By Mark McNease
Sandra de Helen is the author of the lesbian thriller Till Darkness Comes. She also pens the Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson series. A writer in many mediums, Sandra is a poet, journalist, and playwright. Her plays have been produced in the Philippines, Ireland, Canada, Chicago, New York City, and in thirteen states. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and the Dramatists Guild. Her books are available online, at Another Read Through Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, and Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego. Samples of her work are available on her website.
It’s a pleasure to have a chance to ask Sandra ‘6 Questions’, and even more of a pleasure to share her answers.
MM: Let’s start with the personal: Please tell us about yourself and your life in San Diego, California.
SH: I started life in rural Missouri. After university and having co-founded a women’s theater in Kansas City, I moved to Oregon, where I lived for thirty-five years before moving to Southern California a year ago. One of the first things I did here was begin attending Scripteasers, which is a playwriting community that has been meeting twice a month since 1948. I’ve had two plays read there, and have enjoyed seeing many other plays and meeting other playwrights. My daughter and I decided we’d had enough of the rain and moved to San Diego County where we are enjoying the sun. I spend my days writing and marketing my own work, and editing for other authors.
MM: You’re a playwright, a poet, and a mystery writer. What was the arc from one to the other, and how has writing plays and poetry influenced your fiction writing?
SH: I started my writing life quite young. I won my first writing contest at the age of twelve for an essay on Why I Love America. At fourteen I had a poem published in a teacher’s magazine (my English teacher submitted it). I had several more poems published in my twenties. I switched to writing plays when Kate Kasten and I co-founded Actors’ Sorority theatre company in Kansas City. She said I had to write the plays because I was the one with the good ideas. So I did. I love writing plays that are produced because it is a collaborative effort, involving everyone in the theater company, and pulling in others from outside the company. All in service of the play, which of course is like being a kid playing “pretend.”
I still write plays, but getting them on the boards has become more difficult. Now I usually have at least one play reading every year, but the last time I had a full production of a full-length play was 2003. My work has been produced or read in Ireland, Canada, and the Philippines, as well as New York City, Chicago, and thirteen states. I’ve had worked produced for both cable television and radio. I’m currently at work on The Missouri Cycle, which is a series of ten plays about my life and family in Missouri.
I always wanted to write mystery novels, and finally carved out the time. Now I have both the Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson series, and my thriller Till Darkness Comes — which threatens to become a series as well. We’ll see.
SH: I have been a Sherlock Holmes fan since childhood. We had The Complete Sherlock Holmes in our bookcase when I was a kid. It was one of my favorite books. I used to pretend to be Sherlock, walking around with a Meerschaum pipe in my mouth as I solved household mysteries such as who ate the last cookie. Kate Kasten and I wrote an affectionate satire of Nancy Drew (stage play), and one day in Portland, I realized I needed to write my own Sherlock books. The name Shirley Combs popped into my head, and everything flowed from there. The books are set in Portland, which is an excellent modern day stand-in for London. Plenty of rain, occasional fog, and a great place for mystery.
MM: Along with writing every day (bravo!), is there a specific routine to it, such as a time of day, and what suggestions do you have for other writers, especially new writers?
SH: I tell new writers to set aside ten minutes a day and spend that time writing. Doesn’t matter what it is. But if you’ve started a story, or a novel, it’s important to pick it up every day and add to it. Never revise until you’ve finished the first draft. Never. When you’re writing the first draft every word is golden. Later you put on your editing hat, and that’s when the real magic begins.
For me writing every day is the secret to living. Creativity is like water or air. I have to have it. I start my day with a cup of tea while I respond to email, read the New York Times (online), and check Facebook. Then I go to work. If I’m editing for someone else, I’ll take an hour for my own writing before beginning work on their manuscript. I don’t take on more editing projects than will allow me to write my own books. I work every day until dinnertime, then I’m done for the day.
MM: Your new book, Till Darkness Comes, was recently released. Hook us! There’s a lesbian therapist, an estranged friend, and murder. What inspired the story?
SH: I like thrillers, but I’m not a fan of the victims [almost always] being women. That’s one reason I like reading Chelsea Cain’s Gretchen and Archie series. Gretchen is the killer, and she is different. But I wanted a thriller that better represented my community, the LGBTQ community. Deciding whom to kill was not a problem. I turned my killer loose on a child molester and male insurance executives. Not only did I work in the insurance industry at one time, but also I represented people at their disability hearings, and I heard hundreds of horror stories about insurance company decisions that ruined lives. Till Darkness Comes wreaks a bit of revenge.
MM: What’s next for Sandra? More play readings, more novels … What can we look forward to in, say, the next year or so?
SH: I hope to produce a book of poetry in the next year, as well as the third Shirley/Mary novel. I am writing for ROAR, a new feminist online magazine that goes live in January, where I will have a weekly feature. I’m also offering an online course on editing, which will help people submit error-free manuscripts to publishers, and help indie authors get their manuscripts ready for publishing.
Here is a short list of sites and retailers for Sandra’s books and audiobooks:
Till Darkness Comes:
The Illustrious Client:
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/1Usz8Em
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/1spt32C