HELEN STARBUCK – Coloradoan – OR Nurse – Award-Winning Author

Helen Starbuck is a Colorado native, former OR nurse, and award-winning author of the standalone romantic suspense novels Legacy of Secrets, Finding Alex, The Woman He Used to Know, and the Annie Collins Mystery Series. She loves mysteries, suspense, romance, and any book that is well written. She’s a huge fan of books with independent, strong, women characters and, as Neil Gaiman says, “…stories where women save themselves.”

People often ask, what made you decide to write a book? It’s a valid question based on my career. I began as an art major and lasted two years until I discovered that my talent wouldn’t support me. I transferred to nursing school thinking I’d always have a job, and I did. I quickly learned I wasn’t a ‘bedside nurse,’ and I much preferred working in the OR where you care for patients, but for a limited time. I was fascinated by how the body worked and the procedures we performed. I still am, and that adds a note to my books that others may not have. I then became a nurse editor for a specialty nursing journal. I learned to edit articles for publication and help nurses, who generally aren’t writers, develop their articles and publish them.

I have written for my own pleasure since I was a teen, and that continued until I went part-time as an editor. Years ago, working in the OR, I helped care for a patient who had a very puzzling neurological symptom. Those puzzling symptoms were behind the plot of my first novel, The Mad Hatter’s Son, which took about two years from start to finished published book. I indie published the book because my dad passed at 71 and my mom at 94. It brought home to me that we have no idea how much time we have, and I didn’t want to wait for years to see my book published.

I’m a pantser. I can outline a professional article, but I cannot outline my novels. Because of that, probably the hardest part of writing for me is getting through the middle of a book to the end. I know how the book starts and have a pretty good idea how it will end, but that darn middle can be very elusive. Pantsing also requires a lot of revising because the story often deviates from what you thought it would be. You then have to go back, fill plot holes, and make sure timelines are accurate.

People often have questions about creating characters. The most common are How do I come up with names? How do I know who they are? Do they change? Characters come to me in a basic form as if they were real people I’m just meeting. They have names, I’m not sure where they come from, and I have a general idea about how they look, who they are, what their roles are. That can change–sometimes with input from the character. I remember thinking that Alex Frost, the detective in my first book, would be a one-off character, but he became a major player in the series.

In my new book, The Woman He Used to Know, Elizabeth Harper was much less formidable than she ended up being. The plot behind what happened to her and her husband changed a lot. The villain changed as well.

Writing characters of the opposite sex can be a challenge. I don’t want them to be caricatures like you see in some books, both those written by men and those by women. My best defense against that is to run things by several male friends of mine, who graciously put up with my questions and help me make my guys real. One thing I don’t like in romance or romantic suspense books is the ‘alpha male’ character who is rude, obnoxious, condescending, and borderline abusive. The most unbelievable character arc is when he meets the female character, suddenly falls in love, and does a 180-degree turnaround to become thoughtful, kind, romantic. That’s a huge turnoff to me. I don’t think anyone changes that much based solely on meeting someone. My guys may have issues, but they aren’t jerks, just a little wounded or wary of involvement. It takes a while for them to process their feelings and become involved with the woman in the story.

My books are all set in Denver, with the exception of Legacy of Secrets, which takes place on the eastern plains of Colorado. That was a fun book, and I based the town, which is fictional, on a couple of small towns I am familiar with in Montana and Colorado. Colorado is familiar territory, having grown up here. I don’t feel comfortable setting my stories in places I’m not familiar with. Unless you spend a lot of time in a place, you really don’t know the nuances well enough, and you don’t get that by visiting periodically. At least I don’t. The setting is one thing I hear about from readers all the time—how much they enjoy reading about Denver and Colorado and the memories it brings back if they no longer live here.

The places where my characters live and the Denver police department setting are fictional. They are in real areas, but the houses and buildings are not. For example, the characters in my series—Annie Collins and Angel Cisneros—live in a duplex in Washington park and later in a triplex in the area near Speer Boulevard, but the houses are made up. Elizabeth, in my new book, lives in Cherry Creek. It’s hard to get a tour of the Denver police department, so I let my imagination take over and ask for forgiveness from any real Denver police officers or detectives. I talked with Jennifer Kincheloe, a local author. She works in the prison system in Colorado, about what the Denver Detention Center was like and how prisoners are handled. Still, I don’t describe the physical location.

I sometimes use the names of people I know with their permission, and I will often have a contest when a new book comes out for the winner to be a character in my next book. He or she can choose to be a bad guy or a good guy. That’s fun, and people like the opportunity. Otherwise, names just come to me and either fit or not.

People also ask who’s my favorite author. I can’t choose just one, but I love Tana French, Jane Harper, Stephanie Gayle, Michael Connelly, and Craig Johnson, to name a few. I liked Patricia Cornwell at first, but after a few books, her novels became way too graphic for me. Same with Stephen King when Mercy debuted. I have come back to King’s books, and he writes wonderfully, so I plan to read more of his newer books.

If I have any advice for new authors, it is: no matter how good you think your book is, you NEED an editor and a proofer and not just a friend who knows grammar or reads a lot. You need someone who can evaluate your book with an objective eye and help you correct problems, and you need a proofer because, no matter what, you will not see all the errors.

o Readers can contact me at info@helenstarbuck.com
o My website Helenstarbuck.com
o Facebook at Helen Starbuck—Author
o Instagram @helenstarbuck
o Twitter @HelenSStarbuck (yes, two S’s)
o My books on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Helen-Starbuck/e/B076KPPQ52/

1 Comment

  1. Michael A. Black

    Good blog post, Helen. I’ve always felt that nurses were like the enlisted ranks in the military– They run everything, keep it all on track, and get little of the credit. I love the titles of your books. They sound great. Good luck with your writing.

    Reply

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VINNIE HANSEN – Author of the Carol Sabala mystery series

The day after high school graduation, Vinnie Hansen fled the howling winds of South Dakota and headed for the California coast. There the subversive clutches of college dragged her into the insanity of writing, where the dark influences of Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller coaxed Vinnie to a life of crime. A two-time Claymore Award finalist, she’s the author of the Carol Sabala Mystery series (misterio press), the novel Lostart Street, and many short stories. Retired after 27 years as a high school English teacher, she remains sane(ish), notwithstanding the evidence of her tickling the ivories with local ukulele bands.

Do you write in more than one genre? Yes, my short stories range from literary to noir. They’ve appeared in diverse publications from Lake Region Review to Santa Cruz Noir. My most recent print publication, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” is in Gabba Gabba Hey: An Anthology of Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Ramones

In full-length work, my Carol Sabala series falls most accurately in the Private Investigator tradition. Carol Sabala starts as an amateur sleuth, but her career arc in the seven-book and one-novella series takes her into official private investigation.

I’m currently working on two novels, One Gun and Crime Writer, in the literary suspense sub-genre of crime fiction.

Finally, I dabble in non-fiction with a lovely creative non-fiction piece published in Catamaran Literary Reader’s Winter 2021 issue and an article in the last issue of Mystery Readers Journal.

Who’s your favorite author? An impossible question to answer, George! Since I write all over the place, I read all over the place. Right now, I’m in love with literary suspense, and my favorite authors in that sub-genre are Jane Harper, Allen Eskens, and Lou Berney.

When I was working in PI fiction, my inspiration was Sue Grafton.

Some of my favorite books of all time lie where the literary and mystery genres intersect. Think William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace or David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars.

But an author who is a favorite for other reasons is Dorothy Bryant. She comes from an English teaching background, as do I, and that background wends its way into works like Miss Giardino. Dorothy Bryant was feisty, the first woman to wear pants when teaching at Contra Costa College.

Her first book, Ella Price’s Journal, was traditionally published. Still, when her agent deemed her second book “very bad,” Bryant struck out on her own before self-publishing was common or easy. She established Ata Press and published this “very bad” book, The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You. The book was later picked up by Random House and stayed in print for 30 years. Who doesn’t love that story?

But the main thing I love about Bryant is how she explored everything from the diary format to stage plays to science fiction. She followed her love of writing wherever it led her. She did not feel confined by genre. More than any other writer, she’s my role model.

What kind of research do you do? I do whatever research a book or story demands. The fifth Carol Sabala novel, Death with Dessert, involves immigrants coming over the border in Arizona, so I went to Arizona and drove down to Sasabe. I wanted to see the terrain, feel the quality of the air, smell the desert. You can’t Google those sensory details.

Since I’m a crime fiction writer, I’ve toured our local police station, the county jail (twice), San Quentin prison (twice), the FBI Crime Lab in San Francisco, and a prison in Wisconsin. I tried to visit a detention facility in Mexico but was rather forcibly removed. I’ve done two police ride-alongs and attended the Writers Police Academy, where I made a tourniquet for a writhing dummy squirting blood and participated in Shoot; Don’t Shoot video scenarios used for police training.

My personal experience has led to some unintended research. My husband and I were both handcuffed and put in the back of a sheriff’s vehicle to bake for an hour as the LEO’s sorted out a report of shots fired on our street. The photo shows what our street looked like that day. That’s our brown house!

We also came home while our house was being burglarized; my husband gave chase to the burglar, who pulled a gun and threatened to kill him. Luckily, he didn’t. Because of my husband’s pursuit, the cops were able to arrest the young man, and we ended up with front row seats to the criminal justice system—from arraignment through trial. The burglary and the question of what became of the gun served as the impetus for my next novel, One Gun, coming from Misterio press either late this year or early next year.

I’ve attended numerous panels and workshops on everything from search-and-rescue to autopsies. In a survival camp, I constructed an emergency shelter and tried to make a fire. I’ve been to a gun range, of course.

On a more cerebral level, I’ve read Adam Plantinga’s books 400 Things Cops Know and Police Craft and have reference books at my fingertips like Deadly Doses, when I need a little poison, or Police Procedure & Investigation by Lee Lofland when I need a better sense of how the whole bureaucracy operates.

Not all my research is so dark. I visited the Grateful Dead archives here in Santa Cruz to write my story “Dead Revival,” which was published August 15th at Yellow Mama. For an earlier story (“Room and Board” in Fishy Business, the Fifth Guppy Anthology) featuring the same duo of numbskulls, I toured our local Surf Museum.

And, of course, probably like every writer, I go down rabbit holes on the internet. I’ve spent whole afternoons looking at and reading about blue scorpions. For the story in Gabba Gabba Hey, I killed an hour watching videos of killdeers.

Vinnie Hansen, two-time Claymore Finalist
The Carol Sabala Mystery Series
LOSTART STREET, a novel
Newsletter
BookBub

21 Comments

  1. Susan Alice Bickford

    It’s great to hear your summary of all these events and efforts in one spot. You’ve lived a very interesting life and written some excellent fiction.

    Reply
    • Vinnie

      Thank you for visiting, Susan. And welcome back to NorCal. See you later.

      Reply
  2. carole price

    Enjoyed your interview, Vinnie, particularly your research. I’m 20 years in as a police volunteer.

    Reply
    • Vinnie Hansen

      Carole, I’ve often thought volunteering for the PD or the Sheriff’s Office would be an excellent way to gain a better understanding of law enforcement.

      Reply
  3. Cindy Sample

    Wonderful interview, Vinnie. You really spend the time researching your books and it shows in your fine mysteries.

    Reply
    • Vinnie

      Thanks for visiting, Cindy! I’m so looking forward to when I’ll start seeing my writing buddies again. Are you going to LCC in Albuquerque?

      Reply
  4. Heidi Noroozy

    Great interview, Vinnie! Ordinary Grace and Snow Falling on Cedars are also two of my favorite books.

    Reply
    • Vinnie

      Good taste, Heidi. 🙂

      Reply
  5. Michelle Chouinard

    I’m also a big fan of Sue Grafton, and she was also a big inspiration on me! I recently finished a PI novel that my agent and I are getting ready to shop…I think of my protagonist as “If Kinsey Millhone had had a daughter…” So glad you decided to come hang out in California!

    Reply
    • Vinnie

      Thanks, Michelle. Glad to get out of the cold. I’ll watch for your book. What is the title?

      Reply
  6. Kassandra Lamb

    Great interview, Vinnie!! I loved The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You. One of my all time favorites. But I didn’t know all that about the author. Fascinating!

    I too cannot wait to read One Gun.

    Reply
    • Vinnie

      The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You was Alice Walker’s favorite book. (Just another bit of trivia I did not throw in the interview).

      Reply
  7. Liz Boeger

    What a great interview! So much fun in reading about your writing journey and research paths. Looking forward to reading One Gun.

    Reply
    • Vinnie

      Thanks for dropping by, Liz. I look forward to reading you debut mystery, too. When will Chainlinked be released?

      Reply
    • Vinnie

      Thanks for dropping by, Liz. I look forward to reading you debut mystery, too. When will Chainlinked be released? r

      Reply
  8. Glenda Carroll

    Like you, I was inspired by Sue Grafton and her writing. It was so down to earth just like her protagonist, Kinsey Millhone. Great interview. I’ve been in a shoot, don’t shoot scenario. Once I hit the family dog.

    Reply
    • Vinnie

      I’m beginning to think, “Weren’t we all?” I met Sue Grafton at LCC Monterey and had the perfect opportunity, when we were by ourselves, to tell her what a fan I was. Instead, I muttered a couple of inane comments about the SinC table. One of the regrets of my life!

      Reply
  9. K.B. Owen

    Fab interview, Vinnie! Wow, that’s some formidable research…especially the involuntary kind. *wink*

    Congrats on the Gabba Gabba anthology, and good luck on your projects!

    Reply
  10. Michael A. Black

    I found your interview very inspiring, Vinnie. It’s great that you’re putting your English degree to such good work. Best of luck to you. I’ll keep an eye out for your stuff.

    Reply
    • Vinnie

      Thanks for reading, Michael. I recommend Black Beans & Venom to readers sampling my work.

      Reply
  11. Vinnie

    Thank you, George, for hosting me, and for all the support you’ve been giving your fellow authors!

    Reply

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