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)
Rhonda Blackhurst is a die-hard indie author and enjoys empowering and educating others in the process. She has ten published novels: The Inheritance, a Hallmark-style fiction stand-alone; seven in The Melanie Hogan Mysteries; and the Whispering Pines Romantic Suspense.
In her day job, she has worked in the law enforcement arena in the victim witness field and as a paralegal for the past 20+ years; she recently took an early retirement from the Adams County District Attorney’s Office.
In addition to being an author and indie author consultant, she is a certified life coach with a program called “Rise From Victim to Victor—How to Make What Happens to You, Work for You.” She enjoys running, biking, hiking, spending time at their Arizona house, and anything outdoors. She, her husband, and their very spoiled Fox Face Pomeranian reside in a suburb of Denver.
What brought you to writing? I began writing at an age when no one realized where it would take me—four years old, and unfortunately, it was with crayon on the knotty pine walls of our family home. I didn’t draw pictures. I actually wrote what I thought were words because I apparently had something to say. And it’s never stopped. I spent endless hours sitting on the dock by the lake we lived by or in our fishing boat, dreaming of worlds and words. I wrote a lot of poetry back then. In Jr/Sr High School, I saw the movie Absence of Malice with Sally Field and Paul Newman, and from there, I was determined to be a journalist in New York City. To start, I wrote a few articles for the city newspaper about school events. I got derailed a bit in college, and when my babies were little, I wrote two novels with pen and paper. I still have those manuscripts in boxes. After moving to Colorado, I began writing as a stringer for the local newspaper, but my heart was in fiction. After my last child left home, I began taking writing seriously, joined writers’ groups, and published my first novel in 2012.
What are you currently working on? This past April, I published the last book in a cozy mystery series, Shear Misfortune, in The Melanie Hogan Mysteries.
When a fitness center is a locale for both health and murder,
exercise enthusiasts must weigh their odds of the outcome.
I am writing the first draft of Inn the Spirit of Murder, book one in a new cozy mystery series, The Spirit Lake Mysteries, and having a ball with it. It stars Andie Rose Kaczmarek, the Spirit Lake Inn owner and a life coach, who has a feisty nun as a sidekick. It contains a bit of paranormal activity and all the colorful small-town characters. New ideas for books in the series keep popping up as I write—a writer’s dream! I’ve worked in the law enforcement arena in some capacity—mostly as a paralegal and in the victim witness field—for the past 20+ years. I was immersed in the darkness of the world where there are often no winners in the end. Writing cozy mysteries was my way of being able to leave that darkness in the evenings while I wrote and tied up the ending of the story with a pretty red bow. Cozies give me hope because the good guys win in the end, something I didn’t often see in my day job.
How do you come up with your character names? Naming my protagonist and antagonist is perhaps the most indecisive part of my writing. But when I finally decide on a name, it solidly clicks. In the Abby series (The Whispering Pines Mysteries), the name Abby brings to mind both vulnerability and strength. I have no foundation to hang that on, but it’s such a strong connection in my mind that it’s become a fact. Her ex-husband’s villain in that series makes it his mission to track her down, so he is appropriately named Hunter. In the Melanie Hogan mysteries, I chose the last name of Hogan because one of the most famous governors of Minnesota was Hulk Hogan (Jesse Ventura), and it just seemed to fit. The protagonist in my new series, Andie Rose Kaczmarek, I struggled with the most. I think I changed the first name several times and went back to the first name I chose. And at this point, even if I wanted to, there’s no going back because she’s a character in the last book of the Melanie Hogan Mysteries, which is already published. However, her last name solidly clicked because Kaczmarek is Polish for “Innkeeper.”
Has an association membership helped you with your writing? A resounding Yes! I think writers’ groups are essential to an author. Just being in the same room as a bunch of creatives is energizing. And learning from one another is such a huge benefit. Writers are one of the most giving, helpful groups of people I’ve known. I’ve met so many who are willing to share what they know and help in any way they can. The first writing group I belonged to was Northern Colorado Writers, and theirs was the first conference I attended. They hold a special place in my heart. I’ve added Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and Sisters in Crime. I’m currently President of Sisters in Crime—Colorado Chapter. I strongly encourage writers, no matter where they are on their writing journey, to get involved in whichever groups they belong to, as well as conferences. Volunteering is the best way to get full advantage of the experience.
Do you have any advice for new writers? There is only one solid rule—write! You will never be a writer if you don’t eventually stop thinking about it and write. And don’t let anyone “should” on you. Your path is uniquely yours. For every person who says you must do it one way, there’s another who will disagree. Your path is your path. Have fun with it!
“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” ― Louis L’Amour
Connect with me at:
Terri Benson has published three novels and nearly a hundred articles and short stories. In addition to The Pickup Artist, her credits include November 2021—The Angel and The Demon, Book #1 of Lead Me Into Temptation, a historical romance; 2012—An Unsinkable Love, a historical romance set on the Titanic and in the New England Garment Manufacturing District. She works at a Business Incubator, and her hobbies include camping, jeeping, and dirt biking. More info at https://www.terribensonwriter.com/
The Pickup Artist, A Bad Carma Mystery, was released on April 1, 2022, from Literary Wanderlust. A female classic car restorer discovers her newest project comes complete with a serial killer who now has her in his headlights, and, by the way, she’s also the local LEOs #1 suspect.
I’m currently working on more Bad Carma Mysteries and Lead Me Into Temptation books.
Do you write in more than one genre: Yes, I write both mysteries and historical romance, but no matter what I’m writing, there is bound to be romance, mystery, and a little bit of history.
Tell us about your writing process: I’m a bit odd in that I come up with a title first. Then I figure out what scenario I can see working with that, then I write. Since both my series are fairly defined by the series titles, I know what kind of book I’ll be writing from the start.
Has an association membership helped you with your writing? Absolutely. I’ve belonged to Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers for more than a decade, and I fully credit the great friendships I’ve made there with dozens of amazing writers, agents, editors, and publishers—including the two who published my last two books (The Pickup Artist and The Angel and The Demon)—to those friendships. I had access to hundreds of workshops from RMFW and Pikes Peak Writers that helped me hone my craft, getting me to the point agents and editors would look at my work. I also found the publisher for An Unsinkable Love pre-RMFW via a contact in a critique group I belonged to. I can’t recommend “finding your tribe” enough for new and not so new writers. I’m also a member of Sisters in Crime.
How long did it take you to write your first book? My “first” book took 20 years, but I’ve never submitted it to anyone – eventually, I probably will. My first “published” book took four months to write, and since it was for an open call for books about the Titanic, it had a due date to submit. I remember meeting my best friend, who is my most critical beta reader, and her passing the manuscript from her car to mine in the dark at about 8:00 at night the day it was due to be submitted. If a cop had seen us, they’d have suspected a drug deal! I made edits and submitted it with less than 10 minutes to spare. It was published about a year later, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking.
How do you come up with character names? I drive through a cemetery every day to get to work and eat lunch there almost every day (it’s very pretty and quiet, with frequent visits by deer). I often wander around and write down names to use. And for Renni in the Bad Carma Mysteries, when I needed to have her full name be mentioned, I ended up with Renault Landaulette Delacroix because her father was a car-obsessed Frenchman.
We hear of strong-willed characters. Mine run wild and crazy! I’ve discovered some amazing things about my characters over the years, but only when they let me. And sometimes that plays havoc with the story! Do yours behave or run wild?
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into your story? I always have subplots because my characters demand it. I also think it makes the story more real and in-depth if things are going on between characters that impact and enhance the main plot. It might be a romance with sub-characters or a situation with a car that causes problems to make Renni’s life more difficult, but also helps show her faults and foibles and/or that of other characters.
Do you base any of your characters on real people? My Ed Benson character is patterned off my brother-in-law, with his blessing. But he did go from being a middle-aged white guy to a billionaire inventor who is the spitting image of Morgan Freeman (again, with Ed’s blessing) because that’s what the character wanted.
What kind of research do you do? I do a ton of research. With Bad Carma, I need to have a selection of cars to restore and know what kinds of equipment I’d find and how they’d be used in a restoration shop. For my books, because they all have some historical plotlines, I do a lot of historical research to find out what was happening when the car was being made or the era the romance is set in. I like to know interesting facts that I can use (sparingly!) in the story to give my readers a little tidbit they won’t have known. My favorite tidbit in An Unsinkable Love was that the Titanic had floor tiles that were more expensive than marble – a new product called Linoleum!
Where do you place your settings – real or fictional locations? I generally have settings in the west, around the Four Corners area, because I know those places from spending my life living there or camping and traveling around there. But Unsinkable was set on the Titanic and in the New England garment manufacturing district, so I don’t feel obligated to use any particular place except what works for the story.
Why did you choose to have a female classic car restorer as your protagonist in the Bad Carma Mysteries? I’ve always loved old cars, especially those pre-1950, and think that perhaps if I had my life to do over, I might have been Renni! Then I could work on the cars instead of just going to as many car shows and auctions as I can and check out the intricate details on the older cars. My research has uncovered hundreds of potential vehicles to use in my stories, and I find more all the time. The Divco delivery van pictured is what Renni drives to shows and is based on one owned by a guy here in town who let me climb around it and lent me a book on the Divco history. Renni hitches it to a custom-made “Jim Dandy” teardrop trailer. I found the plans for the trailer online and was intrigued because it has an ahead-of-its-time swing away hitch, allowing the kitchen area to be at the front of the trailer rather than the rear like most do. The 1950’s era Mercedes Gullwing pictured is just an amazingly beautiful car and will be featured in a future Bad Carma.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Learn everything you can about craft. Join writer groups. Find a critique group. Don’t try to do this alone. It’s more fun, you will be a better writer faster, and you’ll make friends that understand the angst of writing.
Where can our readers learn more about you and where to buy your books?
My website: https://www.terribensonwriter.com/
My books are available at:
Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-pickup-artist-terri-benson/1140930664?ean=9781956615029
As well as most book distributors.
Frequently accused of drinking too much tea and getting lost deliberately, award-winning writer Debra Bokur is the author of the Dark Paradise Mysteries series (Kensington Books). She’s also a contributing author to Spreading the Word: Editors on Poetry (The Bench Press, 2001) and the former poetry editor at Many Mountains Moving literary journal. Bokur is an award-winning journalist and longtime contributor to national publications, including Global Traveler Magazine. She divides her time between Colorado and coastal Maine.
The Lava Witch – In a remote, mountainous area of a Maui forest near Haleakalā volcano, the naked body of a young woman is found hanging from a tree. The devil is in the details: the woman’s nostrils, mouth, and lungs are packed with lava sand. Her hands are bound in twine, and her feet are charred and blackened, suggesting a firewalking ceremony. Detective Kali Māhoe’s suspicions are immediately aroused. It has all the signs of ritual torture and murder.
But Kali’s investigation soon leads her down a winding trail of seemingly unconnected clues and diverging paths—from the hanging tree itself, a rare rainbow eucalyptus, to rumors of a witch haunting the high areas of the forest, to the legend of the ancient Hawaiian sorceress Pahulu, goddess of nightmares. Casting a shadow over it all—the possibility of a Sitting God, a spirit said to invade and possess the soul.
Aided by her uncle, Police Captain Walter Alaka’i, Officer David Hara, and the victim’s brother, Kali embarks down the darkest road of all. One that leads to the truth of the mountain’s deadly core and a dark side of the island for which even Kali is unprepared.
“This procedural keeps readers guessing all the way to the gratifying solution. Fans of Tony Hillerman will be enthralled.” —Publishers Weekly STARRED REVIEW on The Lava Witch
“A cool police procedural with engaging characters and fascinating components.” —Kirkus Reviews on The Lava Witch
Controlling the Weather – Thanks for inviting me to post on your site today, George. As I prepare for the launch of The Lava Witch, I’ve been mulling over a few concepts that I suspect may be common among both readers and writers of mystery/crime fiction, all of which have coalesced into the notion of controlling the weather.
Consider this: Nearly everything in the world operates according to forces that are out of our control — day and night, tidal waves, tornadoes, disease outbreaks, growing old, watching the neighbors paint their house the wrong color. That’s plenty to dwell on, even on a sunny day, while we can still bolt up and down staircases with ease. When you add in the forces of malevolence, things take a much darker turn.
Like most people, I’ve encountered evil firsthand. Sometimes it’s shiny or dressed up with beguiling surface beauty meant to mislead and confuse; sometimes, it doesn’t bother to pretend to be anything but what it is —cruelty, malice, and deliberate mayhem unleashed to disrupt or destroy the lives and equilibrium of others.
While I’ve never actually talked to other mystery writers or readers about this, I’m sure I’m not alone when I say how satisfying and fulfilling it is to see darkness overcome by goodness and light. I believe it’s one of the reasons we love to read mysteries and thrillers. I know it’s one of the reasons I find it gratifying to write them. Sure, remedying all the ills of the real world and conquering evil in its multitude of forms is beyond my powers as a single human being; but as an author, I can control storms and decide when the sun comes out, and make certain that those who deliberately bring about pain, grief, and misery — at least within the pages of my books — are made fully accountable for their actions. And, I get to bring readers along for the ride, setting off with them on difficult journeys that I know will lead, at last, to a moment of resolution and healing.
How do our readers contact you?
Groups I belong to:
- Sisters In Crime (National, Colorado, and New England chapters)
- Mystery Writers of America
- Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers
- Colorado Authors League
- International Thriller Writers
- Society of American Travel Writers