Writers of WHQ: An Interview with Helen MacDonald

9 minute read
Author: Jo

In case you didn’t know, the Writers’ HQ writing community is the actual, literal best in the universe, full of amazingly talented and generous writers who make our little corner of the internet a very nice place indeed.

And so, we decided to show some of ’em off as a part of our monthly Writers of WHQ interview series.

Get to know our amazing WHQ members — how they write, what makes them tick, their influences, inspiration, top tips and favourite stories — and see just how different each and every writer is. ‘Cause there’s no one ‘right’ (write?) way to do things, right?

Gif of Drew Barrymore with a notepad and pencil gettign ready to write

So today we are happy as clams to introduce you to WHQer, flash fiction author, novelist, ex-WHQ forum mod and one of our most supportive community members, Helen MacDonald!

Tell us about your writing journey — where did you start, where are you now, and how did you get there?

I started writing in January 2020, nine months into what was meant to be a six month sabbatical from my job as a project manager. Over Christmas 2019, I decided that I didn’t really want to go back to my job and my mum suggested that I try writing since I’d been reasonably good at it as a child. I remember googling writing groups on Boxing Day, finding WHQ and immediately signing up for the free course that was starting about a week later. I started journaling in April of that year and writing flash came shortly after. I’d never even heard of flash fiction before joining WHQ so I felt very out of my depth, but I enjoyed the challenge of writing something different each week and slowly widening my comfort zone.

The big change for me came when I joined the Plotstormers course and started work on my unfinished novel Grand Designs, about a young architect called Ali that gives up the rat race in London to start afresh in Devon. That really solidified my desire to write novels, so when I had the idea for my current novel in November of that year, I ditched Grand Designs and immediately started work on what was then known as Humble House. Eighteen months later, I’m still working on it!

Do you have a writing routine? How do you work best?

I’m definitely an early bird, so I work best in the morning. I take the dog out for a walk first thing, then sit down by 8am. I always start with journaling, even though what I write within the journaling changes every day. Sometimes I need a rant, sometimes I want to talk about something exciting that’s happened, sometimes it’s just writing a list of all the other things I need to do so that I can clear my head ready for the important words to flood in.

I have a bit of a ritual with my writing too — I always light a candle (usually lemongrass), switch my lava lamp on, and grab a hot chocolate with cinnamon before starting. It sounds a bit indulgent, but there’s something about the light and smells that just puts me in a good place to write.

I usually work through to about 2pm, at which point my brain has just had enough and I need to do something else. Reading or gardening usually, something to get me away from a screen. 

Gif of a cosy window seat complete with cushion, candle, books and steaming mug of hot chocolate

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on Hide and Seek, a contemporary psychological thriller with elements of mystery, that is set in South Wales and the Brecon Beacons. It follows Nikki, a twenty-something engineer, who suddenly inherits an isolated Victorian villa — originally a private asylum — when her aunt dies in a rather suspicious accident.

The title comes from the prologue — my original inspiration for the novel — where Nikki’s grandmother disappears on a Sunday afternoon while playing an innocent game of hide and seek with her husband and their two young children. In the years that follow, many more suspicious deaths occur in and around the house, leading Nikki to believe that her family is the subject of a sinister and deadly plot to kill them all. 

What advice would you give to a writer starting out?

Just write. It doesn’t matter if your words are a bit crap at the start because it’s only by writing that we learn what works and what doesn’t.

Also, don’t be afraid of a blank page. Don’t see it as a lack of words, see it as an abundance of opportunity, because a blank page can be transformed into anything. And if you don’t like what you put on that page, just grab another and start again.

What’s the piece of writing you’re proudest of (and why)?

I have three, all for very different reasons.

My current novel is the first, because I have spent so long on it and it’s my literary baby. It’s been a process of discovery — I’ve laughed, cried, got up in the middle of the night to write random scenes, and ignored it for weeks on end because I find it so frustrating at times. But I love writing it and I can’t wait to see it in it’s final form, whatever and whenever that will be.

The second is the piece I had published in Popshot Quarterly. Ever since I discovered flash, I just loved how beautiful that publication was and it was a real writing goal to get a piece in there. I have a copy of it — and the art that was commissioned to go with it — framed on the wall by my desk. It’s a constant reminder that I can do this.

The third is the piece I wrote about my nan. She died in 1998 when I was only fifteen. I dealt with the grief very poorly. Writing that piece, which was later published in Bluesdoodles, gave me a bit of closure so now I can look back on the time I had with her and find pleasure in the memories, rather than just pain.  

What are the main challenges you face with your writing?

I have a chronic illness that often leaves me physically tired and mentally blank, so when I feel that starting I tend to get very frustrated. I manage it as best I can, but ultimately it’s a limitation I just have to accept. Other than that, I am very easily distracted. I can, and will, find literally anything in order to procrastinate — including answering these questions when I should be editing! Oops!

What are you currently reading?

I’ve just finished The Missing Hours by Emma Kavanagh, about a woman who disappears while playing with her children in a park. She reappears twenty hours later with amnesia, but during her absence a man is killed in the same area. There’s a lot of subterfuge and several unreliable narrators, all set around Hereford and the Wales/England border.

What’s your favourite part of the Writers’ HQ Community?

This is a tough one, but for me it’s the fact that everyone is genuinely rooting for each other to succeed. It doesn’t matter whether success is making their first post on the forum, writing flash for Flash Face Off or getting published. The level of support for other writers is just phenomenal. I’ve met so many wonderful and talented people — including my amazing beta reader — who have helped me grow as a person and a writer, and have been there to both celebrate my wins and pick me up when I’ve had a rejection or feel like an imposter.

Gif of a group of colourful My Little Ponies having a big hug with text: I think it's time for a big internet hug

And finally, give us three recommendations of writers or stories you love.

They Came To Baghdad by Agatha Christie. Published in 1951, this is a standalone novel that is part political thriller, part espionage adventure that is worlds away from Marple and Poirot, even though she was still writing her famous detectives at the time.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I read this — reluctantly — with my old book club, assuming I wouldn’t like it because I didn’t like war stories. Boy, was I wrong. It’s beautiful, brilliant and I’d read it again in a heartbeat. It completely changed my opinion on historical (specifically wartime) fiction.

Any (or preferably all) of the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. Each one is a masterclass in characterisation, world building, dialogue, social observation and humour, all at the same time. Even if you’re not a fan of fantasy novels, read them for the beauty of their words, the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of the plots, and the sheer joy of the satire. Then read them again.


Overall a Minus & A Recipe for Treasure in Bluesdoodles

Lake Fishing in Athabasca in Havok Magazine

Heart of the Mine in 101 Words

Yellow Ribbon in Funny Pearls

The Secret History of the Scillonian Cross in Fudoki

<strong>Helen MacDonald</strong>
Helen MacDonald

Helen MacDonald was born in South Wales and now lives in Gloucestershire with her husband and their dog. She started writing in 2020 and has published short fiction and poetry under the pseudonym Lena MacDonald. Her flash can be found in Bluesdoodles, Havok, 101 Words, Popshot Quarterly, Funny Pearls, Fudoki, Pure Slush and the 81 Words anthology. Her poems can be found in Hybrid Dreich and Nine Pens. She is currently writing her first novel Hide and Seek, a contemporary psychological thriller set in the Brecon Beacons.

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