As a writer of mysteries, suspense, and thrillers, my feelers are always out for ideas. Fortunately—or to be more accurate, unfortunately—there’s plenty of real life inspiration for crime stories. When I interviewed author Jeff Elkins, he agreed, saying that he got the idea for his story that appears in the suspense-packed anthology, And Then There Were Nine, from a real life story.
I enjoyed my interview with him, and I think you will too. But before we go there, I’m sharing a snippet from Jeff’s story, “Four Dead Men in a Field.” Remember, inspired by an intriguing real life story.
Four Dead Men in a Field
Moe looked past the young officer to see Detective James wading through the grass toward them. He was dressed in his standard rumpled grey suit and nondescript blue tie. His badge was attached to a silver chain that hung around his neck. “Thanks for coming, ladies,” he said with a wave as he came forward.
Without a word, the uniformed officer went back to his cohorts as James shook Moe and Stacie’s hands. “The scene is over this way,” he said, motioning with his head behind him.
Ducking under the police tape, Moe and Stacie stepped into the illuminated field. Sprawled in the grass, each one six to seven feet apart from the others, were four corpses. One lay face down, the other three were face up. One’s chest had been torn open with a shotgun, another had a single shot to the head, the one that was face down took a high caliber round to the chest, and the fourth appeared to be shot in the leg, the hand, and the heart.
There were no weapons in sight.
Fascinating, right? And now for the interview…
Where did you get the idea for the story in this collection? How did you develop it?
When I was in college, an incident happened near the university I was attending between two cult leaders. They had met up to decide which branch of the cult would take ownership over a plot of land. They were in the middle of nowhere and in the midst of their argument, they shot each other.
The paper reported that they both almost bled out before an ambulance could get to them. I’ve always found the story fascinating and thought it might be a good base to build a short mystery off of.
How important is research in your plotting? Tell us how you go about it.
Like all thriller/mystery writers, I have some crazy google searches. For the story in this collection I searched for “types of sniper rifles” and “the impact of a sniper rifle bullet” and “cult ideologies” and “federal jurisdiction at mass murder scenes.”
While I’m sure my writing has landed me on multiple watch lists, the area I devote most of my research to is my story settings. All of my stories take place in real locations because I love the idea of people being able to go and visit the places they read about. To achieve this, I start my research by going to the setting I’m writing about and taking it in.
For example, in my book The Twelve Commandments, two homeless superheroes spend their days patrolling Baltimore. Before writing about their patrols, I spent time walking the routes I thought they would take.
In the second Watkins and Howe book, Steal, I needed a hideout for the team of thieves. On my drive to work, I came across an abandoned building that seemed perfect, so I pulled my car over and went exploring. The building became the perfect setting for many of the scenes in the novel.
The story in And Then There Were Nine is based on a large field south of Baltimore off of I-95.
How do you come up with names for your characters, and do they hold significance?
Naming characters is the worst. I hate it so much because I’m terrible at it. I feel like my names always sound mundane and are unmemorable. For my first novel, I named the main character John Carmen. I sent an early copy of the book to a few friends who agreed to read it and they unanimously said that John Carmen was the most boring name ever given to a character in the history of fiction.
Since then, I’ve taken two different directions to create names. Either, I name characters after friends. For example, Monetta Watkins (the lead detective in The Adventures of Watkins and Howe series) is named after a friend in high school. Since Moe grew up with four brothers and generally presents more masculine to the world around her, I wanted her to have a more traditionally masculine name. Additionally, I wanted her to exude strength.
In high school, I had a friend who was an emblem of strength in my mind. His name was David Watkins, but everyone called him “Big Moe.” To find the name of the lead character for my Defense of Reality series, I researched the names of famous Baltimore reporters and settled on Mencken Cassie. “Mencken” as a nod to H. L. Mencken and “Cassie” as a tribute to several African American reporters I read about online.
What’s your favorite part about the writing process?
I love it when stories make me feel something. My favorite part of reading and writing is when I get so pulled into the character I experience the emotions they are having.
What’s your biggest challenge, as a writer?
Finding the time to write is difficult. While I love it, fiction is a side-hustle for me because it doesn’t pay the bills yet. With a full-time job and five kids in the house, finding time to write can be challenging. Most nights, I can carve out a few hours after everyone in the house has gone to bed.
How do you view your relationship with your readers?
I love my readers so much. Each month I send out a newsletter that describes what’s happening with my writing. I review books I’ve been listening to, I share a Spotify playlist I’m listening to while I write, and I give updates on my family and life.
At each point in the letter, I ask readers to tell me what they are reading, listening to, and what is happening in their lives. I get tons of letters every month. It is amazing to connect with so many people around the world and learn about their experiences. (If you want to join the newsletter crew, you can click here – http://eepurl.com/DfGer.
Which authors have influenced you the most, and why?
Current authors I love reading are Laura Lippman, Markus Zusak, Ta-Nehsi Coats, and Jose Saramago. These are the authors I try to write like. I can’t express how deeply I respect what they do with words. I grew up reading John Grisham, Stephen King, C.S. Lewis, and Tom Clancy. In high school, I was a sucker for a good thriller and I read everything Lewis wrote. I can feel this background in my writing.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
I’m dyslexic, so as a kid, English was never my thing. Through college and graduate school, I avoided writing at all costs. Then, seven years ago, I was working for a nonprofit at the time. During a leadership team meeting, I was talking about how I wanted to change the way the organization saw things in the world.
To shut me up, one of the other leaders that I respect asked me to write my thoughts down. That night, I sat down and wrote a story that illustrated the point I wanted to discuss and then explained the point. I was shocked at how much I loved writing the opening story!
For fun, I kept writing short stories and fell deeper in love with the craft. I took an online class to learn more about writing and launched an online literary journal for myself and other authors to publish in. After a year, I had written and published over 100 short stories. It was then that I jumped into writing novels. Six years and ten novels later, I’m deeply in love with telling stories and never plan to stop.
What are you working on next?
Last year, I released my newest novel, Fight—the third installment of The Adventures of Watkins and Howe series.
I’m also ghostwriting a nonfiction manifesto for a professional in Chicago, and I’m dreaming about writing a post-apocalyptic thriller based in the Baltimore area that will model the historic rise of Genghis Khan.
Join the Jeff Elkins fan base
If you’d like to learn more about Jeff and his work and score a free copy of The Twelve Commandments, sign up for his newsletter and join the fan base.
I hope you enjoyed the interview and the sneak peak at his story in And Then There Were Nine.
How about you? Do you see stories in real life happenings? Do you enjoy stories based on actual events? Tell us about it in the comments.