Helen Allan: Three Things I Learned Writing Scarab: Falling Through Time (Writer Edition!)

As a former journalist and high school English teacher, I thought I knew a bit about writing before I started penning novels, but like any creative endeavour, the more you practice, the better you become.

Looking back now, eighteen novels later, I can see I learned three major things while writing this book – the first about me, the second about audience, and the third about craft.

Lesson One: Know Yourself

About me: Scarab was the first ‘adult’ novel I wrote, but in its first iteration it was a young adult novel written for my students when I worked in a high school with low-socioeconomic students. I was looking to write an escapist fantasy with a little bit of something for everyone: danger, intrigue, romance, suspense, history, and most importantly, I wanted a heroine from a ‘trailer trash’ background rather than a white, middle-class girl.  I wanted someone my students could identify with – I wanted to encourage them to read and to dream big.

I wanted to be a ‘real literary author’ create the next War and Peace blah blah blah – but what did I love to read? Vampire romance, historical romance, fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal.

The novel was read to the students in instalments each week as I finished the chapters – they loved it. But for eight years after that, it languished in a drawer.

Until I pursued my dream to work full-time as an indie author.

Picking it up after leaving teaching, I tried to rewrite it, again and again, but I was fighting against something I didn’t want to admit: I wanted to be a ‘real literary author’ create the next War and Peace blah blah blah – but what did I love to read? Vampire romance, historical romance, fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal.

Admit it Helen – you want to write paranormal romance, you know you do, embrace it!

As soon as I did, the words flowed, the ideas raced each other to leave my fingers and kiss the keyboard.

So that was lesson one.

Lesson Two: Know Your Audience

Lesson two, about audience, came when I tried to rewrite Scarab for the umpteenth time.

I was worried about what people might think if they read sex scenes I had written, romance I had described…

I realised that in writing the story in the first place, a story that had originally come to me while backpacking around Egypt, I had deliberately self-censored, dumbed it down and cleaned it for the YA audience – but in doing so, I had not been true to the story that was in my head. And it wasn’t just this book; I was worried about what people might think if they read sex scenes I had written, romance I had described – I needed to learn not to think about audience at all.

I rewrote the book in the main, I wrote two more in the series, and then I started writing vampire romance. I have not looked back since.

If I wanted to write ‘fuck’, then I would write ‘fuck’. If I wanted to write an epic battle scene where entrails spill all over the ground, then dammit, I would. My audience would come, I would find my tribe – or I wouldn’t, but the stories would not be folded up like origami just so I could fit them into the shape someone else might want.

They might not be paper swans; they might be dragons.

So, writing without constraint became my next lesson, although you must write to market, everyone says so, hit the tropes, keep those happily ever afters, you must also be true to yourself and write the story you want to write.

Lesson Three: Know Your Craft

The third lesson I learned was about craft.

I wrote Scarab in third person limited past tense. It was the natural way for me to write, but subsequent books I have also written first person past and first person present tense. Studying the books I loved, like Twilight, helped me to understand what POV I enjoyed reading. I like many, but those most easily accessible do seem to be in first person.

Rules seem to come out of thin air, as most ideas do, but once in the book, they need to be adhered to.

The more you write, the more confident you become in your own voice, your own style and your own ideas. I don’t second-guess myself now: I am a swear-bear, my characters often are; I am sarcastic, my characters often are; I am romantic and fatalist, so are my plots. Your voice is you. Don’t try to imitate anyone – just be yourself and it will shine through. Your readers, even if they prefer fantasy to vampires or sci-fi to paranormal, will probably read your work anyway because they like the way you write, they like your voice.

I wrote a time-travel romance and the rules seemed to come out of thin air, as most ideas do, but once in the book, they needed to be adhered to. Because I had to go back several times and change things in previous books to match the rules, I rapid-released my Scarab novels, all three, on the same day.

If I was writing an intricate world again, I would do the same for continuity and also for sales – this was by far my best release, and I’ve tried all sorts of different ways now, one week apart, two weeks apart, thirty days apart, pre-order, no pre-order.

So, in summary, what did I learn?

About me: Be true to yourself, write what you love to read.

About audience: Write the book for what you want it to be, do not consider self-censorship, do not even think about audience until it is finished.

About craft: Study the books you love with a critical eye, write the best you can in an authentic voice.

Finally, I learned something else in 2018.  We are a small group, really; it’s a small world, it can seem like there are millions of people writing books and yet sometimes it can seem like you are alone in your endeavours.

I learned to join groups, to reach out and make contact with other authors in my genre, to help out those just starting and to seek help and advice from those enjoying success. The majority I have come in contact with have been professional, kind, helpful and in some cases, real kindred spirits – I would encourage other authors to reach out to each other.

As a writer, do you adhere to these same lessons? What are yours?

About the Author

Helen Allan’s work has been described as ‘ethereal’ and ‘edge of your seat.’ Specialising in fantasy and science fiction romance, Allan’s work has an edge that leaves the reader thinking about her books long after they put them down. Much of her work is underpinned by a love of the natural environment and a deep understanding of the depths of the human psyche.

Connect with Helen Allan online at:

Helen has a time-travel vampire romance series called Vampire Knights:

From modern life to medieval England, Lilly will journey across time in pursuit of the knight who stole her life, her memories and her heart.

From the jousting fields to the castle bedroom, Lilly searches for the answers to the sadness that lies at the centre of the life of Lancelot.

Can she solve the mystery surrounding his turning without becoming victim to the magic and dark arts of the women who took his life?

Will he thank her for returning the memories that were once stolen from him? Or will she face the ultimate death in the quest for something that was never meant to be?

Get Lancelot’s Lilly here.

Helen Allan: Three Things I Learned Writing Scarab: Falling Through Time

When I was a teenager, I was determined I would be an archaeologist – so I studied how to read Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics – as you do. (Did you know the hieroglyph for wine is ‘irp’? They must have had a sense of humour!)

Later I changed my mind and went into journalism, teaching and literary event management – strangely, none required hieroglyphics – but my interest in Egypt never diminished. I was intrigued by the mummification rites, the pyramids, Cleopatra – it all sounded so romantic and mysterious, and I wanted to experience it for myself.

Consequently, as soon as I could, I strapped on a backpack and headed over to check out the place – and this was the genesis for my book Scarab.

Egyptian Culture: Beyond the Tourist Veneer

Book 1 of the Scarab Series

Backpacking around the country on a shoestring budget with my husband gave me a real insight into aspects of the culture you might not see flitting from air-conditioned five-star hotels or ferries to air-conditioned tour buses.

I savoured and noted the heat, the insects, the noise, all interesting and authentic colour for my novel. I watched papyrus being made; I tasted dates straight off the tree, I ate local low-cost fare. I got sick, really sick, I was spat at by local women, threatened, assaulted, dumped in the middle of nowhere and robbed – and it all made for amazing experiences that I would later use in my novels.

Touring the pyramids, the guide held us up in the desert and told us he would ‘take us across the border to Libya to be murdered’ if we didn’t give him all our money. Looking back on it now it is funny, but at the time we were not laughing. Libya would feature later in my Scarab novel as an ominous place and a centre for the slave trade after I learned it was once part of ancient Egypt. Islands off the coast also were once ruled by the ancient land, and these too would play a part in my future novels.

Helen Allan and her husband in Egypt

Staying in hostels that sometimes cost as much as $3 a night I came into contact with locals and their pets, like little tortoises, their idiosyncrasies ‘we build door by door’ and their religious beliefs, which helped add detail to my book when the characters are in modern-day Egypt. We learned that the door handles are taken off taxis so you can’t get out until you pay (often a much higher fee than you agreed before entering the taxi) and that Cairo taxi drivers will not turn their headlights on at night in the false belief it flattens their batteries – making driving at night terrifying for passengers. All this and more I absorbed and remembered, writing a journal each night of our trip and pouring into it my experiences, fears and excitement.

Ancient Egypt: A Closer Look

The heart scarab

Entering tombs, I noted the artistry, the claustrophobia, the colours, the ambience, the stillness and the detailed ritual associated with death. I learned that the scarab was bound over the heart during mummification, to protect the secrets of the heart – this intrigued me.

Learning about the Book of the Dead, Pyramid Texts, and Coffin Texts really started to make me think ancient Egyptians believed they were heading to the stars, not to heaven as we know it, but to the actual stars, and this got me thinking… What if they were?

While travelling around, I was also very interested in how many animals were seen to be sacred and mummified for burial. Cats, known in hieroglyphics as ‘Miw’ were one of the major ones, as were cattle, crocodiles, birds, it just went on and on. Later I would write a cat into Scarab and call it Miw.

The gods too were depicted everywhere with animal characteristics. And this made me think, what if they could assume the guise of animals? Who is to say? So much has been lost, Egyptology is still really in its infancy. There is so much we don’t know, so much we assume.

The Terror and the Romance of Travel

Travelling independently through the country was not easy. In fact, it was downright fucking horrible in some places, but I couldn’t shake the romance of the idea of touring Egypt, and I looked for the best in even the worst of situations.

I found that romance in the ruins of Luxor, watching a coloured-light show at the Karnak Temple that lit up the ponds and the columns of hieroglyphs in amazing colours as they were read out by a presenter. One line from the hieroglyphs in particular resonated with me:

 “Your love is in my heart as the reeds are in the arms of the wind.”

For all the bloodshed and murder and intrigue we had learned about – there was also love, and I knew the novels I ended up writing from this trip would definitely be romance.

While visiting Luxor, I also found the rows of sphinxes leading up the temple intriguing, at the base of each one was a well which once contained a crocodile, ready to receive offerings. Later these wells would feature in a murder scene in Scarab – the perfect way to dispose of a body!

Book 2 of the Scarab series

Many of the hieroglyphs though had been defaced over time by various pharaohs and conquerors, and the French, of course, had stolen so many antiquities, most still grace the Louvre. They even had the twin of the obelisk that once stood at the front of the temple. I’d seen it in Paris, so I didn’t feel totally ripped off, but sad that it was not where it should be. This also would play a part in subsequent Scarab novels, which feature the French and Germans and the rare things they stole from Egypt.

Book 3 of the Scarab series

What three things did I take from Egypt that helped me with writing Scarab?  I took everything, everything that country and its people offered. 

I absorbed it into my skin, and it poured out as little black drops of ink on paper – the Scarab Trilogy.

Which of your favorite books ooze research from their pages? Does it make you love them even more? Share in the comments!

About the Author

Helen Allan’s work has been described as ‘ethereal’ and ‘edge of your seat.’ Specialising in fantasy and science fiction romance, Allan’s work has an edge that leaves the reader thinking about her books long after they put them down. Much of her work is underpinned by a love of the natural environment and a deep understanding of the depths of the human psyche.

Connect with Helen Allan online at:

Helen’s recent release is Gypsy Blood, a paranormal romance series:

An ancient power. A forbidden love.

Smart-mouthed journalism student Freely is not your average eighteen-year-old. Her best friend is a vampire, and they spend most weekends hiding bodies. But when she meets a handsome foreigner, Zan, a strange magic connects them that is older than time.

Bound to him, ancient lore decrees she must learn her gypsy powers in time to protect him from the vampires who seek immortality through his blood, and help him to hunt the creatures of the night.

Can she betray her friend? Will she learn to see Zan as a fighting partner only and ignore their mutual attraction? Can she allow him to continue his line, at the expense of her heart? Or will her love for him destroy them both?

Gypsy Blood is a vampire romance that will leave you clutching your neck and begging for more. Get it here.