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Visit Scotland | Alba
Article published 26/08/2022

2022 was Scotland’s Year of Stories. It spotlighted, celebrated and promoted the wealth of stories inspired by, written, or created in Scotland. Each month we heard from people with a passion for stories and got an insight into their work. 

We spoke to Helen Fields, author of best-selling crime, thriller and historical fiction books. She told us about her work and how Scotland has inspired her. 

What is your job and how did you get into this line of work?

I’m a full time writer now, although I previously worked as a barrister and then in a media company. I mostly write crime novels set in Scotland, mainly police procedurals. I’ve always loved writing. I didn’t have time to work at it while I was a lawyer and my children were still very young. It wasn’t until I’d given up being a lawyer and was working in media that I had more space to be creative and get writing again. When I was starting my writing journey I went to the Winchester Writers Festival which is how I met my agent. After that it took a while to get a publishing deal, but then I signed up for three books with HarperCollins which meant that the characters in my first crime novel were going to have a much longer life than I first anticipated. I’m now writing my twelfth traditionally published book.

Has your previous career experience influenced your writing?

Being a barrister, and doing both defence and prosecution work, has definitely affected my writing. I’ve used my experience of different personalities, the sense of justice, and the problems with the legal system in my books. I met some very challenging people (both defendants and police!) and I was often struck by how different a person’s life would have turned out if they’d come from a more privileged background. I often touch on societal problems in my books such as homelessness, drug abuse, or poverty because I’ve seen firsthand what the relationship is between these issues and crime.

Do you have a daily routine?

Monday to Friday, I try to write every day and make sure I hit my writing target which is usually 2000 words. I still have children at home so I have to write when they’re not at home or it’s too noisy and I get distracted. I take a walk each day to start with exercise, trying to avoid the perils of a desk job. I also try to get all my admin done - emails and accounts - before I start writing. I’m not good at being imaginative if I have too much on my mind. If I get really stuck on a plot point, a hot bath usually does the trick. I’m more of a late night writer than early morning. 5am is not for me!

What are some of the locations in Scotland that have inspired you?

Although I write about Edinburgh on a regular basis, my characters often leave the city and get to travel. My most recent book, The Last Girl To Die, is set on the Isle Of Mull which is an absolute gift as a writing location because it has everything - the coast, the castles, lochs, beaches, stone circles, mysterious caves. Aside from Mull, I remember being absolutely awestruck by Tantallon Castle and knowing immediately that I had to set a scene from a book there. Likewise during a visit to Braemar in the Cairngorms where I got cut off during a snow storm, when I had plenty of time to plan a chapter of a book that would take place there. It’s impossible to visit Scotland and not feel inspired to write.

Tobermory, Isle of Mull
Tobermory, Isle of Mull
Image credit VisitScotland / John Duncan

You’ve written crime, thriller and historical fiction. Do you have a favourite genre?

I love to read historical fiction, but whenever I’m writing there’s definitely a crime bias to my work. That’s true whether I’m writing my own historical work, legal thrillers, psychological suspense or pure crime. I read very widely, so I don’t limit myself at all in terms of genre. The joy of books is that every one takes you on a different journey, so shifting between genres is necessary. As a writer the same is true. It’s important to constantly push your boundaries and figure out what works for you.

Scotland is renowned for its book festivals. What role to you think they play?

Scotland’s book festivals are a great opportunity to showcase the extraordinary amount of talent Scotland has to offer the world. For a relatively small landmass, Scotland punches way above its weight on the global stage when it comes to literature. I love it when I meet people who have come to Scotland from abroad to visit one of the book festivals. It just goes to prove what a valuable export Scottish writing really is.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

My favourite aspect of my work is the freedom it gives me. There are no limits to my imagination, so every time I sit down to write, I’m only competing with myself. And it’s such a special joy when you hear a book you’ve written, narrated. The actor Robin Laing narrates most of my books. He’s an outstanding Scottish actor and he adds an extra dimension to my work that often I hadn’t even contemplated.

Why do you think stories are so important?

Stories have long been a currency. In almost every part of the world throughout history, storytellers were engaged for a number of different purposes - to educate, to bring news, to entertain, for political reasons, for religious reasons. The list is endless. These days we tell stories through all sorts of media, but the various uses of storytelling are undiminished. Before mass printing, people would come together to listen to stories as a shared experience. Now we read (or listen) alone, but social media has opened up the reading world to allow for global discussions about books. I love that. Stories allow us to share our emotions. I think they reflect our humanity.

What are you looking forward to in Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022?

I’m really looking forward to seeing the new voices going forward. Scotland is packed full of talented people, and whenever time and effort is put into promoting writing and books, there’s always a rush of people who suddenly feel energised to write. The writing community in Scotland is particularly strong and supportive, so it’s a great place for debut writers to come forward. (Oh, and there’s also the fact that Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022 gives even more reason to spend extra time in the country I love.)

The Last Girl to Die by Helen Fields was published by Avon Books in September 2022.

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