The Writer’s Retreat… with Helena Halme

Photo courtesy of Emma London
Photo courtesy of Emma London

Here is the scenario: You have one month alone on a remote Scottish Island.  You have a comfortable cabin and enough food to last the duration.  The only contact you have with the outside world is a radio.  There is no television, internet access or mobile phone signal.

This month’s Writer’s Retreat Resident is novelist Helena Halme.

What will you be working on while you are there?
During the month away, I’d be aiming to complete my latest project, which is a sequel to The Englishman. The novel is set in Portsmouth and London in the mid-eighties, so I’m not sure the location of the cabin would be particularly inspirational to this novel. I’m also still doing a lot of research for this book, mostly on the internet, so again, I’m doubtful whether I’d be able to get on with this particular project.
But since I often work on two or even three novels at the same time, I may find that I can get on with another sequel, this time to my spy novel, The Red King of Helsinki. This one already has a title – The King’s Daughter – and I’ve done most of the research, so this one might be a good one to get on with in a remote Scottish cabin.
Or I might start a new novel – I often do on a holiday, or when visiting my family in Finland or Sweden.
I may also start writing a diary (again). They’d make a good series of posts on my blog, Helena’s London Life, when back at civilization.

How will you structure your days?
I’d aim to complete a certain amount of words during the month – 50,000 would be a good number. I usually need a target, or a deadline, to work well (I have a very weak character – the Englishman refers to my willpower having the breaking strain of a warm Mars bar).
This ‘Warm Mars Bar’ means that I’d have to have a definite structure to my days. And this brings me to a request – could I take along my 10-year old terrier? ‘The Stinky’ would force me to take regular walks and he’d also get me out of bed in the mornings.
The radio would also dictate my routine – I’d wake up to BBC Radio Four Today programme, have breakfast while admiring the sea view, and make sure I’d had my walk and written at least 500 words before Woman’s Hour. I like to write in total silence, so I’d probably turn the radio off while writing some more before lunch and World at One.
The afternoon is usually my best working time, so I’d be looking to write at least 1,000 words before PM, the five o’clock news.

(Sally:  Yes, I think The Stinky should definitely have a place on the retreat, he sounds essential to your creative routine!)

How do you feel about being cut off from human contact as well as the social network?
A month of uninterrupted writing! It sounds like a dream come true and yet, also a complete nightmare. I’d miss my husband – the Englishman – as well as my grown-up children, who both live very close to us here in North London.
I’m also a self-confessed social media addict, and I have been known to go gaga after just one day alone in our London flat. And that’s with fast internet access and TV. On the other hand, if allowed, I can spend hour after hour alone in bed reading a book.
So it could go either way – after a month on my own I may end up as an emotional wreck, or a confirmed recluse. I’m a Finn after all, and we are known for our love of solitude.

What reading will you bring with you?
In the evening I’d probably listen to some plays, or 6Music or Radio One. I’d also find Finnish and Swedish radio stations, or local ones for a little variation. And I’d write more or read by the open fire (there’d be an open fire, right?) This brings me to another request – could the cottage be equipped with a well-stocked library? If not, I’d need to take at least two old-fashioned trunks of books, dictionaries and a thesaurus. However, if there was a library, I’d take pleasure in looking through the shelves and reading someone else’s book choices. It’d be fabulous! The only thing I’d need to take along with me would be Finnish and Swedish dictionaries. These days when I write, I often find that I can think of the right word in one language, but never the right one!

(Sally:  No library at the retreat I’m afraid, you’ll have to pack your books carefully, or bring your Kindle of course)

What essential items will you be packing?
I’m hoping the cottage is by the sea, so at least I can watch the occasional seagull fly past. I’m imaging a cabin atop a hill where during stormy weather I can watch the waves rise high as they hit the rock face below.
I’d pack my laptop (I can’t write on anything else), a good pair of walking boots, a warm waterproof coat, wellies and loads of cashmere (jumpers, socks, leggings, blankets), soft Egyptian cotton bed sheets, my orthopedic pillow and masses of chocolate. Oh, and playing cards for a bit of Solitaire.

If you could bring a fictional character with you as a companion, who would it be and why?
If I could have a fictional character as a companion, I’d have to choose one of Doris Lessing’s female leads, like Martha Quest, or Sarah Durham from Love Again. These women would be intelligent company and they’d provide some fantastic conversation over the long evenings.
As I write, rain is beating down my North London street, and the idea of a remote Scottish cabin by the sea with a full library seems suddenly highly desirable!

Thank you Sally for thinking of me and letting me dream of a writer’s retreat!

Amazon bio pic

Helena Halme grew up in Tampere, central Finland, and moved to Britain at the age of 22 via Stockholm and Helsinki. She spent the first ten years in Britain working as journalist and translator for the BBC. In 2004 Helena took a MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University having at last realised that she needs to take writing seriously.

Helena has written three full length novels, The Englishman, Coffee and Vodka, and The Red King of Helsinki. She lives in North London and can often be seen out and about in town, walking her Border Terrier.

Helena’s novel, The Englishman, is now out in paperback.

The Red King of Helsinki:
The Englishman:
Coffee and Vodka:

6 thoughts on “The Writer’s Retreat… with Helena Halme

  1. Sounds utterly and completely idyllic. I’m desperately trying to complete a novel at this very moment… mind you, the internet isn’t as much of a problem as three small children constantly in need of attention!

  2. Those little Scottish “but-and-ben” houses always look so cosy, provided they’re also full of cosy tartan rugs and blankets and well-stocked with firewood. But the season would make a big difference – hardly any daylight in winter, hardly any dark in midsummer (one reason I so love summer holidays in the Highlands and Islands). But I guess given your Nordic origins, Helena, that would only make you feel at home! What a lovely idea for a guest post slot and a fun read!

    1. Debbie, I loved writing this post, and after I’d sent it to Sally, it occurred to me that I could have asked for the cottage to be in the Finnish archipelago instead!

      1. Helena, what a demanding resident you are! A library, a sea view, a terrier companion, and now you want to airlift it to another location! Saying that, the Finnish archipelago sounds wonderful, but I’m not going to let you have it. I’m aiming for firm but fair.

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