Rick Helms is my special guest today.
Such a nice guy and a member of The Carolina Conspiracy, as am I. Welcome, Rick. Have a barbecue sandwich and a glass of sweet iced tea.
Thunder Moon, my fourteenth novel, came out in June, from Five Star Mysteries. They're already slated to bring out novel number fifteen, The Unresolved Seventh, a standalone, in April of 2012.
What are your writing goals?
I want to score a multimillion dollar five book deal with Random House and retire to the island of Corfu in Greece to do nothing but write, drink caipirinhas and margaritas, and bask in the Mediterranean sun. Realistically, though, I would be content with leaving behind thirty well-written novels. I'm almost two-thirds of the way there.
What is your most rewarding experience during the writing process?
Yes! It's a wonderful experience!
In Thunder Moon, it's the hottest month of the year, and a top recruit for the Pythons NFL team in the next county is brutally murdered in Prosperity, in a house lent to him by Kent Kramer. Wheeler discovers bloodstained bills in Samples' pants pocket upstairs, and the county Sheriff's Department lab discovers that the blood isn't from Samples, but rather from a motorcycle gang chieftain who was killed in his car in Morgan, the Bliss County seat, several days earlier. Now, in addition to finding out who killed Samples, Chief Wheeler must figure out the connection between Samples and the slain gang member. His investigation will bring him into contact with a shady ex-con with an underaged girlfriend, pro football players with possible axes to grind, a paroled sex offender trying to set his life straight, and an itinerant tent preacher who may be running a variation on the Spanish Prisoner con game. Bodies begin to stack up like cordwood, as Wheeler's investigation uncovers a series of crimes reflecting a level of evil previously unknown in rural Prosperity.
Gulp. You've hooked me!
Is it available in print, ebook, and Kindle formats?
Right now, it's only available in hardcover format. I hope to have the first book in the series, Six Mile Creek, available in Kindle and Nook formats shortly.
Were any of your books more challenging to write than the others?
Thrillers are always more of a challenge, because of the intricate nature of interweaving plots and the need for intensive outlining beforehand to get everything straight. The availability of computers and word processing software has helped the process greatly, enabling authors to do what I call “Bill and Ted's Excellent Writing”. In other words, I suddenly decide to insert a new plot point or device, but I haven't set it up. So, I make a note to go back five or six chapters and insert the setup. I can always clean up the transitions in rewrite. With private eye novels, I very seldom do any outlining. I prefer to write them using the process that Robert B. Parker used, starting with a conversation between the PI and a client, and allowing the story to grow organically. Both processes work, but I really prefer to write the PI stories because their more fun (I actually surprise myself sometimes when the case is solved!).
I attended a master class with Edward Albee back in the 1970s, and I recall that he said you should never write a word on paper until it can write itself. That means you are always writing, but now always putting down words. I'm not sure I totally agree with Albee, since I get a lot of mileage out of free-writing, especially in PI novels, but I do spend tons of time thinking through plots, running dialogue in my head, and figuring out what motivates my protagonists and antagonists, and sometimes even secondary characters. Being a psychologist, I understand motivation as a scientific concept, and the various theories of motivation, and I can use these to help grow my characters' personalities, again organically, so that they 'feel' real.
I think it's easier to write about places with which you are already familiar. I visited New Orleans several times, and explored it walking down a lot of dark alleyways, before I started writing my New Orleans-based Pat Gallegher books. With my Eamon Gold novels, I visited San Francisco several times and made a lot of notes and took a ton of pictures. The Judd Wheeler books are easy, since the fictional town of Prosperity looks very, very similar to the small North Carolina town where I live. Knowing your setting intimately makes it very easy to compose descriptions that provide readers with vivid pictures. I like to write about places where eccentric people are likely congregate.
John Berendts, in Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, said that strange people are more likely to be found in cities “where the road ends”. It's as if they search and search for someplace where they can be accepted, and finally run out of road, so they stop there. Places like New Orleans, San Francisco, Key West, Bar Harbor, etc, would all qualify. The other kind of place filled by eccentrics are small towns. In small towns, everybody knows everybody else, and they tend to overlook the quirks that might make someone stand out in a more impersonal setting. David Lynch exploited this wonderfully in Twin Peaks, with the Log Lady, the Colonel (“The owls are not what they seem.”), and even with the protagonist Agent Cooper, who seemed to fit right in immediately. I try to do that with my fictional town of Prosperity, populating it with rubes and rednecks and Mama's boys, and all the wide range of personalities you tend to find in rural backwaters.
What are your protagonist’s strengths? Flaws?
All of my protagonists share a similar set of ideals. They're rooted in the work of Thomas Malory and the Chivalric Code, which I believe to be the foundation of the private eye ethos, as stated by Raymond Chandler, who said, “Down these mean streets walks a man who is not himself mean.” My protagonists believe in a private code of behavior which provides clear boundaries between what they will and won't do. They might kill, but only under specific circumstances, and never without provocation. Sometimes they act in a way that seems contrary to traditional community values, but their behavior is entirely consistent with their codes. These boundaries may shift a bit from one protag to another, but for each one of them the codes are absolute, and constitute the personality factors that separate them from the antagonists, who will do whatever they need to in order to prevail. For some of my protags, especially Pat Gallegher, the flaws are my flaws, which mostly involve basic insecurities and anxieties. Gallegher, for instance, spends a great deal of time wallowing in self-doubt, questioning which horn of a dilemma he will follow. There's a lot of me in that writing.
Can you tell us about current or future projects?
I'm putting the finishing touches on number sixteen, a historical PI novel set in the final days of the Batista regime in Havana (The Mojito Coast), and I'm working this summer on the third title in my Judd Wheeler series, with the working title Carolina Blue. I'm about halfway through the fifth book in my New Orleans-based Pat Gallegher series (Paid In Spades), and maybe a third of the way through my third Eamon Gold novel (Brittle Karma). I've started a standalone thriller featuring a county court psychologist, which has the working title The Four-Nine Profile. I tend to alternate between hardboiled private eye novels, small-town police procedurals, and thrillers. I'm considering doing a YA novel in the steampunk genre, and I've started the outline for a 'big book' (literary novel), centered on a very tragic event that took place during the First World War. I'm also working on several short stories which I hope will find their way into Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, now that I seem to have cracked that market.
Where can folks learn more about your books and events?
Please feel free to drop by my website, www.richardhelms.net Besides the writing stuff, you will be able to look in on my woodworking hobbies. I have a set of pages there on lutherie, or the construction of stringed musical instruments such as guitars, dulcimers, banjos, and violins; and I'll put up a section shortly covering my summer project, building a Stickley Morris chair for my home office.
Rick, thanks for taking the time to visit, and I hope to see you soon at a Carolina Conspiracy event and certainly at the Cape Fear Crime Festival in Wilmington in February.
Thanks for the interview and the lunch, Susan.