From research papers to fiction: an interview with Helen Loney.

Helen Loney is an archaeologist by training and education, but the books she is writing are historical mystery and action/romances. One series, set in Victorian London, involves Lyster Clemens, a spinster who is housekeeper and librarian for her eccentric Uncle in Victorian London. Their house is burgled; the investigating policeman, James Harris, who now works for CID, is an expat American, once a sheriff in the west. Helen has much experience writing scientific papers and monographs, but fiction is a different beast.

What sparked this story?

Probably my childhood following my parents around the west during the summer. They were geologists, and we spent a lot of time in Death Valley, visiting ghost towns and old mining towns. As well, my experiences as an American living in England have influenced the story.

How does your own scientific education affect your writing?

Oddly, archaeology hasn’t really played that big a role so far, except that I like to put 19th century scientific philosophy into Lyster’s mouth. What archaeology has probably contributed the most is driven me to write something I don’t have to provide all the answers for. Archaeology is a pretty tightly controlled discipline at the academic level. With fiction I can dictate my own narrative that is not necessarily logical or rational. That said, I really have to have an accurate timeline, and I’ve spent a lot of time working out how long things take. I have thrown footnotes in the bin, however.

Do you think scientific training changes the way ‘what if’ questions are asked and answered?  Or is it just refreshing to be able to break away from that rigor and speculate without needing cause and effect?

Archaeology really is about connections and lateral thinking. We have very strict evidence-based interpretations and conclusions. Fiction frees me from that. I think you can’t get away from cause and effect, but I do like to allow for random accident, or just unexplainable events. However, archaeology is really about the connections between the material world and the mental one (cultural/social whatever), and I think that really adds to my writing. I’m very aware of how people use artefacts to relate to their world emotionally, as well as technologically. I like to explore this emotional and aesthetic relationship in my stories, for instance, using mundane tools or clothes as triggers for memories and emotions.

Where are you in the publishing process? Are you waiting to finish a series and then query? What route are you considering – traditional, small press, self?

I’m trying to prepare my first novel for querying, which is daunting. I went to the National Writer’s Conference in Birmingham (UK) last month, thinking I’d be relegated to the starry-eyed amateur chair, and instead was encouraged to submit to an agent really as soon as I could. I ought to send it to a couple of beta-readers, though it has been through my husband a few times, but part of me thinks I should just send the current draft when it’s done, hopefully by September.

I am drawn to traditional publishing. I thought about self-publishing, but it doesn’t really interest me, at least, not yet. I also have discovered I don’t like to read on-line, it’s hard on my eyes and I tend to skim, which is a pity with fiction. I want hard copy, and if I’m honest, I’d like my WIP series to be in graphic novel form at some point. I’m going to try and query the first in the series, whilst I’m finishing the second.

Do you think your academic presence will help or hinder publication of your books? Or are you considering a pen name?

I’m considering a pen name. One of my friends, a Romanist, who is a pretty successful fiction and screenwriter was toasted over the academic coals for publishing a children’s book about a female Gladiatrix under her own name. It would give people a chance to spell my name right! I think I would worry that people might be: a) offended because I am writing in some particular events/people into some of the narratives and it might be obvious if they knew my name, and/or b) I would get criticism for my louche approach to 19th century evolutionary theory. Hah!

Not content with one series, Helen is also writing the adventures of the Duchess of Sedgely, Alice Isadore (Izzy) Wildsmith, who disguises herself as a man and joins the Union Army to follow her older brother into battle. There’s also a novella about James Harris’ time as a Sheriff in Eastern California before he came to London, a tie-in to her Lyster Clemens series.


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