Helen Stringer is the author of the wonderful new fantasy novel Spellbinder. We’re very excited to share her answers to our questions about writing — and about her newest book!
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always wanted to tell stories. I used to tell endless stories to my sister at night after we’d gone to bed. They’d go on and on and on until she fell asleep. I moved on to putting on plays, making short films and writing screenplays, but it was always about the stories.
When did you start writing?
I’ve been writing since I was small, though I rarely finished anything. I’ve got boxes and boxes of good beginnings, though!
If you weren’t a writer, what your job be?
That’s a hard one. Writing doesn’t seem like a job, really, but I suppose I’d want to be in the film or television industries. It really doesn’t matter much, though – when I worked in an office I used to entertain myself by making all my memos funny. Or just making them up.
How long did it take from starting to write to having the book published? Did you get many rejections?
Most of the rejections came when I was trying to find an agent (you have to have an agent before you can get a publisher. Most people were really nice and made comments and suggestions, nearly all of which were very good. Each time I got a rejection, I’d think about what they said and then go back and do another rewrite. It’s easy to say that people “just don’t get” things that you write, but if they’re not getting it, it’s probably because you’re not making it clear enough. Once I found my wonderful agent, Kristin, we did a few more rewrites and then sent it out to publishers…and they liked it!
Do you find it hard to stop editing/revising, or do you have a definite ending point?
I always THINK I have a definite ending point…until other people read it (grin). Usually, I write things and then leave them for a little bit before I revise them. I find it’s helpful to get a little distance. Then I ask family and friends to read them. If they have a lot of questions abut the story, I know it isn’t right yet, so I go back to work. I’m not the sort of person who can’t stop tinkering, though – that kind of thing could drive you crazy. Also, it’s a bit like being in a band: you can practice all you want, but you’ll never know if your songs are any good until you get on a stage and play for an audience.
For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?
The beginning is always the most difficult for me, but once I’m happy with the first few chapters the whole thing sort of takes off and writes itself.
How do you get plot ideas? Are you inspired by incidents from your friends’ lives? From your own childhood?
I get ideas from all sorts of places: things I’ve read, places I’ve been, something someone says. I’ve always loved history and read a lot of history books, not so much the ones about the major people and events, but the kind that tell us more about the ways that ordinary people lived. You often stumble across absolutely fantastic stories that have been all but forgotten. For example, in the early 1800s an elderly American soldier convinced Napoleon to give him a ship and some soldiers so that he could try to invade England from the west (the idea was that Napoleon would invade from the east at the same time). The soldiers landed on a beach near a small fishing town in Wales, but everything went wrong. Far from meekly surrendering, the women of the village went after the soldiers and imprisoned them in town, then (while the men were negotiating with the would-be-invaders) two girls fell in love with a couple of the French officers, broke them out of jail, stole a yacht belonging to a nobleman and ran away to France where they got married and lived happily ever after. How great is that? It’s like a Jane Austen action movie!
I use a lot of history and mythology in my stories, but I’m also inspired by places that I visit and some things from my own childhood. Dulworth’s, the school in Spellbinder, is based on Belvedere in Liverpool, where I went to school — right down to the Victorian houses, the attic, and the buzzers outside Miss Parker’s office.
Do you have any subjects that you’ve always wanted to write about, but haven’t?
What advice would you give to young writers?
The main thing, obviously, is to just write. If you have an idea, write it down. It doesn’t really matter if you finish it or not, just write what you can and then put it away somewhere. You might never look at it again, or you might look at it one day and suddenly know how to finish it. I would never have written Spellbinder if I hadn’t stumbled across a short story that I wrote years and years ago. It was called “The House with Four Turrets and Five Thousand Windows” and was about a boy who lived in a house that was so big he’d lost his father and the poor girl from the town who helped him. I read it and thought, “Huh. Not bad. I know, I’ll write some more short stories about other people who live in the same town.” I thought I’d start with a girl who could see ghosts – and she turned out to be Belladonna Johnson.
The other thing is to read. When you read you absorb so much, not just the story. You drink in words and ideas and ways of saying things. Without even realizing it, you learn to recognize the different styles that different writers have and as you begin writing you’ll probably find yourself adopting the style of your favorite author. That doesn’t matter – just keep doing it and eventually your own voice will break through. For a long time I would try to write in what I thought was a “proper” book kind of way, which took forever and was no fun at all. Now I tend to write the way that I talk, as if I was telling someone a story, and that makes it so much more enjoyable for me because telling stories is what is really fun.
And, of course, let other people read what you write. You can give it to them and let them read it, or read it out. Reading stories out loud to people can be a great help, because you can see right away what is working and what is not. If you don’t like reading things out loud, find a friend who is good at reading and ask them to do it for you – you’ll probably discover lots of things you didn’t even realize were there.
Can you tell us anything about the sequel to Spellbinder? Or any other books you’re planning for the future?
Funny you should ask! I just finished the sequel. It’s called “The Queen of the Abyss” and continues the story as Belladonna and Steve meet the last Paladin, who gives them a map and a dire warning, but before they can do anything about it, Belladonna is taken into care by the authorities (who have just discovered she’s living in an empty house). Her new foster parents are not what they seem, however, and Belladonna, Steve and Elsie must travel to the Other Side to find the ruler of the dead, the mysterious Queen of the Abyss.
Who is your favorite author or book?
My favorite children’s book author is Alan Garner. A lot of people in this country don’t seem to have heard of him, but I strongly recommend his books! The best one to start with is probably “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.” (I know, it’s a strange word and I was never quite sure I was pronouncing it properly until I happened to see him interviewed on television about two years ago. He pronounced it Brizzing-ah-men, which was what I’d thought all along!) I also like Philip Pullman and the “Half Magic” books by Edward Eager, which were out of print for years but are now back (hooray!).
What are your hobbies when you aren’t writing?
I really love cooking and am very interested in the history of food – after all, if “we are what we eat” then what people in past centuries ate should tell us a lot about them. I also collect old newspapers and magazines (pre-1890), which are also great fun to read – some of the stories are absolutely bloodcurdling. And, of course, I watch a simply disgraceful amount of television.
Thank you so much to Helen Stringer! Maybe if we beg and plead, she’ll write that Jane Austen Action Movie.
For more information about her and her books, visit her website.