Helen Hawkins was a student on both our Edit & Pitch Your Novel and our Writing a Romance Novel courses in 2021. Her debut novel A Concert for Christmas was published by Allison & Busby earlier this month. It’s a contemporary Christmas romance set in the heart of the Cotswolds.
We discussed her time studying with us, the inspiration behind her festive debut and her advice for aspiring writers who are thinking of entering a writing competition.
The courses I took with CBC were incredibly important to my writing journey. I arrived on day one of the Edit & Pitch Your Novel course with a 50,000 word manuscript based on a hideous date my friend had been on a year or so earlier. A chance tweet from Milly Johnson made me think there might be something to it and so I enrolled on the course. At the end of the course, I had an 80,000 word manuscript that was workable and after a few more rewrites, this is what I submitted to agents and publishers before I signed my book deal.
Many of our students find lifelong writing friends on our courses. Are you still in touch with anyone you met during the courses?
The unexpected bonus of my time on the CBC course was that I met the most wonderful group of writers who I am still in touch with – we meet every month through Discord and continue to share in our writing journeys, acting as each other’s editors, critics, cheerleaders and confidantes. They’re a really special and super supportive group of people.
Your debut novel A Concert for Christmas was published by Allison & Busby earlier this month. It’s a contemporary Christmas romance set in the heart of the Cotswolds. The story follows a heartbroken schoolteacher who has fled to the Cotswold countryside after a tragic break-up and is throwing herself into dating and organising Cranswell's annual Christmas concert. Can you tell us a bit more about the book and the inspiration behind it?
A Concert for Christmas is the story of Sophie, a primary school teacher who is also coordinating the town choir’s Christmas concert, but when the usual musical director is called away, he’s replaced by a handsome, but incredibly frustrating single father, who Sophie has met before… The inspiration for A Concert for Christmas came when my best friend was navigating the online dating scene a few years ago, and after one slightly questionable date, I had the kernel of an idea for a Christmas romance. The rest of the story just kind of unfurled from there.
You have first-hand knowledge of working in teaching as well as singing and dancing with your local operatic society. How much of your own experiences fed into the novel?
I didn’t think that there was that much of me in my protagonist, Sophie, but I recently wrote an article where I ‘interviewed’ her. I’d put it off thinking it was going to be a really tough job, but then I realised quite quickly as I was writing that I was essentially interviewing myself!
A lot of my inspiration for the setting comes from real life places near my home that I’ve stitched together to create the town of Cranswell. The rehearsal process, the nerves and the knowledge of the organisation it takes to put on a show that I have from being part of Abingdon Operatic Society all came in very handy too.
The biggest difference is that Sophie is a primary school teacher and I teach English at secondary level, so there was a bit of artistic licence when it came to portraying a primary school teacher. The same best friend who inspired the story was one of my very first readers – and a primary school teacher – and she believed the story, so I think I got away with it!
Your writing has been shortlisted for the Penguin Michael Joseph Christmas Love Story Competition and highly commended in last year's I Am In Print Romance Competition. Do you have any advice to share with the aspiring authors reading this, particularly those who are thinking of entering a writing competition?
Look for as many opportunities as you can! I finished writing A Concert for Christmas in 2021 and immediately began querying agents and publishers. But at the same time I was entering competitions, getting involved in pitch parties on Twitter (or X!) and applying for agent 1:1s through a variety of organisations. I wanted to write so badly that I was taking every opportunity I could to get my story out there – and in the meantime, I started writing something else. In the end, it was my honourable mention from the I Am In Print competition that got my manuscript noticed by Saskia Leach at the Kate Nash Literary Agency, so it paid off to look for lots of different opportunities to get my writing seen by people in the industry.
Could you recommend three rom-coms for our readers who are looking to get into the festive spirit?
If you haven’t read Milly Johnson’s I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day, then I would highly recommend it. It’s part rom-com but also carries so much heart. I absolutely adored that book.
Last year’s festive favourite was The Christmas Bookshop by Jenny Colgan, which has my two favourite things in: Christmas and Bookshops! She has a sequel out this year, which is on my TBR pile and I can’t wait to get stuck in!
Finally, one of my favourite authors is Sue Moorcroft. Last year, I read Christmas Wishes, which has everything you’d expect from a festive romance with the added bonus of having Stockholm as the setting – even more Christmassy! I have her new Christmas book, The Christmas Love Letters next on my reading pile too. She is an expert at the Christmas romance novel!
Finally, what’s next for your writing journey?
My second book, A Match to Remember is due to be published by Allison & Busby in Spring next year. It’s a standalone novel set in the same Cotswold town of Cranswell, but follows the romantic escapades of another teacher from the primary school, Lizzie. Rather than singing, her pastime is football, and sport is where she meets her potential love interest. We’re currently at the copyediting and proofreading stage with that one, which is exciting.
After that, who knows? I have always used NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which takes place in November each year, to get down the dreaded first draft, so I’m working on something else Christmassy that is set in the town of Cranswell at the moment. I’ll rest it over Christmas and get cracking with the rewrite in January – still using the same process that I learnt when I was on the Curtis Brown Creative Edit & Pitch Your Novel course three years ago!
A Concert for Christmas is out now!
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