This busy author graciously stopped by for a few minutes and
answered some questions for us. Let’s get right to it…
Where did you get the inspiration
for your Mac McClellan series?
E. Michael Helms:
My previous books had all dealt with war,
mostly drawn from my own experiences. It was draining and I knew I needed a
change. I grew up reading and loving the Hardy Boys books, and had recently
renewed my interest in mysteries. One day I thought: Why not try my hand at
writing a mystery? It took off from there.
What kind of research did you have to do to
make the character authentic?
In order to get inside my protagonist’s head
and know what made him tick, I knew I would have to closely identify with him.
Having served in combat as a U.S. Marine during the Vietnam War, I decided that
Mac McClellan would be a recently retired Marine with extensive combat service
in Iraq. With that connection, we “clicked” right away. I grew up in the
Florida panhandle on the beautiful beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Knowing the
area, its history, culture, and people, made the setting of the series a
Tell us a bit about Mac. Any part of him
Mac and I share a lot in common; athletics, our
military backgrounds, morals, likes and dislikes, sense of humor, and loyalty
to others. A handshake should be as binding as a signed contract. Physically,
we have similar traits. Mac’s a couple inches taller and a few pounds lighter,
but when I was his age we were pretty darn close. We can both be pushed, but
only so far.
What are your protagonist’s strengths and
First and foremost, Mac lives by the code of the
Marine Corps motto:
Semper Fidelis—Always Faithful. His word is his bond.
Loyalty and trust are everything to him. He can be your greatest friend, or
your worst enemy. He’s kind and gentle, yet isn’t afraid to get down and dirty
if the situation calls for it. He fancies himself a “Southern gentleman,” and
has an eye for the ladies. Yet he’s trustworthy, so his girlfriend Kate Bell
has nothing to worry about. He can be impulsive and sometimes his mouth jumps
ahead of his mind. Mac has a tendency to drink too much, and though he doesn’t
yet realize it, it’s his way of coping with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder). When he takes on a case he’s tenacious in searching out the truth. He
also has a short fuse and has come close to “losing it” at times when push
comes to shove. If you prove yourself a friend, Mac will always have your back.
He’d rather die in place than desert or betray a friend.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? Or like
me, a pathfinder? (I have an idea of where I’m going but kind of bounce off the
walls getting there.)
I’m definitely a panster. I come up with an
idea for a book, an opening scene, and usually have an ending in mind. But when
I sit down to write, the characters take over. I know to some that’s hard to
believe, but it’s what works for me. I’ve tried outlining, but the results have
been dismal. I’m a very unorganized person. The characters must be free to “do
their thing.” I’ll jot down ideas when they come to me, and I keep a calendar
of the daily action of the storyline from beginning to end. That helps, but
it’s usually after the fact. But it does enable me to see where I’ve been, and
the ideas (almost always character-inspired) show me where I’m going.
Keeping your daily action storyline is a neat way to move right into a synopsis. Great idea. How do you determine that all-important first
sentence of your novels? And how often does it change before you’re ready to
send it off?
I believe the opening is very important,
although I don’t hold hard and fast that it has to be the very first sentence
of the book. As long as you grab the reader’s attention and hold her/him with
anticipation for the first two or three pages, you’ll be okay. Boring narrative
won’t cut it. A writer has to hook the reader through lively dialogue or
narrative that causes her/him to read on. Ideally, that can be accomplished
with a “wowing” first sentence. But as long as you can hold the reader for a couple
of pages and then drop the hammer, that’s fine. I strive for a strong opening
before I move on with the story. It might take several days of trial and error,
but until I get it “right” I don’t advance the plot.
What do you consider the most important
element of any story?
Strong, believable characters. If you can
succeed in making the reader identify with and care about your characters, good
and bad, you’ve got ’em hooked. And there is no “cardboard” allowed,
except for book covers. It’s vital that your main characters are well-rounded,
with good and bad traits. No one wants a “goody-two shoes.” Even secondary
characters should have appeal, whether positive or negative. If a character is
worthy of a name, that character had better be fleshed out at least minimally. Ideally,
stereotypical and one-dimensional characters have no place in good writing.
Everyone's road to publication is
different—traditional, indie, a bit of both. Take us down yours.
My combat experiences during the Vietnam War
had a profound impact on my becoming a writer, although it was a long,
drawn-out journey. I returned home wounded in body and mind. For several years
I lived in a “fog” of sorts due to PTSD, although I wasn’t aware of it at the
time. Someone finally steered me to group counseling and it was a tremendous
help. One of our assignments was to begin a journal of our wartime experiences.
Mine began to take the form of a book. I had done some freelance writing for various
magazines, and sent a couple of chapters as standalones to an editor who had
published my work in “Vietnam Combat
magazine. He liked what I sent, but told me to wait and send the entire
manuscript when completed. I didn’t know it at the time, but he also
moonlighted as a literary agent for a few clients. I sent the manuscript to him
and he made a quick sale to a New York publisher. The Proud Bastards
became my first published book; I’m happy
to say it’s still in print after twenty-six years (currently with Simon &
Schuster/Pocket). So far all my books have been traditionally published, but
I’m not averse to trying the self-publishing route.
Marketing a book takes an enormous amount of
an author’s time and energy. What kind of marketing plan works for you?
In this day and age, that’s almost an
understatement. Unless you’re a “name” author or celebrity, a writer has to
bust her/his butt getting the word out. While most reputable mid-sized or small
publishers will send review copies to the “big” reviewers (Publishers Weekly, Library
Journal, Kirkus, etc.), it’s mainly up to the author to contact book blogs and
other review venues. Like most authors, I depend mainly on social media to
promote my work. I’ve worked hard to compile a list of trustworthy reviewers
who will give their honest opinion on any book that comes their way. No
sugar-coating allowed. I’ve also attended book conventions in the past. Those
can also be good opportunities to garner attention, but social media remains at
the top of my marketing list.
In the midst of all this scrambling to market Deadly Spirits
, are you working on
I’m currently working on my fifth Mac
McClellan Mystery, Deadly Verse
It is tentatively scheduled for a November 2017 release. In addition, I’ve
also been working on a series of short stories featuring “Dinger, P.I.” Dinger
is a private eye who saw extensive combat experience during World War Two with
the Marines. After the war he found himself in Las Vegas and set up shop. My
publisher has expressed interest in a novella-sized collection of the stories.
Someday I hope to give Dinger his own full-length novel, and possibly a series.
Where can readers find out about you and your
A native of Georgia, Michael Helms grew up in Panama City,
FL, home of “The World’s Most Beautiful Beaches.” His tour of duty with the
U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War led to his first book, The Proud Bastards: One Marine’s Journey from Parris Island through the Hell of Vietnam.
He has since written novels in various genres, and currently writes the Mac
McClellan Mystery series for Coffeetown/Camel Press. With his wife Karen, Helms
now resides in the Upstate region of South Carolina in the shadows of the
beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. He enjoys fishing, camping, bird watching, and
playing guitar. He continues to be harassed by Mac, Kate, and other recurring
characters in his mystery series.
Michael provided Lyrical Pens with a great book cover
blurb, but you can read that when you buy the book. I think the 5-star review
that follows is the perfect invitation into the world of private investigator Mac McClellan:
“Deadly Spirits is a haunting
mystery with an ingenious plot, vivid setting and memorable characters, chief
among them the incomparable Mac McClellan, who is easily one of my favorite PIs
out there. This latest installment will satisfy fans of the series while
sending newcomers scrambling to catch up. If you like Robert Crais and Harlan
Coben, you'll surely dig Deadly
Spirits. I know I did. Highly recommended.”
--Max Everhart, author of the Eli Sharpe
Mystery series; SHAMUS Award finalist, Split
Thanks, Michael, for stopping by. I have to say Mac
McClellan sounds like a character I’d like to meet in real life. At five books into the series, I think you have a winner. Best wishes for great successes with your writing.
Mark your calendars: I'll be doing a guest post about author/reader relationships at Mysterista's blog on Tuesday, Feb 7. https://mysteristas.wordpress.com
. Stop by and let me know what you think. And the fun and give-aways start on MTW Facebook Feb 12. Come on by and claim your surprises.
That’s all for today, folks. You-all guys drop Michael a
little note of support, won’t you? In the meantime, keep on keeping on, and
I’ll try to do the same.
Coming in mid-February 2017—“Bad Day at
short story in The Posse, a Western anthology
of tales of action, romance,
myth and truth.