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Interview with Helen Moss

My favourite pens are Staedtler triplus fineliners. I discovered them when I bought a big pack for an art project of my son’s about eight years ago. He went off art about two days later, so they ended up in my office. They’re just fancy felt pens really, but very slim and elegant, with a kind of rounded triangular shape. They write with a smooth fine line and are such beautiful bright colours. Having said that, more often than not I’ll just grab whatever comes to hand from the pot of stubby pencils and old hotel ballpoints on my desk.


I’m a sucker for a notebook with a beautiful cover. I think it goes back to my schooldays when the teachers insisted we cover our new books with paper to stop them getting dog-eared and/or defaced with rude words. Going to WHSmith to pick out sheets of snazzy book-covering wrapping paper was an annual highlight.  One year my mum, ever thrifty, acquired a wallpaper sample book and convinced me to use this instead. Being the 1970s, every sheet was embossed, flocked and stippled to within an inch of its life. It would have been easier to cover my books with brick ends.

These days I always have numerous notebooks on the go.  I’m not fussy about brand or size or type of paper, as long as the notebook is pretty or stylish, or – my favourite thing – themed to co-ordinate with my current project. Museum gift shops are the best hunting ground for these; an Egyptian Book of the Dead notebook when I was writing The Phoenix Code, a Chinese notebook from the Shaanxi Museum in Xi’an for The Dragon Path, a jaguar notebook with Maya bark paper from Mexico for The Serpent King, a shiny pineapple notebook for The Mystery of the Pineapple Plot. Family and friends know that a notebook is a failsafe gift option too. One of my current favourites is an old-fashioned Rupert the Bear notebook that my mum put in my last Christmas stocking. It’s so lovely I might just let the wallpaper episode go.

That thing I said about themed notebooks makes it sound as if stick to one notebook per book. Nothing could be further from the truth. I drive myself to distraction with a total lack of notebook discipline. I scribble down half-baked ideas, plans, snatches of dialogue, words I like the sound of, vital nuggets of research, editing notes, etc. in whichever one I happen to find first; there’s a notebook in every bag I own, one by my bed, half a dozen on my desk, one in the kitchen. All these notes get muddled up with to-do lists, ideas for school visits, minutes of PTA meetings or writing workshops, telephone messages, cribbage scores and children’s drawings, which means that I waste an inordinate amount of time searching for the relevant bit of inspiration or information (which is just as likely to turn up on the back of a scrap of printer paper or a post-it note.)

To try to compensate for all this lost-and-found rigmarole I’ve started keeping a box file for each project, into which I periodically stuff all the scattered bits of paper, including  – and I apologise, as I know this will cause physical pain to many – any relevant pages torn out of my notebooks.

I’m a big fan of index cards. I keep boxes of them on my desk, and just looking at them makes me feel more efficient. At the beginning of a book, I’ll be very organised and enter details of characters and research information onto the cards in colour-coded, alphabetical order. I generally get bored of this pretty soon, and switch to recording everything in enormous rambling Word files on my laptop instead, so the boxes are never complete.

I recently saw an internet video in which a scriptwriter was using index cards to plan the scenes/plot points of a film, laying them all out on a big table so he could shuffle them round to try out different sequences.  I pinched this idea for a book I’ve been working on that has a ludicrously complicated plot, and found it very helpful. The great thing is that you can just scoop all the cards up and paperclip them together in the current working order to transport them. I’m very partial to paperclips and like to have a big jar of them on my desk. I also get through a lot of box files, keeping all my papers and cuttings together – and am even known to cover them with wrapping paper on occasion.

phoenix code coverI live near Cambridge with my husband and two student sons. I’ve been writing for children for about ten years, having previously studied psycholinguistics and worked as a researcher and lecturer.

I love mystery and adventure and have written two Middle Grade series, Adventure Island and Secrets of the Tombs, both published by Orion. I also contributed a short story The Mystery of the Pineapple Plot to the Mystery and Mayhem anthology, edited by Katherine Woodfine, and two mysteries for younger readers to the Rising Stars Reading Planet series. I’m looking forward to embarking on an exciting new series soon. (I wish I could say more, but can’t spill the details yet. I’m already on the hunt for an appropriately themed notebook though.)

I have three websites. One is my general author site,, one is for the Adventure Island series, and one for the Secrets of the Tombs series, On twitter I am @hmadventure.

Thank you very much Anita for inviting me to take part in Papers Pens Poets. It’s been a delight.

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