cj Sez: Lyrical Pens’ guest today is Mystery Thriller Week author E. Michael Helms, who writes the popular Mac McClellan mystery series. The latest in the series from Coffeetown/Camel Press is the brand-new deadly spirits, which launched on Jan 15, 2017. (Congratulations, Michael.)
This busy author graciously stopped by for a few minutes and answered some questions for us. Let’s get right to it…
Lyrical Pens: 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.
EMH: 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 logical choice.
LP: Tell us a bit about Mac. Any part of him resemble you?
EMH: 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.
LP: What are your protagonist’s strengths and flaws?
EMH: First and foremost, Mac lives by the code of the Marine Corps motto:
LP: 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.)
EMH: 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.
LP: 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?
EMH: 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.
LP: What do you consider the most important element of any story?
EMH: 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.
LP: Everyone's road to publication is different—traditional, indie, a bit of both. Take us down yours.
EMH: 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.
LP: Marketing a book takes an enormous amount of an author’s time and energy. What kind of marketing plan works for you?
EMH: 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.
LP: In the midst of all this scrambling to market Deadly Spirits, are you working on anything new?
EMH: 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.
LP: Where can readers find out about you and your events online?
Amazon author page: http://amzn.to/2jgoaoc
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.
cj Sez: 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 to Splinters
cj Sez: 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.
California Kisses 10-book publishers bundle on Amazon 99 cents
Coming in mid-February 2017—“Bad Day at Round Rock”
a short story in The Posse, a Western anthology
of tales of action, romance, myth and truth.