Interview With Local Cosy Crime Writer Helena Dixon
Interview With Local Cosy Crime Writer Helena Dixon
Helena Dixon splits her life between homes in Devon and the Black Country, UK. She is a prolific writer who has been both indie and traditionally published. Her most recent books are in the cosy crime genre, The Miss UnderHay Series set in Dartmouth, Torbay, and Exeter. Book four, Murder on the Dancefloor, was released in October, and Book Five, Murder in the Belltower, is due June 2021.
Hi Helena, I was so pleased when you agreed to do an Interview with Exeter Writers. You write prolifically under two pen names, have won several prizes for your romances, have a good social media following and I just wanted to say: that is a massive achievement.
It was your cozy crime novels that first got my attention as they are set in Devon. I’m going to start with a question you must get asked quite a lot so my apologies for that but could you tell us how you came up with the idea for the Miss Underhay Series?
I had been writing romances for a long time under my Nell Dixon name but most of my books had other elements, crime, time slip, social or medical issues. Murder at the Dolphin Hotel was one of those books that didn’t know what it wanted to be. It wasn’t a mystery and wasn’t a romance. I kept opening and closing the file but couldn’t see what to do with the story. Then, I was talking to the Coffee Crew, (Elizabeth Hanbury and Phillipa Ashley) when it hit me. I scrapped what I’d done so far and set the story in the 1930s. I immediately knew it was right and came up with the ideas for at least 12 more story possibilities.
Your Cozy Crime Series The Miss Underhay Mysteries is set in Torbay and Dartmouth. I read your recent release Murder on the Dance Floor and was delighted with all the familiar places that Kitty (Miss Underhay) visits.
There is a Dolphin Inn in Dartmouth which is very infamous, The Imperial Hotel in Torquay, every bit as prestigious today as it was in the 30s, Cockington...It’s really refreshing to read a story set in our local area.
My question then is, how has your audience responded to such a small seaside setting. What I mean is do you think that picking small-town settings in the southwest has limited your audience by appealing only to locals, or do you think readers enjoy learning about the less glamorous parts of the world. (I admit I’m a bit bored of stories only set in big cities!)
I spend half the year in Devon and know the areas I write about very well. I’ve had such wonderful support from local people who are excited to see their area and to recognise places they know - even fictionalised! The Miss Underhay series has been an Amazon Bestseller in Australia and Canada as well as reaching the top 100 in the UK Kindle chart so I think a coastal, small-town setting has universal appeal.
Tell us more about your book. Without giving away the plot, what is the story… why should people read it? Who would enjoy it?
Murder on the Dance Floor has topics that still interest people today. The suspicion that public servants are not always to be trusted. That planning permissions may be wrongly awarded and of course murder. Many of my readers love Agatha Christie, Miss Fisher, and the Midsommer Murders, so if those kinds of writers appeal, then the Miss Underhay series will do too (hopefully!)
How much research do you do on settings and history? Do you use any key historical events to inform the stories? Such as the development of Cockington for instance? Or do you write entirely from your imagination?
I do a lot of research. The plot is fictional and I invent places within a real setting. For Cockington, I found out when the estate was sold and the plans drawn up for the building of the inn. I researched Exeter and the water conduits and used a map from the 1890s to plot where places could be and cross-referenced it to present-day maps. So the presbytery where Father Lamb lives is real for instance. I recently visited the chair of Torbay Old Wheels club and had a private tour of his 1934 Morris motor cars so I can accurately describe Kitty’s issues learning to drive. Many things are from my imagination though but with that factual underpinning.
Writer to Writer Helena, do you still have bad writing days, and if so, how do you get yourself back on track? What advice do you have for writers who struggle with writer's block?
I have quite tight deadlines which are a wonderful motivator for me. Without a deadline, I tend to faff about and wallow in research. I try to write 2k a day 5 days a week for six weeks to get the bones of the book down. I then ignore for at least a fortnight before reopening the file. I then go through it making notes before aditing at least another 10-14k and polishing it.
I saw from your website that you are both traditionally published and indie published on amazon. Having experienced both routes to publication, can you tell us about your experiences. How do they compare?
Indie publishing is fun. You get to design your cover. I employ a fabulous editor who used to work for Harlequin Mills and Boon so she edits very well. I employ proofreaders as proofreading is not in my skill set. It is hugely time-consuming to market. Trad publishing means relinquishing some degree of control - especially cover design but again, my skills are what is inside the cover of the book, not the external appearance. I might love a cover but marketing wise it’s rubbish.
On a scale of 1 to headache, how easy was it to self publish on Amazon?
ebook is fairly straightforward. For me paperback - total nightmare.
Tell us what happens when you’ve finally finished your manuscript. You’ve gone through your redrafts and edits and are ready to publish. How long does it take between finishing and publishing? What can budding authors expect from the other side of the mountain of finishing? I think many of us believe it’s all downhill after that, but is there just another mountain to scale to get to publication?
Once you’ve delivered the book you wait for your editor's thoughts. These are usually as a structural edit first - plot lines and holes, strengthening motivations, etc. Then you send it back. Then you get line edits where the plot etc is drilled down line by line to make sure everything flows. Send it back. Then copy edits - looking at spellings, dialogue, timelines all the tiny bits, and pieces. Grammar etc. Send it back. Then the proofs - fine reading and checking that everything is perfect. Send it back. Then final files - does it open properly? No missing pages or gaps etc. Send it back then publication! Then comes all the promotion and marketing!
Exeter Writers is one of the longest-running writing circles in the UK. As with anything in life you get out what you put in. Have you ever been part of a writing group? If so, what value did you add to your group and what did you get out of it?
I belong to Wombourne Writers which has been running for over twenty years now. I first joined Dudley writers - now known as Castle writers when I was 12 so I have a long history with writers groups. I’ve learned so much and continue to learn from my fellow members. They make me think about my writing, my word choices, etc in a new way. I love writers groups and often run workshops on editing and plotting.
Thanks for taking the time for this interview. It’s much appreciated by both us here at Exeter Writers, and the budding authors who frequent our blog seeking spiffy wisdoms, and encouragement in their endeavours.
Before you go though I have one last question I'm dying to know the answer to…
How helpful is Spike the Cactus to your writing or creative process? (I found a reference to him on your website and I love that you mention it! It would be great to give him some wider recognition 😉)
Spike belonged originally to my middle daughter. He is a tiny cactus with a fake moustache and has a tiny cocktail umbrella. He makes me smile every morning to see him on my kitchen windowsill. I think too, his expression reminds me of Inspector Greville in the Miss Underhay series. I think it’s the rather morose moustache!
Thanks so much for answering all my questions. It was lovely to talk with you.
Jessica Triana de Ford is Exeter Writers Blog Manager, and co-ordinates content as well as edits submissions. She loves being part of a supportive writing group and being in a position to help support other creatives find the courage to express their ideas. You can find out more and connect with Jessica on LinkedIn and Twitter.