Sunday, April 19, 2009

Fictionalizing Reality by JT Ellison

J.T. ELLISON is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Taylor Jackson series, including ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, 14, JUDAS KISS and the forthcoming EDGE OF BLACK. She was recently named “Best Mystery/Thriller Writer of 2008” by the Nashville Scene. She is a former White House staffer who moved to Nashville and began research on a passion: forensics and crime. Ellison worked extensively with the Metro Nashville Police, the FBI and various other law enforcement organizations to research her novels. She is the Friday columnist at the Anthony Award nominated blog Murderati and a founding member of Killer Year. She lives in Nashville with her husband and a poorly trained cat. Please visit for more information.

Fictionalizing Reality
by JT Ellison

Twisted as I am, my imagination usually guides my stories. I dream up horrific endings by villainous creations (who end up giving me nightmares,) and terrorize my adopted hometown of Nashville with crazed killers. But up to now, every story I’ve written has been pure, straight out of my head, fiction.

I made an exception for JUDAS KISS. The fictional murder of my victim, Corinne Wolff, was based on a real case.

In 2006, I saw an article from a North Carolina newspaper about a young pregnant mother named Michelle Young who was found murdered by her sister. Her death was unspeakably violent, and her child had been alone in the house for days with her mother’s corpse. The media reported a number of salient details, including the bloody footprints the child had left through the house. I watched the case, hoping there would be a resolution. Unfortunately, Michelle Young’s murder still isn’t solved. Her husband is the prime suspect.

Her story became the opening of JUDAS KISS.

The crime stories that seem to capture our interest as a society are the ones that take place where we feel the safest, which is inside our own homes. That’s where the majority of homicides take place. And we all know how much the media loves a good suburban murder, especially in my fictional Nashville. In the novel, there’s a sense of the fantastic surrounding this case, an “it could have happened to me” mentality couple with the media frenzy – satellite trucks parks on quiet streets, reporters camped on the lawns, every moment chronicled. It doesn’t happen that way in the Section 8 housing. The drug and vendetta killings don’t make the news very much. So in a sense, I’m capitalizing on what does capture our attention.

But JUDAS KISS wasn’t the easiest book to write. Any time an author is faced with a child at a crime scene, a tightrope appears from your laptop, and gets thinner every moment you spend looking at it. It’s a difficult balancing act.

Bad things do happen to children. Bad things do happen to animals. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of reading about either. Reality can stay out of my fiction, thank you very much.

So when I wrote the opening of JUDAS, I didn’t give it much thought, simply because I wasn’t killing Corinne Wolff’s child. I was in safe territory. But one of my independent readers was very unhappy with the opening. She was terribly upset with me for leaving Hayden Wolff alone with her mother’s dead body. “If the husband did it, there’s no way he would leave the child alone like that. No one would. You’re going to alienate mothers all across the country.” I was struck by that statement, obviously. That’s not the goal behind these stories.

So I sent my reader the links to the real case. In the book, I’d actually toned down some of the “real” parts because they were so dreadful. My reader came back with a new eye – she understood now. She was horrified by the real case, understood what I was doing. She realized that I never set out to shock or offend with this story. I only wanted to give the real victim, Michelle Young, some closure. Her story affected me in ways I couldn’t imagine. I’ve found that reality can sometimes throw me for a loop.

We mystery writers are a strange lot. We write about murder and mayhem all day. We walk a fine line between victims and victimizing. I try very, very hard to make sure the violence in my books is never gratuitous. I always strive to make sure that my victims have a reason, a place, a purpose. They aren’t just dead bodies stacking up like cordwood to move the story along. That’s just not why I wanted to write crime fiction. I wanted to find ways to give some justice to those who didn’t have anyone to fight for them, to right the wrongs, and penalize the guilty. In my books, the bad guys get caught, and they are punished. Justice is served. The white hats win. That’s why I got into crime fiction.

But it doesn’t stop me from wishing I could do something for the Michelle Young’s of the world.


Anonymous said...

Moving. Thanks for this, a good post.

By the way, do you list the links to the true crime in your novel?

Theresa de Valence
DorothyL-Best reads of last year

JT Ellison said...

Thanks, Theresa. No, I don't, simply because there's really nothing to link to. While the opening scene is reminiscent of the Michelle Young murder scene, the rest of the book is a complete departure. And I don't want to intrude on the Young family by forcing them to handle requests, etc., that might come if I did.

carl brookins said...

Interesting story. The problem we all face as writers is that no matter how careful we are in constructing our stories, paragraphs and novels, there will be those who misinterpret even the simplest of constructions. Just consider the number of flame wars started on the Internet over mistakes in wording and interpretation. The number of messages "I never wrote that" must be endless.

So it's not surprising that readers of our novels are occasionally taken aback.

Personally, I find the death of a pet or other animal to be less upsetting by far than the demise of a child or family member of any age. Remember, I'm still talking about the writing/reading of fiction!

Vicki Lane said...

Good post, JT. What a heartbreaking story!

I think a lot of us begin with a real life incident and then let 'what if' take over.

L.J. Sellers said...

Odd as it seems, writers often have to tone down stories bases on true events, because the reality is hard for readers to believe.
Thanks for a great post.