An Authors Journey Through Reading to Writing – Meet Author E. Michael Helm

Helms 1 (1)I’d like to welcome Michael to my blog today. He has a new book being released March 15th. He is a talented author, well worth checking out.

Deadly Dunes: A Mac McClellan Mystery (#3)  Available as a trade paperback and e-book (all formats), and will be carried by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Books-A-Million, Smashwords, and all major e-book stores. Titles are also available through brick and mortar bookstores, or may be ordered at your favorite store.

1. When did you start reading?
I can’t recall ever not reading. I know it had to begin somewhere, but as far back as I can remember I’ve been an avid reader.

2. What was the first book you remember reading? What was the first book that had a real ‘wow’ factor for you?
I recall reading the old Dick and Jane books. At bit of trivia: did you know that in the earlier books “Spot” the dog was a cat? As for the ‘wow’ factor, that would have to be The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, followed by Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain was a huge early influence.

Interesting. I did not know that. I wonder why they changed it? I guess “See Spot Run” and referring to a cat didn’t quite carry the same interest.

3. What attracted you to or got you started reading?
I honestly can’t remember. I probably started looking through magazines and books as a toddler and it progressed from there. I believe my mother taught me to read before I ever entered school.

Sounds like your mom was a pretty cool Mom.

4. What genres have you read? Was there any progression to the genres you’ve read over the years? Did you start in one genre and then discover others the older you got? i.e. scifi and then romance, then paranormal, then espionage… Early on I read the classics such as Twain’s books; Treasure Island and Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson; Defoe’s great Robinson Crusoe; The Swiss Family Robinson, by J.D. Wyss; and many, many others. When I was around ten or eleven I got hooked on the Hardy Boys mysteries. I devoured them, and managed to save and scrape up enough change to buy the first forty-plus books in the series, one at a time. As a teen I turned to the subject of war, mostly non-fiction. The Civil War and World War II were my special interests. Post-Vietnam I began reading more literary novels, some of Faulkner’s works, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Sloan Wilson, etc. I honestly didn’t read much genre fiction as an adult, until I began preparing to write my mystery series.

Sounds like you’ve had quite an eclectic reading history. I think that is important as an author to read a variety of genres. It helps to give more depth to your writing.

5. Who are your favorite authors and when did you start following them?
I’ve already mentioned following Mark Twain (aka Samuel L. Clemens) as a young kid. I have to include Leslie McFarlane who penned most of the first twenty or so Hardy Boys mysteries (as Franklin W. Dixon). Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front, has been an inspiration to me since my early twenties. I’ve collected all his novels, many first editions. Mystery novelists Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Robert B. Parker, and Robert J. Ray are high on my list. I’d have to give Remarque top billing.

6. What genre(s) do you read today?
Mysteries, mysteries, and more mysteries. When I decided to get away from the subject of war, I remembered my love of the Hardy Boys mysteries. That sparked a “what if?” and a single sentence suddenly came to me: The first cast of the day turned my dream vacation into a nightmare. That’s the opening line in Deadly Catch, the first book in my Mac McClellan Mystery series. At that point I didn’t know who my hero was, or what he did to make a living. I only knew he was vacationing somewhere on the coast of the Florida Panhandle. I reasoned that if I wanted to write a mystery I’d better bone up on the subject. So I began reading a few mysteries, and it went from there. Believe it or not, I started with cozies. I enjoyed the humor. A good sense of humor is one of Mac McClellan’s traits.

7. What do you like in a story? What does it have to have to grab you?
Dialogue is very important to me. I dislike stilted or wasted dialogue. Dialogue should reveal character, create or show tension, and propel the storyline forward. A good story, whatever the genre, is always helpful. Most of all I need to care about and identify with the main character(s). It’s essential that I’m invested in him/her/them. I don’t need a “whiz-bang” beginning, but if I don’t become involved in the story within fifty or sixty pages, I might set the book aside. I hate not finishing a book, but it’s happened on a few occasions.

I’m the same, I have to be connected to the main character early. I need to care about them. I too hate not finishing a book but it has happened.

8. What got you started with writing? And how long have you been writing?
I served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam (I was 18-19 years old). About halfway through my tour I was severely wounded and spent several months in hospitals in Japan and the states. PTSD set in (although I had no idea what it was), and years after the war I sought help through the Veterans Administration. Part of my group counselling involved keeping a journal to record thoughts and feelings about my wartime and post-war life. It soon took on a book-like form, a memoir of my experiences from boot camp through Vietnam. I had freelanced articles to area and a few national publications. If I could write and sell those, why not a book? A New York-based magazine editor I’d written for also dabbled as a literary agent. I sent the manuscript to him, and he made a quick sale to Kensington/Zebra. It was published in 1990. In 2004 Simon & Schuster/Pocket picked it up. I’m happy to report The Proud Bastards is still in print after 25 years.

Congratulations on not only writing about your journey, as I think there are many who can relate to what you went through but congrats on your book still being in print. And for continuing to put out novels.

9. What do you like to write about?
I would love to write literary novels, novels that are mainly character-driven, novels about everyday life and experiences. There’s not much of a market for such books these days for newcomers. The old adage, “Write what you know,” still rings true. My first four books deal with war and its consequences. I like to believe I’ve written more than a “war story.” I would hope readers find something much deeper in my efforts. Without sounding like a braggart, I feel I’ve achieved that. I drew from personal, painful experiences to make those books as realistic as they could be. But it came with a price. I needed a break. Switching to writing mysteries was a big load off my shoulders.

10. What are you currently working on?
The Mac McClellan Mystery series. The third book in the series, Deadly Dunes, will be released March 15 by Camel Press. Deadly Spirits will follow in September. I’m under contract for two additional books. After that, we’ll see.

11. How did you come up with your plot for your latest book?
Several years ago my wife and I were visiting Seaside, Florida, a planned community on the Gulf Coast. The building style of the houses and shops surrounding the town square harkens back to 1940s – ’50s small-town America—quaint, peaceful, and beautiful. While I was tossing around ideas for my next Mac McClellan mystery, I recalled our visit to Seaside. A big “what if?” suddenly popped to mind: What if a multi-million dollar coastal development financed by a group of investors, was getting ready to break ground. Then someone discovers evidence of an historical encampment by 16th Century explorer Hernando de Soto smack dab in the middle of it? And what if such a discovery might kill the development before it ever got underway? What lengths would the investors go to to insure their planned ritzy community would be built? Would they go so far as to murder the young archaeologist to make sure his discovery never came to light? Those “what ifs?” were the genesis for the upcoming third Mac novel, Deadly Dunes.

I think ‘what if’ is the greatest gift to an author. Don’t you love when you see something random and your mind takes you to a whole different place. Sounds like your story will be an interesting read.

12. Anything else you’d like to share?
I love to read. As a kid, reading was a wonderful escape. Books took me on numerous adventures in exotic locales around the world (and sometimes, out this world). A person who loves to read can educate themselves about almost any topic they desire. Anyone who yearns to be a writer should become an avid reader first and foremost. Read a LOT, especially in the genre(s) you wish to write. Read good books from authors in your chosen field. Study how they handle dialogue (including correctly punctuating it); how they build the storyline scene by scene; pay attention to how they handle the beginning, weave the plot, and to the story’s climax and resolution. Pursue your dream and never let rejection discourage you or stop your quest. And remember—it all begins with reading.

Great advice Michael. I couldn’t agree more – start with reading – and when writing, pay attention to every detail of building your story.

Books by Author Michael Helms

The Proud Bastards —
The Private War of Corporal Henson —
(see my review here: Review the Private War of Corporal Henson)
Of Blood and Brothers (Book One) —
Of Blood and Brothers (Book Two) —

Deadly Catch: A Mac McClellan Mystery (#1) —
After twenty-four years in the U.S. Marines, recently retired Mac McClellan is happy to be a civilian again. He is enjoying a leisurely fishing vacation in the Florida panhandle when he hooks a badly decomposed body.

Then, when a bag of rare marijuana is discovered stashed aboard his rental boat, he realizes someone is setting him up to take the fall for murder and drug smuggling. Mac’s plans for a more laid-back life must be put on hold while he works to clear his name as the number one suspect.

Mac launches an investigation with the help of Kate Bell, a feisty saleslady at the local marina with whom he has struck up a promising relationship. Along the way he must butt heads and match wits with local law enforcement officials, shady politicians, and strong-armed thugs from the Eastern Seaboard to sniff out and bring the real smuggler and killer to justice.
Deadly Ruse: A Mac McClellan Mystery (#2) —
Mac’s girlfriend, Kate Bell, thinks she’s seen a ghost. Wes Harrison, Kate’s former boyfriend, supposedly perished twelve years ago in a boating accident. But now she swears a man she spotted in a crowded theater lobby is Wes. Mac has his doubts–it was only a fleeting glimpse. But to calm her shattered nerves, he starts making inquiries.

A clue leads him from his home in St. George, Florida, to a Texas orphanage. There he uncovers startling information that turns both his and Kate’s world upside-down. Diamond smuggling, sex, deceit, and murder are just part of the twisted tale that emerges from Kate’s earlier life. Using wit, grit, and the ingrained military training of a former Marine, Mac starts to fit the pieces of this scrambled puzzle together.

Further clues point to the Palmetto Royale Casino and Resort near St. George. He and Kate discover that the casino is a front for big drug deals. When they barely escape a murder attempt, Mac knows he’s on the right track.

But he better play his cards right–because losing this high-stakes game could cost him his life.

Deadly Dunes: A Mac McClellan Mystery (#3) —
Hours after hiring Mac McClellan to investigate the supposed suicide of her archaeologist brother, single-mom Jessie dies in a car accident. Jessie had just showed Mac artifacts and a copy of a map Jake found, items that indicate Hernando de Soto and his explorers might have camped on Five Mile Island during the winter of 1539-1540. Studying the map, Mac determines the site lies in the middle of a planned resort, The Dunes. Declaring the area an historic site could shut the project down. Suspicions aroused, he forges ahead, even though he no longer has a paying client.

Everywhere Mac turns, greed abounds, and no one he interviews seems innocent, even Jessie’s closest friends the Deckers, who have adopted her teenage daughter. Ron Decker’s construction company is building the Dunes, and he is heavily invested in its success. Then there is the oily son and ex-stripper wife of an old curmudgeon who won’t sell the one lot the project still needs to acquire. Jake’s estranged wife Laurel had plenty to gain from his death, and as Mac continues to dig, he begins to wonder if Jessie herself had more at stake than he was led to believe.

No one is happy about Mac’s persistence, and someone is unhappy enough to crash his truck and frame him for yet another murder. But Mac isn’t giving up, no matter what the cost.

Deadly Dunes: A Mac McClellan Mystery (#3). Available as a trade paperback and e-book (all formats), and will be carried by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Books-A-Million, Smashwords, and all major e-book stores. Titles are also available through brick and mortar bookstores, or may be ordered at your favorite store.

Excerpt from Deadly Dunes: A Mac McClellan Mystery

Because he couldn’t keep his fly zipped, former Staff Sergeant Raymond Youngblood had gone from being a respected Drill Sergeant, United States Army, to bouncer at The Golden Pole, a strip club located on West Highway 98 in Panama City. It was the seedier part of town, with rundown motels that rented by the day, week or month, and hookers roaming the area shopping their wares.

It was easy duty. All I had to do was show up by eight when Ray’s shift began, and stay awake and alert until the joint closed at two in the morning. My biggest worry was finding a suitable parking spot each night where I could watch the front, and the side door that exited into the parking lot. A local cop pulled up behind me the second night, wanting to know if I was a john on the hunt. After I showed him my PI license and explained what I was up to, he put out the word that I was okay.

For the first week Ray was as well-behaved as a Boy Scout. Shortly after closing time he’d exit the building through the side door and stand watch over the parking lot, making sure the departing customers behaved themselves until they vacated the premises. His duties also included seeing that the female employees made it safely to their rides home. If he’d treated Bonnie with half the respect and courtesy he showed these young women, I would’ve been out of a job.

Usually by three he’d climb into his dark green Chevy Blazer and head home, with me on his tail. Traffic was light, so I’d stay a good distance behind and use another vehicle as a blocker. It was only a couple of miles to the house they rented in an older neighborhood near St. Andrew Bay. After Ray turned onto their street, I’d drive past the turnoff and double-back a few minutes later. When I saw the Blazer parked in the drive, my day was done. I was beginning to think that if Ray had been fooling around, the fling might be over. But Bonnie wanted me to keep bird-dogging him, sure that he’d trip up sooner or later.

Then things got interesting.

It was the Wednesday after Labor Day, and things were slow at The Golden Pole. Around midnight the side door opened and Ray stepped out into the parking lot, his arm wrapped around the waist of a young dancer I’d noticed before. Hot pink hair and spiked-up bangs will stick in your mind that way. I knew she was a dancer because there was a photo of her hanging upside down on a pole in the strip club’s show window I’d scoped out earlier with my zoom lens.

I was parked across the four-lane in front of an out of business pet store. I cranked the engine, but waited until they were a couple of blocks away before switching on the headlights and pulling onto 98 heading west. Less than a half mile from the club he slowed and hung a right into the parking lot of the Panama Motor Court, a single-story concrete block structure whose heyday probably dated back to the 1950s or ’60s. Ray drove past the office and its fluorescent sign with a flashing red palm tree announcing Vacancy. He brought the Blazer to a stop in front of the right wing of the upside down U-shaped structure. The Blazer was hidden in the shadows of a burned out security light and was barely visible from the highway.

There wasn’t time to stop and try to snap a photo of the two as they exited the Blazer and entered the second room from the wing’s end. I’d have to wait them out and give it my best shot when they left. I hoped to hell it wasn’t an all-nighter. I checked the mirrors and made a U-turn and parked in the lot of a twenty-four hour MacDonald’s a block and a half away. I grabbed my camera, a new Canon digital SLR I’d laid out big bucks for. I locked the Silverado, checked traffic both ways and hustled across 98.

I cut across the parking lot of the Mini-Mart next door to the Panama Motor Court, being careful to keep the camera against my left hip in case any customers might wonder what the hell a man with a camera was planning to shoot at this hour of the night. There was a drainage ditch between the two establishments, and then an overgrown hedge skirting the Motor Court’s property line. If I could work my way through the hedge, I’d probably have a good vantage point to snap away when Ray and Hot Pink exited their love nest.

In the darkness behind the Mini-Mart I underestimated the width of the ditch and landed short, my right foot finding water and mud that sent me sprawling to my knees. A sharp pain jolted through my left kneecap when I landed, but I managed to hang on to the camera. Struggling to my feet, I wondered if Frank carried workers’ comp.
I limped out of the ditch and faced my next obstacle. The hedge looked like it hadn’t been trimmed in years. I walked along the length of it, searching for an easy way through. No such luck, so I bit the bullet, picked a likely spot and plowed in. A couple of minutes and several scrapes and scratches later, I found myself on the other side, no more than fifty feet from the end of the motel’s right wing. Keeping in the shadows, I crept along the hedge closer to the motel and found a spot where the growth bulged outward enough for concealment and provided a good view of the target room. I checked the ground for sharp objects and ant beds and settled down to wait.

I killed the next hour or so by putting a dent in the ranks of the mosquito horde that wasted no time finding my hideout. A couple of minutes before two the door swung open and the girl stepped out, closing it behind her. She leaned back against the concrete wall, propped a foot against it and lit a cigarette. I trained the camera on her face and zoomed in. She took a drag and blew a long stream of smoke toward the overhang. In the glare of the bare bulb outside the door I was able to get a good look at her. Despite the wild hair and enhanced boobs bulging over the top of her low-cut blouse, she was a looker— almond eyes, full lips painted a matching hot pink, high cheekbones, and a slightly upturned nose. She didn’t look a day over eighteen, but I figured she had to be legal to pass muster to work at The Golden Pole.

The camera was set on silent mode and low-light conditions, and I snapped several shots of the girl before Ray Youngblood stepped out into the night to join her. He locked the door, and then reached down and pinched Hot Pink on the butt through the tight miniskirt she wore like a second skin. She reached down and grabbed his groin, and then they both laughed and hugged. While all the grab-assing was going on, I was firing off shot after shot of the two lovebirds. I made sure to get a few wide angles also, so anyone looking at the photos would have no doubt that the location was a motel, namely the Panama Motor Court.

As soon as they climbed in the Blazer and headed back toward The Golden Pole, I beat feet across the parking lot to the office. When I stepped in I was greeted by a cold blast of air coming from a noisy window unit, and a thick cloud of cigarette smoke coming from an overweight, balding man sitting behind the counter. He was dressed in a pair of old gray slacks and a dingy white tank top T-shirt, and was staring down at a girlie magazine spread across his lap.

He looked up when I leaned on the counter. “Need a room?”

“No, what I need is information.”

The man set the magazine on a lamp table beside his ragged-out chair and stood. He scratched his big belly and yawned, showing a cavernous mouth with several missing teeth as he stepped to the counter. “Yeah? What kinda information?”

“Who’s renting Room 38?”

The overhead light reflected off his head when he tilted it back a little and looked down his nose at me. “Who’s asking?”

I grabbed my wallet and slipped out a twenty and laid it on the countertop. “Andrew Jackson.”

The man glanced down at the bill for a second, and then back at me. “Never been much of a Jackson fan.”

I pulled another twenty out and dropped it next to the first one. “Andrew Jackson and his twin brother.”

He reached for the bills but stopped short. “You a cop?”

“No,” I said, wishing I had a twenty-dollar bill for every time I’d been asked that in the past year.

He scooped up the forty bucks and opened a register filled with dog-eared pages. After flipping through a few pages he ran a chubby finger down a column of names. “Room 38. That would be Mr. John Smith.”

“Not the John Smith?”

The man scratched an armpit and grinned. “I reckon so.”

“Does Mr. Smith pay by the day or week or what?”

“Mister, I can’t go giving out that kinda information. It’s against regulations, ’less you the law, that is.”

I opened my wallet and flashed him my PI license and pinched out another twenty. “Just so happens those Jackson boys are triplets. That do?”

He took the bill out of my fingers and looked down at the registry again. “Says here your Mr. Smith’s been renting by the month.”

Author’s Bio:

Helms grew up in Panama City, FL. He played football and excelled in baseball as a catcher. Turning down a scholarship offer from the local Junior college, he joined the Marines after high school graduation. He served as a rifleman during some of the heaviest fighting of the Vietnam War until wounded three times in one day. Helms discounts it as “waking up on the wrong side of the foxhole.”

His memoir of the war, The Proud Bastards, has been called “As powerful and compelling a battlefield memoir as any ever written … a modern military classic,” and remains in print after 25 years. He’s also written a semi-autobiographical novel, The Private War of Corporal Henson, dealing with combat veterans and their struggles with PTSD years after the war.
Helms’ life-long interest in the Civil War led to his writing of the historical saga, Of Blood and Brothers, based on a family who lived near where the author grew up in the Florida Panhandle.

Seeking a change from writing about war, Helms decided to give mysteries a try. The first novel of his Mac McClellan Mystery series, Deadly Catch was named Library Journal’s “Debut Mystery of the Month” for November 2013. Deadly Ruse premiered a year later and won the RONE Award as “Best Mystery” of 2015.

With his wife, Karen, Helms now lives in the Upstate region of South Carolina in the foothills of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. He enjoys playing guitar, camping, canoeing, and is an avid birdwatcher. He continues to listen as Mac McClellan dictates the latest adventures in his mystery series.

Author’s Website

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Amazon Author Page

E. MIchael Helms


Maggie ThomMulti-Award winning author, Maggie Thom. Author of The Caspian Wine Series – Captured Lies (Book of the Month - LAS Reviews and Reader's Favorite Finalist), Deceitful Truths and Split Seconds (Award Winning – and her other published novels, Tainted Waters (2013 Suspense/Thriller Book of the Year through Turning the Pages Magazine) and Deadly Ties.

Her motto: Read to escape… Escape to read…

"Maggie Thom writes a fast paced thriller laced with romance that keeps the reader interested and on edge!" InDtale Magazine

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