Charlie Donlea on Writing the Fictional, Literary Answer to True Crime Docu-Dramas
Updated: Dec 1, 2018
Over the past few years, podcasts and television shows like Serial and Netflix’s Making A Murderer have taken over the country, if not the world. Thousands of people tune in every day to find out what happened next in these real-life cases where the question of did they or didn’t they pervades throughout the entire trial and beyond.
Now, in a thriller unlike any other out there, Charlie Donlea has provided us with the book we didn’t even know we could have.
Don’t Believe It is basically the literary answer to those true crime dramas: Sidney Ryan is a filmmaker, whose ongoing docu-drama The Girl of Sugar Beach has taken over the country. Ten years previous in St. Lucia, Grace Sebold was arrested and convicted for the murder of her boyfriend Julian while on Spring Break vacation. But for Sidney, all she wants to know is whether Grace really is a cold-blooded murderer, or just the victim of bad police work, and a sloppy investigation. Each week, people sit down to watch the next episode in the series, which Sidney is putting together as her investigation is going on, giving her audience an almost real-time look into her investigation. But as the investigation moves to a close and the series goes into its final episodes, Sidney receives a letter saying that she’s got it all wrong… really wrong.
BookTrib got to talk with Charlie Donlea about our mutual love of true crime podcasts, the key to writing a good thriller, and what it was like trying to write a real-time investigation and television show at the same time.
BookTrib: This book is a very different take on the amateur sleuth/investigative journalist genre, as the investigator is actually a TV producer making a crime docu-series. What was it like writing in this format? Did you run into any difficulties with planning?
Charlie Donlea: Because I love True Crime documentaries, I had a great time creating the protagonist in Don’t Believe It.
But, yes, I ran into many snags as I was writing! In the book, Sidney Ryan is an up and coming filmmaker who signs on to create a real time television documentary (Serial-style) about a grisly, decade-old murder that took place in the Caribbean. The difficulties I ran into with plotting the novel were the same difficulties Sidney ran into creating the series, specifically with the timing. I knew what was going to happen, who the killer was, what they used as the murder weapon, etc. Sidney was trying to figure it all out, and she was chronicling her discoveries week to week in each new episode of her serialized documentary. Trying to pace the discoveries correctly to keep Sidney (and the reader) hooked, was a challenge. But when everything fell into place, it was beautiful!
BookTrib: How did you first get the idea to write this book?
CD: I’ve become a cultish fan of True Crime series like Serial, Making A Murderer, and S-Town.
I love the “did-he-or-didn’t-he” themes that run through these documentaries. After watching enough of these stories, I came up with the idea of a haunting murder on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, a medical student accused of the crime, and the documentary filmmaker looking for answers ten years later.
The documentary series she produces, which plays out week-to-week, captures the attention of the country the way Serial did. Millions tune in each week to see what new evidence our protagonist has discovered, and whether it will point to the accused being guilty or innocent. Lot of twists and startling revelations each week keep the audience hooked, and a shocking ending should have readers flipping back through the pages to see how they missed it.
BookTrib: What books would you say really inspired you as a writer?
CD: I never read books as a child, and never had any aspirations to write. I actually made it through my entire academic career without reading an assigned novel (lots of Cliff’s Notes).
It wasn’t until college when I read John Grisham’s The Firm, which immediately hooked me and caused me to skip classes while I raced through the story, that the idea of writing my own novel planted itself in my mind. For a guy like me—with no creative writing experience and no life-ling love for reading—who thought that maybe I could write a book someday, John Grisham provided a lot of inspiration. He, too, never dreamed of writing, had no formal training, and only accidentally decided to write his first novel after witnessing a harrowing story in the courtroom.
The writing community is saturated with woe-is-me stories about how hard it is to break in, how difficult it is to earn out, and what a battle it is to find an audience. Everything about those stories is true, but I always tell aspiring writers not to listen to those stories. Don’t read about them. Don’t pay attention to them. Don’t dwell on them. Instead, pick a successful author whose career you admire, and learn everything you can about their story. For me, that author is John Grisham. He never dreamed of writing, and once stood in a bookstore staring at the packed shelves wondering how his stories would ever get noticed. Since that day in the bookstore, his books have sold hundreds of millions of copies.
BookTrib: Instead of spending the book trying to prove that someone committed a crime, Sidney Ryan spends the book trying to prove that someone didn’t commit the crime they’ve been in prison for. As an author who has written several thriller novels, what was it like changing up this narrative?
CD: It’s always fun to find a way to put a unique spin on your story.
This structure was especially exciting because the cards are so badly stacked against Sidney. Just like an actual true crime documentary, every single finding seems to point to the accused guilt, and it is up to Sidney to figure out the truth. The problem, of course, comes when the truth she finds isn’t exactly what she was expecting.
BookTrib: Not only is Sidney Ryan, the protagonist of the book, one of the greatest characters ever created, but so is Grace Sebold. How do you find your characters? Do you base them off of anyone?
CD: Sidney and Grace make this story.
They are, in different ways, the heart and soul of Don’t Believe It. Sidney is a tenacious filmmaker looking for answers. She’s the antithesis of a damsel in distress. Quite frankly, she gets sh*% done, and doesn’t allow anything or anyone to get in her way, including network suits who have a different vision of her documentary than she has. Grace, who is the focus of the series, was once a promising fourth year medical student with her whole life in front of her. Now, she’s reduced to a woman approaching middle age whose only hope for freedom rests on Sidney’s ability to find new evidence that will exonerate her. Grace’s character is shrouded in mystery—dare I use the now-cliché term “unreliable narrator”?
Sidney and Grace are very different from one another, but have just enough in common to link them to a common goal of winning Grace’s freedom. Both women will do anything to this end, which becomes one of many problems as the documentary gets further along in production.
BookTrib: This is one of the most gripping books I’ve read in a long time – what do you think the secret is to writing this kind of realistic, impossible-to-put-down thriller?
CD: The secret to a great thriller is building anticipation.
A great opening hook is important, and an explosive, surprise ending is key. But to keep readers engaged through the middle and stop them from putting the book down, you need to make them anticipate what might happen next.
If a reader is constantly guessing what will happen in the next chapter, predicting where the story might go, and wondering about the fate of the characters, then when they put the book down to attend to life, the story will continue to run in their mind. If a reader thinks about the book all day, then they’ll anxiously pick it up again as soon as they get home. And there’s nothing better than a book you can’t wait to get back to.
I’m very proud that so many readers have told me they couldn’t put Don’t Believe It down. And when they had to, they couldn’t wait to pick it up again!
BookTrib: You end this book on a huge cliffhanger! Do you have plans to continue this as a series, or are you happy with leaving us all in suspense?
CD: I love leaving you all in suspense! I also love causing you to throw the book across the room after you turn the last page! In a good way, of course
Every time I publish a novel, I hear from readers who ask the same question: Will this story continue? Will we see these characters again? Is this the beginning of a series?
I love that readers connect with my characters enough to want to see their stories continued. It means, on some level, I’ve done my job well.
But my answer to whether a storyline will continue, or if a character will show up again in a future book, has always been that we’ll all (myself included) have to wait and see. I write one story at a time. When I’m done, I take a nice long break and then start thinking of a new one. I’m sure one of these days a character from a previous book will start yelling at me from the shadowed corners of my mind, I’ll listen, and they’ll tell me about a new grand adventure they want to go on. When that happens, I’ll bring them back in another novel. So far, none of my characters have yelled loudly enough for me to hear… the gang from Don’t Believe It included.
Don’t Believe It is now available for purchase.
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May 31, 2018
Charlie Donlea on Writing the Fictional, Literary Answer to True Crime Docu-Dramas
Rachel Fogle De Souza was born and raised in Connecticut, and traveled extensively throughout Europe, parts of Asia, and the United States, before attending college at the University of California, Davis, where she received a B.A. in Comparative Literature, with a double minor in Women, Gender and Sexualities studies, and Middle Eastern/South Asian studies. When she's not writing, she's reading, boxing, or thinking about traveling.
About Charlie Donlea
Photo Credit: Carrianne Photography
Charlie Donlea is a USA Today bestselling author who has been praised as a “bold new writer…on his way to becoming a major figure in the world of suspense” (Publishers Weekly). He was born and raised in Chicago, where he continues to live with his wife and two young children. An avid golfer and baseball fan, he spends a part of each year fishing with his father in the far reaches of Canada, where the roads end and lakes are accessible only by floatplane. With so many choices of entertainment, and countless other books to choose from, he thanks you for spending your time and treasure on his creation. Readers can find him online at charliedonlea.com.
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