When Helene Dunbar was a child, her only true attempt at fiction was a novel about a baseball-playing angel in 9th grade. While she couldn’t sing or dance or play sports, she knew she could write, but it was never fiction that called to her.
It was journalism.
“I thought I wanted to be an investigative political reporter. Then I wanted to cover baseball. But I found my niche in theatre criticism and studied that through college and worked as a critic in Chicago. It’s a very narrow career path though and I ended up as a marketing writer who wrote music features on the side.”
It wasn’t until her friend and fellow writer Suzanne Kamata dared her to write a novel as an adult that she turned to fiction with any sort of seriousness. By the time she finished the manuscript – a nearly 100,000 word novel featuring urban faeries – Dunbar was hooked.
Her skills from her previous jobs didn’t go to waste. Studying theatre helped her to write dialogue – both the backbone of plays and her favorite thing to write. But the novel that would become Dunbar’s first published work of fiction came from journalistic pieces she wrote on various court cases involving women who killed their children.
These Gentle Wounds follows 15-year-old Gordie, who is suffering from severe PTSD five years after surviving his mother’s attempt to kill him and his siblings. When his abusive and absent father reappears, Gordie must face his trauma all over again.
It wasn’t an easy book to write.
“It’s in very close first person and I really had to allow Gordie into my head, which was often draining,” said Dunbar, who spent a great deal of time studying post-traumatic stress disorder and the long-lasting effects of childhood trauma.
What Remains follows Cal Ryan, who loses his potential baseball career and his best friend in a heartbeat. Even though his damaged heart is replaced, the damage of Lizzie’s loss lingers, and there’s a voice in his head that says it’s all his fault.
“There is a lot of “me” sprinkled through [What Remains,]” said Dunbar. “I love baseball and was a scorekeeper in my hometown and I once spent a night in my college’s student theatre trying to find out if it was haunted. But really I wanted to write about friendship and those bonds you form with your friends in school.”
Dunbar wanted to write a love story between friends – something harder to accomplish in adult fiction, as friendships between adults can feel different, according to her. The focus here was less on research – though she did reach out to a cardiologist to make sure her science was straight – and more on the voices of the characters.
No research could help her writing the voice of characters more than reading novels and paying attention to real life.
“Being an avid reader probably helped more than anything,” said Dunbar. “But also, just paying attention in day-to-day life helps. Noticing people’s mannerisms and the cadence of their speech and personality quirks that set them apart – all of that can only help you as a writer.”
Do you love Helen Dunbar’s books? Which one is your favorite? Sound off in the comments below – or take to social media with the hashtag #womenauthorwednesday!