Crime Writer Lives Character’s Torture…On Purpose

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Today I have the pleasure of hosting a long time and active member of TKZ – Sue Coletta – and featuring her May 3rd release, CLEAVED, published by Tirgearr Publishing. I pre-ordered her book at the great price of $0.99 ebook and can’t wait to read it. By the time you read this, her book will be officially OUT!

Sue is a talented crime fiction author of memorable characters, who writes in an evocative style tinged with horror. She’s here to talk about torturing characters and how far an author might go…on purpose. Yes, Sue would scare most normal people, but we’re writers. We can take it.

Take it away, Sue.

Being a crime writer tends to spill into everyday life. Not only do I go out of my way to drive by secluded swamps, woodlands, or bogs for potential body dump locations, but I’m also keenly alert and aware of the people around me. The shady guy who takes a few minutes too long while pretending to read magazines in the convenient store he intends to rob. The dude with white knee socks and sandals who sits alone at the lake, his gaze roaming the shoreline from behind the morning newspaper. He doesn’t fool me for a second. Obviously he’s scouting for his next victim. Then there’s the poor woman who’s clueless to her surroundings. In a few days, a breaking news report will confirm she’s Sandal Guy’s latest victim.

Do we really need to discuss driving by a wood chipper? I mean, c’mon! How many of you haven’t thought about stuffing a body in the chute?

*crickets*

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

When crime writing burrows into our DNA, the world morphs into a place of perverse secrets, malevolent acts, and sinful deeds. We can’t help but see the signs. Okay, so maybe “normal” people don’t envision quite as much danger as we do, but I think it makes us far more interesting. Our spouses get caught up in our warped realities, too. My husband’s been known to point out perfect murder sites. Or he’ll hear about a desolate locale and ask if I want to take a ride, knowing I can’t resist.

“You mean that, honey?” I skip out the door, and my excitement bubbles over. “Woohoo! Road trip!”

Research is another matter entirely. When we have no real-life experience to pull from, we’re left with two choices: research until it feels like we’ve lived the scene, or put ourselves in the same position as our character. For me, the latter is much more fun.

My new psychological thriller CLEAVED opens with a woman trapped inside an oil drum. I’ve never been ensnared in any confined space, so I found it difficult to tap into the emotions of the scene. My solution? Lock myself inside an oil drum and hang out a while.

The conversation with my husband Bob went something like this…

Me: Hey, do we have any oil drums?
Bob: Yeah. Why?
Me: Are they empty?
Bob: Yeah. Why?
Me: What size are they?
Bob: 30 and 50 gallon. Why?
Me: If I climb inside, will you close the lid for me?
Bob: Umm…
Me: Awesome. Let’s do this!

Dumbfounded, he followed me out the door. Turned out, he’d loaned the 50 gallon drum to our neighbor, so I started with the 30. The first problem I encountered was this. I couldn’t just step inside and squat. It’s way too narrow. Instead, hung on to the sides, hiked my knees to my chest, and then lowered myself to the bottom. Once crammed inside, I gave my husband the signal to lower the lid, but not secure the hasp. No need to get crazy, or give him any ideas he might regret later. 

Pure blackness struck me hard. Also, my ankles and neck bent at odd angles. Pain seared bone-deep. My knees pinned my chest, laboring my breath. No matter how hard I tried I could not slow the adrenaline coursing through my mind, body, and spirit. The oxygen thinned with every patter, patter, patter of my heart, my mind spinning with scenarios of dying this way.

What an awful death—trapped, alone, unable to move more than my arms.

Every few minutes Bob asked if I was okay, which really ruined the ambiance. In order to concentrate, I sent him back inside. Later, he told me he watched from the window. Though as far as I knew at the time, I was alone. No one around to save me. Perfect.

Closing my eyes, I envisioned the scene. The darkness of night. Tree frogs chirping in the canopies of leaves around the marsh. A far off screech owl’s predatory cry pierced the frigid air. The subtle swish of water lapped against my unforgiving grave, rocking me from side to side.

Next, I concentrated on how my body responded. The pressure on my lungs was like being caught under a steel girder, squeezing each pocket of air dry. No longer did I control my breathing, my chest heaving much faster than I could regulate. Thoughts of death consumed me. My remains could stay undiscovered for days, weeks, months, even years. The psychological torture alone could be enough to destroy someone. My only chance of survival was to break free.

But how?

That question lingered. Numerous “What if’s” flitted through my mind. I won’t ruin the scene by telling you how, or even if, my character escapes. Since it’s the opening chapter you can find out by reading the “Look Inside” feature HERE.

After about 20 minutes or so, I emerged from the barrel. Next, I sent Bob to ask the neighbor if the 50 gallon was also empty. I needed to experience the difference because the character is entrapped in a 50 gallon drum, not a 30. After the “incident” of begging Bob to bury me in the backyard (story for another time!), the neighbors are all too familiar with my research stunts, so this request didn’t surprise him in the least. In fact, he was oddly excited to participate. I let him duct tape the lid close. This was really more for his benefit than mine since duct tape doesn’t stick well to steel.

Compared to the 30 gallon, my new digs felt like Club Med. Much more spacious, but the body position remained unchanged, ankles and neck seared with pain, knees compressing my lungs. All in all, my time spent inside the two oil drums turned out to be very educational and I wrote a much better scene. Win win!

Some may call crime writers unique or even weird, but no one can say we’re boring.

FOR DISCUSSION:

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done in the name of research?

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CLEAVED Available NOW/$0.99 Ebook

Author Sage Quintano writes about crime. Her husband Niko investigates it. Together they make an unstoppable team. But no one counted on a twisted serial killer, who stalks their sleepy community, uproots their happy home, and splits the threads that bonds their family unit.

Darkness swallows the Quintanos whole–ensnared by a ruthless killer out for blood. Why he focused on Sage remains a mystery, but he won’t stop till she dies like the others.

Women impaled by deer antlers, bodies encased in oil drums, nursery rhymes, and the Suicide King. What connects these cryptic clues? For Sage and Niko, the truth may be more terrifying than they ever imagined.

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

42 thoughts on “Crime Writer Lives Character’s Torture…On Purpose

  1. Sue, you know I love Cleaved, but I think I’m having an anxiety attack just from reading this! That’s definitely dedication. Don’t know if I could do that. (Actually, I know I couldn’t because I’m claustrophobic.)

    Wow. Just… wow. Your research did make for one heck of a scene. (I’m almost afraid to say “nicely done” because I don’t want to encourage this behavior! But, nicely done.)

    • “I don’t want to encourage this behavior.” Hilarious! I’m afraid I’m way past the point of changing now, Staci. Anything for my books. What amazes me is the amount of people who want to be involved. Either I have truly wicked family and friends, or I’ve infected them with my…let’s use your word: dedication. 🙂

  2. Sue,
    I’m not as bold as you in in my research. But last fall, I couldn’t stop eyeing the hay balers in the fields near my home. And the grain silos — wow.

    • OMG, Brian. One of my cop buddies was just telling me about a murder he worked where the victim was put in the hay baler. What a mess! I say go for it. Well, not you climbing inside the baler. The silo? Perhaps. 🙂

  3. Excellent article, Sue. Your husband might call a mobile shrink if we hung out and had a few glasses of wine in us. Keep writing…
    And thanks for posting her piece, Jordan

    • Thank you!
      He wouldn’t dare, Joe. Not after my non-fic book, 60 Ways to Murder. 😉 He likes to tell people he sleeps with one eye open. Some days, that’s a smart move.

      • What a great title – I just picked up that one and Crime Writer’s Research. 🙂

        BTW, there’s an error in your bio on your Amazon author’s page. The second sentence in the second paragraph reads, “If you search her achieves, you’ll find posts from guests that work in law enforcement, forensics, coroner, undercover operatives, firearm experts…crime, crime, and more crime.” I think “achieves” should probably be “archives”. 🙂

  4. Wow, way to rev my heart rate this morning, Sue! I felt the aches and shortness of breath you described and held my breath hoping you wouldn’t suffer a panic attack.

    I’ve sent edits back to authors with the page margins filled with questions. “What was the first feeling/emotion flashing through your character’s mind as the assailant’s arm comes around her neck? Does she struggle to breathe as he pulls her head back? How does he smell? Does she taste anything? Does her heart pound harder or slow painfully as she catches the silver flash of the blade from the corner of her eye? Does she struggle? Give up? Where do her thoughts go at the sting of that first cut?”

    Now, I’ll just refer them to this post to see what it takes to bring their character and action alive on the page.

    • Hahahahaha. Love it, Suzanne. Excellent questions by the way. I bet you’re a fabulous editor. Thank you for the high praise.

  5. Loved your blog, Sue, and congratulations. I’ve done some crazy things for research — including working as a telemarketer — but you win. I can barely breathe thinking about being trapped in a 30 — or 50-gallon — drum.

    • Thank you, Elaine. Working as a telemarketer for research isn’t for sissies. Isn’t that one of the most hated professions in the world? I love to screw with them when they call. “There’s blood everywhere. What do I do now?”
      I think I’d rather hang out in an oil drum. 😉

  6. Larry – this is one of the many reasons you continue to be one of my favorite people on the planet. Be careful with the vicarious stuff… especially given your “dark” bent. You continue to inspire! Larry

    • Aww, thank you, Larry. I’m always careful…sort of…unless I’m not. Okay, I “might” let my enthusiasm get the better of me on occasion, but Bob usually snaps me back to reality. Not to worry. 🙂

  7. Good lord…I get claustrophobic on the middle seat on an airplane. My hat is off to you, woman. Geez… but what great material you got from your bravery.

    FYI: I couldn’t get to your “Look Inside” link…it might be an error. Might want to correct it!

    • Thanks, Kris! What a difference real-life experience makes. I’ve done things like this a few times, and the scenes always benefit. They usually end up being the ones most often mentioned in reviews too.

      I noticed the dead link, too. Must have gotten lost in the translation. You can get there from clicking the title, though. Or go here: http://smarturl.it/Cleaved

  8. I just bought the Ebook but haven’t started reading it yet. I love the cover.

  9. Hi Sue!

    You’ve sold me on your book! I noticed it is part of a Series. Do you recommend reading “Marred” first or doesn’t it matter?

    Thanks,
    Phil

    • Hi, Phil.
      Each book can stand alone so it’s entirely up to you. If you do read them in order, you’ll discover how and why Sage and Niko Quintano moved to New Hampshire, what happened to Sage’s twin sister, and a few other things mentioned in CLEAVED. By knowing what happens in MARRED it might also heighten the terror as the events unfold in CLEAVED.

      Thank you for your interest in my work. Happy reading!

      ~ Sue

  10. Wait wait wait wait wait, Sue. I’m the guy at the lake in long stockings and sandals. I’m a diabetic–hence the compression stockings, and I have sandals because shoes hurt my feet.

    What I’m wonder is why a beautiful woman keeps spying on me. What is she up to?

    Hmm. It’s a start. And evokes about a working title: Beauty Prays, Beauty Preys. The beauty is a member of the Beneficent Sisters of Mary. Their convent is just up the hill.

  11. That’s some pretty intense research Sue. I got nervous at the mention of 30 gallon drum!

    I write primarily military fiction. Craziest research I ever did for my books was for a WW1 short story I was writing. Now I have been in the Marines, fired all kinds of weapons and been exposed to plenty of explosives, usually with hearing protection. But, luckily, I have never been the recipient of an artillery barrage. When I heard my town was having a fireworks display I knew how I could get as close to a first hand experience as possible without risking being vaporized in real life. I got to the show early and positioned myself about a hundred feet from the fireworks, close as they would allow anyone, and put my body into a corner of two joined cinder block buildings to ensure the concussion and noise would funnel right around my body. Since WW1 soldiers had no hearing protection, I went commando…at least as far as my ears were concerned. For the next 45+ minutes I felt the blast of explosion after explosion, some so loud in that little channeled spot it shook my bowels in a frightening manner, luckily that bit all held together. I ended up physically ill for several days, and still today, more than 15 years later have a non-stop dinner bell ringing in my ears. I don’t know how anyone survived that kind of warfare.

  12. Wow, what a story, Basil. Permanently scarred in the name of research. I bet you wrote an awesome scene, though! I love hearing how far other crime writers go for their stories. I knew I wasn’t alone in my pursuit of nailing the correct emotion and physical response of my character.

  13. Sue, CONGRATULATIONS on you new book CLEAVE and the great post! Talk about suffering for your art…a long time ago (before you were born, no doubt!) Stephen King wrote a book titled GERALD’S GAME (one of his lesser works, alas) which involved, among other things, a gentleman being handcuffed to a bedpost. To make sure that a pivotal scene involving this activity was accurate King had himself so restrained and attempted to replicate what occurred in the story. He, like you, made sure that there was adult supervision nearby in case things went awry, as they tend to do. Anyway, thanks so much for the peak behind the curtain. And I look forward to reading CLEAVE!!!

    • Oh, wow. Love the story about Stephen King! Thanks so much, Joe. I’m excited CLEAVED is finally out there. Wishing you fabulous weekend!

  14. I downloaded Cleaved also. How could I not? It sounds fabulous! I haven’t read Marred yet either. I’ve been meaning to, I just have so many on my TBR list! I was surprised to note that I have over 1100 unread books on my Kindle! I think I need a 12 step program! If I see a sale or if it is free, I download it no matter how many books are on the TBR list! 🙂

  15. Last weekend my husband hosted a church retreat while I, locked away in my lair upstairs, wrote. At coffee break time I went down to question my favorite source, who was attending retreat. “Joe, I know you’ve killed a rabbit before. Did you break the neck or cut off the head before skinning? … what technique did you use for breaking the neck?” I noticed a man glaring at me in horror. “Hi. I’m Nancy. Don’t think we’ve met.” His face said–No, we haven’t, thank God.

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