Bestselling Author


The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club by Helen Simonson

Helen Simonson discusses her new novel, The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club. A timeless comedy of manners—refreshing as a summer breeze and bracing as the British seaside—about a generation of young women facing the seismic changes brought on by war and dreaming of the boundless possibilities of their future, from the bestselling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.

Helen Simonson

Helen Simonson was born in England and spent her teenage years in a small village in East Sussex. A graduate of the London School of Economics, she lives in the United States and is a dual citizen and proud New Yorker. Married, with two sons, she is the New York Times bestselling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Summer Before the War.

In this enriching episode of Historical Happy Hour, bestselling author Jane Healey sits down with acclaimed author Helen Simonson to discuss her latest novel, “The Hazelborn Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club.” Set just after World War I in a seaside town in 1919, the novel follows Constance, a woman displaced from her estate management role, who discovers new freedoms and challenges in a world reshaped by war. Simonson explores themes of societal change, independence, and the emergence of new roles for women in a post-war setting, delivering a narrative that resonates with both historical significance and timeless appeal.

Here’s what we covered:

  • 00:00:00 – Introduction to the episode and guest Helen Simonson.
  • 00:01:00 – Overview of “The Hazelborn Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club.”
  • 00:02:00 – Discussion on main characters and plot dynamics.
  • 00:04:00 – Examination of the historical context and character development.
  • 00:06:00 – Insights into Simonson’s research process and inspiration.
  • 00:12:00 – Themes of societal shifts and the impact of WWI on women.
  • 00:17:00 – Potential film adaptation discussions and future projects.


[00:00:00] Jane: Welcome to Historical Happy Hour, the podcast that explores new and exciting historical fiction novels. I’m your host, Jane Healy, and in today’s episode, we welcome the lovely New York Times bestselling author, Helen Simonson, to discuss her latest novel, The Hazel Born Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club, which just released May 7th.

[00:00:23] Jane: Welcome, Helen. Thank you for coming on. Thank you for having me.

[00:00:26] Helen: I’m delighted to be here.

[00:00:28] Jane: Yeah, so great. So I’m going to give a brief intro about Helen. I think a lot of you, I’ve heard from you already that you know her books. Helen Simmonson was born in England and spent her teenage years in a small village in East Sussex.

[00:00:40] Jane: A graduate of the London School of Economics, she lives in the United States. and is a dual citizen and proud New Yorker. Married with two sons, she is the New York Times best selling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Summer Before the War. Again, welcome, and I’m going to dive right into questions.

[00:00:58] Jane: This is her [00:01:00] latest The Hazelborn Lady, the Motorcycle and Flying Club. And I love this book. It was charming and felt timeless. And talk about the overall premise of the story. It takes place just after World War I, in the summer of 1919, and in a seaside resort town.

[00:01:20] Helen: Yeah it concerns a young woman named Constance who has spent the war running a large country estate, because the Lord of the Manor and the estate manager were both called up to serve.

[00:01:30] Helen: And now here we have the end of the war and she’s quite abruptly told that her services are no longer required. They want to get a man in to do a proper job. And along with that, that her tied cottage will be going to the new estate manager. So she’s somewhat abruptly without prospects.

[00:01:48] Helen: And she’s expected to be grateful to this family to be sent to the seaside for a few weeks. as a lady’s companion to their elderly mother who’s recovering from the Spanish flu. So here we have a [00:02:00] summer where the world is getting ready for peace celebrations. We think of the end of World War I as being November 1918, but the whole Treaty of Versailles had to be negotiated, so actual peace did not break out until July of 1919.

[00:02:15] Helen: So while the rest of the world is celebrating, there’s Constance has a few sort of anxious weeks at the seaside where she has to find her entire future. And while she’s there, she saves a local young woman from a terrible social faux pas at their at their seafront hotel, and she is thrust into a poppy whirls world of trouser wearing independent young women.

[00:02:38] Helen: Who have founded a motorcycle club in order to keep themselves employed and riding after the war.

[00:02:45] Jane: It’s so great. And there’s so many just like this cast of characters that are so like quirky and interesting. One thing that I thought was interesting in your, in the style that it was written, someone is saying no audio.[00:03:00]

[00:03:00] Jane: Hold on one second.

[00:03:06] Jane: You can hear me, Helen. Yes, I can. Yeah, I can hear. Oh, okay. Other people can hear. All right. So that was the one thing. Thank you for letting me know I was picking up tech issues in the past. Mary, I hope you can get figure out the audio. So this novel, the main point of view is Constance, but then you also have two other points of view at times.

[00:03:27] Jane: One is Harris Wuerl, a disabled veteran of the war, and brother of Poppy, who befriends Constance, and then Klaus Zeiger Zeiger, a German waiter at the resort and both are dealing with their personal traumas and situations in the aftermath of the war. How, how, Why their perspectives as well?

[00:03:47] Jane: Like, why did you choose their perspectives as well?

[00:03:50] Helen: Harris yes, Harris was a World War I flying ace. He was shot down and lost the lower part of his left leg. And so he’s dealing with sort of a certain [00:04:00] amount of trauma from the war and also being disabled. More people were disabled in World War I than killed.

[00:04:06] Helen: It was really the first war where medical advances and advances in armor, the tin helmet had come in meant that people survived horrific injuries that once would have killed them. And so you’re left with this entire population of people who need support. And I thought it was interesting. I didn’t feel that governments want to include such people in celebration victory parades.

[00:04:31] Helen: And there’s some questions to how they’re going to take care of them. So there was inadequate pensions and people didn’t really want to look at these disabled veterans. And I think that’s something that still resonates today. I should note that in COVID, apparently, many more disabled people got jobs because interviewing on Zoom, you couldn’t see the wheelchair.

[00:04:51] Helen: And I’m interested in historical issues that are still resonating somehow today. Now, Harris is it’s terrible to lose your leg, but he’s still somewhat entitled, [00:05:00] reasonably well off person. But even he finds that he can’t get the employment that he wants and what he really wants is to be able to fly again and everybody looks at him like an invalid and says there’s no way we’re letting you fly.

[00:05:14] Helen: So that’s a great tragedy. And then finally Clau Seeger, the waiter, represents the lower classes and also represents the actually he’s a naturalized British citizen, but in the war he was treated as a German, sent away to an internment camp, he had to talk his way out of that, was not allowed to live near the coast because of his German origins, and struggled to survive in London.

[00:05:38] Helen: So again, he’s representing, all those people who in many wars get treated as the enemy when they’re not. And it gives a sort of useful counterpoint to what is otherwise a sort of. frothy upper middle class, let’s all have tea and frolic on the beach sort of novel. So he’s adding a little weight there.

[00:05:57] Jane: Yes. Yeah, definitely. To that [00:06:00] point to talk about the kind of research you had to do for this story. You made some notes and your acknowledgements in the back. I, obviously I had to do, Some research on motorcycling in the 19, early 1900s and flying. And so what was your research process?

[00:06:16] Jane: Was there anything that surprised you? Talk a little bit about that.

[00:06:19] Helen: Yes. This novel this is my COVID novel, half the writers. We’re locked down, writing about how it felt to be locked down, and the other half of us were desperate to escape in any way we can. And escaping to 1919, where people were coming out of war and coming out of a pandemic, seemed to me like a very good place, a very optimistic place to go and hang out.

[00:06:39] Helen: I also had a grounding in the period having done a lot of reading around the world World War One for my second book, Summer Before the War, and there were many things I felt I’d left unsaid. So it seemed a good place to start in lockdown where my sort of chief research tool was going to be Google.

[00:06:57] Helen: And so luckily I had books, you can order [00:07:00] books online and they come, but I wasn’t going to be able to go to the and sit and read newspapers and magazines as I did for the second book. I started looking at a lot of imagery, British seaside 1919. I came across a wonderful image that was a German U boat that was being towed to Scotland to be broken up, and it got away from its tow rope and beached itself on Hastings Beach.

[00:07:26] Helen: And that whole summer of 1919, while they, In real life, trying to prepare for peace celebrations, the entire town is overshadowed by a giant hulking U boat on the beach. And I thought I can build an entire novel around that image. And the, yes, I did a lot of research. It’s motorcycling, it’s motorcycles and sidecars.

[00:07:45] Helen: I came across a wonderful database, motorcycle timeline do com, which is a project to digitize early motorcycling magazines. So I was able to read original motorcycling magazines and what was also wonderful. is this entire [00:08:00] digital project is put together by one gentleman who lives on the Isle of Wight.

[00:08:04] Helen: And this is his personal passion. It’s a very British thing to have such an enormous passion and not get paid for doing it. But MotorcycleTimeline. com gave me lots and lots of wonderful stories about all the motorcycling clubs and ladies were invited to join and motorcycles and sidecars of which there were many surplus from the war.

[00:08:24] Helen: were a cheap form of transportation in an era when people could not afford cars. So to me it was a wonderful way to get my ladies out and about and have them be part of the transportation revolution. And also in my family my grandparents on my mother’s side always had a motorbike and sidecar.

[00:08:43] Helen: My grandfather used to work. He was in World War I and then when he came out, he worked for a company that made airplane parts and sidecars and he must have brought his work home ’cause he always had a handmade sidecar. And in fact, I have a little picture here from the 1950s of my, oh. [00:09:00] young woman in the family sidecar with her parents.

[00:09:05] Helen: Isn’t that great? I remember being about four years old and riding in my grandparent’s sidecar. So I loved that. I did a lot of research there. And then my father, who unfortunately, died of COVID in the early days of the pandemic, was a lifelong aviation enthusiast. And so whenever the going got tough for me in the novel writing or in lockdown life, I would start writing again about Sock with Camels and feel like I was spending time with my dad.

[00:09:34] Helen: But I have to give, all credit to Google and other search engines for opening up the world to all of us while we’re in lockdown.

[00:09:41] Jane: Oh yeah, I love, like you said about the database too, I love people who do that, that have that kind of passion for a subject, a project. That’s that’s amazing.

[00:09:50] Helen: Pick a piece of history and go at it on a scale that most museums Yes. Oh,

[00:09:58] Jane: that’s amazing. This [00:10:00] quote captures one of the themes of the story. No one is sure how things are supposed to work now because the world can never go back to the way it was, even if some men wished it would. And you really highlighted the cultural and socioeconomic changes brought about by World War I, particularly for women, but for everyone, really.

[00:10:20] Jane: Talk about this aspect of the story, like when the men came back from the war, a lot of women had found a huge real fulfillment in careers that they had to abandon for the men who were returning.

[00:10:32] Helen: Yes, it’s quite shocking. It took a while for the British government to involve women at the start of the war, but they soon discovered that the wartime economy was going to crash if they didn’t get workers.

[00:10:43] Helen: So women went into, obviously in huge numbers, munitions factories, mostly they came out of domestic service, it was the end of domestic service, into the factories. They went into engineering. They were on the trains and buses. They became police officers. They were doing, every job that could spare a man for [00:11:00] the front.

[00:11:00] Helen: And then at the end of the war, it was like, thank you very much, ladies. Now, if you could quietly go back to your kitchens and your drawing rooms and behave yourselves. And meanwhile, women were like, no, we wear trousers now. We can eat a ham sandwich in the street. We’re used to having our own money. For many women, I’m a war widow and I need an income and they were told they couldn’t continue.

[00:11:21] Helen: And in fact, the British government passed the Restoration of Pre war Practices Act that said in many covered occupations, jobs will go to servicemen and no woman shall be employed. So my young women, and some of them have money and some of them have less money, and a lot of them have. desires for careers.

[00:11:40] Helen: There’s more than one budding engineer in my hares of one ladies. The door is being shut on them. That’s the answer for all the sacrifices they’ve made. So of course, I’m always a little bit outraged on behalf of women. And it gets left out because in the World War I was so shockingly terrible, so many people died that the [00:12:00] story of women, both their contribution and how they were overlooked afterwards, I felt had been underreported.

[00:12:07] Helen: And I’m always looking to highlight the underreported story.

[00:12:11] Jane: Definitely. And yeah, you did such an amazing job with that. I loved this praise from the Star Tribune, haphazard comparisons to Jane Austen are to be immediately regretted, but there’s no getting around it with the Hazelborne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club.

[00:12:27] Jane: If Austen had lived a century later than she did, if feels very much like a book she would have written. And another book reviewer on Goodreads compared this book to Austen’s novel Persuasion. First of all, what an amazing compliment, but and I know that most writers are fans of Jane Austen, but did she directly influence your style and voice and writing?

[00:12:48] Jane: I think

[00:12:48] Helen: she always affects my style and writing. One, she’s a problem to get around when whatever kind of book you’re writing, if there’s any element of a love [00:13:00] story, then Jane is a problem to get around because there’s always Mr. Darcy, and you’re a hero going to be Mr. Darcy, not be Mr. Darcy in which way, so that’s always a problem.

[00:13:12] Helen: And what was really funny about Jane Austen is, as I certainly read her in high school, and I was very diligent about it, and I thought I understood. But I went back to reading her around age 30 and realized that she was really like Bridget Jones Diary, only better. She’s absolutely hilarious, and if anyone, if you haven’t read her since high school and you’re looking for something, that’s just hilarious that you should give her another try.

[00:13:37] Helen: So I think that sort of British, witty sort of humor that’s It’s not fast, but it’s just a humor of people insulting you, people looking down on other people, rye comments we British, like that kind of thing. And it, and we’re all indebted to Jane Austen.

[00:13:56] Jane: Definitely. Yeah, I completely agree with you about reading it later on. I did the [00:14:00] same thing and there’s so many layers and so much more humor than I. I didn’t notice when I was younger, so I agree. I was so happy

[00:14:09] Helen: that you understood the vocabulary, thinking about it being so funny. But the other thing is in Jane Austen, there’s things the other layer that you don’t notice.

[00:14:17] Helen: And someone had pointed this out, for example, how women are always running off with soldiers. And those soldiers were actually getting ready to fight Napoleon. So it’s very in the background, it’s not the main thrust of the story, but there’s this much darker piece of history going on in the background.

[00:14:34] Helen: And so I have to say that’s always in the back of my mind, and was certainly in, in writing this novel. The Spanish flu is there, they’ve come out of it, but they’re The results of the Spanish flu are in this book, the, injured people coming home from the war. The fact that there’s still some rationing and shortages, and people look thin in their clothes.

[00:14:53] Helen: This whole darker layer, I hope, is in my book, and that was very much, once I realized that was in Jane Austen, [00:15:00] I wanted to make sure that was in my books, too.

[00:15:02] Jane: Yeah, the traumas that sort of echo are still echoing from the war.

[00:15:06] Helen: Maybe at a tea dance waltzing with a Canadian airman, but in the back all this trauma is still going on.

[00:15:13] Jane: Definitely. I, so I know if I wanted to ask about the the major pedigree’s last stand was option for film. And so I wanted to know if you could talk a little bit about that. And has there been any interest in the Hazelborn Ladies yet?

[00:15:30] Helen: Oh there has not yet been interest in the Hazelborn Ladies, but I’d like to make an open call to the BBC.

[00:15:36] Helen: It’s available for approximately seven shillings and sixpence, if only you will take it on, BBC. Major Pettigrew was optioned up front and has remained optioned. The wheels of Hollywood grind very slowly that such that my husband says, soon Daniel Radcliffe will be old enough to play the major. But I have high hopes that it will come to the screen one day.[00:16:00]

[00:16:00] Jane: Excellent. I know. Yeah, people ask me those questions, too. And I’m like, Things are very slow in Hollywood, particularly with historical, I feel like, because it requires more time and money and all the things.

[00:16:12] Helen: That is the other thing. It requires I’m told it requires a lot of money, though.

[00:16:17] Helen: I see a lot of historical things on the BBC, and what you actually need is a few costumes and many steam trains. And I did get a steam train. There’s a very nice Romney Hythe and Dinchurch railway runs right near my village in Sussex. So I know I have that. But yes, it’s it’s slightly more expensive to do historical TV I’m told.

[00:16:39] Jane: Yes. Yeah. If Hazelborn Ladies was made into a movie, who would you, who would be your dream actress to play Constance?

[00:16:49] Helen: I don’t actually know. And I have to say it’s because One, my characters walk into my head very much their own people, so I know who they are and what they look like. And certainly [00:17:00] when I’m writing them, I’m not looking to say I’m writing this as if it was Daniel Radcliffe playing Constance.

[00:17:05] Helen: I, she’s very much her own person. And also a book takes so long to write, and the movies take so long to get made, but people are the wrong age by the time you get there, a major pedigree, for example certainly Sean Connery or Anthony Hopkins, I thought would have been great to play him, but he’s only 58 years old, so time has marched on.

[00:17:25] Helen: A whole new generation is now coming up who may care to play the major.

[00:17:31] Jane: I think Hugh Grant might make, might be good for the major now. I think he’s better. Hugh

[00:17:35] Helen: Grant, I think, is coming up. I could check my Google, but yes, Hugh Grant may soon be old enough to play the major, as he’s called.

[00:17:42] Jane: Yes, there you go.

[00:17:44] Helen: Yeah. If Mr. Darcy was bookended with Major Pettigrew, I think that would be wonderful. Perfect.

[00:17:50] Jane: I hope it

[00:17:50] Helen: happened.

[00:17:52] Jane: I actually like Lily James for Constance in the movie version.

[00:17:56] Helen: I will take that, but it has to be done quickly before. [00:18:00]

[00:18:00] Jane: That’s right. Yeah.

[00:18:02] Helen: That would be wonderful.

[00:18:04] Jane: So before, to remind everyone, I’m going to take questions in the chat and in the Q& A for Helen, but I have a few writing related questions that I ask everyone that comes on.

[00:18:14] Jane: What is your writing process? Are you a plotter? or a pantser or some combination of the two. Pantser meaning riding by the seat of your pants. I think most people know that now, but I had to put that in. What’s your process?

[00:18:29] Helen: I disliked the term pantser. So I prefer, I think it was E. L.

[00:18:33] Helen: Doctorow who more graciously put it out. I only need to see as far as the car’s headlights on a dark night. So I’m definitely a, characters walk into my head fully formed and demand that I write their story. And then I follow them around. And sometimes for months at a time, they do nothing but drink cups of tea.

[00:18:52] Helen: And it’s very frustrating. I have to sit them down, have a strong word with them about creating some sort of narrative [00:19:00] arc. But other than that, I very rarely know where I’m going. I think the way I love to write when it’s going well, and it rarely goes well, but when it’s going well, I am just. Sort of time traveling and I’m immersed in the scene and I’m trying to be there.

[00:19:17] Helen: So I don’t really need to know where we’re going. I just need to know, that today we’re at that tea dance and the band on the dais has like silly boating attire. They’re playing ragtime and who’s on the dance floor and what are they drinking and, is the sea breeze coming in the French windows.

[00:19:34] Helen: And I’m very happy doing that. And then when I have enough of that, I can lay it out or hang it on the wall. I have a series of hooks. I can hang my chapters up on the wall and look at them and move things around until somehow in the shuffle, a narrative arc is created.

[00:19:49] Jane: Amazing. Yeah.

[00:19:50] Jane: You have a very cinematic the way you just described that scene. I remember that scene well, like very cinematic way of writing and it sounds like that’s how it comes through like when you’re right. [00:20:00] Some authors say that they don’t think that way, like the movie in their mind, but it sounds like that’s the way you are.

[00:20:05] Helen: It definitely is. If I could, and I come from, Ryan East Sussex, it’s a 14th century town on a hill, when I go home and I walk the cobbled streets and no one’s looking, I’m putting my hand on the warm brick wall, the wattle and dog wall of a timber frame house, and I’m willing history to come alive around me.

[00:20:25] Helen: I feel very deeply That connection certainly to Sussex, and I think to history, which is why I’ve fallen off into doing historical fiction versus the contemporary major pedigree, because to stand on a cobbled street and look at these black and white timber frame houses and imagine all the women who have walked the street before me, I find utterly fascinating.

[00:20:48] Helen: So yeah, I’m trying to I’m a Doctor Who fan, I’m trying to put myself in the TARDIS and go back in time and really enjoy being there.

[00:20:55] Jane: Yeah, so many fascinating stories and I am also a Doctor Who [00:21:00] fan, I know what you’re saying. To that point too, so this was told from Constance was the main perspective, but then you had the two other points of view was this always part of the plan as you wrote or did that come along in the process?

[00:21:15] Jane: I think

[00:21:16] Helen: my second book, Summer Before the War, and this book both had three perspectives. Major pedigree, and I think it’s something to do with why it’s so popular, but I haven’t figured out why. That book was entirely from the mage’s point of view. And I would, at some point, I would like to get back to doing that.

[00:21:32] Helen: It’s an incredibly difficult way to write, because you realize that you can only see what your protagonist can see. what And there were many scenes in that first book that I would write with the major there in the room and then say that’s just, the major would never be in that room and I would have to start again and get rid of the whole scene.

[00:21:51] Helen: So I feel a little bit in both books like I reluctantly brought in other perspectives so that I could get into other corners of [00:22:00] story. I certainly, it’s a way to expand your view and expand the reader experience so it’s in both books I think It’s turned out really well, but I I’m always nervous in case, there’s those books where it’s Jim’s point of view, and it’s Pam’s point of view, and then the blind newspaper man on the corner’s point of view, and on we go.

[00:22:18] Helen: I like to be rigorous in how I write, so definitely, I don’t think you’d ever see more than three points of view in a book from me.

[00:22:26] Jane: Yeah, and I have to tell you, I, I’m always curious to see how people structure books and points of view. And it was, you did it in such a, in a very seamless way.

[00:22:35] Jane: And I think you made it look easy when it’s very difficult to do, it’s very hard. There are,

[00:22:40] Helen: you look carefully and I think I went through it rigorously. I can’t be completely sure. There are scenes, certainly when everybody’s flying sock with camels, where it’s like. It was in Harris’s head, now it’s in Constance’s head, now it’s in Harris’s head.

[00:22:53] Helen: Wait, is it still in Harris’s head? And I have to go back through and make sure it’s all she said, [00:23:00] she thought, she wondered. Because otherwise you drift into omniscient narrator, which I also don’t want to do. I think to be very close third person and to be in somebody’s head helps. Put you put myself and put the reader in the scene.

[00:23:13] Helen: So I’m very concerned to stay very close and be looking over my character’s shoulders at all times.

[00:23:19] Jane: Completely agree. Yeah I totally agree. Talk a little bit about fact versus fiction in your storytelling, and how do you balance the two, and are there any strict rules you have?

[00:23:33] Helen: I am very fond, and have been since my teen years, I’m very fond of a good Regency romance, and Georgette Heyer would be my, absolutely.

[00:23:41] Helen: She’s the greatest greatest Regency writer ever. And what I loved about her is the books are fully frothy and Bridgerton and on the other hand, she was always known as an impeccable historian such that I believe at Oxford and Cambridge, at some point, they were using her descriptions of the Battle of Waterloo [00:24:00] because they were so accurate.

[00:24:01] Helen: So in my dreams, people say, oh, that Helen Simonson is such an impeccable historian, but really. I’m a completely sloppy historian. I do try to get my facts right. But you will notice in this book that most of the places in this book are fictional. That it’s the fictional town of Hazelwood, or the fictional state of Penicillin.

[00:24:27] Helen: And up on the hill because otherwise I found certainly my second book, which was set in the real town of Rye. I spent years writing it, terrified of all the little ladies who would write to me and say, No, the postbox is on the left corner after the church, not the right corner. And that would be fine, but then they say, You are obviously completely illiterate and shouldn’t be allowed to write books.

[00:24:47] Jane: Oh, I know from experience that you would get those emails. Oh, Helen, I’m sorry, you’re delaying a little bit. I do get those emails

[00:24:57] Jane: and

[00:24:58] Jane: some people try [00:25:00]

[00:25:01] Helen: to hold very still.

[00:25:04] Jane: Yeah, I don’t know. And I apologize to people who I keep blurring tonight. I’m having some camera issue. But oh, that’s better. I you were vocal.

[00:25:13] Jane: Your audio is a little bit delayed, but I think we’re back now.

[00:25:16] Helen: Okay, I’ll be back. I think so. I was trying, I was saying that I like to have a healthy dose of fictionalization because as a writer, that gives me the freedom to write. I get very caught up in the fear that I will get things wrong. On a serious level, I don’t want to get things wrong.

[00:25:35] Helen: And as a fiction writer, you are making leaps. We’re not doing a historical non fiction account of the Treaty of Versailles. And you want to be able to take those leaps to really that’s what creates the time travel versus just a historical account. So I try to get all, marshal all my facts and then put in as much fictionalization as possible.

[00:25:57] Jane: Yes, and I think that’s a You [00:26:00] describe that fear. I think that’s true, too, for me and I, a lot of historical fiction writers you don’t want to be called out for getting something wrong, but at the same time this is a, it’s fiction. It’s a creative medium to, to entertain. Of course, there’s some educational aspects of it, but you want to surprise and delight and entertain readers, too, and that’s a whole different animal than the historical side of it.

[00:26:22] Helen: And I’m sure too, right? It’s, oh, you marshal all these facts, you put them in, and then in the editing process, you spend most of your time taking them out, because nobody wants to know how smart you are and how many facts you’ve accumulated if it gets in the way of the ripping good yarn. So I spend half my time taking out extraneous details.

[00:26:42] Helen: On sort of the whale bone inserts in a collar or the horn buttons versus the mother of pearl buttons because we don’t really need it, even though it’s fascinating to me.

[00:26:52] Jane: That’s right. I know. I, yeah. I go through the same thing, like to totally go nerd ville, go down like few paragraphs about [00:27:00] some obscure detail and my editors are.

[00:27:02] Jane: Nobody cares.

[00:27:04] Helen: I’m interested in too, certainly in this book and my second book. I know everything there is to know about the water and sewer in the historic town of Rye. And when indoor plumbing was introduced, I’m fascinated, nobody ever goes to the bathroom in a book, but it’s not in there.

[00:27:19] Helen: I need to know how it all works. And then you realize you’re not going to use any of it, but I hope that it it gets in our souls, right? And then it comes out somehow in our writing, even if we aren’t using the particular facts.

[00:27:32] Jane: I completely agree. Yes, because you just know that world so well. I think that serves the story.

[00:27:38] Helen: We are good at hearing it.

[00:27:41] Jane: So I know we have some aspiring authors in the audience. What is the best advice you can give them about writing? And getting published, which I realize are two different things.

[00:27:56] Helen: Completely different things, and of course, we really [00:28:00] don’t want to have to do the writing, we just want to get published.

[00:28:03] Helen: I would say, I suffered. from that for many years and probably still suffer from that feeling today. It’s I wish my next novel was already written because it’s very nice to see it in print. When I was really struggling all the way back with my first novel, I found another author’s wonderful website.

[00:28:20] Helen: His name is Timothy Hallinan. You can find him at timothyhalanan. com and he’s actually a noir writer and he wrote a whole series of books set in Thailand and detectives and gangsters and not at all what you would think I would like. I happen to love his books, he’s very funny, but on his website he has a whole thing on how to write a novel.

[00:28:41] Helen: He’s got like 10 chapters there and I would go back to his advice again and again even though the 10 chapters of advice really amount to Is your bottom in the desk chair and are you typing? Everything else is moot. There’s no point sitting there wondering if you have the talent or [00:29:00] worrying that you don’t have those nepotism connections in the publishing world.

[00:29:04] Helen: All that matters is that you get a manuscript completed to the very best of your ability and preferably using your own I wasted a lot of time trying to be Chekhov. And when I told my agent that I wanted to be Chekhov, she fell off her chair laughing and said, you have no chance of ever being Chekhov. You have to be willing to believe in yourself. Because there are so many books out there, and what you have going for you is your original voice. We, what else do you have? But again if you’re not in the chair and you’re not typing, then you’re not gonna be a writer if you are in the chair and typing and getting those wonderful rejection letters, dear writer, not this time, but do try us again.

[00:29:43] Helen: Then you’re a writer.

[00:29:45] Jane: Yes, that’s all excellent advice. My, my agent always says, but in chair is like the most important thing. I should get that

[00:29:53] Helen: put on a bronze plaque, right? But in chair, and then publishing, you really just [00:30:00] have to publishing it. There’s not some secret cabal of people whose parents were famous writers, you really can get published.

[00:30:09] Helen: And I found the agents are always looking for new materials. But as we all know, J. K. Rowling. had to go to 60 agents, 59 agents who are really kicking themselves now that they didn’t pay more attention. And agents have a lot of manuscripts to wade through, but good writing will find a home is the advice that I was given in my MFA program way back when.

[00:30:31] Helen: And I do believe in that. And also, Come, whether you get published or not. I don’t believe anything we do to improve our writing is wasted. I think it’s a wonderful art. It’s just like painting, or even, or knitting, Yeah, it’s a craft, and you should try to enjoy doing it for the sake of the craft, and good things will come.

[00:30:51] Jane: Excellent. I totally agree. I have two more questions for Helen, and then please put your questions in the chat or the Q& A. Are you [00:31:00] ready to share what you’re working on next? What are you working on right now?

[00:31:03] Helen: I don’t have to be working right now

[00:31:05] Jane: because I’m on

[00:31:06] Helen: book tour, but I would say that I’m in that phase, we writers, we’re magpies and we like shiny objects.

[00:31:14] Helen: So I’m in that, phase of just collecting shiny objects. And what will happen to me, I hope, is that one day those shiny objects will morph into a character that pops up in my head and tells me that I have to start writing about them. I do have another historical project on the go, going perhaps back further in time.

[00:31:33] Helen: And I have but I also have a contemporary idea or two on the go. And yesterday in Canada I was in conversation with a wonderful crime writer and I was talking about the little ladies who write and give, tell me what I got wrong. And she said murderers don’t write and tell us what we got wrong.

[00:31:50] Helen: And I said, Ooh, that sounds like a novel. And may take that, I may take that up and see where that goes too. So it’s an exciting time. But, [00:32:00] for my last two books, I was really caught up in the book tour and the five and a half minutes of minor fame that comes with being on tour.

[00:32:09] Helen: And this time in the third book, I find myself finally really eager to be back. And I’m already noodling around writing some impressionistic scenes and as I say, waiting for something to coalesce.

[00:32:22] Jane: Excellent. And how best can readers stay in touch with you and do you Zoom with book clubs?

[00:32:28] Jane: Thank you.

[00:32:28] Helen: Oh, I invite you just to stay in touch with me. I’m on Facebook and I’m barely on Instagram. I am over 30 I do find it difficult, but I am there but also I have a website helensimonson. com My email personal email is on that website and I am More than happy and I love to communicate with my readers directly.

[00:32:49] Helen: I’m totally open to zooming book clubs I have one tomorrow night in fact, so Yes, sign me up. Give me a couple of days. I’ll be glad to drop in

[00:32:59] Jane: so great [00:33:00] Okay, so I’m looking through we’ve got some questions here. First one from Leanne Fitzgerald, what I’m new to, I’m new to you as a reader, what book should I read first?

[00:33:11] Helen: Oh, of my books? Yeah. They’re all completely individual. So perhaps you want to get on the wave and go with the latest one first, she says, displaying the merchandise. And then I would say that. People around the world are still writing to me how much they love Major Pettigrew. He is the uncle we all wish we had.

[00:33:30] Helen: And I might leave the Summer Before the War to last just because it is the longest. Most in depth book, shall we say my wordiest. I can be a wordy writer, I love my description of pastoral landscapes. So I might suggest that, or if you’re like me, you would just go in year order, and do them in order in which they are published.

[00:33:51] Helen: But thank you, I’m delighted that that you want to read them.

[00:33:55] Jane: Excellent. Let’s see Emily Haynes writes thank you so much for this excellent [00:34:00] conversation. I’m working on a novel that takes place during World War I and the interwar years. My protagonist is a woman artist who, like Helen’s, experienced both trauma and independence during the war.

[00:34:11] Jane: Can you share some sources you turn to understand the psychology of women coming out of World War I? Thank you again. And I’m hoping to get your book at the library soon.

[00:34:21] Helen: Yeah, I can share a book with you. Oh, you must get this book. Henrietta Heald, Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines.

[00:34:30] Helen: This is about women engineers. The Women’s Engineering Society in the UK was founded in 1919. And this book goes up through the 30s. And I, so I wasn’t able to use most of it. But there are motorcycle races car races, and of course, aviatrixes of all kinds. I’m especially fascinated, a woman called Tilly Schilling, and she doesn’t make it into my book, she’s slightly later, her name makes it in.

[00:34:55] Helen: She was an engineer. And then she got married and she wasn’t allowed to be an engineer because she’s [00:35:00] married and World War II came, they really needed her because she’s quite brilliant. And so they said we will employ you, though you’re a married woman, but we still can’t employ you as an engineer.

[00:35:10] Helen: So we’ll employ you as a secretary. And pay you as a secretary and you’ll be in the drawing office with the men and we’ll just put a typewriter on your desk. So this woman endures these indignities and she saves the Spitfire program. Spitfire engines were conking out whenever they dove.

[00:35:29] Helen: And she created a small washer that inhibited the petrol and literally saved the Spitfire program and possibly Great Britain. And what thanks did she get? for, from her male colleagues for this. They called her amazing invention, Ms. Schilling’s orifice. Oh my gosh,

[00:35:47] Jane: that’s an unbelievable story.

[00:35:50] Helen: Unbelievable, right? Unbelievable. With these sort of women and then I don’t feel, I’m not the person to to write a novel about Bessie Coleman [00:36:00] the black aviatrix. Who came from being a laundress in the rural South and persuaded a newspaper man in Chicago to send her to Paris to learn to fly.

[00:36:10] Helen: But these women are doing extraordinary things. So I would definitely check out the Henrietta Heald book. And then I would just start pick what you’re interested in, or whether, for me it was flying and motorcycles, and then start looking on the internet for what do women do and put in your years.

[00:36:28] Helen: And that you’ll just, you’ll be awash in resources to pursue. There are endless stories in this time period. It’s women were front and center in all the technology changes of the interwar years.

[00:36:41] Jane: Absolutely. And I want, speaking of of research to one tool that I’ve started using is perplexity AI, which is an AI tool for research.

[00:36:50] Jane: That’s like Google on steroids. And it’s, there’s a free version. Yeah, it’s really, it was really helpful with my last novel. It just [00:37:00] lays out and finds, pulls sources. The thing I like about it too is it shows you where all the actual sources are, so you can know if they’re legitimate or not.

[00:37:08] Jane: It’s just not, it’s not just a summary. It shows you multiple sources and where they’re from and their origins. Perplexity AI, I definitely recommend as a research tool too.

[00:37:17] Helen: And I recommend that you write down, perhaps in longhand, all your resources as you find them, because what I found was I finished my novel and my publicist was like, could you put together a bibliography in case, and I was like, where did I get that amazing story of the U Boat? And it would take me a week to write it. to track it down. So again, writers are not historians. We’re notoriously flaky and I’m always chasing down and trying to find my resources once I’ve used them. And sometimes it’s was that really a historical thing, or did I just make that up?

[00:37:50] Helen: And I often have no idea.

[00:37:53] Jane: Yeah, that’s excellent advice. I am guilty of that as well. Oh, here’s another one from Donna Farron. Helen spoke about going [00:38:00] into the scene to write. When writing from different characters voices, do you revisit the scenes from different characters points of view? Oh, this is really

[00:38:09] Helen: interesting.

[00:38:09] Helen: I was just reading just reading a book. I think it’s upstairs. I may get the author’s name wrong. I think it’s David Nichols. It’s called You Are Here, and it’s about a couple they’re not really a couple, they’re getting to know each other, hiking across England on the coast to coast trails. Very funny book.

[00:38:27] Helen: And it’s from two points of view. And in that book, The points of view cross, so somebody, one chapter finishes, the lady’s crossing a style, something happens, and then the next chapter picks up from the man’s point of view, and he’s crossing the style, and you’re seeing this interaction from two points of view.

[00:38:43] Helen: I don’t do that. I use different characters to move the story forward. So I’m definitely an, I end and now two minutes later maybe someone else picks up the story. So I’m using characters to illuminate different scenes [00:39:00] and to make sure that I can, being close third person, that I can reach into scenes as said from doing major pedigree.

[00:39:07] Helen: If you’re in one person’s head, there are scenes you just cannot get into, you can’t go into the men’s bathroom if you’re only in Constance’s head. Not that I’m, what am I saying? You can’t go into the snug bar with a gentleman if you’re only in Constance’s head. So I’m more using my characters to expand where I can go.

[00:39:28] Jane: Excellent. One more question because we’re getting up to 745 from Patricia from Old Greenwich. Helen, I just started the ladies today and only put it down to attend this webinar. I’m hooked. I also love the cover. I know most authors don’t have much say on the artwork. What was your involvement with the cover?

[00:39:47] Jane: I usually ask this question. So thank you for asking.

[00:39:51] Helen: Again, I just say I love this cover. I’ve been very happy with all my covers from major pedigree. It We established it came in and my husband’s oh, [00:40:00] it looks like a Somerset Maughan book and I’m like, yes That’s exactly what i’m going for.

[00:40:04] Helen: And so this too is a wonderful vintage cover and yeah, my, we have wonderful designers, but they’re kind enough to send it by me for my opinion. We did, I would say, lots of different colorways and a lot of them ended up looking like a Tintin novel, so it’s really funny. You put orange type and suddenly it’s Tintin but this is truly, and it’s put together, it’s not a real image, it’s several vintage images put together.

[00:40:31] Helen: But I just love it and certainly as we’re coming up to summer, I think, every beach bag and beach towel that this goes perfectly with. I absolutely love it and I’m grateful. But I should tell you that the honest truth is when with the first book, Major Pettigrew, I didn’t have much say.

[00:40:47] Helen: My agent is they’ll ask you what you think and you should nod your head and say it’s lovely. And then with the second book, since the first one had done so well, I found that they were much more likely to to be interested in what I had [00:41:00] to say. But, I’m a writer, I’m not a designer.

[00:41:03] Helen: And so I really try not to step on toes. And I’ve been very grateful for what’s, for what the designers have done for me.

[00:41:11] Jane: Yeah, I love the cover. And it’s funny, covers are so hard. And I remember getting I think it was from your publicist, getting an email and seeing this cover. And it definitely pops.

[00:41:20] Jane: Compared to some other covers I’ve seen, and I just, yeah, I think the, I don’t know if it’s the font, the artwork, it’s beautiful. Really well done. I

[00:41:28] Helen: feel like they’ve given me my own look. It’s a very vintage look. All three books, I could pull them off my shelf. All three books have a very vintage look cover.

[00:41:35] Helen: Which means that I’m not suffering from some books. They’re going through whatever is the latest hot cover style of the season. So I’ve watched over the last 15 years or so, it’s like. How the cover styles change. Oh yeah. I feel that I’m pretty much not in that, in any of those fads, that I’ve been very lucky that my publishers, that we found a style for me, and so my covers are gonna look like me.

[00:41:59] Jane: [00:42:00] Yes, your brand, it totally works, definitely. This was delightful. Thank you so much for taking time out of your very busy tour schedule to come on historical happy hour. I will send you the comments, the webinar chat comments because there’s so many lovely comments from readers and fans for you. And I know you’ve made some new fans tonight as well.

[00:42:20] Jane: Just some housekeeping next on Historical Happy Hour. I have Brooke Lee Foster on July 9th to discuss all the summers in between, and after that on July 11th, I’ve got a busy July, Erika Roebuck. I will also be releasing a special look. bonus episode of the podcast with Kate Thompson, who just recently released the Wartime Book Club.

[00:42:42] Jane: Remember to follow the podcast and, or subscribe. And thank you again, Helen, so much. I wish you so much success. Congratulations on this latest.

[00:42:51] Helen: Thank you so much for having me. This has been an absolute blast.

[00:42:54] Jane: So great. Good night, everyone. Thank you so much. Take care. Bye bye.


Hosted by Jane Healey, Historical Happy Hour is a live interview and podcast featuring premiere historical fiction authors and their latest novels.

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