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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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/
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.