Helen Starbuck Author on The Writers Hour - Creative Conversations with Janine Bolon

Helen Starbuck – Author, Annie Collins Mystery Series26 min read

Janine Bolon: 3, 2, 1. Hello and welcome to The Writers Hour Creative Conversations, and I have with me today Helen Starbuck, who I happen to absolutely love because the universe knew I was after another mystery writer. I had read all the books from these other mystery writers. I was looking for another one and I wanted one that was a little bit more realistic. I go on this writer’s retreat and who is my roommate through most of this retreat? It is Helen Starbuck! I asked her and I said, “So, what do you write? You know, I am a nonfiction writer.” She said, ” Oh, I do murder mysteries.” and I am like, “No!” I wanted a book right then, right there, because I loved her so much. I wanted her books. So I am going to let her talk a little bit about herself. Helen, thanks for being on, and if you would not mind, share your biography. Share a little bit about you before you became this amazing mystery writer.

Helen Starbuck: Well, my professional career for most of the time was working as an operating room nurse in the main OR. I started at Lutheran Hospital and then worked very briefly for a plastic surgeon, that is a whole another story.

Janine: And it is a good one. We will get to that one later.

Helen: And then went to Children’s Hospital and worked there for about ten years. And then I went to the National Association for Operating Room Nurses, AORN, and worked as a clinical editor on their journal staff. It is a journal that goes out to OR nurses nationally here in the States and even internationally. I was, for quite some time, the only nurse on a staff of journalists. My job was to look at pictures and tell them all the practice violations that were in the photo. Tell them if they had X-rays the right way around.

Janine: Because yes, there is a left and a right.

Helen: And you know, to try and explain why a photo was not so gross, we can not publish it. It is like, “No, no! OR nurses do not think this is gross, and it is important.” So that was my job up until I guess it was 2016 or 17. I can not remember now. And then I had written the first few chapters of my first book in the mystery series, The Mad Hatter’s Son, years ago and came across it and still like the first four chapters. So I decided to finish it, and that is how things got started. And now I am three books into the mystery series and I have written two standalone books. The most recent one is Finding Alex. I am a Colorado native and I love mysteries and I love romantic suspense, but I will read just about anything. I just like to read.

Janine: One of the things that Helen and I definitely understood with, we are both scholars at heart. We were both also scientists. I worked in the pharmaceutical industry as an analytical biochemist. And so when I found out she was an OR nurse, we had a lot to talk about and we talked about the things we do not like about certain books. So we will get back to Finding Alex in a moment. But one of the things that Helen said to me that I absolutely adored was when she goes, “Yeah. So when one of my characters gets bashed over the head and has a concussion, you will not see him running across a field in the next chapter. He will need to recover.” And I went, “Thank you. What are some of the other pet peeves that you have read about?” But just because people do not do their research and that is really what it is. That the author did not do their research.

Helen: And I think that my biggest pet peeve is that they do not portray injuries or recovery, or the effects of an injury accurately. I do not know if you guys…

Janine: [laughs] I see, yes.

Helen: Here is a photo and I posted it on my Instagram account and I said, “Let us play a game. What are the things that you can find in this photo that drives OR nurses insane? And then I put in parentheses, ‘kind of like cops hate crime dramas’, and so far I had two people respond and they got the obvious things, a nurse sitting on a gurney, and a nurse with one of her shoes on the gurney. And as I said to them, “There are four. So see if you can guess them.” You know, so I have a lot of sympathy for other professionals who have that happen. Years ago I was watching House with my daughter and she finally looked at me, because every five seconds I was going, ‘Oh my, God.’ You would have his privileges revoked. You are not playing black roses roulette, she finally looked at me and said, “Mom, it is a TV show. If you can not just sit and watch it without commenting every five seconds you need to go away.” I was like, “I like the show.” She was like, “Okay, fine.” Yeah, it is very frustrating.

Janine: And every profession has that. And so one of the things that Helen and I wanted to talk with you about today because many of our listeners are looking for new authors and new books to read but we also know that many of you have a book in your possession somewhere in your house where you are writing on it. So we like to give you a bit of advice too. And so one of the things we were going to discuss was just the amount of research that goes into a fiction novel even though somebody may be very efficient and proficient at their craft, there still is research. So, yeah, if you do not mind, I would love to hear a little bit more about Finding Alex and what you had to go through because those are some of the funniest stories that never make it into the book.

Helen: Finding Alex, just in a nutshell, is about a woman who is assaulted and left for dead, and because of a head injury, they think, and the trauma of what happened, she is amnesic. And the cop who finds her, well, he almost hits her with his car can not identify her and her fingerprints are not in the databases, she does not know her name, she does not know who she is or where she is from and he is also investigating a series of murders where one of the characteristics is that the woman’s fingertips have been cut off. So, the identification of those women is also delayed and in one case, they never do identify her. So I met a fingerprint expert at the Colorado Bureau of Investigations on a tour that the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers set up and she was great. She had handed out her cards and said, “You know, feel free to email me. I am happy to help.” And she was very helpful about the different databases and how you go about identifying someone and why someone might not be on any of these databases. And I learned some interesting things. There are four states in the United States that do not require a fingerprint for a driver’s license. I think it was Texas, Montana, maybe Idaho, I can not remember the fourth one. Anyway, had this woman been a resident of that state and if she had a license, she still would not have fingerprints on record. The other issue is if you have not committed a crime or you have not applied for a job that requires a background check. You probably do not have fingerprints on file. So that was fascinating, because I wanted to make sure that it was plausible that he would have a difficult time identifying her, and he could not really post a picture of her on the media because the guy who tried to kill her has tried to kill her twice and so he really does not want her photo out there necessarily. So that was one expert I had to talk to and we will keep her on my string of people to contact and then I have a writer friend who was an ER nurse for years. And so if I have an ER scene, I have her and I have an ER doc that I run those scenes past. And the ER doc was very helpful in the third book in the mystery series, and my friend Catherine was really helpful. She sent me back a three-page email and said, “I hope you do not mind, but first of all…”

Janine: There is a list of what is wrong with this scene.

Helen: Yes, there was. And so, I was like, “Oh, thank you. I appreciate this.” Because I have a peripheral idea of what goes on in the ER but I have never worked in an ER. So to have her help with that was great. She told me that no cop would get information about a patient even over the phone. He or she would have to come into the ER and prove that he was who he was, and so that was one thing that I got wrong. And then at the scene where she has been injured, I had to add a few things to make it more real. So those kinds of things are really great. And then there was a question when this woman was taken to the ER, whether or not they had to determine her injuries, obviously the obvious ones, but they were concerned that she might have been sexually assaulted. And one of Catherine’s comments, because I had said she had not been because there were no obvious signs of it, she said, “Well, you need to know that there may not be obvious signs. The best you could say is there are no obvious signs. So we are going to assume that she was not but we are going to do a rape kit, anyway, just in case. So, I also talked to a sexual assault nurse examiner because there is a certain certification that nurses can get and they work with victims and they conduct, if the victim is female, the rape kit examinations, which are really quite extensive. I did not quite realize how involved this was. So it was eye-opening for me to learn all this stuff. I can tell you what goes on in the OR and can help anybody that has questions about it. But, there are other areas that I have never worked in. So, I think that is the one thing with authors, it is so important to find people who are experts and who can look at whatever you have written about that area and say, “Okay, well, here are the things that are just not quite accurate.” And it is fun for me.

Janine: Exactly. One of the things that was so fun to sit around the dinner table and listen to Helen talk about was some of the police tours where the police force has a Writer’s Academy. The fictional writers can actually go and I remember you were posting on Facebook about ‘I wonder if you can get PTSD from watching all of these ways that people injure one another’ and so it was fascinating those stories as you were learning your trade. Yeah.

Helen: Well, I will say this. Well, first of all, it is called The Writers’ Police Academy and you can contact them via their website or on Facebook, and while it is not associated with a specific Police Department, all of their speakers are either involved in local policing or FBI or the DEA or major police departments, New York City or Los Angeles. It was fascinating and I will say this, there was one presentation that was very upsetting but important to hear, it was called cop killers. It was a presentation about mistakes policemen make that get them shot or accidents that get them killed. But the saddest statistic was that sixty-three percent of cops that die, die from suicide. But the thing that was unnerving and upsetting was that the
speaker showed a video montage of policemen actually being killed and that was like, “Oh my God.”

Janine: “I really do not know if I need to see this.” That is where you start looking through your fingers. Like when you were five, you got your hands up looking through your fingers. Come on, I do not know if I want to watch this, but at the same time, this is real life. And when you are a writer, you never know where you are going to go. One of the funny things that you were sharing with us at the dinner table again, was the fact that you do not have a problem at all now picking up the phone and calling somebody you do not know and saying, “Hi, I am an author and I am writing this book, and I need to know how long does it take a body to decompose blah blah blah blah blah…” Kind of talk through your process because that was not how you were when you first started, right?

Helen: No. When I was writing my first book in the murder mystery series I needed to contact a detective to find out a couple of things. And I did not know any homicide detectives. So I just threw it out on Facebook and says, “Does anybody know a homicide detective I can talk to?” And as it turned out one of my really good friends goes, “Oh, my cousin is a retired homicide detective. Here is his name. Here is his email, his phone number, call him.” Well, that was a really painful phone call because I was just so embarrassed to say, “I am writing a murder mystery and I have some questions.” And then to try to explain your plot thinking all the while, “Oh my God, he is going to think I am an idiot.”

Janine: That impostor syndrome, man. The challenge is real.

Helen: Yes, it is. And he was very nice, he was very patient. And as I said to people before he is very linear. Things go in one direction. No, you can not go like this. Like at one point I said to him, “Okay, so I am going to have a felon in the hospital because of an injury in the prison, and I need to have him escape. So what would be the police presence?” And he said, “Well, there would be an officer in the room. The felon would be handcuffed to one of the bed rails and there would be a cop outside the room. And it was like, “Okay. Well, I need to make it easy for him.” No. “We will get rid of the cop.” “No. There will be two cops.” But what, “No.” “Okay, there will be two cops.” I actually solved the issue but I was like, come on dude! Give me a little rope to hang myself. By the time I got around to this last book, I wanted to talk to a therapist who worked with police and veterans with PTSD because my male character has it, and so I happened to know her and called her and said, “Okay, this is the premise. So if you were a police officer and you had PTSD but you had learned to sort of control it, would it be triggered by going to a crime scene as opposed to being involved in an accident that you were involved in?” She said, “it would probably be triggered by the accident and it would probably not be triggered by the crime scene because he would be going to the crime scene with full knowledge that someone is going to be dead. And in all probability would have been told it is a shooting or it is a stabbing or whatever.” And then we talked about ways that she teaches her clients to short-circuit the flashbacks or the panic attacks, and I thought it was really interesting. She said she had one client who was driving back to Denver for somewhere and saw a field with high waving grass and it took him immediately back to, I think it was Vietnam if I remember correctly, somewhere and rice patties. And he pulled over to the side of the road and the way he brought himself back was he stopped looking at the field and he looked at his shoes, and when he looked at his shoes, he knew that they were not his combat boots, he was not in uniform and so he knew that it was a panic flashback and I thought well that is really fascinating and she said, “Well, that is the grounding. You have to ground yourself in the present and pull yourself out of this flashback or panic attack or whatever.” I will say if it is an expert that I do not personally know, I am still a little goosey when I first call. But I have gotten to the point where I get over it pretty quickly and I found that experts are so kind and so willing to help and really, very glad that you asked. So I would encourage authors to just bite the bullet and do it. You have to learn to believe it when you say ‘I am an author and I am writing a book.’ And that is okay because that is what you are doing. So, it has been a growth experience.

Janine: It was, especially if she would talk about expert upon expert that you would have to reach out to, and thank goodness for Facebook and friends, right? Because we were talking about how wonderful it is that we have a network of friends who know somebody, so there are only three degrees of freedom, so to speak. You will eventually run into that expert that you can say referred you to, that you got somebody to refer you to. And the other thing is they are like you. They want you to write the story correctly like we talked about at the beginning of the hour. It was like we want to make sure that you write this correctly because this is our profession and then anyone who reads your book and you figure out a way to get the felon out of the handcuffs with two cops, you figure that out. You are going to help us with our security measures in the future. So that was fun. But the other thing too is the fact that you have to have that self-confidence at the same time to be able to say “I am an author. I am writing a book and this is what I need.” And they are more than willing to help you because, how cool? They can go home and then say, “Oh, and by the way, an author contacted me. Yeah, they needed some help with the scene they are writing. I am looking forward to the book.” You know, it gives them bragging rights, so everybody wins with this. Have you not found that?

Helen: And I usually tell people to help me, I said that if you are okay with it, I will acknowledge you in the acknowledgments in the book. And I learned working on The Journal that it is always best to ask for their permission because there are some people for whatever reason that do not want their name out there in public. For example, active police officers often do not want you to identify them by name where they work because there are people out there that want to do them harm. So you do need to ask but most people like, “Oh, that would be really cool. Thank you.”

Janine: “Thank you for asking.” Yeah, consent, permission is a big thing these days and we do have to honor that. Even if we are writing a fiction story. The rules are still in play. Well, so we talked a little bit about the writing process and reaching out for research and all that stuff. Anything else you want to tell us before we wrap up about Finding Alex? I know you have umpteen bazillion stories. Can you cherry-pick a few for us?

Helen: Well, in my mystery series, the main character like I am, is an OR nurse and in the first book, she gets drag into and trying to figure out why an old friend of hers is ill and then why she commits suicide. And in the second book, the same characters carry over, and because of her work with the homicide detective in the first book, she is asked to help him investigate possible mercy killings at her hospital. And then in the third book, the felon from the first book that she and her, now eventually husband, helped put away has managed to escape and that was the two cop issue.

Janine: We had to get creative on that one.

Helen: We did. And he is coming for payback and so it is a little more exciting and it is a little more violent but not horrendously so. And then the two standalone, My Legacy of Secrets, is more of a family mystery. A young woman’s father dies supposedly of suicide and she is convinced that he did not but she knows so little about him and his family, so it is kind of a journey to find who her father was and why he may have committed suicide. So that is the mystery in that one. And then Finding Alex is more of a traditional, well, My Legacy is what they would categorize as romantic suspense because there is a romance that threads through it, and the same with Finding Alex but it is about trying to figure out who this woman is and her trying to figure out who she is. And to try to figure out if her assault is connected to the women who have been killed. So, those are kind of it in a nutshell. Well, I really like my series. Although it is kind of at a standstill, and the third book maybe it. I do not know, I am still in that headspace.

Janine: If you do not mind, I am going to cut in here. For those who may not know the Annie Colin series that she is referring to, Helen and I have had numerous conversations both online and when I am recording here versus also on phone calls where it is like, “Oh, my God Janine, you will never guess what my characters are doing,” and this happens a lot to fictional authors where their characters were basically saying, “Yeah, we know you want to write the next volume of the series but we are done and we are taking a rest.” And so that is why Helen launched into these one-off novels because her characters basically went on strike. So go ahead you say it so much better than I do.

Helen: Well, I joke that Annie and Angel, her husband by the end of the third book, were just like, “We are done with you girl. You know, we are taking a vacation and I do not know if we will be back. So you are just going to have to be patient.”

Janine: And that is it. We do not know if we are coming back to you or not. So you go do something else while we recover from what you put us through in volume three.

Helen: And you know, I heard a lot of fiction authors say this and it is really true for me. There is a meme with this little girl with a frowny face kind of like what we called ‘The Look’ for my daughter was kind of this. The blurb is how I am when my character stops talking to me and they do. I mean, I realized that it is your subconscious working on these stories and whatnot. But it really feels as if they are talking to you because you can get off in the weeds and all of a sudden, you dream that they come to you, and they are just like, “No, no! It is just no!” “Come back here. Have you thought about doing this?” And so I kind of look at my characters as co-authors.

Janine: Yeah, and I heard that over and over again and even from some of the nonfiction authors when they are doing some storytelling in an area to use it as an example, they will talk about ‘I need to know pacing. I need to know how to develop characters and all that, even though I am a nonfiction author because there is a pacing to it and you guys are masters at that. In keeping us entertained and yet, one of the things I love about Helen’s books is they are factual. I know the work she goes through and some people say well that kind of ruins the story for them. But for me it always made me appreciate whatever film or book I was reading when I know all the research that went in behind it that will never see the light of day because it did not fit into the book, right?

Helen: Trust me, I did not get a call from Netflix, but I went to a book signing with Craig Johnson who writes the Longmire series that has now been translated to Netflix. And I remember one of the episodes where a character had been in a car accident and thrown from the car and she is laying out in this field supposedly unconscious with her eyes open, staring up into a sunny sky, and then when she is in the OR getting her subdural hematoma taken care of, she is intubated which means general anesthesia and she is blinking her eyes, and it is like wow! Wow!

Janine: [laughs] Time to call Craig. Craig, what are you doing? Why are you letting the screenwriters do this to your book?

Helen: What I did was when I came up to have my book signed, I handed him a card and I said, “If you want, pass this onto Netflix and I could tell them all the mistakes they made in their OR scenes.” And Craig then he goes, “Okay.” I never got a call from Netflix.

Janine: Well, bummer on that. But we are going to wrap this up. How can people get on your newsletter? Oh, I want to preface this, when you get on Helen Starbuck’s newsletter, she does not pummel you with emails. She lets you know what she is doing. She will let you know when a new book is coming out. She will also let you know when she has a call out for beta readers and these types of things if you love her work as much as I do, these are things I want to know. What my authors are doing. So, how does somebody sign up for your newsletter?

Helen: You can go on my website, which is HelenStarbuck.com and down at the bottom. Well, actually there is a pop-up that says sign up for your newsletter, and when you do that you go on my list and you get a welcome email with access to a sort of prequel about how Annie and Angel meet each other and those that are not in the books. So I try to, and of course, it is like anything. If you get a couple of newsletters and you are like “Nah, this is not for me.” You can unsubscribe at any time so you are not locked into it. And so, I try in addition to just announcing what is going on book-wise, I try to give people glimpses into characters. At my last launch, a dance friend of mine said, “Okay. I want to know what dances Angel, Evan and Blake would do?” Well, Angel does the Argentine tango and Evan would do the country-western two-step and Blake does not dance.

Janine: Right. I was very surprised, Blake would not dance. [laughs]

Helen: So that came up and I reiterated that and then I put links to the various dances and I ask people, I said, “If you think of a dance that Blake might do if he was pressured into doing, then let me know, you know.” And so it is interactive. I like it when people respond, not everybody does and that is fine, too. And I do not get a whole lot of unsubscribes. I think maybe I had three over the last few years. So apparently people like what I am putting out. So sign up and see how it is, and if you like it stay put, and if you do not you can unsubscribe.

Janine: Yeah, that is what I love about independent authors. You do not have to worry about your email going into a machine and it pumping, you know a bunch of emails into your inbox. Helen is very, very kind to you. So Helen, thank you for taking time out of your busy day on your book launch to get us taken care of, and thank you. Helen was kind enough to hand me and, actually mail, I am sorry, and mail me an advanced reader copy. But I have not read the book yet because I am known for spoilers. So I will be putting a review after I finish reading it after this interview on Goodreads as well as Amazon. If you have read any of Helen’s books, would you please be kind enough to go to Goodreads and give her a review as well as go to Amazon because authors, we are really in need of supportive people that will guide us on what you like so that we can keep entertaining you with our wonderful characters. So Helen, have a great day and thank you so much for this.

Helen: Thank you. I enjoyed it. Talk to you later.

Janine: So, this is Janine Bolon with The Writers Hour Creative Conversations. Keep your feet firmly planted on the ground as you reach for the stars. Talk to you in the next episode.