Don Helin writes fast paced thrillers with intriguing villians. Don gets some of his ideas and material from his years of military experience, including the three tours he served in the Pentagon.
GLVWG member Mark Meier recently got in touch with Don to ask him about his writing and about the two sessions he'll be teaching at the Write Stuff conference.
Mark: When did you start considering writing as a possible career, and what was your first big break?
Don: When I left the Pentagon and Washington D.C. to return to Pennsylvania, I signed up for an eight-week travel writing seminar from The Washington Post. I worked as a travel writer for about four years until I got the bug to write fiction. I've always enjoyed thrillers so I thought, hey I can do that. It turned out that writing thrillers was much harder to do than I thought. It took me about four years before I got that wonderful call from the Acquisitions Editor at Medallion saying they wanted to publish my book. My wife thought I was crazy dancing around the kitchen with the phone in my hand. After that call, it took almost two years before the book actually came out.
Mark: How does your military experience inform your books?
Don: My protagonist works for the president's national security advisor with his duty station in the Pentagon. I'm able to paint a factual picture for my readers on life in the Pentagon and life in the military.
Mark: In one session, you'll be discussing the villain's journey. How did you come to start thinking about villains as on a journey, and who are some of your favorite villains and why?
Don: I've always been concerned that the villain is a match for my protagonist. In seminars, actually at The Write Stuff conference, James Frey and Donald Maass convinced me that a believable villain has to face off against the protagonist. Also that I should develop a biography sheet for each of my characters, particularly the villain and the hero. That biography sheet outlines the villain's journey: How did he get where he is and why does he want what he does? There are many wonderful villains who nearly beat the hero, but of course, not quite. The godfather is a classic. And, who could forget Hannibal Lecktor? John Sanford is probably my favorite thriller writer and one of his best villains was Carla Rinker. She is a killer, but had such a difficult youth that it almost makes the reader root for her.
Mark: In another session, you'll address pacing. What are some of the most common problems you've encountered with pacing?
Don: The most common problem I see is authors piling up a stack of back story in the first chapter. They feel the reader needs to know everything about the character before they will be involved. I've learned you must trust the reader and drop in bits of back story slowly over the novel. Only give the reader what he/she needs at that moment. The second thing I've learned it to try and leave the reader hanging at the end of a chapter or section. Make them want to keep reading.
Mark: In the thriller genre, which kinds of details must be absolutely true and which can be fudged a little?
Don: Thriller author Jim Rollins always talks about the telling detail. If you plant enough actual fact in the story, the reader will ride with you on the fictional parts. This is where my experience in the Pentagon helps me. I can write factually about weapons, communications, organizations, etc.
Don's first thriller, Thy Kingdom Come, was published by Medallion Press in March, 2009. His latest thriller, Devil's Den, was published by Headline Books in September, 2012. Don is hard at work on his next thriller, Red Dog.