“It’s like doing a massive jigsaw puzzle, it’s frustrating at times but once completed it feels amazing.” That’s how Helen McGinn, wine buyer turned novelist, describes the experience of starting with a blank piece of paper and turning it into, hopefully, a best-selling novel. With her fourth book about to be published she explains the process she goes through of bringing an idea for a story to life and then committing it to page. She also gives a behind the scenes insight into her other career as a television wine pundit on BBC’s Saturday Morning Kitchen.
Helen McGinnn’s fourth novel, The Island of Dreams, described on Amazon as “the brand new uplifting, heartwarming escapist read from Saturday Kitchen’s Helen McGinn” is published on February 13. Click here to get your order in.
Your new career as an author continues at a pace and you are about to publish your fourth novel – what can we expect with your fourth book?
The Island of Dreams tells the story of Martha, the youngest of three sisters. I don’t want to give too much away but let’s just say an awkward situation leads to Martha taking an unexpected holiday. Once there she meets single father Harry and his adorable son Milo and what unfolds on the island could change her life forever. But can she let go of her past?
Your previous novels have taken us on trips to Cornwall, Rome and Venice amongst others – where have you set your fourth book and why?
This one’s set for the most part in Paxos, Greece. I visited a few years ago with some great friends (girls’ trip!) and absolutely fell in love with the place. I hadn’t thought about setting it there but as soon as I started plotting the story, I knew it had to be Paxos. The beaches are beautiful, the island quite wild and the people are wonderful.
How would you describe your style of writing and the stories you want to tell?
I grew up reading books by Mary Wesley, Rosamunde Pilcher, Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins. In fact, the latter was my specialist subject when I did Celebrity Mastermind last year. I’ve always loved a love story whether romantic, familial, or platonic and want my books to provide an escape of sorts. And perhaps it’s all those years spent as a supermarket wine buyer, but I’ve always wanted my fiction to be accessible. Commercial fiction is my jam.
We all know you as a wine expert and critic – so can we expect any wine references or context in your new novel?
There’s plenty of wine woven into all my fiction books. It’s a bit like the Horrible Histories approach of my first (and only wine) book, The Knackered Mother’s Wine Guide. I love the idea of people learning about wine without even noticing so I make sure there’s something delicious in my characters’ wine glasses whenever possible, mentioning the grape, aroma, or flavour in the hope it might pique the reader’s interest.
As this is your fourth novel – what lessons have you learnt from when you first started and how do you think you have developed as a writer?
I write best when I have a plan – and a deadline. I plot the story, create the characters and do plenty of research beforehand. Each of my books has a core theme and once I know what that is, I’m able to explore it as I write. It makes the whole process easier in the long run.
How have you developed your skills and what training and support have you had?
As hard as it is to have your book pulled apart, a good editor simply wants you to write the best book you possibly can. Understanding that has made me a better writer.
What advice would you give anyone who is looking to write a book, or be a novelist?
I know it sounds ridiculous, but you’ve just got to write. Start with a short story, get used to writing stuff down. It felt weird at first because I was used to writing non-fiction. Now I just get to make it up. It’s frightening but freeing at the same time.
How do you plan the book out and know how to bring all the elements together – the art of storytelling?
I usually start with the theme of the book. The last one was all about betrayal, so I wanted this one to be a little lighter. I’m often inspired by snippets of stories I hear or read, then start thinking about my own take on it. The characters tend to show up in my imagination along with locations and then my job is to pull it all together and put it down on paper. Like doing a massive jigsaw puzzle, it’s frustrating at times but once completed it feels amazing.
How long does it take you to write a book and can you describe the process in terms of how much you write a day, disciplines involved?
I write one fiction book a year, fitting it in around my normal wine-related work. I try and stick to a monthly word count but some weeks are more productive than others depending on what I’ve got on. I’ve done more writing on trains and planes in the last few years and as long as I’ve got my headphones, I can write anywhere.
Can we expect book more novels in the future?
I’m about to start writing my fifth, due out in February 2025 and have just signed a deal with my publisher to write two more after that.
Your TV wine career is also going really well and you seem to play a bigger role as part of the Saturday Kitchen team – how has that developed?
Thank you! I’m so enjoying it. Saturday Kitchen is a fantastic show to be part of, I get to work with incredible chefs and meet some amazing people. I’ve known Matt (Tebbutt, the presenter) since we were teenagers so feel extra lucky to be working alongside an old mate. I’ve been doing TV for over ten years now and every day in the studio is different. I don’t take a second of it for granted.
What do you enjoy most about being part of the show?
The food! And the people, obviously. It really is such good fun to do. There’s not much wine on telly nowadays so I’m aware how lucky I am to be doing it and try to make it as relatable and fun as possible. I love getting messages after the show from viewers who’ve tried wines they wouldn’t have done otherwise.
What’s next for you?
We’ve got some exciting plans for WineTime this year (Instagram Live wine tastings with fellow wine lover and fashion influencer Kat Farmer @doesmybumlook40) including lots more live events. We’ve got a great wine-engaged audience between us and we love getting out there and talking to people about it. There’s also podcast in the pipeline, I’ll keep you posted.