Category Archives: JT Ellison

The Plot Thickens

JT Ellison — Who is in Phoenix at ThrillerFest and loving every minute of it.

When I’m working on a story, the plot thickens, the
characters are faced with new challenges that will help move the story forward,
and all the loose threads come together in a seamless, cohesive package. Yeah,
right.

What happens more often than not is my plot doesn’t thicken
the way I’d like. Or it gets so unwieldy that I throw up my hands and run,
screaming, to the backyard for a moment of peace and quiet. I’m constantly
surprised at how often that seems to happen.

So, what do you do when your plot isn’t working?

I read a great story about Tess Gerritsen. She was writing
VANISH, her Macavity and Edgar nominated latest. I’m paraphrasing here, but she
was struggling with her plot. It just wasn’t happening. A sudden flash of
brilliance told her that she needed to entirely change the gender of the bad
guy. Girl. Suddenly, everything fell into place.

Now, reading that made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I
mean, if someone as brilliant, accomplished and seasoned as Tess can have an
issue with her plot, then we’re all in very good company.

So last week, when I was staring at the notes for the
convoluted plot of my newest book, trying desperately to figure out a way to
make it work, I had to concede. Several months ago it seemed like a brilliant
idea – unique, never done, and so far reaching that my readers would be
astounded that I pulled it off. I was wrong. The plot gods were conspiring
against me. It just wasn’t going to work.

It’s really a horrible feeling, to tell you the truth. This
story has been percolating for months, ever since Hubby and I were out with
friends, enjoying an adult beverage. The story came alive for us, right there
in the bar. I had that lightning bolt flash, started scribbling on cocktail
napkins, and before long, there were several patrons sitting with us,
“helping”. Maybe that’s where it went astray. More likely, the scope of the
story was just too big.

I started thinking that there was no way this could be a
Taylor Jackson novel a couple of months ago. Life has been so crazy over the
past months that I brushed the thought aside every time it reared its ugly
little head. But when I refocused my attention on the story, I realized that it
was well and truly hopeless. I had to start over.

With some much appreciated guidance from my agent, I trashed
the original plot. It hurt me to do so, but at the same time, it was
liberating. All of a sudden, the ideas began to flow again. The story morphed
into a much more doable scenario, one which was a lot more realistic. I’ve got
the new story in my head now, and scenes are building themselves from the dark
recesses of my mind. I’ve talked it out, put the general storyline up on the
whiteboard, and it’s coming together.

I’ve always said that writer’s block is your story’s way of
telling you something isn’t right. I’ve proved my theory again.

Wine of the Week — Vina Rey Tempranillo

Also, from Jan Burke’s wonderful Crime Lab Project…

Two Phone Calls for Forensic Science

Those of you who are Americans can help to improve forensic science services in all 50 states and the U.S. territories by making two phone calls, one to each of your U.S. Senators.

Please ask your senators to increase funding for the Coverdell National Forensic Sciences Act.

To learn your senators’ phone numbers, go to the U.S. Senate Website. In the upper right corner, you’ll see "Find Your Senators" and a pulldown menu for your state. Congressional contact information is  also available on the Crime Lab Project Website.

Please make these phone calls today!

Just Say No

JT Ellison

A new phenomenon has permeated my household. I’ve uttered
words that have rarely, if ever, crossed my lips.

I Can’t Do That.

I’ve always been blessed (cursed?) with the inability to say
no to whatever request comes my way. Be it a friend who needs a ride, a fellow
writer who needs input, Hubby needing an errand run, whatever – I always find a
way to accommodate. And 99% of the time, I’m more than happy to do so. Yes,
there have been times that I’ve bitched and moaned about having to do something
for someone else; I’m not a saint. But in general, if you need something done,
I’m your woman.

Until now. Suddenly, I seem to need a hell of a lot of time
for me, and not so much time for other people.

I say suddenly. Three years of hard work, writing,
networking, getting an Internet presence, getting my name out there – and I’m
still constantly surprised when everything falls into place.

I spoke with my editor this week, who I must say, “Gets” me.
I have a slightly offbeat sense of humor (Noooo, you say) and while I have a
good idea of where my books are going, I don’t always articulate that as well
as I could. She “gets” me. I don’t have to do the copious and detailed
explanations of my plot that I inflict on strangers and friends. It boils down
to this. SEX. BLOOD. ROCK & ROLL.

Meaning I need to focus on character relationships,
mutilations, mayhem and murder, and a Nashville centric series that really lets
my adopted hometown shine. I can do that.

My agent “Gets” me too, which is a blessing. I’m not so
scared of him anymore. He used a bad word the other day and became a man, not
just this mythical creature called “My Agent” who lives in a far off land,
weaving magical deals from his tower. As I was giggling (Dear God, no – giggling
to my agent) I realized that this is all very real. These people in New York
are just like you and me – they have lives, family, hobbies. They care what kind
of weather you’re having, warn you of possible pitfalls in the coming days,
laugh with you (at you) when you say something funny. After so many years,
demystifying the personnel is heartening.

Sorry, off on a tangent. Hey, it’s Friday.

So, my point is…

I had to say no the other day, and it broke my heart to do
so. A good friend asked me to look over a submission from a neophyte writer
(not a newbie, mind you, someone who’d never written anything before). Whoever
you are, if you ever read this. I’m sorry. I just couldn’t add one more thing
to my workload at that moment.

And I realized that this is going to happen more than I’d
like it to.

It’s something that I never expected, and it’s
still a little mind-boggling. By getting a book deal, I’ve suddenly moved to
the other side of the fence. The WANTED side of the fence. A side of the fence
that I’d never anticipated. People have actually contacted me and asked ME to
do things, like interviews, and Writing Seminars, and blogs, and short stories
for inclusion in multiple author works. It’s mind-boggling. Frightening as
hell. And a big wake up call.

The other side of the fence means I need to go to
conferences and sit on panels. I have to promote myself and my work in a
pleasant manner, (ie: JT, don’t throw up on the guests). Oh, and there’s that little niggling thing, back of my mind….
yeah, I almost forgot. I have to write two new books. Now.

Do you think John Sandford
ever had this discussion with himself? Did you guys? Am I the only one?

A massive housecleaning is in order. A shift in priorities.
A new way of thinking. I’m a writer now, and it’s a career, a business. If you
don’t want that, you might as well hang it up now. I’m learning that being a
successful writer is a lot more than writing good books.

My new mantra will be – Just Say No.

It started with scaling back my obligations to Reviewing the
Evidence
. Sharon Wheeler and Barbara Franchi are two of the greatest women in
mystery, and they kindly opened their doors to me. I loved reviewing. But when
I realized that I hadn’t read a book in over 2 weeks because I hadn’t had time,
I knew I needed to step away. So thanks, Barbara and Shaz! You guys have been
great.

I usually open my email in the mornings and have daily
digests from over 14 yahoo groups. No more. I left several, went no mail on
others. The people who supported me on my quest for publication understand.
They know that my time is no longer my own.

I’ve winnowed myself down to four major areas.

  • Writing, of course.
  • Murderati, of course. I love you guys much too much to ever
    leave.
  • Marketing and Promotion
  • Short Stories

I feel lighter, easier, like life isn’t going to be so hard.
Yeah, right.

As far as Marketing and Promotion goes, I have wonderful
news. I’ve banded together with three other amazing writers, and we’ve started
KillerYear – The Class of 2007. You may have seen a brief comment on it last
week. The founding brothers and sisters – Jason Pinter, Brett Battles, Sandra
Ruttan
and myself – will launch a comprehensive blog on Monday, June 19th. We
have about 15 of the best and brightest novelist debuting in 2007. We’ll
introduce you to the Class, talk about our dreams and desires, tour schedules,
promotions, etc. This will be your one stop shop for all things mystery and
thriller in 2007. As Pinter so succinctly pointed out – Be Afraid. Be Very
Afraid.

Internet networking is a beautiful thing. The discussion
comes up on list serves all the time – How can you truly market yourself on the
Internet? I’ll tell you. I met Brett Battles here at Murderati. He very kindly
made a great comment on my first post. I sent him an email to thank him, and a
friendship grew out of that. My spectacular editor at MIRA Books, Linda McFall,
also edits Jason Pinter. We touched base when I got the deal and have been
talking ever since. Sandra Ruttan attracted me to her blog months ago with her
irreverent take on the world, and I never looked back. The Class of 2007
concept was Jason’s brainchild, and a very logical progression for a group of
young writers who found loads in common. Through the Internet. So tune in,
watch us grow, and hopefully, we’ll teach ourselves the way.

Whine of the Week – My time is no longer my own

Wine of the Week – I’m in the mood to hit the Ellison Wine
Cellar, where we keep the good stuff. How about a Tenute Silvio Nardi Brunello
de Montalcino
? That’ll get your
tastebuds rocking. It tastes like liquid gold. Decant and let it breathe for at
least 2 hours before drinking. And some little known trivia – Nardi is my
family name. (Rock on, Anacarsi ) So we’re related, somehow, to the owners of this amazing vineyard.

 

MISSING

JT Ellison

6/10/06 UPDATETHE STATE, Columbia’s newspaper, has a story today. New DNA found in Dail’s case…

 

Dinwiddie1_3On September 24, 1992, Dail Boxley Dinwiddie disappeared
from Columbia, South Carolina.

It happens everyday. You hear it on the news, read it in the
papers, see alerts on the highway signs. And with the advent of the 24-hour news
cycle, Amber Alerts and a more responsive police force, these commonplace
disappearances sometimes end with good news. I wish that could happen for Dail.

The facts of this case are cut and dried. On the evening of September 23, 1992, Dail attended a U2
concert. When the concert ended, she headed down to the Five Points area of
Columbia with a few friends. They finished the evening at a bar called Jungle
Jim’s. She got separated from her friends, and spoke to the bouncer at
approximately 1:15 a.m. – 1:30 a.m. He remembers her leaving the bar as if she
was going to walk home. She went north on Harden Street. And then she simply
disappeared.

She was wearing an olive green long sleeved shirt, a blue LL Bean jacket tied around her waist, faded
blue jeans and brown boots. She’s barely five feet tall and less than 100
pounds, has light brown hair and brown eyes. Her ears are pierced, and she has a crippled finger on each hand.

On every missing poster, under circumstances of
disappearance, the words UNKNOWN and ENDANGERED MISSING appear. The posters,
which were plastered everywhere we could get them, all over the country, read: 

KIDNAPPED. $50,000 REWARD for INFORMATION LEADING TO THE ARREST AND CONVICTION OF PERSON OR PERSONS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE KIDNAPPING OF DAIL DINWIDDIE.

Despite a $50,000 reward, no credible links have been made to Dail’s disappearance.

What happened to Dail? She wasn’t the type of girl to just
run off. She lived at home, was taking art classes with an eye on graduate
school (she majored in Art History at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College.) Her
parents and close friends immediately knew something was dreadfully wrong; she
just wouldn’t have not come home, not called, if she could.

Dail and I went to college together. I don’t claim to be one
of her closest friends. Though RMWC is a small school, she and I didn’t cross
paths until senior year. The Dail I remember was a bright, fun woman whose smile
could light up a room. She had an infectious laugh. She was smart as a whip.

I remember getting that phone call – Did you hear? Dail’s
gone missing. I remember how my heart sank. How I felt like there was nothing I
could do. How my fervent prayers went unanswered, and slowly, over the years,
Dail’s face faded from the news cycle.

Dinwiddie2_2I have a little bit of Dail’s case in each of my books,
something of a tribute to her. She has become a number, which saddens me. She’s
in the Nation’s Missing Children Organization and Center for Missing Adults
(MPCCN Case File 455F90) She is part of the Doe Network (Case
File 635DFSC
), and The Kristen Foundation (Investigative Case Number
92-31749
). She is listed in news stories, columns, even appears in Wikipedia
under the heading of Missing White Girl Syndrome.

None of that is important. Finding Dail is all that matters.
If you know anything, or think you know someone who might, please call the
Columbia Police Department at 803-545-3525, or the South Carolina Law
Enforcement Division (SLED) at 803-737-9000.

The case is open, and they’ll listen to anything you have to
say.

Killer Year — The Class of 2007

A brief note from JT Ellison

Stolen from the Man in Black

Killer Year
is a brand new website for mystery and thriller authors whose debut novels
are being published in 2007. Once it’s up and running, the site will
feature news, reviews, articles, blogs, info on all members of the
class of 2007, and much, much more.

If you are thriller/mystery/romantic suspense writer whose debut novel is being published in 2007, email jason@jasonpinter.com with the following:

Your Name
Book title
Publisher
Publication month
website/blog URL
Jpeg of your book cover
Contact info

We’ve
already begun compiling a database of our members, and will be sending
out blast emails and organizing fun events and promotions as we
approach 2007. Editors and agents, please pass this along to your
authors. This will be a great way to learn about exciting debut crime
writers, and get exclusive content on upcoming releases.

So get ready, because 2007 is gonna be a Killer Year.

Through A Glass Darkly

JT Ellison

My mind works in mysterious ways.

Every writer, to a degree, is unique in his or her thought
process. Otherwise, how would we come up with new and exciting tales to
captivate our readers, create characters who spring, fully grown, out of our
minds, like Athena from Zeus’ head? I’m not sure exactly how everyone else’s
minds work, but my thought process is a little, well, off.

Writers, for the most part, are solitary creatures, happily
living in our own minds. We have a 24/7 job. Imagination is a tough wellspring
to turn off. No matter what I’m doing – work notwithstanding – I’m thinking
about work. My stories. My characters. The blog. How to fix that one scene in
the short I’m working on. How to compile the perfect marketing campaign. Book
launches. My characters. Do I need a professional photographer, or will my new
digital camera do the trick? My stories. You get the idea.

I think being a successful writer is really a function of
being comfortable alone. Being content to roam your own mind, allowing your
subconscious to come to the forefront, to acknowledge some of the crazier
ideas, even those that border on sociopathic, harness them, and create from
them. Or we’re just a little bit crazy. Take your pick.

Many writers I’ve talked to claim to be shy – I’m a bit
reticent myself, until you get me going. Is it really shyness? Or is it a
mindset that’s just plain different, and hard for a non-writer to “get?” Are we
shy, or are we actually worried that we’ll be judged for thinking the way we
do?

A lot of my perceived “shyness” problem stem from the way I
look at the world – a bit skewed, off-kilter. To be honest, I’m a little
sheltered. I’m always so excited to find another like mind, someone who won’t
be freaked out if we talk about an autopsy over dinner. Journalists make good
friends; they’ve seen so much that it’s hard to shock them. For obvious
reasons, law enforcement folks are lovely dining companions.

The question I’m asked most often is, “Where do you get
your ideas?” Actually, it’s an interesting question, because I’m willing to
venture a guess that we’re all inspired by different things. It’s what makes
our writing so unique. My ideas can come from a mundane walk around the
neighborhood, a television show, another book, a dream, or real life
occurrences. Here’s a perfect example of both my skewed perception and a story
genesis.

This past weekend, Hubby and I were in a big box retailer
who will remain nameless so I don’t get sued somewhere down the road. We were
searching for an overstuffed pillow. I’m pawing through the lumbar rolls when
something shiny winks up at me. I lift the pillow and see… a knife.

No kidding. A knife. Lying quietly on the shelf, under a
pile of pillows. It’s a standard steak knife, serrated blade of about 5 inches,
black handle. Now this strikes me as strange. Why would there be a knife
concealed under a stack of pillows on the shelf of a big box retailer, unless
someone was trying to hide it?

We have a mystery, and I’m juiced beyond recognition. I lean
in and look closely for signs of blood or tissue.
Hubby, well trained after living with a forensically minded writer for many
years, admonishes me not to touch it. Duh. To my untrained eye, there’s something
on the first inch of the blade; it looks like it’s been wiped off.

I find an employee, share my nugget of information. I ask,
half joking, if someone had been stabbed in the store today? She looks at me
like I’m out of my mind, then immediately shows an appalling lack of both
imagination and common sense. Despite me saying “Really, don’t touch it, let’s
get your supervisor,” she touches the knife. Actually picks it up, and holding
it pinched between her forefinger and thumb, walks away with it. My dreams of
being interviewed on the news for finding a murder weapon slide away. But I
tuck it into the cranial file folder to use at a later date.

Other juicy story ideas come from the 24-hour news cycle. On
May 15, 2006 a great story broke. A manhunt was on in the Kansas and Missouri
area for a couple suspected of murder. As the day progressed, more information
came to light. A body had been found in a shallow grave. Rumors began that a
videotape of the murder had surfaced.

Now, that’s more than enough information for me to create a
story. Fascinated, I dropped what I was doing and read all the news accounts I
could, watched FOX, and caught the story as it unfolded. By the time Hubby got
home, the videotape had been confirmed. A couple, Richard Davis and Dena Riley,
were suspects, wanted for the rape, sodomy and murder of 41-year-old Marsha Spicer.

The information is pouring in, and I’m thinking – man,
that’s a pretty sophisticated first murder. And they taped the whole thing?
Told Hubby right then and there, there are more bodies out there. I was
smiling. Thinking, Ooooh, this is a good story.

That’s where I go horribly wrong. It’s not that I enjoy the
pain and suffering, I don’t. I abhor violence. I’m a big fraidy cat myself. But
my inner monologue loves this stuff. It’s all processed, sanitized for my
edification, then spit out, ready to be fictionally capitalized upon. I can
separate my psyche from the actuality of the situation and create a fictional
case around it, no problem.

I was right about the couple from Missouri. Two more bodies
have been linked to them. I feel vindicated, in a way. My research has paid
off. I recognize the bad ones quickly now.

The news is fraught with ideas. Hour long news shows are
dedicated to open cases. Families with media savvy get their message out,
sometimes with good news at the end of the story, sometimes bad. I watch
endlessly, and all of it goes into my brain funnel, to be brought out and
chewed upon by my subconscious. Many times, I’m haunted by nightmares. I wake
and write these down. Other times, I can’t sleep. Saying a prayer for the
family helps my conscience, but what am I really doing to help? I’m not. I’m
glorifying their pain and suffering into words.

I realized that writing thrillers is just my way of coping.
In my stories, there are happy endings to go along with the bitter. Bad men are
caught and or killed. There is retribution and revenge; I mete out the
punishments, and I’m not shy. I’m happy to make them hurt. I wish I could wave
my keyboard over the homes of the true victims, ease their pain a little.
Perhaps, one day, they’ll read a book I’ve written and will realize that this
is their story, and in the make believe world, they’ve won.

With that in mind, please stop by Murderati next Friday and
see if you can’t help solve a real cold case. Tell all your friends, too – the
more people who come, the better chance of finding some long awaited answers.

077832299801_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_v57071063__1Be the first on your block to buy THRILLER. See what happens if you don’t here.

Wine of the Week – La Crèma Pinot Noir

I know some of you are probably sick of reds by now, so
I’ll throw a bone to the white lovers out there – Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio

———————————————
I Corinthians
13:8-13

“Charity never faileth: but whether there be
prophecies they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether
there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy
in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part
shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a
child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish
things. For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I
know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth
faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

The Two Minute Rule

JT Ellison

Watching the Preakness Stakes last
weekend, I was nauseated and on the verge of tears when the phenomenal colt,
Barbaro, pulled up lame at the start of the race, his right rear ankle swinging in
grotesque circles. I know I wasn’t alone; the country has been
following the story of this magnificent animal – broken, battered, with an
injury that would be the end of a lesser horse. After many hours of surgery,
and many dollars, Barbaro, the horse they should rename Braveheart, seems to be on the mend. A wonderful ending to a
bitter story.

Later that day, Hubby and I were in the car, listening to a
sports talk radio program. Barbaro, and horse racing in general, was the topic of
conversation. The hosts were deriding the age old claim that the Kentucky Derby
is “The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports.” They questioned how a horse
race could be more exciting that a two-minute drill in the Superbowl, or the last two
minutes of a hockey game, when goalies are pulled to improve the team’s
chance of scoring, and the already frenetic pace becomes almost chaotic.

I think they missed the point. Horse racing is billed that
way appropriately, simply because the entire event takes place in two minutes.
You wait around all day, partying, betting, letting the anticipation build and
build and build, then suddenly they’re off, and the entire day comes to a
climax in two short minutes.

What does this have to do with writing, you ask? Simple. I
was thinking about how men approach their sports, that the final two minutes
are the most important and exciting because it completely captures their interest.
I realized that I approach reading the same way. If you don’t capture my
attention within the first two minutes, you’re sunk.

Now, I’m a fast reader, and I can get 10-15 pages into a
book in two minutes. And if you haven’t shown me something by then, I’m going
to be a little cranky.

Last week, one of the lists I participate in had a
discussion about where to have the first murder. Does it have to be on the
first page, the first chapter, within the first fifty pages? Would it be okay
to build the characters, or romance, or whatever, before your murder appears?

In
my humble opinion, no. That’s not okay. You have two minutes to get the attention
of your reader. Only a very few exceptionally talented writers can write a
mystery in which the murder doesn’t take place until later in the book. And
even if you’ve got the talent of, say, Laura Lippman, it’s hard to do. You’re stretching your reader’s
faith when you don’t give them a reason to continue reading.

I think this rule applies to all genres, but especially
to mystery. How many books have you picked up, read the first couple of pages and
gone, hmmm, I forgot to put the clothes in the dryer. You do a few chores, come
back to it, read a couple of pages and realize you really would like a
Starbuck’s. I have read so many books like this, and it drives me crazy.
Without realizing it, I’m finding other, mundane things to do instead of
buckling down and reading. For shame. I want to be so engaged I have to drag
myself away to feed Hubby, not decide that cleaning the bathroom is a better
option than finishing out a chapter.

How do you capture the interest of your readers in two short
minutes? With a sharp, strong voice, an
engaging style, and starting the action and story immediately,
rather than spending a chapter describing your character’s morning or looks.

I try to do this with my own books. I either start with a body being found, or a murder being committed. It’s a great way to kick start your story, set the tone, and assure your readers that you aren’t going to waste their time making them wonder what this book is going to be about.

I decided to go back and see which writers I think really do
this well. John Connolly begins his debut novel – EVERY DEAD THING, with a
flashback to the protagonist’s literal nightmare, the horrific murder of his
wife and daughter. Compelling and gripping, he uses the crime scene reports to
fill in the details. This spare style resonates, drawing the reader into the
story almost against their will. It’s brilliant. And shoot, I just lost fifteen
minutes because he sucks me in, time and again.

John Sandford often starts his novels with
the killer’s point of view. Duane Swierczynski opens THE WHEELMAN with a bank robbery going
awry. The first line of the prologue in Tami Hoag’s NIGHT SINS is “They found the
body today.” P.J. Parrish begins A KILLING RAIN with an anonymous man driving
Alligator Alley to deliver a package. The tone of the story is unmistakable;
you know right away that he’s up to no good. And don’t even get me started on how well Cornelia Read opens her debut, A FIELD OF DARKNESS. Just go out and get it. I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s better to learn by example from the masters.

Wham, Bam, Thank you, Ma’am. All of these great books have
one thing in common. They grab your attention immediately. Don’t worry so much
about where you drop the body. Worry about engaging your reader with an
appropriately dramatic opening. If you can capture your reader’s attention
within the first two minutes, you’ll always be better off in the long run.

Wine of the Week – From Chile – Casa Lapostolle Cabernet
Sauvignon
(the Merlot is fantastic too!)

P.S.  Don’t forget to root for Danica Patrick at the Indianapolis 500 this weekend! You go, girl!

I’m Speechless

JT Ellison

I debated long and hard about the title of this week’s blog.
“Dancing in the Streets” seemed appropriate, but a little too retro. “What A Feeling”
is apropos, but a little too, well, Flashdance.
So let’s settle on what I’m really, truly feeling. Speechless.

I’ve been walking around with a stupid grin on my face since
last week, when I received what will be hereafter forever be referred to as
“The Call.” The Call came from my agent, a spectacular guy housed high in a
building in New York, where he gets to make people’s dreams come true. What a
job, huh? As with many agents, he’s a busy guy, so if his number shows up on
the caller ID, generally something’s up. And man, was something up last
Tuesday.

Let me backtrack for a moment. When Murderati launched back
in April, I told you I’d wait to tell you my story. Bits and pieces have come
out, but the essential JT Ellison is still under wraps. Let me go over a couple
of things that ultimately led to The Call, before we go into the details of
said Call, okay?

I’ve been a writer my whole life. I started young, with
picture book stories, little shorts with handmade felt hard covers that I
illustrated and carried around proudly. I dabbled in poetry, read anything my
parents would let me (which was pretty much everything) and dreamed of being
famous one day. Then came my first introduction to the harsh world of
publishing.

I won a contest when I was in the third grade – a poetry
assignment for the local newspaper. I was studying slavery at the time, and
wrote this poem from a slave’s point of view. The judges liked it and I won the
contest. My grandmother on my Dad’s side, GranMary, was a journalistic type in
Gainesville, Florida. She wrote a column in the newspaper, did some short
romances, that kind of stuff. My parents sent her the poem. She sent it to TRUE
CONFESSIONS
magazine. I promptly received a
very nice REJECTION LETTER. I was eight. I understood why they didn’t want my
poem about slavery – really, what’s romantic about that?

Fast forward to college, senior year, and a professor who
told me I’d never get published. (I’m looking for her email address, by the
way, just so I can say nannie-nannie boo-boo to her, the big spoilsport!) That
probably offhand comment by a frustrated artist killed my creative spirit. I
stopped writing, took a job in politics, went to graduate school to learn how
to run political campaigns. Met Hubby, so I guess I need to thank her at the
same time. It’s one of those things, the road not taken, which baffles me. I
can’t imagine doing it any other way, but what if she had been encouraging,
thought I should go ahead with my MFA?

I actually was going that route until my French credits messed
the application process up. Apparently, I didn’t have the appropriate language
labs fulfilled. I could go back to school for a semester, take French III with
language lab, and then I could go for my MFA. Like being able pour s’obtenir
à la W.C. dans le Français
parfait had any bearing on my ability to
write in ENGLISH. So George Washington’s Graduate School of Political
Management
was the way to go, on every level. I can
only imagine what kind of damage that MFA program would have inflicted on my
style.

Fast forward to 2003. I’m living in Tennessee, am in between
jobs, and have some time on my hands. I’m reading John Sandford’s Prey series
front to back. I have a wild hair. I’m going to write a book.

So I did. It was terrible. A true study in cliché, a perfect
example of what not to do. Let me assure you, a brilliant first novel really is
rare. If you’ve written your first, don’t submit it. Write another. See how
much your style improves from one to the next. Then you can start submitting. I
tell you this because I made the mistake of submitting the first novel. Egad,
it was so bad. But it had a few passages that were very good. After a slew of
rejections from publishers and agents, I started over with the best parts of
Book 1. That became CROSSED, which got the attention of my agent.

I’m glossing over a lot of angst and sleepless nights
because this is the good part, the strawberry days. When the book wasn’t
getting the right attention, my agent had the foresight to suggest I write
another. ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS caught the attention of my new editor Linda McFall (I love saying that) at Mira Books. I can’t imagine a better fit for me.  Now we’re up to
date. Rewind to last Tuesday, when I received The Call.

What made this event so incredibly amazing, aside from the
fact that I got to hear the magic words – three-book deal – my parents
witnessed THE CALL. They are snowbirds, in a sense. The spend summers in my
hometown in Colorado, when I spent my formative years. Twice a year they pack
up their SUV and drive between homes. This year, they decided to come a day
early, spend a few extra hours with Hubby and me. They’d been here for about
half an hour, just gotten settled into chairs with drinks, when the phone rang.
I glanced at the caller ID and said something, well, rude. Along the lines of
"Oh *^&%". Remember I told you agents are busy folks? They don’t call just to
see how your day is going. I knew this was something.

I don’t remember too much of the conversation,
unfortunately. My agent teased me a little in the beginning, and since I’m the
eternal optimist, I’m thinking, “Damn it, I’ve blown it. It’s over.” My heart
was thudding so loudly that I didn’t even hear what he was saying until the
words “three book” popped into my consciousness.

I made him go back and repeat everything he’d said. I
managed to get through the conversation, half acknowledged when he said
congratulations, you’re a published author now, go call your husband. I got
Hubby on the phone and told the three most important people in my life the most
important news I’ve ever received. And promptly cried my eyes out. I’d finally
done it. I have a book deal.

So this column now takes a new turn. I’ll do my best to help
the Newbies understand the process of getting published. I’ll talk about my
hopes and fears for the series of books I’m working on. Walk through the editorial
and creative process as I go along. I’ll chronicle this journey, and share my
mistakes and celebrations. The first book will be out in late 2007, so we’ve
got plenty of time to sort through the details.

Apparently, I’m not quite as speechless as I thought. Thank
you to everyone who has taken the time to send an email, or call, or post on
their blogs to help me share in this news. I’ll tell you, getting emails from
writers you read and love, congratulating YOU on getting published, is a trip.
I appreciate each and every one of you, and hope never to disappoint you. Have
a great weekend, everyone! I hope all of your publishing dreams come true.

Wine of the Week – Dom Perignon, of course.

 

We’re On A Road To Nowhere

JT Ellison

It’s been one of those weeks. I’ve had family in, crazy
stuff happening, and I haven’t gotten a lot of regular writing work done. I’m
not procrastinating at all, just distracted. Then my savior appeared in the
form of JB Thompson. Blog Tag. I’m sure you’ve all seen them – some are more
involved than others. There was a great one back a few months on Robert Gregory
Browne’s blog ANATOMY OF A BOOK DEAL that involved choosing seven books from
your closest bookshelf and assembling a paragraph based on certain page numbers
and first/last sentences. This one isn’t quite as complicated. Just don’t laugh
at the answers, okay? I’m giving away the store here.

Without further ado…

4 Movies You Would Watch Over and Over:

Gladiator
Days of Thunder
She’s Having a Baby
Any Star Wars
Movie other than Episode I

4 Places You Have Lived:

Colorado
Florida
Washington, D.C.
Tennessee

4 (5) TV Shows You Love To Watch:

Alias (Damn them for taking it off the air)
24
LOST
Veronica
Mars
My Name Is Earl (Ed. note: Best viewed with TiVo and an adult beverage. Last night’s episode, case in point)

4 Places You Have Been on Vacation:

Jamaica
Italy
Great Britain
Florida

4 Of Your Favorite Foods:

Tortellini with Homemade Bolognese
Taquitos
Grilled Chicken
Quesadillas
Pizza

4 Websites You Visit Daily:

Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Publishers Marketplace
Nashville Public Library
Drudge Report

4 Places You’d Rather Be Right Now:

New York City!
Italy
Florida
Beaver Creek, Colorado

Since my answers are so pedestrian, I’ve also decided to add
a few to the tag list.

4 Books I’d Rather Be Reading:

Sara Gran – DOPE
Duane Swierczynski – THE WHEELMAN
J.D.
Rhoades
– GOOD DAY IN HELL
Laura Lippman, Ed. – BALTIMORE NOIR

4 Favorite Books Of The Year (So Far):

Charlie Huston – CAUGHT STEALING
M.J. Rose – THE DELILAH
COMPLEX
Allison Brennan – THE HUNT
Tasha Alexander – AND ONLY TO DECEIVE

Books Coming Soon From Bloggers I Love:

Brett Battles – HUNG OUT TO DIE (Spring 2007)
Sandra Ruttan
– SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES (Fall 2006)
Robert Gregory Browne – A MEASURE OF
DARKNESS (2007)
And…
All the great books coming from the MURDERATI crew!

Let’s hear from you guys. What books have really turned you
on this year? And which ones are you looking forward to?

Wine of the Week – Ruffino Aziano Chianti Classico
D.O.C.G
.

Research – It’s What’s For Dinner

JT Ellison

I’m stymied. Frustrated, aggravated. I have a
straightforward little question that’s going to take maybe ten minutes to
answer, and no one will get back to me.

When you’re like me and you need some research on the fly,
you get the name of the person you need, get in touch, ask your question, they
fill you in and you go on.

Sometimes, it doesn’t go that smoothly. Current problem,
case in point. I have what seems to me to be a basic, simple question. But what
seems like a nothing line of questioning to me certainly seems important to
someone else. I’m having to go through “channels”, to get “permission” to talk,
to “clear things through legal.” Everyone’s heard these terms when they’re
doing research. The trick is how to navigate them, when to be a bulldog and
when to back off.

This has happened before. Last year, I was working on ALL
THE PRETTY GIRLS
. A major plot point focused on child kidnapping. Who else
better to talk to about child kidnapping than the FBI? Right? Well, I amended
that to my state Bureau of Investigation, because that’s where the answers
were. I called their offices, told them what I was about, and asked who would
be the best person to talk to.

They forwarded me to said person, who gave me some
information, then suddenly got suspicious. I mean, I can understand the
reticence of a Law Enforcement Official to give information to a complete
stranger about child kidnappings. But it wasn’t like I was asking how to kidnap
a child. I was looking more for the emotional impact of the scene – how the
special agent in charge would feel, how the parents would react, the personal
side of things that lends true credibility to a fictional scenario.

Everything was going well, said person suggested I put my
request in writing and email it in. I did. Nothing. I waited a week, called
back. Therein started what I fondly refer to as – The Runaround.

I ask you, does Patricia Cornwell get The Runaround? I think
not.

In the end, I had to drop the entire plot point because I
couldn’t get the research I needed in a timely manner. It happens. It’s
frustrating, but it happens.

Research is a vital tool when your writing crime fiction.
The advent of crime shows, fictionalized and real, have educated our readers.
They expect the writer to get it right. There is no better way to lose a reader
than get a major forensic point wrong, or defy a logical progression in an
investigation.

Which is good for me, because I love to do research. I
prefer hands on, in the field, to everything else. The Internet is wonderful,
and I couldn’t do without it. But sometimes, it’s just more important to go out
in the dark on B-shift with your favorite patrol officer and get blood on your
boots.

How do you do that, you ask?

Three years ago, I was a lonesome writer with no friends. I
was working on my first book (horrendous, by the way) and feeling my way
through research, basically flubbing things left and right because I was trying
to do it on my own. My main character is Homicide Lieutenant Taylor Jackson. At
the time, she was tall, blond, two dimensional and boring. I was writing about
the police, but I’d never even talked to a cop. (Other than a couple of
speeding tickets. Seriously!)

So I screwed up my meager courage and called our local
Homicide office to ask if any serial killers had ever preyed on Nashville.
Through a stroke of fortuitous luck, the Homicide Detective who happened to
answer got interested in my line of questioning. Next thing I knew, he’d
invited me on a ride-along. With Homicide. I remember the way my heart felt
like it was going to burst from my chest. It was my first success as a writer.
I thought I was the bee’s knee.

Nothing happened.

No one got shot, beat up, kicked around, even arrested for
violence that night. I was bummed. And enlightened. Granted, we’re in
Nashville, which doesn’t have the worst crime statistics in the country. There
are nights that Homicide doesn’t get called out. It was a blessing, really,
because I wasn’t as ready for an adventure as I thought I was.

I wanted more action. So the guys sent me out on B- Patrol
in the worst part of town. That night, a lot happened. I did get blood on my
cowboy boots. I watched a stabbing victim bleed on the ground with his friends
and family wailing while they tried to shove his intestines back in his
stomach. I got to see the arrest, the weapon, the drugs. A stupid drug deal
gone bad, and this kid gets to bleed to death over it. Talk about frustrating.
At the end of the evening, I wanted to slap some sense into a few people, trust
me.

Now, with several ride-alongs behind me, buddies on the
force and a very close friend in Homicide, I can look back and laugh at my
naïveté. I’m a little hardened to it, surprisingly. I’ve looked through murder
books, been educated on the finer points of an autopsy, dissected crime scene
photos, crime scenes, the works. And I’ve yet to meet a fine law enforcement
officer of any kind who isn’t willing to give me a few minutes of their time.
Ask nice, and they’ll let you take them to dinner, and you can get lots of good
stuff out of them. Beer helps.

But cultivating your local police isn’t the only resource
you’ll need. I wrote a scene where a skull is found in a field. Knowing
virtually nothing about how to identify bones, I sought out the Forensic
Odontologist for the State of Tennessee. His name is Michael Tabor, and he is a
stellar, selfless man. He went to Ground Zero after 9-11 to help ID victims.
He’s that kind of guy. He let me take him to lunch and pick his brain about everything
teeth, skull and skeletal related. Then he invited me to join him and a few
colleagues at the Medical Examiners office to look at a skeleton that had been
found in a field, so I could really get a taste for what I’d be writing.

I walked away from that with a solid knowledge base and an
understanding about how important getting the information right truly is.

To me, doing research is like going back to school to study
your favorite subject. I remember a comment someone made a year or so ago, saying
they were sure that I spent a lot of time in the library getting all of my
research together. I stopped to think about it, and realized I’ve yet to sit
down in the library to do research. I go out in the field, call people, beg,
borrow and plead, but try to experience what I’m learning so I can bring it to
life in my books.

So where do you get contacts? Everywhere you can. Talk to
your dentist about how unique dental radiographs are. Call the morgue, tell
them you’re a writer and ask for a tour. Talk to your local police (being in
good standing in the grand scheme of things does help there). Show respect,
interest and a sense of humor, and they’ll let you call them anytime you get
stuck.

Always be up front about why and what you’re trying to find
out. In person, that’s not such a problem. But researching online is relatively
anonymous, and there are plenty of chat rooms and list serves that deal with
any research topic you may need. If you’re going to get involved anonymously,
be honest about what you’re doing so you don’t alienate or hurt people.

How do you deal with a situation like I’m having right now?
Well, keep digging. I know there are other people out there with the expertise
to help me. If my local folks aren’t going to be willing, I can go trolling on
the list serves, see who has that little nugget that I’m searching for. If the
list serves don’t have the answer, I can call other cities, see if they are
willing to talk. This isn’t like the earlier situation, where I had to rewrite
the book because I couldn’t get the level of information I needed.

There’s one major rule to cultivating contacts. Never, and I
mean NEVER, burn your contact. If they ask to remain anonymous, keep it that
way. If they want a free book, give it to them. Give them a thank you in your
acknowledgements. Don’t brag about your newfound relationship and share their
phone number with your friends. I see the relationships I build with my sources
as sacrosanct. They are going out on a limb for me, and I won’t let them drop.

Wine of the Week – Yellow Tail Shiraz

P.S. As I was posting this column, I received a call
from the people I needed to get in touch with. We have an appointment next
week. See, perseverance does work!

I’m Not The Princess of Darkness. Really!

JT Ellison

Despite what some people may think, I’m not the Princess of
Darkness. I am the Princess of Sweetness and Light, as my family and friends
will attest to. Even without the hot coals.

A lot has changed for me since I started writing mystery
novels three years ago. One of the biggest is my comfort level with darker
material. As any mystery writer can tell you, we write about difficult issues.
We write about death. It seems someone has to die for us to be a success. How
terrible is that?

In my mind, death is intrinsic in the very definition of
“mystery”. Conundrums, enigmas, locked doors, yes, yes, that’s all well and
good. But if we didn’t have a body to identify, or a killer to catch, where
would we really be? Not a lot of people can understand why a writer would
choose to write about murders and death. Sometimes I don’t understand the
compulsion either.

When I was writing my first book, I found myself having the
same conversation over and over. People are naturally curious souls. It never
fails, wherever I go, someone asks me what I do. I hear it all the time,
standing in line at the post office, grocery store, everywhere. Me, I’m there
for the stamps. They’re there for the conversation.

At the beginning, three years ago, I smiled shyly and
replied, “I’m a writer.”

I’ve learned that this statement is open to interpretation.
Broadly open.

Let me interrupt myself here to point out that if this
conversation is being held in the evening, there is a standard second line.
“Oh, you write for the paper.” (Hubby worked for The Tennessean for a while, so
I guess that wasn’t too far out an assumption.)

Regardless of where and when, I’d answer, again coy, “No, I
write books.”

“Ooooh,” they’d gush, decibels piercing the eardrums of
small animals for miles. “You write children’s books!”

The first time this happened, in the middle of Staples, I
burst out laughing. The idea of ME writing a children’s book was so incredibly
preposterous that I was rudely shocked into verbal mirth. Once I’d recovered, I
explained that I write serial killer novels. Nine times out of ten, that halts
the conversation in its tracks. (The one time it didn’t go down like that, the
woman I was talking to happened to be in a horrific situation. A man had
molested her two children. I was able to answer some questions for her and get
her going in the right direction as far as getting the police involved. That
one wasn’t a laughing matter.)

So that became my mantra. When I’m asked what I do, I say, “I Write Serial Killer Novels”.
It’s morphed into “I Write Thrillers”, which seems to go over well. And that’s
when they ask the dreaded question. “What’s a nice girl like you doing writing
about these horrible… things?”

The question comes so often that I feel the need to defend
myself. I’d love to have an easy quip to respond with. Yes, my novels are dark,
and my short stories have a tendency to leap right into all out creepiness.

Why is my writing so dark? The answer is two-fold. I write
what I enjoy reading. I’m not very good at suspending disbelief to allow for
talking cats. I want my mystery to be real, gritty, alive. The other part is no
matter what I write, I have what they call a “tone”. And my “tone” is dark.
Always has been. I can go back and look at stories I wrote when I was a child and
there’s no question who wrote the story.

Like most adolescents, I channeled my angst into poetry.
Really bad poetry. Sappy, righteous crap. And when I got to college, the trend
continued. But I evolved. Was taught the right way to write. Taught the literary
way to write. Mr. Tone, on the other hand, was having none of it. My tone
morphed into a full-blown voice.

I particularly liked the perspective of one of my esteemed
Professors of Literature during my undergrad years. Commenting on a section of
my senior thesis that included a short story I’d written in my best
Hemingway-esque moments, she stated, “The style is too informed by B-grade
detective fiction… too many issues remain unresolved.” A-ha! What I see to this
day is an attempt to write in a different perspective, a story from an
alternate POV, a noir-styled tale of loss. Oddly enough, it’s a ghost story.
And I’d never read any B-grade detective fiction. I’d been reading what I’d
been told for school, plus a few excursions into my parents’ bookcase.

I stopped writing for many years after I left school. One
reason was the constant and blatant criticism of my writing style. It wasn’t
literary enough. I wasn’t writing the kind of material the Pulitzer judges were
going to be looking at, the kind that proper girls’ college magazine’s printed.
I was writing dark, and I wasn’t emulating Sylvia Plath, which would have been
okay. When you have people you think you respect telling you you’ll never get
published, sometimes you listen.

My style really hasn’t changed much since I started writing
again. I still have that “tone”, that voice, that darkness penetrating my
words. But now, I have a whole community of people who write like I do, and I
know I don’t have to conform to a certain style to be successful.

The other reason I write the dark stuff is many of my
stories and plots come from my dreams. And I really dream. Lollapaloozas. I
guess you could call them nightmares. I wake up, skin crawling, heart pounding,
and the minute I realize I’m alive and okay, it crosses my mind. Wow, that
would make a great story. I keep a pad and pen on the nightstand for that very
purpose (though it’s sometimes hard to decipher in the morning).

I am not immured to the horrific things that happen in our
world. I cringe at the news, watch the forensic shows with a touch of stomach
curdling. It seems that no matter when we watch CSI, live or TiVo, we’re eating
some sort of red sauce. I listen to the stories my cop friends tell, look at
autopsy photos, read true crime books. We mystery writers call it research. It
has its gruesome moments.

But it’s real life. There is a gigantic sub-section of the
world who live, on a daily basis, what we fictionalize. Rape, murder, abuse,
kidnappings. They’ve chosen this world, as have I. I try to make sure that I’m
as real as possible in my work, to try and do their jobs justice. I have so
much respect for these people, I never want to trivialize what they do and see.

I have a confession to make. It’s safe to say that I scare myself sometimes. I can’t read
Stephen King or Dean Koontz. I get spooked when I’m alone at night. There are
times that I wish I could write romance or children’s books. But the tone
creeps in and begs to be heard. It wouldn’t do to scare the children, now would
it?

As I’ve continued to write, to read and to experience life,
a strange thing has happened. I’ve found all of you. People who understand the
compulsion to write not necessarily what you know, but what your imagination
dictates. Despite the criticism from my younger years, I’m now part of a huge
family with the surname Mystery. I may still end up being the redheaded
stepchild, but no one is going to kick me out for what I want to write.

Wine of the Week — Chateau Mont-Redon Côtes du Rhône

P.S. Just found out that my 250 word flash You Say Monet, I Say Manet placed in the "Two Lights" Short Fiction Contest. Check it out on Clarity of Night. It’s not dark at all!

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