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Helen Forbes has turned to one of the most iconic buildings in Inverness for the setting in her new crime thriller Unravelling

By Margaret Chrystall

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INVERNESS writer Helen Forbes’s third novel Unravelling has just been published as a printed book in shops and on her website – but for the first time also as an ebook on Amazon.

Inverness writer Helen Forbes has just published her new crime thriller.
Inverness writer Helen Forbes has just published her new crime thriller.

Deciding to self-publish for the first time, Helen has covered all bases, in a hybrid approach that some other writers have been embracing.

So alongside the ebooks online, traditional readers can buy Unravelling as a printed book in Waterstones Inverness and in Picaresque in Dingwall, as well as being able to order hard copies on Amazon and even signed copies from Helen's own website.

When we spoke, Helen was waiting for the online publication date to come around.

And she had already enjoyed the magical moment for any author of seeing the first copies of her latest novel Unravelling – a crime thriller – arrive as a pristine new book.

The second milestone she was then still waiting for was actually a first for the Inverness lawyer – hearing from Amazon that the book was live and up on their site.

“That will be quite a moment,” she said.

She has embraced her decision to pursue self-publishing for this book.

Her previous two, police procedural crime thrillers set in Inverness and the Outer Hebrides, featuring DI Joe Galbraith, were published and sold the traditional way.

But with two more standalone novels set in Edinburgh ready to go, Helen is going to see how Unravelling does before deciding whether to look for a publisher or continue to publish them herself.

You sense Helen has a very intuitive approach to her writing, alongside the very pragmatic attitude that has brought her to self-publishing.

The idea for Unravelling, for example, came to her during a work visit to the Highland Archive Centre and seeing some old records relating to Inverness’s former psychiatric hospital Craig Dunain.

“I remember saying to one of my colleagues ‘I can feel a story coming on!’, though I decided not to make it that historical," Helen said.

“Sometimes I find it very difficult afterwards to say where a story has come from because I don’t remember the process of putting this, this and this together – I usually just get started writing!”

Set against the backdrop of the imposing buildings of Craig Dunain in the 1980s, we encounter Kate in the present-day, a young woman trying to solve the mystery of her mother Ellen’s life. Her time in Craig Dunain was the key to the love she found – but was it also behind her death?

But the momentum of the page-turning plot comes with the danger from Ellen's past reaching out to threaten the life Kate is trying to build for herself in present-day Inverness.

And the discovery of two bodies found close to the former psychiatric hospital …

Helen originally set out to find a publisher for Unravelling.

"I only tried one because most are not taking on any new clients at the moment – when you look on their websites they all say due to the pandemic they are closed for submissions.

"But I had been flirting with the idea of self-publishing for a while."

Helen revealed that for one of her previous published books, she receives 23p per hard copy and a bit more for an ebook.

"That is for a book that is selling at £9.99," Helen explained. "I’m not alone and that’s nothing to do with my previous publisher.

"It’s just to do with the costs of printing and distribution.

"There are loads of people out there making quite a good living, but there are far more who are not making a good living from it at all.

"To be honest, my goal wasn’t that – I would love to just write full-time and my experience during the pandemic of sitting and writing for three months exclusively showed me I actually could just write full-time, and would be quite happy doing that – if it paid!

"So I would love it if it paid enough, but I’m not looking for a huge amount from it and I figured with the self-publishing that as long as I covered my costs, I would be quite happy with that because I just want to get my writing out there.

"I love the fact that people enjoy it and I just wanted to see they got it.

"Self-publishing feels much better for now anyway, having control over the whole thing.

"It has been a huge learning curve in terms of just knowing what to do.

"I’ve had a lot of help through the Alliance of Independent Authors. They have books for members – and a couple of authors who have done this already have been helpful. And I’ve enjoyed having control over it.

"I mean, who knows, I am not saying ‘This is it forever’.

"There seem to be so many different permutations of the publishing process now, but that definitely gives more control to authors.

"The other thing is that this way you can get it out there so much quicker.

"That might be a bad thing if you don’t get it edited properly, but if it’s ready for publishing, you could be waiting for a year and a half to two years now to get it out there with a publisher, so some people have said.

Craig Dunain, the former psychiatric hospital which lies at the heart of Helen Forbes' crime thriller, Unravelling.
Craig Dunain, the former psychiatric hospital which lies at the heart of Helen Forbes' crime thriller, Unravelling.

"It has taken me a while to get Unravelling to that stage, but the next time round I will be quicker because I’ll know exactly what I’m doing.

"Obviously you have to do things like commission the cover design, and getting everyone involved to tie-in to the same timetable was difficult.

"But I suppose the printing was the thing that delayed it most in the end. But it was still much, much quicker than it would have been out there with a publisher."

Helen is already planning for the follow-up titles – two stand-alone novels.

"The next one which I am just finishing editing at the moment is a thriller set in Edinburgh.

"I also have an editor I commissioned myself who read this one [Unravelling] and the two Edinburgh ones, so they have been through an editing process with a bona fide editor."

To those who might want to follow Helen's journey to getting her books out there to readers, it might seem a daunting process.

But when Helen describes the way her newly-published book started life – and the place Unravelling started – as an almost simple step.

For Helen, Craig Dunain was the trigger for this latest book.

"I just always felt it was such an imposing place. You pass by and think ‘It would be amazing to have something set there’."

Helen had a relation who spent time there and she used to visit them there when she was a youngster.

"I think my own childhood visits, I did draw on that once I started to write.

"But the idea hadn’t been in my head for years and I hadn't been thinking ‘I’m going to write something about that’. That was just a small part."

"It was probably the hardest book I’ve written because I grew up in that era myself in Inverness and it all felt quite hard, something to do with Ellen and something to do with killing off a main character – which I don’t think is a spoiler because it is obviously on the back of the book!

"But I found that really hard, it broke my heart to kill her off.

"I think just the fact that she was growing up around the same time as I had in Inverness.

"Maybe 'hard' is not the right thing to say because I got through it quickly.

"But I think it had more of an effect on me than any other book I’ve written because of knowing the kind of scene in Inverness at that time so well."

There is a rich cast of characters, all of them – as a reader – you find yourself wanting to spend more time with, as the plot races you forward through twists and turns.

But part of the unique heart of the book is the description of a mental health condition that has to be presented to us from both the inside and the outside.

Had Helen found it hard to do justice to that – and to write her way into the head of someone whose life is so clearly coloured and changed by that?

"I’m glad that came over authentically because I did put a lot of time into it.

"I tried to read as much as I could about it and I did quite a lot of research from both reading and on the internet.

Unravelling by Helen Forbes is out now.
Unravelling by Helen Forbes is out now.

"I watched a lot of videos of support groups and people discussing the condition because I wanted to get it right.

"There were things I wouldn’t have thought of presenting in the book, had I not listened to a lot of videos where people with the condition are discussing and describing it.

"I also read quite a lot of books about psychiatric hospitals written by mental health nurses and some doctors about their time in hospitals."

For Helen, it emphasised the difference the internet has made to research.

"I can’t get over the difference of having that now from when I started writing first and lived in Edinburgh – and then the Western Isles.

"I used to spend every Saturday in the library in Stornoway and I had a long list of books I needed to look up about stuff. Now you just click a button – and there it is."

That possibility was possibly a godsend when lockdown came along last year. Helen spent a lot of time writing.

For her, she agrees, being able to write was a kind of solace, but not working also meant it would be silly not to get on with her fiction having lots of time suddenly available.

"It was a bit of both things, really.

" I started off – like everyone – feeling very scared and anxious about what was happening and what was going to happen. And I was very concerned when I didn’t have any work for a short period.

"But then, I just thought I should make the most of the time and get on with this book.

"And if I hadn’t done that, there is no doubt I would just be finishing it now if I hadn’t had that sustained period of time writing.

"To write was definitely a solace, there is no doubt. It was great to have something – I don’t know how other people coped if they were furloughed or not working."

But as Helen describes the way she works on her fiction, it's clear it is quite an all-consuming passion for her.

Helen laughed: "My mum is always saying to me 'You’re writing all the time, it’s ridiculous. You are doing too much', or she will say ‘Have you had a rest today?’

"I’ll say ‘Yes, I’ve been writing’.

"She will protest ‘That’s not a rest!’.

"But it is for me, I love it. I enjoy it. But during lockdown, I was writing all the time and maybe using it as a bit of a distraction as well.

"It was good to feel I had something concrete at the end."

From looking into the best way to make self-publishing work for her, Helen knows that writers who have a few books behind them can do better with readers being able to move on to other titles and also often recommend, both the writer and their titles, to friends so they can also discover and enjoy them. Helen already has her two DI Joe Galbraith books previously published, In the Shadow Of The Hill in 2014 and Madness Lies in 2017.

"And I've now written my two Edinburgh thrillers, the first one is called Deception and that has undergone a few incarnations – I’m about to do my fourth and final large edit on it.

"The other one I will probably publish after that.

"It is about a character who started off in Deception, but an agent told me ‘That would make a great spin-off, a dark comedy’.

"So I have now removed that character from Deception and made it a stand alone book, though I hope it might be a series.

"I whizzed through that one and finished it after Unravelling. I’d go between them, if one of them might be with the editor."

Making the decision to hire an editor to cast a professional eye over her work is something Helen is very happy with.

"Getting an editor has been the best thing ever.

"I'd got an editor for Unravelling even before I knew I was going to self-publish because when I had got to a certain stage with it, I had thought ‘I can’t see the wood for the trees'.

"I thought I would get someone professional to read it over and give me a reader’s report – and now my editor has given me great feedback for all of them and suggested ways I could tweak some things."

But it doesn't look as if Helen's fiction will stop at just five books.

The former hospital in Inverness, Craig Dunain. Picture: Gary Anthony
The former hospital in Inverness, Craig Dunain. Picture: Gary Anthony

"On my mind is that once I get all the editing out of the way on the Edinburgh ones, to start on another Joe Galbraith one!"

It must help that the Inverness writer seems to have locked the writing process quite happily into her life.

Helen laughed: "Even if I’m on holiday – though if I was away on holiday abroad I wouldn’t be writing – and I spend time on the Western Isles – my daughter and her family live there, but I will still be sitting writing as much as I can.

"I don’t know if it is healthy but I find it hard to take a break from it.

"I have other friends who are writers and I will say ‘I sent off my latest draft yesterday and I’m back working on such and such now’ and they will say to me ‘You sent one thing off one day and the next day you are back working on something else?!’.

"And I’m like – ‘Well, what else would I do?’."

Unravelling by Helen Forbes is in Waterstones Inverness, and Picaresque in Dingwall. It's an ebook on Amazon. Signed copies can be ordered at www.helenforbes.co.uk

For more information on self-publishing, go to The Alliance of Independent Authors: https://www.allianceindependentauthors.org

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