MF 380 : Writing series: Helen Aitchison ("The Dinner Club")
Updated: Jun 16, 2022
Helen Aitchison talks about her debut novel "The Dinner Club" and the inspiration from her work and personal life that led to creating a cast of characters within a compelling story. More at www.bemovingforward.com.
Moving Forward is also available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher Radio, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Amazon Music.
Helen is a novelist based in New Castle in northeast England; about an hour drive from the border to Scotland. By day, Helen manages projects for a national charity, which supports young people and adults. Writing is what Helen considers her “sideline.” Her debut novel is The Dinner Club, which she describes as a “commercial fiction” work with a “bit of something for everyone.” The story revolves around five characters who are very distinct with vastly different lives, joys, and problems who come together and connect through a dining club. Each one carries a secret that is revealed as the story unfolds. The book is told from each character’s perspective - five different points of view that intertwine within a communal experience.
“Basically, it’s about love and loss, it’s around hope and transformation and friendship and new beginnings.” –Helen Aitchison
Blending worlds to create the story
Helen finds her writing inspiration from many sources both in fiction and real life. Helen is an avid reader, which provides plenty of fodder but she also gets ideas from her day job. Helen has spent twenty years working with people who deal with complex issues, including those with special needs and individuals who are marginalized or disadvantaged. This has impacted Helen in her outlook, and greatly influenced her writing.
“My characters and my work is based on my experience but also experiences that we all have and can all relate to.” -Helen Aitchison
Helen doesn’t shy away from big topics, including grief, loss, homelessness, and mental health. She also celebrates the positive aspects of life, including connection, friendship, and love. In writing The Dinner Club, all of the characters have recognizable yet indirect ties to circumstances and people she knows. Helen also put a little of herself into one the characters. You can find out which one on the episode. However, there was one character which was a direct translation of someone important from Helen’s life. More on this later.
A surprise journey
For someone who speaks with such confidence about her work and such glowing enthusiasm about creating these characters, it may surprise you to learn that Helen didn’t always want to be a writer. Her writing journey has been recent within the last two and half years.
“It’s quite a bizarre thing for me. The whole process has been wonderful, very surreal ...” -Helen Aitchison
Like her characters, the catalyst for Helen’s writing came from several sources. Helen started by falling back in love with reading, around four or five years ago. In between childhood and adulthood, life happened with school and career consuming most of of her time. She got back into reading when a colleague, a former police officer, wrote a book and she was curious to read it since they shared common experiences through their work. Helen was enthralled by her friend's book, which reignited the spark to read more. She rediscovered her youthful love of reading, which as an adult provided a great escape and stress release: “I read his book and it made me want to read more.”
One fateful day, while on holiday with her family, Helen was at the hotel gym reading The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom. The book spoke to Helen and she felt as if she were part of the story itself. At one point, she was so moved that she found herself in tears and that’s when she realized, she wanted to write a book that could affect someone in a similar way.
“I want someone to remember the words long after the book’s closed.” -Helen Aitchison
After returning home, Helen started her writing journey. She found a way to tie her day job to her new ambitions by volunteering to write for a work-related blog on domestic abuse. Helen received lots of positive feedback, especially writing on an important topic. Helen next entered a short piece into a writing competition run by a local theater. The prize was a a spot in a playwriting course. Helen won one of the coveted spots within a small group of 20 other students. Helen shares she was the “least experienced,” being mixed in with published writers that had already written plays and short stories. Despite this, she didn’t let fear or intimidation stop her. She enjoyed the course and learned as much as she could. Moreover, she connected with her classmates, staying in touch with several as she continued her writing journey afterward.
“It planted the seed ...” -Helen Aitchison
Helen soon branched out to poetry, flash fiction, and short stories. She continued submitting her work and her diligence paid off as she was getting published. This gave Helen the confidence and encouragement for her next project.
Helen was a force unleashed. She had gotten her chops with blogging, the playwriting course, and by experimenting with short form fiction. Now it was time to take on her first novel. Helen discovered that she took to it very naturally. She started The Dinner Club by fleshing out and creating the five characters, tying them all together within a narrative. She finished it within six months.
“I couldn’t stop writing. I became obsessed … in a positive way!” -Helen Aitchison
While Helen is relatively new to writing and admittedly wishes she started years ago, she appreciates that her life up to this point has given her a rich collection of experiences, and interactions to draw upon.
Despite finding the spark, Helen is a busy person with a very demanding career. For Helen, it started with the writing itch. As she shares in our conversation, it’s not simply about having an idea or passing thought. Writing a book has to be a desire that won't leave you, regardless how busy your life is. For Helen, her desire to write a novel was borne out of the themes and emotions that she couldn't stop thinking about and wanted to put on paper.
This is also why Helen didn’t experience writer’s block. The desire to write this novel, and the pull of the story was strong enough to give her the momentum to see it through to completion. The bigger, more practical challenge was time. Unlike several of the authors I have spoken to thus far, the pandemic didn’t create more time for her since she is considered an essential worker. Fortunately, Helen wrote the first draft before the pandemic hit. But really what it came down to was having an idea and a desire that was so persistent that there was no question she would write this. From there, finding the time was simply about squeezing in the writing whenever she could. This inevitably meant a few sleepless nights. The other factor was a very supportive partner who encouraged her along the way.
“I just used any spare time I had … and luckily, I have a really supportive partner.” -Helen Aitchison
Helen prioritized the book and her writing within an already packed schedule. In speaking with Helen, you can hear her drive and determination. She is the type of person who, once she sets her mind to something, will get it done and as quickly as possible.
With respect to the story, Helen mixed pre-planning with being extemporaneous. She explains that she would jot down ideas on her iPhone notes app and post it notes to create a general outline. When it came to the actual manuscript, Helen allowed herself to be flexible. Thus, her process is to have a general premise and certain defined principles but being flexible enough to let the creativity flow when it comes to the writing and telling of the story. Helen also spent time creating the characters, clearly defining them and their personalities; coming up with names that stuck. It also helps that Helen loves names and makes a habit out of naming things, even inanimate objects in her home! Similarly, coming up with the title of the book was front and center in her process.
“The Dinner Club [title] was really simple but it’s meant to be.” -Helen Aitchison
A difficult challenge produces a loving tribute
While time was one challenge, another, albeit unexpected one, was more personal. As mentioned, Helen bases her characters in part, from people she knows, blended with fictional elements. The one exception is a character named “Florence” who was modeled directly from Helen’s real-life grandmother. Helen explains she wrote the character embodying all of her grandmother’s personality, quirks and all. However, as she was writing the first draft, Helen’s grandmother sadly passed away.
“It was both cathartic but it was also heartbreaking at the same time.” -Helen Aitchison
Helen experienced a mix of emotions writing a character that was so close to her that she had just lost. She found the experience bitter-sweet as she wrote the character while navigating the grief process. In one moment she would be writing the Florence character, the next she would see a picture of her grandmother, which would be both heartbreaking and heart-healing. Ultimately, Helen realized that writing Florence and having such a clear picture of who she was was a “final gift” from her grandmother. This gave her the encouragement to continue on and see the book to completion.
Getting it out there
For Helen, there was no question that she would pursue traditional publishing. She reveals that it was due to not knowing that much about self-publishing alternatives. Initially, Helen wanted to enter her book into competitions in the hopes of obtaining a mentor to guide her on next steps. She initially followed this path but it didn’t lead anywhere. However, she didn’t want to just leave the book in a drawer. Undaunted, she explored getting the manuscript directly to publishing houses. Helen discovered that each publisher had different requirements with some wanting a bio, others a CV, and others a synopsis and cover letter. Helen compiled a list of publishers and started sending her book out. She started with three publishing houses and was about to take time off work to contact more when a remarkable thing happened. She got offers from two of the houses! Helen ended up accepting one of the offers and that led to The Dinner Club being published in early 2022.
Helen attributes her success in part to luck but also the hard work in making The Dinner Club a good book. She shares that if traditional publishing hadn’t worked out, she would have explored self-publishing.
“Don’t procrastinate and put it off. Just go for it.” Helen breaks this down into seven key points:
1. Find the time.
2. Invest in yourself.
3. Write what you know or do some thorough research.
4. Experiment with genres.
5. Put yourself out there with competitions.
6. Have thick skin.
7. Find a support network (family, friends, partner, social media).
Connect with Helen:
Watch the video of our conversation on Facebook.
Check out the Moving Forward mini-series collection
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