J.T. Ellison - HER DARK LIES

J.T. Ellison - HER DARK LIES

J.T. and I discuss her latest mystery Her Dark Lies, closed circle versus locked room mysteries, the trip that lead to her creating Her Dark Lies, the character that she really struggled to write, writing books in a series compared to standalone books, and much more.

J.T. and I discuss her latest mystery Her Dark Lies, closed circle versus locked room mysteries, the trip that lead to her creating Her Dark Lies, the character that she really struggled to write, writing books in a series compared to standalone books, and much more.

Her Dark Lies can be purchased at Murder by the Book or the CFAP Bookshop storefront.

J.T.’s recommended read is The Push by Ashley Audrain.

Support the podcast here. For more information about sponsoring an episode, click here.

If you enjoy reading mysteries/thrillers and want to listen to more podcast episodes like this one, try Jane Harper, Sarah Pearse, Alice Henderson, and David Heska Wanbli Weiden.



book, island, write, pandemic, people, story, Italy, read, closed, authors, characters, Lake Como, fascinating, Claire, stuck, circle, writer, fireworks, locked, outline


Cindy Burnett, J.T. Ellison


Cindy Burnett  00:06

This is the Thoughts from a Page Podcast where I interview authors about their latest works. My name is Cindy Burnett, and I love to talk about books. For more book recommendations, check out my website thoughtsfromapage.com and follow me on Facebook and Instagram at @thoughtsfromapage and on Twitter at @burn555555. Today I am interviewing J.T. Ellison about her new book Her Dark Lies. J.T. is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than 25 novels and the Emmy Award winning cohost of the literary TV show A Word on Words. With millions of books in print, her work has won critical acclaim, prestigious awards and has been published in 28 countries. J.T. lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens. I hope you enjoy our conversation. Hey, J.T., how are you today?


J.T. Ellison  00:57

Cindy, it's so good to be here with you. How are you?


Cindy Burnett  01:00

I am doing great. And I am so glad you were here with me.


J.T. Ellison  01:04

Thanks. Me too.


Cindy Burnett  01:05

Let's dive into talking about Her Dark Lies. Why don't we start out with you telling me a little bit about it?


J.T. Ellison  01:10

So Her Dark Lies is the story of a young, up-and-coming artist of large-format oils named Claire Hunter, who has just met the man of her dreams. Jack Compton is his name. He's the number one son of an incredibly wealthy gazillion bazillionaire. Think like Bill Gates has a son  - this is who Jack Compton is. But he doesn't reveal himself to her right away. So she falls in love with this guy. And he knows she's fallen in love with him and not his money. And they are getting married. The book opens with their getting ready to leave for his family's private island Isola off the coast of Italy to have their wedding weekend. And because it's a J.T. Ellison novel things go dreadfully wrong.


Cindy Burnett  02:03

Well, I love the setting. How did you decide on Italy and the island and the whole closed circle mystery idea?


J.T. Ellison  02:10

Oh, I'm so glad you mentioned that it's a closed circle and not a locked room. I noticed McKenna posted about that this week, and I cheered because that's exactly what this is. It is a closed circle. And it's not a locked room mystery. So to choose Italy. I'm Italian. My family is from Italy. And we still have family there. And we go often, every couple of years we try to go and visit with them and tour the country side. And this time we went, and it was one of my big birthdays. So we had a number of family members driving around the Italian countryside in a van that we nicknamed Van Go. It was raining, and we all got really bad colds, and everybody was grumpy, and it's never fun getting sick on vacation. Getting sick on vacation in a foreign country is a challenge. So we found some really great codeine cough drops that are not legal here which were very helpful, and we managed, we soldiered through, and then our last stop before they went home. My husband and I were gonna stick around for a while but the last stop for the family went home was Lake Como which we've never been to. And we were staying in this lovely little hotel right across from the island, the one island in Lake Como, which is Comacina. And as we were getting on with our day, up pulls this massive yacht, and out spills a wedding party. And it's kind of this big joke in the family. Every place we go there's a wedding. It doesn't matter where we are, somebody is getting married. I was like, oh, well here we are in Italy again, and somebody is getting married. And we went around and toured and did all this fun stuff. And I learned this crazy backstory to the island, that you have to drink this certain kind of coffee before you leave it so the demons don't follow you. Really cool weird Italian stuff, right? And that evening, fireworks went off, right in the middle of my birthday dinner, which I thought was quite impressive. They had arranged for fireworks for me. Of course it was for the wedding. And I knew, I'm like I've got to write this in, right? A wedding on an island and the fireworks and the massive yacht and all of these elements. But Comacina didn't look right - the story I was seeing in my head had a massive cliff side, and I went Alright, I'm gonna marry Comacina with Capri. And I'm going to put this island out into the western Mediterranean Sea. And as it turns out, I sort of put it right between the Scylla and Charybdis. I put basically it is the island that Scylla lives on. I was like, Okay, well that works for me. And I wrote that mythology into the story in the history of the island. So that's kind of a long circuitous route to - I was inspired on my birthday sitting on a terrace in Italy.


Cindy Burnett  05:00

Where they nicely had fireworks for your birthday.


J.T. Ellison  05:02

Wasn't that cool?


Cindy Burnett  05:04

I love that area, Lake Como is beautiful. I mean, it's just one of those places that you don't believe it's that pretty until you're there. And then it's still almost doesn't seem real.


J.T. Ellison  05:12

Oh, I mean, I am going back. I've been to Maggiore, but I've never been to Como. And it was magical. And we had a boat dock right in front of the hotel. And we ended up, so we'd been sick and we didn't have a ton of energy, but we took the ferry all over, and we just ended up sitting on it and going from port to port to port all afternoon, which was so much fun. It was the first sunny day, and Como is it's a magical place. I loved it. I can't wait to go back.


Cindy Burnett  05:44

My kids are dying to go to Italy. And I thought if we do go, we definitely need to go there again. And I'd love that idea of going port to port. We didn't do that we drove around a portion of it. It's been a long time. But it was just beautiful. And I still have the photos. And I just think- what a gorgeous place.


J.T. Ellison  05:58

It is. It's absolutely beautiful. And just there's something special about it. It's wonderful, highly recommended.


Cindy Burnett  06:05

Well, let's talk a little bit about closed circle versus locked room because this was actually not something I was really aware of. And I feel like in the last, I don't know, six months, eight months, there have been kind of a boon of these type of stories that are set in a defined setting. So since you're the expert and the mystery writer, do you want to tell me a little bit about closed circle versus locked room?


J.T. Ellison  06:25

So I'm not an expert, by any means the locked room is quite literally a locked room where the murder happens inside of it. And nobody can figure out how it happened, right? And that's, the hallmark is Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None right? That is the perfect example of how that can work, how that happened. And if you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. That though is more of a closed circle story. Because they're there alone on an island, they can still move around and stuff. And things happen outside of that locked room if that makes any sense. That's probably a terrible explanation of it. But mine's a closed circle, right? They, they are caught on an island, but they can move about the cabin. And things happen in various places in the setting, versus somebody dies in a single room, like the lights go out, there's a gunshot, and the lights come back on and somebody's dead, and they're all in this room. And how did somebody get in and out without anybody seeing. It's just a slightly different take on the same claustrophobic idea of something happening out of your control, and you can't get out of that environment. And that's, that's the exciting part of it for me.


Cindy Burnett  07:43

Well, I guess that is the difference. In terms of the closed circle, there's still no coming and going but you're not in one room with the doors and windows locked. You're on the island or you're wherever you are, but it's when there's an avalanche or something that prevents people from coming and going. A terrible storm so you can't get on and off the island, whatever it is, that kind of keeps everybody in one place.


J.T. Ellison  08:03

Right. So everybody's stuck there. And that's that's what I do in Her Dark Lies. They're on the island. They're having a Red Flag Warning, which is the worst weather Italy ever has. It's kind of like if we had a tornado warning, that kind of thing. Red flag is we're going to have horrible weather, hunker down, and they're far enough away from land, that it will be impeded. That was exactly why I wanted to set it further west than Capri. I wanted it to be very difficult for them to be reached no matter what. That the helicopters can't fly, because of course, they're incredibly wealthy family. They have a helicopter that they can come in and out with. But if the weather is horrific, and you can't fly that helicopter, and the waves are too high for the ferry to run, and everything's too big for the yacht, then you're stuck there on that island in this house. And of course there's a killer. I mean, I think that's probably a common denominator in both of these stories. There is a killer on the loose, and you have to stay alive in this highly charged situation and setting.


Cindy Burnett  09:08

And there's no help coming from the outside and you can't go anywhere.


J.T. Ellison  09:11

Right. There's no help coming, you're on your own. I think we love those kinds of stories. I mean, there's a reason why they're successful. There's a reason why there's a lot of them coming out right now. It's interesting that we've all been in our own closed circle situation, since it's been a year now that the pandemic hit. We're all stuck at home, unless we have jobs that are taking us out of our homes. But so many of us have been stuck at home. And we can't escape this, right? There is danger, true genuine danger, out our front door. And that's I think why these books are hitting so well at this moment is we get to at least experience it in a different setting.


Cindy Burnett  09:55

That's so interesting, J.T., because I hadn't really thought about that component of it. And you're right. I mean, we're all kind of, not obviously, hopefully with the murder aspect of it, but we're all experiencing our own closed circle. But all of them were written ahead, It takes so long for books to get out. So that's just kind of fascinating that as this trend is coming, well at least it seems to me that it's more popular now, maybe it just happens to be the books that I'm picking up, I don't really know. But that that kind of mirrors what we're experiencing a little bit.


J.T. Ellison  10:22

Right. I mean, the zeitgeist is an interesting place, especially for authors because there's no original ideas, right? Everything we do is derivative of something else. There are seven plots, and of that you have to come up with something new. The fun thing is you can give 10 authors the exact same outline, and they will write 10 completely different stories. That's the interesting part of it, right? So we're all in this weird situation. I wrote a lot of this book during the pandemic, but I was writing it well before the pandemic. This book took me forever and a day to write because I had two knee surgeries during the composition of it. And I had surgery brain, oh my gosh, just so the book was just not working for me. When I finally was able to make it work was when we were in full lockdown. It was in the height of when we were trying to figure out just how dangerous this was and how far reaching it was going to be. And that's when I really was able to tap into that emotion. And that feeling for these folks being stuck, just genuinely stuck. And yes they are kind of all a massive metaphor for where we have been as a society, a worldwide society, dealing with this. I mean, that's, that's the fascinating part of the pandemic for me. It's not just you and I having effects. It's the entire world. It's been very interesting. And it's a really fascinating equalizer for all of us.


Cindy Burnett  11:56

I agree completely. Well, did you find it harder to plot it out as a closed circle mystery? Or like when do you just write a mystery where people are coming and going and kind of living their regular lives? Did you find one easier than the other?


J.T. Ellison  12:09

It's much harder to do a closed circle or locked room. I mean, that's hard. That takes some thought. It takes some planning, I didn't really realize what I was doing with it until I was well into it and realized, Oh, hey, yeah, this is they're going to be stuck, right? They're not going to be able to get out of here. I was just thinking, I want to write something really creepy and Gothic. And I'm inspired by Rebecca over and over again. I always find elements of that book that I love to explore in my own work. And it just sort of happened in the way that it did. I don't plan a lot. When I look back on it. I'm like, oh, look what you did, hey, check that out. Your subconscious, as a writer, as a creative, really does a lot of the work for you. And if you can just sort of maintain a little bit of margin in some quiet, your subconscious can do a lot, right? And that's kind of a cool thing.


Cindy Burnett  13:06

Well, that kind of goes back a little bit to your idea that you give 10 authors the same plot and then having them write a story, and each story will be so different. I think it's the same thing with authors and their writing habits. Like I'm always fascinated to hear the wide range of writing habits and processes and everything that authors go through. So tell me a little bit more about yours.


J.T. Ellison  13:27

It is fascinating. I call it other people's process. OPP. I love to talk to writers about how they write. It's one of my favorite things. I think it's fascinating. Everybody is different. Everybody has a different way up the mountain. There is no right way up the mountain. That's the other fun thing is it doesn't matter how you get there, as long as you summit, you're good, right? I started out without much structure at all. I'm a pantser as they call it; it sounds so renegade like I'm a sort of writerly cowboy pantsing my way through my day. It just means that you don't like to plot, right? It just means that you'd like the story to happen organically. And that's the fun part of writing for me is those days where I end up someplace completely new. There are new characters. They are people that I was not, I had not been introduced to until that afternoon. And I've written a couple 1000 words and it's gone, the story's gone in a completely new direction. The problem is, which I learned when I was co-writing, that doesn't work so well when there are other people involved. You do have to have a bit of a plan or a very patient co-writer which I had both of, but it really I got used to thinking the story through on a more macro level. And that has now carried over into my personal work. I don't like to outline still, but I'm using something called 40 Scenes where you actually write out 40 scenes. So simple - it doesn't have to be 2000 words a scene. It just is a guide, right? So it's Olivia is walking on the beach, Olivia and Park have a fight. Little things like that. And if I can get to 40 of them, and then I can think of okay, it's just writer math. There's 40 scenes, if that scene is 2000 words, and I've got 40 of them, there's 80,000 words right there. Oh, hey, I guess I just sort of outlined a book. So I kind of back my way into outlining. I also have found that series books, I don't need to outline. I can work because I've got the world built. I've got the characters built, I have everything there for the taking. It's like going into a stocked pantry, right to make dinner. versus if you're writing a standalone, you have to go to the grocery store, buy everything, figure out what you're going to eat, how you're going to make it all of that it's just a different process entirely than writing a series novel. So I love the standalones they're a little more challenging for me because I am more of an okay, the pantry stocked, let's go then going and trying to figure things out from scratch. But I'm a cook so I can do it either way.


Cindy Burnett  16:16

That will forever be sticking with me now as I'm reading mystery series and mystery standalones. (laughing) I'm going to be like the pantry stocked, the pantry is not stocked. I like that.


J.T. Ellison  16:25

Well, I think I'm hungry. All good metaphor is born organically, right?


Cindy Burnett  16:30

Well, and I also think writers are so good at metaphors.


J.T. Ellison  16:33

Well, I've never used that one before. So now I'm going to use it as well, because it makes sense.


Cindy Burnett  16:38

It does. It actually is the perfect way to reflect on that. Well, did you have a most favorite and least favorite character to write in this one?


J.T. Ellison  16:44

I did. I loved writing Katie Elderfield who is her best friend. So I ran a contest. Lisa Gardner, who we all know and love, always does a Maim a Buddy/Kill a Friend contest every year. So I completely stole it. She had sent her note about that I'm like, I'm stealing that. And I went on Instagram, and I said, Who wants to die in my next novel? We had a lot, and I ended up with a number of people that die in the book. And so I had to kill them. But coming full circle, Katie was so much fun to write because she has been friends with Claire who is the the main character for years. They went to school together; they got all their tattoos together; they really are soul sisters. The family you choose  - Katie is the family that Claire chooses, because she doesn't have a good time with her own family. And I think those friends are incredibly valuable, right? The people that genuinely know you. They know your secrets. They know what you're trying to hide from the rest of the world. She was a blast. And I mean, she always, she marched onto the page with her nose ring glinting in the sunlight. So I knew immediately who she was. Claire, on the other hand, would not reveal herself to me. She had multiple names. I never quite knew what her name was. She would not tell me what her secrets were. She was a total enigma. And I've never had a main character like that. And it was really hard. And when she finally does reveal herself in the book, that's when she revealed herself to me. And then I was able to go back in the revision and and lay in what I needed to to make all of that make sense. But she was very difficult to get to know. And when she did finally give me her name that helped a lot. She had, like I said it had been a couple other people and it just wasn't who she was. She she hid from me for a really, really long time. And when you read the book, and you see why, it's very understandable. It's something that I don't blame her for wanting to keep that private. But she was really hard to write. And it's difficult when you have a main character that the whole story hinges on that will not participate in your story.


Cindy Burnett  19:02

Yeah, she's like leave me alone. I don't want to be in this book.


J.T. Ellison  19:06

No, she really didn't. And I forced her, and she doesn't like me for that.


Cindy Burnett  19:11

She'll never talk to you again.


J.T. Ellison  19:12

Oh, she really won't. I know what season two would be if this got picked up for option, but oh my goodness, that girl would not be happy if I came back and revisited her. It's crazy to talk about it like she's alive. But that is how these characters are to me. They are real people because I'm living with them day in and day out for months on end. They do come alive for you.


Cindy Burnett  19:37

That's such a fascinating thing to me, because that doesn't really happen to me. And I mean, as a reader, I will love certain characters and bond with them and think oh, I would love that if that was a real person. But I don't really they don't really inhabit me like they do when authors talk about it. And I just think that's so interesting.


J.T. Ellison  19:53

You know, it's controlled psychosis in a way. Right. We're hearing voices, and we have found a way to handle them into a creative endeavor. The psychology behind it is kind of interesting. But if they come alive on the page for me, then they're going to come alive on the page for you. And that's always what I'm, what's in the back of my head, right? I read too many novels that are written in first person, that I don't connect with the character. And that's, that's something really dangerous for me as a writer. I try to be very careful about what point of view I pick for a character. Because if if the reader doesn't connect with them out the gate, then you can have a very difficult time with a book, and I think that's a lot of why people don't get into books is because they just they can't hear that voice. Either. You aren't creating it for them in the right way. Sometimes changing the point of view will fix that in a heartbeat.


Cindy Burnett  20:52

I do agree that if I don't connect with a character, or at least one character, it doesn't have to be multiple of them that I really have a hard time with the book.


J.T. Ellison  21:01

Yeah, yeah, it's an interesting phenomenon that I just figured out. Pandemic reading for me has been a challenge. My attention span has been shot; I've read much less. And that's been just a real sad thing for me. But I've been watching a lot of television. And I really started paying attention to the characters that I connected with, and why I connected with them. And I'm trying to pull that into my creative work so that I can really make sure I'm hitting the marks with people, right? The people are the important part of the book, if you aren't into them, and you're not intrigued by what they're saying, then it's going to be a really, really long slog. And I don't want any of my books to be a slog.


Cindy Burnett  21:46

Or people will just put them down. Either way, either they make it through and they are kind of annoyed they made it through or they just put it down. That actually leads me to my next question. So what have you read that you really liked recently or just any time during the pandemic?


J.T. Ellison  21:58

So I just finished The Push, Ashley Audrain. And I loved it. I loved it. And oddly enough, it's written in second person, which is almost impossible to do well, and when it's done well, it is so incredibly effective. It was a really seminal book for me. I struggle with timelines. That's one of my biggest challenges as a writer is timeline. I have a tendency to compress everything because I wrote thrillers for so long that time was of the essence. You had to catch a killer, you had to stop the bomb from going off. It was always such a heavy ticking clock, stamp. My standalones are not a ticking clock kind of story. And I'm having to relearn how to do time timelines. This was a great example of how you can maintain tension over the course of 12 years. The book covers 12 years.


Cindy Burnett  22:56

I haven't read it, but I've heard great things about it.


J.T. Ellison  22:59

It was not what I was expecting. I like the premise; it sounded cool. I did not realize what the book actually was about until I got into it. And wow, completely blown away. True psychological thriller - really, really well done, perfectly executed lovely prose and done in second person. I couldn't wait to sit down and read. I couldn't put it down. I'm very appreciative of any book that's going to take me away like that, but especially one that kind of made me feel like, okay, I'm a reader again.


Cindy Burnett  23:35

Well, good. Well, thank you so much. And I have thoroughly enjoyed speaking with you, J.T. It's been a fabulous conversation - so interesting. And I can't wait for everybody to get to read Her Dark Lies.


J.T. Ellison  23:44

Thanks, Cindy. I'm thrilled to have been here and I'm with you - I can't wait for people to read it and let me know what they think.


Cindy Burnett  23:50

All right, well, thanks again. Thank you so much for listening to my podcast. If you liked this episode, and I hope you did. Please follow me on Instagram and Pinterest at @thoughtsfromapage, tell all of your friends about the podcast and rate it wherever you listen to your podcasts. I would greatly appreciate it. J.T.'s book can be purchased at Murder by the Book where I work part time, or the Conversations from a Page Bookshop storefront. The link to both is in the show notes. Thanks to K.P. Regan for the sound editing, and I hope you'll tune in next time.