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