5.17.15 - What Lies Behind the Book (see what I did there?)

On July 24, 2013, I read a story about a young med school student named Paul DeWolf who’d been killed in his apartment. No motive, no witnesses, no suspects. By all accounts, DeWolf was an exceptional young man. He excelled in everything from school to his military training to sports and his faith. He was perfect. Everything about him foretold a brilliant future. And here he was, his promising young life cut short. I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I read everything I could find on the case. And there was a single conclusion to be drawn. 

It was a perfect murder…

That became the first line of WHAT LIES BEHIND. I let my imagination run, wrote up a somewhat outlandish proposal. By August 12 I had a title, one that fit beautifully with the idea of a locked room mystery, and the futility of a life lost too soon. The title comes from the Thoreau (or perhaps Emerson, no one knows) quote:

What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us  

are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.

Oddly enough, the day I decided on the title, I was in Ace Hardware looking for plants, and saw a plaque with beautiful birds on it. Up close, I realized it was the very quote I’d used to title the book. (I snatched it up, and it resides in my office in a spot of honor.) I knew then I had something special. Sometimes, the universe tells you when you’re on the right track.

In October, I submitted the proposal, which my agent and editor loved. I shelved the story until April 2014, when I was finished with my six months of the year I dedicate to Catherine and could think about it.

I started writing April 3. My publisher needed an excerpt for the paperback of WHEN SHADOWS FALL, so I wrote an opening. Cobbled it together, really. And in so doing, realized the story I thought I was telling wasn’t the story that wanted to be written.

It happens that way sometimes. You think a book is about one thing, but it surprises you, takes on a life of its own, and suddenly, you’re left with a completely new story. The characters dictate the story, obviously. And a lot happened between October 2013 and April 2014. Weird things, and good things.

Several wonderful people gave money to charity to have their names appear in the book. When I accept these kinds of commissions, I don’t just toss in a name. I want the donor to get their money’s worth. I create real characters, with real purpose to the story. Tommy Cattafi became my dead medical student. Robin Souleyret was his contact, also dead. (There’s another character name I can’t share, because I don’t want to spoil the story for you. You’ll see that one in the acknowledgements.)

And then the story decided it didn’t want to be about dead people. It wanted to have live people, who did amazing things. Every day, while I watched, it wove itself into a completely different entity. Tommy Cattafi wasn’t dead, but gravely injured. Robin Souleyret was very much alive, and a former CIA agent. What? She had a sister who was FBI, and her name was Amanda. She was murdered and Cataffi injured in what looked like a murder suicide. Their names became so intrinsically involved that, because of these character names, the story itself changed. It evolved. It became about Sam and Robin, the push and pull of the investigation, and the power of love.

There were other issues with the story as well. At its heart, WHAT LIES BEHIND is about a bioterror attack on the U.S. using an Ebola-esque hemorrhagic virus. Yeah. Topical much?

I was more than halfway through the writing well before the African outbreak, and as the virus, and the story, continued to spread, I kept having to change the book so it didn't look like I'd stolen the story from the headlines. Because I, apparently, am simply too prescient when it comes to writing about current events.

And then we have Sam and Xander and Fletcher. The backbone of these books. Vital, one might say, to their longevity. Samantha really comes into her own during this investigation. It was such a blast to watch her take over. She’s always been a smart cookie, but now, she’s smart and tough and isn’t about to sit back when she sees injustices. To put it mildly, she kicks ass.

It took five months to write this book, because the story was a moving target, day after day. When I finished the book, I was almost afraid to turn it in. The synopsis I’d given my editor months before was unrecognizable outside of a young man cut down in his prime. Completely different from the finished book. Happily, she loved it, and here we are.

It’s always fascinating to me to relive the writing of a book. WHAT LIES BEHIND was possibly my most challenging to date, simply because it did not behave. It didn’t do what it was told. It’s fitting WHAT LIES BEHIND was the thirteenth novel I’ve written. It seems I’ve just given birth to my first teenager. 

4 Comments

JT Ellison

J.T. Ellison is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of fifteen critically acclaimed thrillers and is the co-author of the Nicholas Drummond series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. With over a million books in print, Ellison’s work has been published in twenty-five countries and thirteen languages. She is also the co-host of A Word on Words, Nashville's premier literary TV series, which airs on Nashville Public Television. She lives with her husband and twin kittens in Nashville. Visit JTEllison.com, and follow her on Twitter @Thrillerchick or at Facebook.com/JTEllison14.