So, I ended my last interview series of 2023 with a writer from my wishlist. Only fitting I begin the first interview series of 2024 with another writer from my wishlist. People, if you could see this wishlist of mine. The names read like items to place in a shopping cart. Some have high profile platforms. Some have a relatable everyday presence, like yours truly. But all are on my wishlist for a reason.
My next guest is one such person. I could go into detail as to why, but the time it would take to even shorten the explanation. I'd have to mention audiobook production, Latin dancing, and a Russian vampire. No, I am not joking. Ask me about it one day. But this isn't about me, is it? Wait, didn't I use that last line a few interviews back? If so, my bad. Anyway, let's get to who this interview is actually about.
Kicking off The Writers Block, I bring you Helen Starbuck.
KD: Okay, first things first. Helen Starbuck. Who is Helen Starbuck?
Helen Starbuck: I’m a native Coloradan (I was told it should be Coloradoan, but who knows?). I started out as an art major in college until I realized how hard it was to make a living—kind of like being an indie author. Because I came from a family of nurses, I thought there would always be sick people and thus a job, so I transferred to nursing school. After graduation, I took a job in pediatrics. I wanted to work in the OR but it was the old Catch-22, you couldn’t work there unless you had experience, and the only way to get experience was to work there. I eventually was asked if I wanted to transfer from Peds to the OR, and I jumped at the chance. I was too eager to realize that nine people had quit and they were desperate for staff, thus there might be a good reason to investigate why, but that never crossed my mind. The first year was hell, but I loved it and worked in the main OR at a suburban hospital and then at The Children’s Hospital in Denver.
After publishing an article in the AORN Journal (a specialty journal for OR nurses), I was offered a job as a clinical editor on their staff. I loved editing the articles and I learned a lot that helped improve my writing. Except for commas, I never figured that out, thank God for proofreaders. I also provided developmental editing for nurses whose articles had been rejected. They were all accepted and published, of which I’m very proud.
The writing bug had always been a hobby, but in 2015 I found a story I had begun and abandoned years before, still liked it, and decided to finish it. That became my first published novel, The Mad Hatter’s Son and the books just kept coming. I do it full time now and love it.
KD: And now you have me wondering, is it Coloradan or Coloradoan? Something to ponder while I take in the Colorado mountain views. Meanwhile, what do you do to relax?
Helen Starbuck: I read and watch movies and TV series for pure enjoyment.
I ballroom dance for relaxation, as odd as that may seem. It’s work and a challenge most of the time, but it’s also a lot of fun and gives me a boost when I think of how much I’ve learned and accomplished. Plus, you get to dress up like a princess at the competitions, which appeals to my girly side.
I garden. I love flowers, so my garden is filled with annuals and perennials. Planting and tending them is relaxing and harvesting bouquets all summer and fall is a lovely reward. I post a lot of photos of my flowers (and my dancing) on social media.
(Class, I've seen clips of her dancing. One has to respect the technique!)
KD: What made you want to put pen to paper?
Helen Starbuck: I love the quote from Neil Gaiman, “Fiction opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control [and] are with people you want to be with . . .”
That sums up why I began writing as a young teenager. I didn’t fit in with my peers. I read books all the time, I wasn’t fashionable or appealing to boys, and I had a fairly active imagination, so I wrote stories where I was a different person in a different setting. It was an escape from my daily life. I controlled the story and what happened to me, I controlled how I looked, I had time to come up with snappy comebacks to guys or be brave enough to find my way out of a tricky situation. Only one of my friends did that and, when we discovered that about each other, we co-wrote stories together. Mostly during French language lab, which probably explains why I’m not fluent in French.
That need to escape and to entertain has remained strong and is what spurs me to write in the hope that what I write is an entertaining escape for others. The real world is a very unsettling and often depressing world, especially for women, it always has been. While I deal with that reality on a daily basis, as does everyone else, I turn to writing to escape. I create characters I love and villains I love and hate simultaneously, who talk to me, suggest storylines, and offer suggestions—wanted or not—and make my world entertaining at the very least.
KD: Even with me being a man, I could relate to every word of that. Speaking of Neil Gaiman, who are your writing influences?
Helen Starbuck: I love to read suspense, mystery, romantic suspense, and historical fiction, so the authors I admire are Tami Hoag, her Nikki Liska and Sam Kovac series is wonderful; Sandra Brown for romantic suspense; Anne Frazier for pretty much anything, she’s intimidatingly good; Shannon Baker’s Kate Fox series; and Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk series set in Australia. Connie Willis (The Doomsday Book is incredible and a frightening glimpse into time travel and the Black Plague’s origins) and Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) are historical fiction writers I enjoy.
I read new authors and old favorites for pure enjoyment, but also hoping I can glean some insight into how they create such wonderful books. I am often amazed at a turn of phrase or plot twist and hope that I can replicate their talent to some degree in each new book I write.
KD: That's a whole entire lot of influences. I even saw a name I never heard of before. Gonna have to look her up. Okay, here's one I usually mention towards the beginning of the interview. Give a shout-out to your corner of the world by telling me the best thing about your neck of the woods.
Helen Starbuck: Colorado has the best climate—abundant sunshine, and bad weather that doesn’t hang around. The mountains are beautiful even if you don’t ski, and the people are great.
KD: Okay yeah, but are the people Coloradoans or Coloradans? Anyway, let me get to one of my favorite questions. What genre of music/movies & shows do you listen to/watch more than others?
Helen Starbuck: With music, I am all over the place because of my dancing. That has introduced me to songwriters I would never have known about. There’s a long list of music that ranges from Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Lady Gaga, John Mayer, Leela James to Blake Shelton, Chris Isaak, Vince Gill, Enrique Iglesias, Mana, to the Beatles, Springsteen, and the Stones. I’ve found that most of the songs I like are what would be classified as a Viennese Waltz (much faster than a regular waltz) or a rumba, if dancing to it.
Movies and TV shows I like are primarily mystery and suspense. I like British mysteries (No Offense, Shetland, Rebus), American police procedurals (Bosch, Will Trent, Mindhunter, Aquarius), spooky mysteries (The Sixth Sense), period pieces (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The Imitation Game, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Rebecca), and the occasional romance, although it has to be a little angsty for me to enjoy it (The Lakehouse).
KD: I guess I just wanna know who on Earth decided to call it "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society"? Like, who? Okay, so coffee or tea or…?
Helen Starbuck: Coffee (infrequently and doctored heavily with cream and sugar), tea hot or cold (often), margaritas, and wine.
(See? I'm not the only one who doctors their coffee! So there! Ha! Yeah, I'm talking to...well, they know who I'm talking about.)
KD: How would you describe yourself as far as personality and character?
Helen Starbuck: Cranky, mouthy, cynical, weird sense of humor, inappropriate at times and often an embarrassment to friends and family. You can dress me up but may not be able to take me out.
KD: I can honestly say I would not have thought that. And how do you think your friends would describe you?
Helen Starbuck: See the above. They also claim Annie Collins (the main character in my mystery series) is me. She is, sort of.
KD: Speaking of one of your characters, based on whatever criteria you use as a gauge, what book/story of yours do your readers enjoy the most?
Helen Starbuck: Based on reviews and comments they love the first book in my Annie Collins Series, The Mad Hatter’s Son, and Legacy of Secrets - the standalone romantic suspense novel set in eastern Colorado.
KD: And now to flip that same question. Which book/story of yours is your personal favorite?
Helen Starbuck: That’s a difficult question, but I really love Finding Alex and The Burden of Hate. I fall in love with each new book and the characters.
KD: You have an audiobook I once listened to, Legacy of Secrets. Tell me, what inspired the story?
Helen Starbuck: It’s a perfect example of how weird things inspire you. I was at a writing seminar and the person leading it spread copies of a number of iconic paintings (e.g., Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Andrew Wyeth’s Christine) on the table and told us to find one that spoke to us and then write a story about it for 15 minutes. I saw a painting of an old, abandoned house in the middle of a field of grass, and the scene where Kate, a bereaved daughter, searching for answers to her families secrets just wrote itself. At the time, I thought it was a great short piece and I saved it. I never delete anything and I’m always surprised
how bits and pieces that didn’t work one place are perfect in another story. I had no real intention of doing anything with it.
After writing book three in my series (The Burden of Hate), my characters quit talking to me—it was total radio silence. I joke that I’d put them through so much hell that they had decided they didn’t want anything to do with me. So, stuck in writer’s block, I was going through the folder where all my little orphan pieces live, and I came across the story about Kate. That seemed to open the floodgates and Legacy of Secrets was born.
KD: I love how you mention your characters talk to you. Mine are forever trying to talk me into doing things I don't want want to do or say things I don't want to say or buy things that aren't exactly legal. But I digress. Are you more an audiobook, e-book, or traditional book in hand type of person? Or hey, maybe you love them all equally. What say you?
Helen Starbuck: I tend to prefer traditional books I can hold, but during the pandemic I got hooked on e-books and the instant gratification downloading them gives you. I have them on my phone, so I always have reading material without having to remember to take a physical book with me. I like the idea of audiobooks because it gives everyone an option to read in whatever format works for them, but narrators can easily ruin a book for me.
Years ago, I read Tana French’s In The Woods, which is a five star book. I had Audible credits to use, so I downloaded the audiobook. The narrator was horrible. I couldn’t enjoy the amazing story because he narrated the characters (especially the women) so poorly and his voice was nothing like the main character as described by the author. I got five chapters into it and couldn’t listen to it any longer.
My books are all in audiobook format and I chose the narrators that most closely resembled how I heard the characters in my head. The audiobook of Finding Alex was produced by The Audio Flow and has five narrators. It’s extremely well done. I wish I could afford to do that for all my books. Maybe when I win the lottery.
KD: A narrator can make or break an audiobook. I got hooked on the graphic novel narration of Richard Rohan. Can you tell me about a "wow" moment you experienced?
Helen Starbuck: There were two book-related events that still get to me whenever I think of them. I had submitted my book The Mad Hatter’s Son to the National Indie Excellence Award contest and months later I got an email from another contest to say my book hadn’t been chosen. I couldn’t remember entering that contest, so I was going through my list of where I’d submitted the book and discovered I hadn’t heard from NIEA.
I went on their website and there was my book listed as the winner of the mystery category. I figured that was a mistake, so I emailed the coordinator and she was astonished I hadn’t been notified that I’d won. I suspect the email had gone to my spam folder and then Gmail deleted it. So, I’d won and missed out on about three months of bragging by not paying attention!
The second wow moment was when The Burden of Hate won a Kirkus starred review. They only give those to about 2% of indie authors. They called it “A thriller that offers a master class in suspense.” I was stunned and still can’t quite believe it. Authors are plagued with imposter syndrome.
KD: Master class? Wow indeed! What was your biggest accomplishment of 2023? What's a goal you have for 2024?
Helen Starbuck: Biggest accomplishment was publishing my eighth book The Killer Without A Face. My goal for 2024 is to write a book about Detective Frost from my mystery series. Readers keep bugging me about it. Frost is well-loved, so I’m working on it.
(I was gonna say something like Detective Frost is such a cool name but the whole pun thing...)
KD: So let's dig a bit into something. Seems lately the topic of AI has been...well...inserting itself into various topics of conversation in the literary world. What are your thoughts?
Helen Starbuck: AI is not writing or composing and people who are creating it are not writers. If you need AI to ‘write’, that’s pathetic. If you use AI to create an audiobook, it may be cheaper, but do you really want your book ‘read’ by Siri when a human can give it depth, emotion, and can provide accents, if needed, or do you want it to sound like the GPS voice on your maps app? By using AI for either books or audiobooks, you’re contributing to the devaluation of writing by the public. Remember what happened in Terminator? Skynet is coming and you’re helping if you use AI.
KD: I give it three years before John Connor makes his presence known. If peeps wanted to reach out and connect via social media, what would be a preferred method?
KD: I put your social media platforms in links to make it easier to reach out to you. Lastly, any business, project, or website you'd like to promote?
Helen Starbuck: https://www.helenstarbuck.com. You can sign up for my newsletter and get the latest news about me and my books. https://www.amazon.com/Helen-Starbuck/e/B076KPPQ52. Amazon author page.
Thank you, Helen Starbuck, for being my first interview of 2024! And thank you, my readers. It is you, for you, and because of you I enjoy doing interviews so much. The Writers Block will continue with a new interview every week.
Take a break from your world...visit for a while in mine. Come often. Stay for a spell.