Helen Starbuck, no relation to the coffee bunch, is an award-winning author of the standalone suspense novels Legacy of Secrets, Finding Alex, and The Woman He Used to Know, and the Annie Collins Mystery Series. A native, her books are set in Denver and other Colorado locations. Her writing companion is her cat Bean.
A Cold Case of Conscience, an Annie Collins Mystery – Helping Detective Frost review cold cases, Annie Collins can’t resist the pull of a recent murder that may be connected to a 20-year-old cold case. To further complicate matters, Annie’s husband’s ability to tolerate the repercussions of her involvement with Frost is at an end, forcing her to choose between helping Frost or potentially damaging her marriage.
Writers and their characters are strange bedfellows. The fiction writing process is an odd one, for me at least. I often wonder if other writers have strong-willed characters and if they behave or run wild? My characters are very opinionated. They don’t run wild, but boy can they be hard to wrangle. They often come to me in the middle of the night with, “Have you thought about this?” Propositions to let me know they’ve decided to do something different or that I have taken them in the wrong direction. It’s my imagination—I don’t need meds—but I’ve begun to wonder if my characters live in an alternate universe that I am allowed to tap into. Their worlds are very real to me.
I hadn’t planned on writing a series, but I like my characters so much that I ended up doing just that. And they often morph into ways I hadn’t planned on. Detective Frost, a character in my Annie Collins Mystery Series, was supposed to be a one-off character, but he decided to be a mainstay of the series. It didn’t take a lot to persuade me; he’s a very likable, irascible character who keeps Annie, my main character, grounded. Angel Cisneros was, initially, just going to be Annie’s neighbor—a lawyer for her to bounce ideas off, but no major romance. Then he decided to fall in love with her and become more than a friend. That was not my plan. Although now, I can’t imagine telling the story any other way.
Characters can also be a major pain. The first three books in the series, The Mad Hatter’s Son, No Pity in Death, and The Burden of Hate, seemed to flow from my brain to the page without too much difficulty. There were times when I struggled or boxed myself into a corner or got lost in the weeds, but my characters talked to me, and ideas were abundant. After The Burden of Hate was published, they went silent. I joke that I put my main characters through such hell in Burden, that they didn’t want anything to do with me. But it was true—they weren’t giving me any help. I came up with four different plot ideas, none of which I was keen about, and all of which were vetoed by my editor and my beta readers. I was stymied.
It was at that point that two brand new characters appeared and told me a story about a family filled with secrets and a daughter’s search for answers. At a writing seminar, the teacher put several copies of iconic paintings on the table and told us to pick one that spoke to us and write about it for fifteen minutes. A picture of an old, abandoned farmhouse in the midst of a field of grass called to me, and Kate Earnshaw and Evan Hastings started talking. That was the beginning of Legacy of Secrets, a standalone romantic suspense novel.
Annie Collins and Angel Cisneros from the series were still refusing to talk to me, so I decided to stop stressing about it and let other stories come. And they did. Driving to Boulder along Highway 93 one afternoon, the beginning to Finding Alex popped into my head with the thought that the drop offs along both sides of the highway would be a perfect place to leave a body. But, I thought, what if the person wasn’t dead and stumbled out into the highway in front of a detective’s car? Blake Halloran and Alex Kincaid began telling their story. In The Woman He Used to Know, a scene between Nick Ryan and Elizabeth Harper that ends disastrously and later places Nick in a compromising position popped into my head clear as a bell.
Four years later, after my three standalone novels were written and published, Annie and Angel finally decided to talk to me. Unfortunately, they wanted to tell me all about their private lives and weren’t all that interested in a mystery. I gave in to them and wrote a number of short stories about their lives to keep them talking. I struggled with a plot, and I struggled with them, but at last, a plot for book four materialized.
A Cold Case of Conscience will be out in 2023, and Annie, Angel, and I are happy to be talking again. I haven’t decided if book four will be the last in the series, but there are plenty of other characters who are anxious to tell their stories. It’s important to listen to them.
Colorado Author’s League
Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers
Sisters in Crime (National and Colorado chapter)
Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America (National and local)