The Birth of a Novel

This is the story about how this:

 

 

Became This:

 

And turned into this:

The Cold Room is a novel that underwent many changes. It started as a challenge, the tiniest spark of an idea. I wanted to write a serial killer novel that didn’t have any blood. I don’t think you need blood and gore to make a book exciting and different. The psychology behind these acts of violence are where my interests lie anyway, so I decided to try a different approach.

But of course, then I had to figure out HOW exactly the killer worked. And to do that, you start with victimology.

I was teaching a fiction weekend for the Tennessee Mountain Writers, and we were working on developing characters. Since that’s sometimes a very difficult task, I took a different tack – I gave my class photographs of ordinary people and asked them to list everything they could about them – name, age, sexual orientation, biggest shame, etc. The first female character was this woman.

There was something about her that screamed to me. Along with my class, I spent five minutes writing down everything I knew about her, but I did it in story context. You see, I needed a victim.

For the record, I have no idea who this woman is. I’m probably pirating this shot, because I have no earthly idea where I got it from. It’s been two years since I wrote that paragraph, but the words stayed with me:

There was that spark again, right there, the fourth shot. Oh, the power in those eyes. The slim jaw, the hollowed cheekbones, her clavicle sticking out like a sword from her shoulder. The hint of her breasts, just the slightest swelling. The memory of those dark ruby nipples.

Click.

The next shot wasn’t as intoxicating. The spark faded to resignation. He’d captured the moment perfectly. He preferred the righteous indignation she’d showered into the lens, though there was something to be said for the moment of truth.

Click. Click.

Click, click. Click, click.

 

Those words became the opening of a novel I had titled SYNCHRONICITY.

There were problems immediately. The concept of the book was on a scope so large that I had my doubts whether I could pull it off or not. My editor needed a new title: the word was too big, the associations to a particular band too immediate. I tossed around a few and ended up with the title Edge of Black. We all loved it. I tried to write the story, using my opening above. Struggled and struggled and struggled, knowing there was something wrong, but not knowing what it was.

It hit me in a flash of light one stormy morning. It was a single word. Dark. Those dark ruby nipples.

My victim wasn’t white. She was black.

 

The words came easier after that. I knew my victim was terribly thin, terribly scared, and doomed. I didn’t know why she was black, didn’t know why she was so thin. But I kept writing, moving the story forward, confident that she would tell me why.

She did.

The progression went something like this.

She’s not white, she’s black. Okay, that makes more sense. But why is she so thin? Is she anorexic? No, that doesn’t work. Oh, but he’s starving her to death. He starves his victims to death. Why would he do that? So they won’t suffer. He has no desire to see them suffer. But why… oh. Oh! That’s why. Because he wants to have sex with her, but needs her to be dead first. He’s a necrophiliac. No, he’s a necrosadist. He’s preying on small women who are easily overpowered and won’t linger too long so he can have sex with their dead bodies. And he’s left his first victim in a tribute to his favorite artist, Picasso, and his incredible Desmoiselles D’Avignon. And that opening scene isn’t the right opening. It needs to be something less obvious, something creepy. Something…

I wrote the new opening chapter on a Thursday. I was so freaked out by it that I didn’t open the manuscript again until Monday. That’s how I measure my success – if I creep myself out, I’ll creep everyone out.

Suddenly, I had a story.

And then the nightmares started.

Wicked bad nightmares, ones that drove me, shaking, out of bed to turn on lights to chase away the shadows and check the locks on the doors.

Writing about necrosadism isn’t something I necessarily set out to do. But once I realized that’s who my killer was, and that’s why his victims were so thin, the whole book came together with a crash.

I needed to do research about this, and that’s where I ran into trouble. There are a number of what’s called “sleepy sex” message boards on the Internet. I learned that necrophilia isn’t only what we think – at its basest, it’s about unresisting sex. I learned that men who use drugs to incapacitate women before having sex with their lifeless bodies are necrophiliacs, and much more common than we can imagine. I saw photographs and video of people creating sleepy sex scenarios – down to the man whose girlfriend got in a coffin so he could sneak in, take her out, undress her, have sex with her, redress her, then close her back in the coffin.

Harmless, right?

Disturbing, for sure. For some reason, it bugged me, though everyone around me loved the story.

There are times when I wish I could just write a book without doing the research, just so I can avoid polluting my brain with these kinds of images.

But then I’d be shirking my responsibility as a writer examining the human condition, and where would that leave me?

Probably sleeping better, if I’m honest. But not as satisfied that I’ve done my best to portray the bizarre philias and fetishes that exist in this particular fictional world.

The book grew from there. It became about so much more than necrosadism. It turned into an exploration of self, of betrayal, of courage. I was pleased with the results. Finally finished, it went through the usual motions.

I began to sleep again.

Edge of Black was about to go to print when my editor called. They had pulled the book. They wanted to go in a different direction, one that would ultimately benefit me and my career. We needed a new title, to start. We would get new art. We had a new release date. And I needed to go back to the book I was so happy was behind me and make some changes. Not to the crime plot, mind you, just a few tweaks to my main character. The story was so grim, she needed to have a little bit of something more to temper it out.

Cue the nightmares again. Because even when you’re just putting a few touches here and there, you’ve got to reread. And re copyedit, and re just about everything.

Ugh.

But as always, my editor’s instinct were right.

Retitling a book whose title I was in love with wasn’t the easiest thing to do. But I did it. Immediately. Because when my editor said they wanted something more concrete, I thought of a basement. There is a basement in this book. A basement with a glass coffin. And a killer who is obsessed with both art and classical music, who sings arias from his favorite operas to his victims, once they’re dead.

And you, my princess, in your cold room…

It’s a translation from Turandot. He sings it to his victim. It was already in the book, waiting for me. And that was it. I’ve never felt so strongly about a title before. Thank God everyone agreed.

And so THE COLD ROOM was born.

The book comes out this Tuesday, February 23. I have a crazy fun tour schedule in place, with lots of local events, plus North Carolina, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and D.C. I’m looking forward to spending some time with good friends on the road. We’re also giving away a free ebook of ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, and for the first time, I’ll be in audio too – with the incomparable Joyce Bean narrating. And all the books are available in ebook format for any kind of ereader.

So what do you think, ‘Rati? There’s a lot here to talk about on the road, too much to cover everything. What parts of this story do you suggest I speak to?

Wine of the Week – Well, we should probably have a bottle of Zardetto Prosecco to celebrate the birth of the book, don’t you think? Cheers!

30 thoughts on “The Birth of a Novel

  1. Chris Hamilton

    I’m fascinated by the process. It’s the question I always want to ask about, not where you got the idea, but how you took the idea and got it to a book form. I would be interested in that. And also how you did some of the research. I would imagine your view of that part of the Internet has imprinted many images in your brain that won’t ever quite come out.

    Reply
  2. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi JT

    Some of the research you did for that book has stuck in my head, too… But we’ll go into that in a week or so!

    Congratulations on turning a very difficult subject into a compulsively readable and thrilling tale.

    I was lucky enough to read this in its EDGE OF BLACK form, and am just about to dive into THE COLD ROOM incarnation. Seeing what you did to change the direction and flavour of the story will be fascinating.

    Amazing how a snapshot or a phrase can spark the brain, isn’t it?

    Huge congrats on the book’s publication, and have a ball on tour.

    Reply
  3. Jake Nantz

    That’s what i love about this place. The peek inside the brain, behind the curtain, into the process. My students (if you don’t mind me sharing pieces of this, JT) will get a huge boost from seeing this kind of thing…provided it doesn’t freak them out as far as the necrosadist stuff….

    Reply
  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Holy schmoly, Batman! What a great post! It creeped me out just reading about how it creeped you out. And I thought I was dark.
    I love the process you went through to get where you needed to be. It scares me a little that your editor can pull the plug so close to the release date and you have to jump in to address everyone’s sudden epiphany. I suppose if you really trust your editor’s instincts then you are wise to accommodate them. I find that, once I’m far into the writing I lose perspective and I’m susceptible to making changes that, after some time away, after re-reading the material, I might otherwise have left untouched. But, fortunately, I have an editor with awesome instincts, too, and I tend to take 95% of his comments to heart. My feeling is that if he flagged something there must be something wrong with it, even if his suggested "fix" isn’t the answer.
    I love the title of your book, it seems perfect. And the cover pulls me in, it’s great.
    I hope you can get some restful sleep now.

    Reply
  5. Chuck

    Hi JT:

    I’m sure you’re bouncing off the walls as you prepare for the tidal wave you can see in the distance. I hope you’re over your cold!

    What an interesting blog today. I find it fascinating reading how authors generate ideas, change direction, etc. What first struck me about the picture (btw, where did you get it?) was the woman’s eyes. Do you often use pictures of people as the genesis for an idea, or was this a first?

    Good luck to you! Cannot wait to sink my teeth into the novel. πŸ™‚

    Reply
  6. Allison Davis

    J.T.

    Thanks for opening your mind’s door pretty wide for us this morning — we all have some process for inding our way into a book, but this was very clearly set out and so intresting and helpful (and scarey creepy weird). I am almost scared to read the book your description of the killer is vivid, stark and horrifying.

    I worry about research sometime — they are going to pull my computer and see all the bizarre places I search and use that as evidence against me!! For my first book, I did research on eco terrorists and went to all these web sites that literally taught you how to break and enter buildings, blow up machinery, sabotage mining equipment and the like. You almost didn’t want to click on it and read…like hanging out with really creepy people. We do it for the love of story, eh? Great post, good kick in the butt to get some writing done this weekend. thanks so much.

    Reply
  7. toni mcgee causey

    Freaked. Me. Out. Just the blog. I’m going to have to read the book with one eye closed and all of the house lights on and my FN loaded by my side. But I have to read this book. Wow, JT., I loved having a peak into your process here.

    Reply
  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    And, by the way JT, it is going to be uber-fun being on a panel called "Sex and the Author" with you at Left Coast Crime…

    Reply
  9. Melanie

    WOW! This is an incredible post. I love hearing how the process worked and especially how it affected you throughout the process. Good luck, although I don’t think you’ll need it!

    Reply
  10. JT Ellison

    I’m so sorry to be so late! I had an interview this morning, and just got back.

    Chris, I’ve started writing down my ideas as I have them so I can see where that initial spark comes from. It’s an inexact science to say the least. But in a nice full circle, I’m going back to teach at the Tennessee Mountain Writers next month, and one of my workshops is how to turn an idea into a novel.

    Z, I can’t wait to see what you think. The changes are pretty subtle. And ladies and gentlemen of the ‘Rati, we need a HUGE round of applause for Ms. Sharp. If it weren’t for her, this book wouldn’t have worked at all. With that as a teaser…

    Jake, sure. If anything I say might help a new writer find their path, I’m all for it. It’s actually kind of fun for me to put this all down – plus there’s three other plot lines that I didn’t explain at all. This is a big, complicated, twisty book.

    Robby, Robby, we ALL know that’s not true at all. The thing is this book was written twice, so it got more thought than normal.

    So…

    Reply
  11. JT Ellison

    Not sure what that so….. is….

    Louise, love, thank you. Hope today is a good day!

    Stephen, it’s a symbiosis that so many people don’t have, from what I hear. Being able to trust your editor is a huge component of the business. And mine has really good instincts. Thankfully, she’s a broad strokes, big picture kind of editor, and the nitty gritty stays the same. I listen to 95% too, but the number one rule is this is your book. That’s where the trust comes in.

    And I can’t wait to be on that crazy panel with you! Should be a lot of fun.

    Chuck – ODD, ODD, ODD. You do know that I have recurrent tidal wave dreams, right? Yes, the cold has improved tremendously, and I’m balls to the wall on promotion now. I don’t know where I found that shot – Stock.xchng.com probably – but the answer is yes. I usually do visuals for my victims. It helps me stay grounded and assure that they don’t just become bodies to litter the pages. If I look into their eyes, they become real to me. I figured if it worked for me, I could teach it, and it resonated. So I keep doing it. You should see my notebooks – I cut pictures from our gossip rags. Though I had to move to another county, because I ran into the sister of a victim and two sets of parents when I was doing my next book. Creeped me out!

    Reply
  12. JT Ellison

    Allison, don’t I know it. Especially when I had to tour the sleepy sex sites, and bookmark some of them. I can only imagine what my drive would look like to an outsider. But that’s our job, to comment on the human condition. Right? (Please say yes….)

    Dusty, you have no idea how hard I fought against it. But Gavin is who he is, and nothing I did changed that. So I rolled with it. I hope to see you on the 5th!

    Toni, I really don’t think the book is that scary, but maybe I just desensitized myself… Creepy, yes, but scary? Mmmm…. I don’t know.

    Robin, I really hope you enjoy it. Let me know, okay?

    Melanie, thank you! I have so much fun picking my own brain and trying to figure this stuff out, I thought I’d share. : )

    Reply
  13. Nancy Laughlin

    I love your blog J.T. I, too, would have been worried about going onto some of those sites for research in case they were being wiretapped.
    I saw on M is for Mystery’s newsletter that you will be there in March. I look forward to hearing your talk then and getting an autographed copy of your book!

    Reply
  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    This truly is a fascinating post about process, thanks, sweetie! It would have given me nightmares, too. I swear I write supernatural because I can’t face what real people do.

    So, so glad I’ll be seeing you at LCC. It’s been way too long.

    Reply
  15. Mike Dennis

    Excellent post, JT, taking us on the odyssey from wisp-of-an-idea to novel.

    I love the original photo of the girl. I see neo-femme-fatale in those dangerous eyes, the tousled hair, the angular face. Wait, where’s my pen?

    Reply
  16. kit

    Holy crud…I read your blog, then I googled the terms I wan’t familiar with. I can see why you were creeped out.
    I believe our imaginations and mind’s eyes are gift/burdens….I don’ t know about the rest of ‘Rati, but from my reading, several images are jumping around right now.

    I googled"sleepy sex" first…then went onto "necrosadism"….read some opinions on Jack the Ripper, whether or not he would qualify.
    Am currently reading Alafair’s ANGEL’S TIP( about 1/3 of the way through, and it did cross my mind to wonder if the term would apply) *note* trying to read all of the bloggers’ books.

    But it was while I was reading about ANDREI CHICKATILA, that it really got creepy.His back story about the famines in the Ukeraine while growing up and the canabalism that allegedly took place..those images are hard to get out of my head.

    You make some awesome points in your blog. I look forward to reading your books.

    Reply
  17. JT Ellison

    Hi Nancy! I’m looking forward to meeting you too! You know, I just realized, the folks at Evernote must think I’m pretty weird too.

    Alex, honey, yay! It will be great to catch up! And you know you’re my inspiration for everything process, right? You make me think of things in all new ways, so thank you!

    Mike, I can’t wait to get back to the TN Mountain Writers and see how many of them have build a real live character off of her. I wish I knew who she was so I could thank her. She’s inspired a lot of people.

    Kit, it’s a mine field of fascinating stuff out there, isn’t it? Easy to get lost – so glad you made it back whole! Try to put this out of your head though – I don’t want to be the cause of any nightmares!

    Reply
  18. BCB

    This might be one of those books I buy but never get up the nerve to read. (I’m waiting for a bright sunny spring day to read Alex’s latest.) My imagination tends to pick up where the scary book/movie leaves off– not conducive to a restful night’s sleep. You say it’s more creepy than scary, though, so maybe I’ll be okay. I can handle creepy. I’ll buy a nightlight. A bright one.

    And I was SO EXCITED to see that you’re coming to NC! Until I looked at the schedule and you’re signing in . . . Forest City? Never heard of it. So I googled it. Oh, of course, THAT Forest City. Just north of Sandy Mush. A few miles east of Frog Level. (I am not making this up.) I’m not even sure you can get there from here. You know, we have a perfectly lovely indie bookstore here in Raleigh — Quail Ridge Books. Just saying. If you came to town it would be a good excuse to have a party. Or dinner. Something.

    Geez. I can not believe I’m going to have to drive to a place of which it can be said, "If you get to Frog Level, you’ve gone too far."

    Reply
  19. JT Ellison

    BCB, if you make that drive, I’ll buy your dinner.

    I met the lovely ladies from Fireside Books and Gifts in Forest City at SIBA, and they were so sweet, and asked me to come to the store…I couldn’t resist. I wish I could come to every store and hit every market, but it can’t happen. I’m so glad you might make it though!!!!

    Now, the words…. trust me, you can read this. Not scary. I promise. Psychological thriller. Interesting. NOT SCARY…. Really. I’ve never figured out why I have weird dreams about this one. I think it’s the groundwork for another novel. Swear!

    Reply
  20. anonymous

    The photo.

    When I was in middle school my teacher had us clip a photo from a magazine and write a short story about it. I scissored out an ad that showed a Lincoln Continental parked on a foggy bluff with the ocean waves breaking below and beyond. In this ad there was only the car, the waves and at the trunk end of the car on the sandy cliff top were a tossed pair of shoes……..women’s high-heeled pumps…….kicked off in apparent abandon. To most, the ad evoked a lifestyle message of luxury and carefree nature seeking frivolity. The seventh grade award winning story I told was a first person account…..the last thoughts of a woman who was committing suicide……. implying, but never stating, that the designer pumps were left by the side of the road….as they wouldn’t be needed any longer.

    I love your random photo model as a teaching tool for exploration of the imagination.

    Reply

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