I was reminded one day by Mr. X’s pal and fellow cribbage player that I threatened to bump him off in one of my books and how much he loved that idea. That was when I was about a third of the way through Following the Lead. I checked in with Mr. X, who said he would be delighted if that happened.

Oh, dear, how was I going to pull that off?

In the past, I have used the names of real people in my books as a prize for a virtual launch party on Facebook. But I specifically created characters I thought they would like. One was a ranger, another a mail deliver. I even used the names of people’s pets.

Yes, I use Mr. X’s real name in Following the Lead. Let’s say he is what I would call a person of interest in a case involving a baby’s abduction from her front yard 49 years earlier. Isabel feels he may have useful information, but she is having the darndest time trying to meet him in person. So for a good part of the book all she knows about this person of interest comes from other people. 

While writing the book, I would tease Mr. X about his character but reveal nothing when I would see him at the brewery. I didn’t even let him see a draft. But I know he’s looking forward to reading it when the Kindle version comes out Nov. 3 since he’s told me so.

And, that’s all I’m going to say right now abut Mr. X and his doppelganger.

BOOK LINK: Following the Lead will have a Nov. 3 release for Kindle and soon after for paperback. It is now in pre-order mode and I am grateful to those who do that. It helps with ratings. Thank you. Here is the link: https://mybook.to/followingthelead

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s the wooden sign above Floodwater our son, Zack hand-carved and painted. There’s one more piece to go. Here’s the link to the website: http://floodwaterbrewing.com/index.html


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Isabel Long Mystery Series

Making a Pit Stop

FIRST THINGS FIRST: My website was out of order for over two days when I foolishly “hit all” when updating its plugins. As a result, viewers would see that accursed white screen of death and I couldn’t log on to my website to fix it. I read countless articles and watched videos etc. No luck there. But thanks to Shivam, with tech support for GoDaddy who likely lives halfway around the world, and step-by-step emailed instructions from Travis Johnston of Creo Coding who lives in my village, I finally figured it out. A big relief for sure. Now onto the content I had hoped to file Friday.

I can’t think of a better name for a convenience store in the middle of nowhere than the Pit Stop. It came to me in an inspiring moment when I was writing Redneck’s Revenge, no. 2 in the Isabel Long Mystery Series. That’s before the previous owner got himself into a heap of trouble, and in the next book, it got sold to cousins Annette Waters and Marsha Dunlop with Marsha’s guy sort of a silent partner. 

This is what I imagine when I think of the Pit Stop. It’s kind of a shack with pumps out front and a parking lot large enough to hold a pig roast, which is what happens for an open house in book no. 4, Killing the Story. Annette’s son, Abe lives in a small apartment in the back. The store offers the usual assortment of staples, such as milk, cigarettes, and beer.

The décor is what I would call country chic. Besides the usual beer signs in the window — like the one above that I photographed on a local convenience store — and on the walls, it has a mounted deer head and pheasant inside instead of the NASCAR paraphernalia the previous owner displayed. The Pit Stop prefers cash and you gotta pay before you pump. Gas prices are a little higher here, but it’s convenient having pumps in town for those who forgot to fuel up in the city.

Annette aka the Tough Cookie and Marsha aka the Floozy are women you don’t want to mess with. Neither holds back what they say. Plus they are a source of info and amusement for Isabel. Often, she and her mother, Maria, her partner in crime, will visit. Typically, Marsha works the counter. Annette, who runs a junkyard and garage, will stop by. As natives, they have a handle on who lives here and what they do. Isabel will ask if either of them has info about somebody they want to meet and get some gas. Besides, you never know who you might find there. Sometimes that can be an unpleasant encounter as Isabel and her mother experience in Following the Lead.

But here’s another scene from Following the Lead. Isabel is looking for info about man who is a person interest in her missing person’s case.

Next we go to the Pit Stop, which isn’t that far from Baxter’s, not because I need gas although I will get some anyway but to quiz Marsha aka the Floozie. Marsha and her cousin Annette took over the place earlier this year, but being co-owner and the person most frequently behind the counter, she might know something about Robert Todd. It’s likely he even gasses up there since the Pit Stop has the only pumps in this part of the hilltowns. Otherwise you have to pray you make it to a station near the closest city or plan way ahead before you go home. 

Marsha is on the phone behind the counter, but she says, “I’ll catch you later,” to whoever is on the line and hangs up. She comes around to give my mother a hug, which surprises both of us since Marsha isn’t the hugging kind and you know how my mother feels about it, and a slap to my arm, which is the Floozy’s usual form of endearment to me.

“You two look like you’re up to somethin’. Am I right?”

“Besides getting some gas, we could use a little info for my new case.”

Now recovered from her hug, my mother says, “You were so helpful Marsha in the last one. Isabel is trying to track down a person of interest we believe lives around here.”

Person of interest? Both Marsha and I smile at my mother using that phrase. I believe Marsha enjoys our visits although I make sure to spend some money. After all, she’s manning or make that womaning a store in the middle of nowhere. I am very aware a customer could show up any time to buy gas, beer, or cigarettes, or all three, which will require her attention, so I plan to get right to it.

“Do you know a man named Tim Todd?” That draws a blank expression. “No? How about Robert Todd?”

I pull out that photo again. Marsha’s lips scrunch up a smile as she nods.

“Yeah, I know the guy. Comes in for gas. Smokes, but only that American Spirit brand. The beer we carry ain’t good enough. He laughed at that California wine we carry. I like to call him Bobby just to tick him off.” She uses the tip of a finger to push up the end of her nose, a sign my own kids used to brand someone a snob. “And why in the hell are you interested in him?”

Yes, why indeed.

LINK: Following the Lead is ready for pre-order. Do it today and the Kindle version will magically pop into your device Nov. 3. You can find it on Amazon with my other books: https://www.amazon.com/Joan-Livingston/e/B01E1HKIDG

Thank you if you do.

ABOUT THE IMAGE ABOVE: I have fallen in love with hydrangeas. I have planted four in my yard. And everywhere I go I see bushes.

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Cats

A Cat on My Lap

Well, it was a first for Stella, the cat we adopted two years ago. Her lap of choice belongs to Hank, who manages to stretch his legs over the coffee table for hours to accommodate her. There have been times she has considered mine when I was sitting on the other side of the couch. She would give my lap an appraisal, decide it wasn’t a right fit, and instead plopped down on the couch cushion next to my hip. But yesterday was different.

Let me backtrack a bit and tell you about Stella. She’s a Maine coon cat, who got dumped in a nearby city during Covid and found her way to a friend’s backyard, where she got fed and found shelter. But when Cris, who already had a cat, mentioned on Facebook she was looking for a home for the stray, we welcomed Stella into ours.

I believe because she was living for months in the outdoors, and due to the nature of her breed, she is a bit of a wildling. But Stella — I love to shout her name out loud — has decided it’s worthwhile to live with us.

Stella actually is a cheap cat to own. She snubbed her nose at the expensive natural cat foods we bought her in preference to a national brand, plus these snacks she is crazy about. Actually, her food of choice is the rodents she captures. Sometimes we will hear her make this special meow that means she’s got something dead in her mouth that she wants to show off. Yes, we praise her for her hunting abilities. Toys? Nah, she’s got the real thing to chase. She prefers the outdoors instead of the litterbox.

Stella comes to us when she damn feels like it but loves the attention when she does — going absolutely nuts purring as she’s petted. She spends hours cleaning and grooming her beautiful fur. One time when I was writing on the front porch, she dropped a dead mouse beside my chair and commenced to eat the entire bone-crunchy thing.

Admittedly, Stella loves Hank more than me and she shows it by sitting on his lap. Even that took some doing. It was actually our son, Zack who broke the ice. He was visiting after a run and she jumped onto his lap to smell his perspiration. Hank came next.

But it was different yesterday. I was sitting on one of our Morris chairs (hand-built by Hank) with my feet on a stool, reading Helen Matthew’s The Girl in the Van. Stella had finished eating her snacks on the coffee table when she began eyeing my lap. “Yeah, right,” I told myself. 

I was amused as Stella leaped to the arm of the chair and after studying my body more, she gingerly made her way onto my lap. Her paws, killing claws intact thankfully, kneaded me, and then she curled around, purring as I petted her. She stayed that way. I read and kept a hand on her. She slept. Dinner would be later than usual.

I stretched to get my phone to call Hank who was working in his woodshop. He laughed when he saw Stella. “It feels good to have a cat on your lap, doesn’t it?” he said.

Yes, it does.

LINKS TO MY BOOKS: While I have your attention, here’s the link to my books on Amazon, specifically the Isabel Long Mystery Series. (Yes, there’s a cat in it.) Following the Lead, no. 6, will have a Nov. 3 release. I am grateful for pre-orders as it helps with ratings. https://www.amazon.com/Joan-Livingston/e/B01E1HKIDG

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Isabel Long Mystery Series

Good Hearted Readers

I am fortunate to have a son who owns a microbrewery — Floodwater Brewing. Besides brewing great beer, Zack has created a community space in our Shelburne Falls Village for locals and visitors along with musical entertainment, games, and comedy. And I joke as his mother, I get free beer for life. Besides that perk, paperbacks of my Isabel Long Mystery Series are on sale. They even have their own shelf built by Hank.

Admittedly, the vast majority of my book sales are through Kindle as digital is the preferred way to read for so many people. I am also grateful that digital enables my books to be available to readers around the world. But then, there are those who prefer a book in hand, whether they’re old school readers or people who already spend a lot of time staring at a computer screen. So, for paperback readers, I offer them the books in my series at what I call the Floodwater Discount. I can do that since my son doesn’t take a cut, nice kid that he is. (He also named one of the beers and a tank for me.)

Sometimes it’s an impulse buy for a visitor to Floodwater. Sacha, one of the bartenders, recently sent me a text about a woman who came in on a Sunday afternoon and bought all five books. The woman hugged them — Sacha sent me a photo — and jumped up and down, excited to have the series. I am sorry I wasn’t there to thank her. 

There have been times when someone bought a book off the shelf, and then discovered I was sitting at the bar across from them. I went over to talk.

I have also done two readings at Floodwater and will likely do more.

Other times, people have bought the first, got hooked and continue through the series. That’s what’s happening with musician Scott Cadwallader, who performs at open-mic nights at Floodwater. On Sept. 2, he did a solo show. Scott plays the originals he has skillfully composed, no covers, but that night as a tribute to my series, he started his set with “Good Hearted Woman.” I believe Scott is onto book no. 3.

That’s Scott playing the tune in the photo above. 

“Good Hearted Woman” is a Waylon Jennings song about a woman who will put up with her man’s rowdy habits. The song is on the playlist for the bands that play at the Rooster Bar, where Isabel Long tends bar on Friday nights. It is the first song she and Jack dance to in Chasing the Case, the first in the series. It eventually becomes their song.

Here’s the first mention.

On the other side of the room, the Slim Jims gulp down beers before their next song. One of the Jims leans into the mike. “This is for all you bad hombres lucky enough to have a woman like this.” Then the crowd goes a bit nuts when the Slim Jims play the familiar opening to Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman.” Yeah, I bet all the bad hombres in this room would like one of those gals.

Jack drops a full tray on the counter and before I take anything, he grabs my wrist. He tips his head toward the direction of the band.

“Come on, Isabel, let’s dance,” he says, and then he announces loudly, “The bar’s closed. No beer until this song’s over.”

I let him drag me onto the floor. I haven’t danced in well over a year. Jack’s a bigger man than Sam, but I’m surprised by his moves. I can’t recall seeing him dance before, but then I might have just been having too good a night out with Sam that I didn’t pay attention. I let him have the lead, and he’s got me twisting and twirling on the dance floor. I hear myself laugh. Jack laughs, too. The other dancers move aside for us. He’s got that big Jack Smith grin going. He’s spinning me this way and that, and even ends the tune with a corny, little dip. We get a cheer from the customers when he pulls me upright at the end.

I’m a little breathless, but I manage, “Thanks. That was really fun, Jack.”

He chuckles.

“We’ll have to do it again soon,” he says, and then he jokes, giving me a loud but friendly, “Now, woman, git back behind the bar.”

So thanks Scott for playing that song and for everyone who stops by Floodwater and buys one of my books. Stay tuned, Following the Lead will be out Nov. 3. Here’s the link to preorder and magically it will appear in your device that day: https://mybook.to/followingthelead

Alas paperback readers will have to wait a little bit longer.

FLOODWATER: The brewery, owned and created by Zack Livingston, is within a short walk from the noted Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. Here’s the link to learn more http://floodwaterbrewing.com

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