I’m delighted to welcome my guest today, Helena Halme. Helena is a London-based Finnish author who writes in the English language – an amazing feat which she carries off beautifully. She is the author of six novels and is the winner of the John Nurmi prize for the best thesis on British politics, a former BBC journalist, and has also worked as a magazine editor and a bookseller.
Helena is going to tell us why turning your own life into fiction is a great idea.
‘Write a series,’ is the advice given to most indie authors. You’re told by various marketing gurus that series are popular, because readers want to read books that are ‘the same but different ’. The current trend to want everything at once, like binge-watching a particular TV series, is said to translate to books too, so why not give the reader a series of novels to buy at once?
Whether this is true or not, I resisted the call of the series for many years, instead producing three quite different novels: The Englishman, a romance; Coffee and Vodka, a Nordic family drama; and The Red King of Helsinki, a Cold War spy novel.
I modelled myself on authors such as William Boyd, Liane Moriarty and Jojo Moyes, all writers of individual novels that deal with similar subjects, but are not part of a series.
The most popular of my individual titles turned out to be The Englishman, a novel based on my own life. It tells the story of Finnish Kaisa who, under the gleaming chandeliers of the British Embassy in Helsinki, falls head over heels in love with Peter, a handsome British Navy Officer.
Time and again my readers would ask me if there was going to be a sequel, but I was reluctant to write any more stories based on my own life. And then I stumbled upon a diary that I’d written as a newly married Navy wife. It made quite sad reading; with my husband away at sea, I was lonely in a new country, and frustrated at not being able to find job in 1980s Britain. I’d worked hard to get a degree in Finland before marrying my Englishman, so I wanted a career to make use of it. I was also quite the feminist, and becoming a pacifist, so I was somewhat conflicted in my new role as the wife of a nuclear submariner …
I reread the diary many times, and eventually decided to transcribe it. As I did this, a story based on those desperate words began to emerge. Eventually after three years (due to popular demand!) I wrote the follow-up, The Navy Wife.
Encouraged by the reception of the sequel, a year later I published novel number three in the series, The Good Officer. Last spring I was even inspired to write a prequel novella, The Finnish Girl, where I recount how Kaisa at the age of fourteen meets, and later is engaged to be married, to an older man. This novella was the hardest book to write in the series, because it’s quite closely based my own life. (You can get a free copy of The Finnish Girl here).
As a reluctant series writer, why did I do it? Here are five reasons why I think you should turn your own life into a fictional series:
1. It’s easier to write about people you already know. Just make sure the characterisation stays true to the first book, while at the same time letting your characters grow as they get older, and hopefully, wiser.
2. The physical setting and era of the book will already be known to you, so it’s easy to invent scenarios and plot twists based on your own experiences. Sometimes I feel I’m writing about what I wish would have happened in my own life! The old mantra, ‘Write what you know’ is true; the reader can tell when your writing comes from a place of deep knowledge.
3. Personal experiences give your book more authenticity. You can play with your knowledge and expertise of the era and setting, and people, changing and shifting events and characters as you wish – and invent new plot twists.
4. It’s fun to image your own life differently. Isn’t this what all writers do? Whether you write from your own experience or not, you have to identify with your characters and live and breathe their lives.
5. You can easily turn your series into a box set. A boxed set will provide the indie author another product to sell and satisfy the popular demand for ‘binge reading’, as well as giving new readers a sizeable discount. I’ve recently published a boxed set of the three first books in The Englishman series, which saves a new reader around 50% compared to buying all the books separately.
I would recommend any author to write books based on their own life, and develop them into a series. I’m really enjoying the journey my younger self has taken me on, and love watching both Kaisa and Peter change and grow as they navigate their stormy life together.
Find out more about Helena and her books on her website or her Amazon Page