Friday, May 20, 2016

Interview with B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree Helen Hollick

Please join me in welcoming B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree Helen Hollick to A Literary Vacation today! Helen lives with her family in North Devon, England, in an eighteenth century farmhouse, surrounded by thirteen acres of fields and woodland. A variety of pets include horses, two Exmoor ponies, dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, and geese.

A passionate supporter of indie, Helen is Managing Editor for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews, and with her editor, Jo Field, Helen co-wrote Discovering the Diamond, a short advice guide for new and novice writers who are interested in self-publishing.

Her main passion is her pirate character, Captain Jesamiah Acorne of The Sea Witch Voyages which carry the quality endorsement of Indie B.R.A.G. medallions. Helen is also published traditionally in the US, and became a USA Today Bestseller with The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) – the story of Saxon Queen, Emma of Normandy. Her novel Harold the King (titled I Am The Chosen King in the US) is an acclaimed re-telling of events that led to the 1066 Battle of Hastings.

Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, set in the fifth century, is widely acclaimed as a different telling of the Arthurian Myth.

Helen is published in various languages including Turkish, Italian and German.


Hello, Helen, and welcome to A Literary Vacation! To start off with, please tell us a little about the books in your Sea Witch Voyages series?

The Voyages, as the series is called, are set in the early eighteenth century – the Golden Age of Piracy. We first meet my pirate, Jesamiah Acorne, in the first book, Sea Witch. Attacking an East Indiaman merchant ship off the coast of Africa he notices a young girl on the deck – their paths are to cross several times, but he is completely unaware that she - Tiola Oldstagh – is no ordinary girl. Only when she saves his life does he discover two things: that he is deeply in love with her, and that she is also a White Witch.

 Written for adults (the books have some adult content) each Voyage is a stand-alone story, but there is also a continuous thread of finding out about Jesamiah and Tiola’s background running through the entire series – their characters developing as we voyage with them. In Pirate Code, Voyage Two, Jesamiah has given up piracy, but is tricked into finding some missing cargo. He then gets embroiled in a rebellion on the island of Hispaniola – while trying to avoid an unpleasant death from the less than friendly Spanish Governor, and resisting temptation from a beautiful widow.

Voyage three, Bring It Close, sees him going against that famous pirate, Blackbeard and dealing with the ghost of his father. In Voyage Four, Ripples In The Sand, he sails to England, where yet again he finds himself in unexpected trouble.

There is an element of supernatural in each book – the ghost of his father, Tiola’s ‘Craft’, and the spirit of the sea, Tethys, who wants Jesamiah for herself.

Before I get any further, I just have to say that I am thoroughly impressed that each book in this series has been awarded a B.R.A. G. Medallion! This speaks to your incredible capabilities as a storyteller. Can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve honed your skills as a writer?


I’ve been a published author for over twenty years, initially published by William Heinemann of Random House, UK, so I guess practice has played a large part! I also highly value my editors’ input to my books. They are the professionals and their advice is always worth taking on board.

I am not an academic, I left school at sixteen with only a few low-grade certificates to my name, but I have always loved reading and writing. As a teenager I desperately wanted a pony, but we could not afford to keep one, so I made one up. I wrote dozens of stories about our adventures together – many of them, I must confess, during the more boring lessons at school. I even wrote one story during an important exam! Well, I’d finished the questions and had time to spare, so I started a story. I filled up both sides of an A4 sheet of paper, and asked for more paper. Filled that up. Asked for more. It was a good story (well, I thought so at the time, it probably wasn’t though.) What I didn’t realise, all the other girls in the examination room thought I was still answering the questions and were worried that they had only one sheet of paper to hand in, while I had a whole pile. When they discovered the truth I wasn’t very popular for a while!

My first real foray into writing came from my English teacher. I’d written an essay and it came back with those dreaded words: “See me after class”. What had I done wrong?

“Now then Helen!” she said, “This is good, but it could be a lot better.” She then spent about an hour (it was the last lesson of the day) showing me how I could improve my writing by not repeating words and not using so many adjectives. Show not tell; build the story up; have a clear start, middle and end. I’ve never forgotten her encouragement. It’s a shame she isn’t still alive to see my achievement, but this was almost forty-five years ago and she was nearing retirement even then.

I wonder what she would have made of my pirate?

I love that your series seems a wonderful mix of history and fantasy. Which aspect do you enjoy writing more? Did you do any research before writing the books? If you did conduct research, did you find out anything during the process that surprised you?

It can be a challenge to get the blend just right. Although Tiola is a White Witch she has her limitations – I didn’t want her able to click her fingers and ‘hey-presto’ get Jesamiah out of trouble. She doesn’t do ‘magic’ so I think of her Craft as more like the Force in Star Wars, not the spells of Harry Potter.

I do a lot of research for the ‘everyday’ things of the period, clothing, food, transport etc. I have been to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, three times now as I have several scenes set there in Bring It Close (and possibly the sixth Voyage, Gallows Wake – I’m not sure yet though, as the book is not written!) I also meticulously research my nautical detail: get those facts right then the made-up bits seem plausible. The trick is to blend the fact, the fiction, and the fantasy seamlessly together so the reader is not certain which is which!

One thing really surprised me and came so unexpected that I felt the hairs on the nape of my neck rise up, one of those ‘oo-er’ moments! While preparing to write the fourth Voyage, Ripples In the Sand, I had decided to bring Jesamiah and his ship, Sea Witch, to Devon, England, to make a change of scenery for me and my readers. I lived on the outskirts of London at the time and chose Devon because that was where my Editor used to live. I used to visit her quite often, but only when researching did I discover that Bideford on the North Coast of Devon, the town I was to bring Jesamiah to, had in the 16-1700s been one of the main English ports used for the tobacco trade. I’d chosen it at random – you could have knocked me down with a feather.

And another unexpected surprise – completely out of the blue, in 2013 my family had the chance to move away from London. We moved to Devon, about eighteen miles from where Ripples is set!

I’m sure it’s impossible to say, but do you have a favorite book from this series? How about a favorite character?

Sea Witch itself, of course, because it was the first, but possible my favourite is Bring It Close. I loved being able to trundle history around and fit my pirate into the known facts about Blackbeard! My favourite character has to be Jesamiah himself. I adore him.

Historical fiction happens to be my all-time favorite genre and I find myself going back and forth between what periods of history are my favorite to read about. Do you have a favorite time period to write and/or read about, or do you enjoy jumping around as I do?

I have a few periods I don’t enjoy: I can’t stand the Tudors, and I have very little interest in the 1400s or the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Otherwise, anything goes as long as it is well written and exciting.

What does a typical day (if there is one) look like for you? How do you balance writing and the rest of your life?

I’d like to say I’m organized, but I’m not! I answer my emails and deal with social media stuff of a morning, then write in the afternoons. The trouble is, I now live on a thirteen-acre farm and there’s always something that needs doing outside: we have horses, dogs, chickens, geese, ducks…. The fields to harrow and roll, horses to ride, eggs to collect… So I tend to get more writing done when its raining or at night!

What drew you to independently publish The Voyages series as opposed to seeking traditional publishing?

As I said above, I used to be published by Random House UK, but unfortunately my ex-agent let me down badly and I was dropped about ten years ago. I had written Sea Witch with such enthusiasm (it took me just three months to write) and I was devastated when ex-agent said she hated it. (It transpired that she also disliked the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.) She wanted me to write the story for teenage boys – but I had deliberately set out to write Sea Witch for adults. You see I loved The Curse of the Black Pearl with Johnny Depp’s wonderful portrayal of Jack Sparrow. The plot was daft, I know, but it was fun! Nautical adventure about pirates with an addition of romance and fantasy; pure escapism.

I searched for adult novels of the same sort of thing, found plenty of children’s books (a bit lacking in adult matters) and plenty of good nautical fiction (C.S.Forrester and Patrick O’Brian for instance) but they were all straight fiction, no fantasy. In the end, I gave up looking and wrote the book I wanted to read.

Sadly ex-agent did not share my enthusiasm, but I stuck to my guns and we parted company. I did offer Sea Witch to a few publishers, but they all came back with the same response: ”Love it, but no one is interested in pirates.” (I seem to recall them saying the same about wizards …)

I had faith in Jesamiah and Sea Witch, so decided to go Indie.

Best thing I ever did.

 How did you discover indieBRAG and what does it mean to you to have your books awarded the BRAG Medallion

IndieBRAG discovered me, well CEO Geri Clouston did! I think we ‘met’ because of her husband’s excellent books (read them, they’re very good.) and Geri floated the idea of what did I think about her forming a good review-type platform for Indie books. I told her it was a good idea – but I honestly didn’t think she was serious! So many review sites start up then fall by the wayside. I soon came to realise that Geri was perfectly serious, and I am delighted that IndieBRAG is becoming the huge success that it is.

What I want to see now, is IndieBRAG getting the recognition it deserves here in the UK as well as in the US. It is much needed over here …. Come on Geri, your next goal!

Thank you, Helen, for taking the time to answer my questions!
You can learn more about Helen and her books on her website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter. You can also email her and find updated news on her online newsletter. You can find all links to purchase the books in her Voyages series HERE.
A Message from indieBRAG:

We are delighted that Colleen has chosen to interview Helen Hollick, who is the author of The Voyages series, our medallion honorees at indieBRAG. To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion ® , a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as Past Encounters merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.



  1. How odd that your books were re-titled in the US. I never understand that. But great interview! I too am very happy that IndieBRAG has succeeded!

  2. Thanks Rebecca - I find it so irritating as an author and reader to have titles changed. For Harold the King they said 'no one will know who Harold is' .... does 'I Am The Chosen King' make anyone the wiser? LOL :-)

  3. Helen's interviews never fail to bring new fascinating facts about her writer's life to light; so it's no wonder that she is a BRAG Medallion Honoree; besides leading me to your interesting blog, Colleen.

    1. I agree about Helen's interviews! I had the best time with it from my end :). Thank you, Inge!!

    2. apologies for the delay in getting back to you Inge, as always, thank you for your kind words - I very much appreciate your enthusiastic support!