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!

15 thoughts on “I’m Not The Princess of Darkness. Really!

  1. Sandra Ruttan

    We’ll be redheaded stepchildren together then, JT. For the life of me, I can’t fathom why people don’t want to write about something important. No matter how far personally removed we might be from all the bad things happening, we’re all affected – higher insurance premiums because of theft, pay our taxes so we can have police working round the clock to catch killers.

    Bottom line is, I like to write about people, and part of that is a fascination with what drives people to make the choices they do. And because I’m not a hardened criminal, the criminal mind, the ability to cross those lines, is fascinating.

    Or, you know, we’re just sick.

    Reply
  2. J.B. Thompson

    And I thought I was the red-headed twin!

    Don’t let the “Princess” or “Sweetness and Light” propaganda fool you, folks. I mean, she is, of course, but this sweet princess can write some of the creepiest stuff I’ve ever read.

    Nobody should ever say girls can’t write scary, because this one is here to prove otherwise.

    Great post, J.T.!

    Reply
  3. Pari

    J.T.Maybe I’ll show you my second manuscript. It’s a violent suspense novel with an purely evil villain. The things he did to my protag still make me shake my head.

    For me, right now, I can’t write that kind of character. With kids, I don’t want to live in that place in my mind.

    My new series looks like it’s going to be a lot darker than the Sasha Solomon one. I guess I’ll balance sweetness and light with violence and darkness by writing both.

    Or, maybe, I’ll just be really schitzoid.

    Reply
  4. Brett Battles

    Not writing what other people expect of you (basically not fitting in) reminds me of that episode of the Twilight Zone where a woman has undergown some sort of surgery to make her like the rest of the population. You don’t see anyones faces, not hers and not the doctors, until near the end when they unwrap her bandages. She looks completely normal, but apparently the surgery didn’t work. Then you see the doctors and the nurses. Their faces are twisted in ways that seem unnatural, yet they all look the same. While the woman cries because she will never fit in, she is introduced to a man who also looks normal. He tells her there is a whole group of people just like them. She’s surprised because she’s never heard of these people before, but the story ends with her going with him to a place she fits in…

    So, J.T., the literary style surgery may not have been successful, you are now a welcome addition to our normal (albeit sicko) group of writing misfits.

    Reply
  5. Naomi

    One of my former writing teachers, Dennis Etchinson, commented that horror writers were some of the nicest people he had ever met. They exorcised their demons in the writing of their books. Perhaps that is true for mystery writers, too?

    p.s. I get that “children’s book” thing all the time, too. And when I say “mystery,” they get this puzzled look on their faces.

    Reply
  6. m.g. tarquini

    Hello, JT! I’m wandering in from Sandra’s. I’m also going to link to your blog. You’ve some wonderful posts here.

    I write humorous stories about murders and deaths…now how fucked up is that?

    Reply
  7. JT Ellison

    I think Naomi has a great point. I certainly exorcise my demons in my work. Sometimes literally.Thanks for all the great comments, guys. And welcome to Ms. Taquini. We love new faces.

    Reply
  8. JT Ellison

    Congratulations to all the Edgar Award Winners!

    BEST NOVELCitizen Vince by Jess Walter (Regan Books)

    BEST FIRST NOVEL BY AN AMERICAN AUTHOROfficer Down by Theresa Schwegel (St. Martin’s Minotaur)

    BEST PAPERBACK ORIGINALGirl in the Glass by Jeffrey Ford (Dark Alley)

    BEST FACT CRIMERescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece by Edward Dolnick (HarperCollins)

    BEST CRITICAL/BIOGRAPHICALGirl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak (Harcourt)

    BEST SHORT STORY”The Catch” – Greatest Hits by James W. Hall (Carroll & Graf)

    BEST JUVENILEThe Boys of San Joaquin by D. James Smith (Simon & Schuster Children’s Books)

    BEST YOUNG ADULTLast Shot by John Feinstein (Knopf Books for Young Readers)

    BEST PLAYMatter of Intent by Gary Earl Ross (Theater Loft)

    BEST TELEVISION EPISODE TELEPLAYSea of Souls – “Amulet”, Teleplay by Ed Whitmore

    BEST MOTION PICTURE SCREENPLAYSyriana – Screenplay by Stephen Gaghan, based on the book by Robert Baer (Warner Brothers)

    Reply
  9. Elaine

    Hey, J.T.! Wallow in your dark side-it (like Naomi said) clears the the evil that lurks in us all. Muhahahaha.

    I have a tee-shirt that has ‘I make up stuff’ on it-and was wearing it the other day whilst at the market. A lady in the check out line asked me what that meant. I told her I was a writer. She asked me what I wrote. I said that I killed people for profit. What I didn’t add-was that I was still waiting for the profit.

    Reply
  10. JT Ellison

    I received my very first Edgar invitation this year, and I was so disappointed not to be able to attend. Next year, for sure!Ii haven’t read CV yet. I’d love to hear what other people think about it. Reviews, anyone?

    Reply
  11. Elaine

    I haven’t read CV yet either. But I went to the Edgar’s last year. I was one of the judges for Best PBO (Yes, that one! And no, don’t even ask me about the brouhaha, okay?)and our chair couldn’t make it and asked me if I’d fill in (well, no one else wanted to go-Quelle Surpirse). Edgar week is great, but very, very expensive and the Hyatt (the host hotel) was not only priced outrageous-my room was a pigpen. And should I mention what cabs to get to all the venues cost me? Or the cabby who knew I wasn’t a New Yorker and took me the loooong way to the Black Orchid? But I digress-the other events were terrific and I at least got to actually hold an Edgar in my hot, clutching hands. Won’t ever happen again, but hey-one can dream, right?

    Reply
  12. Tammy

    Writing about the dark stuff is fun for me because I think it’s when faced with evil that characters are truly revealed — at their best or at their worst. In the normal course of life, we can all sort of drift along happily in our own little worlds. But when something comes along that shatters the status quo into tiny little pieces and stomps them into the carpet, that’s when we — or our characters — get to find out what they’re truly made of.

    Sometimes when people ask me what I do, I’m inclined to say, “I plot creative ways to kill people and get away with it.” But thus far I haven’t worked up the courage to actually say it. “I write mysteries, and do a little computer consulting to help pay the bills” works in the meanwhile, though.

    — Tammy

    Reply

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