The Making of a (Fictional) True Crime Story

Read Charlie Donlea's exclusive guest post about his love for true crime and how it inspired his latest thriller, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of Don't Believe It!

I was never a big fan of true crime until the podcast Serial hooked me back in 2014. Then, along with 20 million other viewers, I jumped on the Making a Murderer bandwagon. From there, the door to my true crime obsession split off its hinges, and I found myself listening to every podcast that promised the Serial experience and watching every documentary that lured me with the did-he-or-didn’t-he hook. Throw in a mysterious crime and a bizarre suspect at the center of it, and I’m like a dog drooling for a bone.

And I’m not the only one. Hits like The Staircase, The West Memphis Three, and The Jinx are proof that the public’s appetite for true crime is growing. Any given week, 48 Hours and Dateline feature great hour-long episodes that highlight sensational cases. In fact, true crime has become so popular that People Magazine has its own channel—Investigation Discovery—solely devoted to true crime exposés. Since Serial, many podcasts have left listeners helplessly parked in their garages long after they arrived home. S-Town and Dirty John are two of my favorites.

So, when readers ask where I get my ideas, in the case of my latest novel Don’t Believe It, the answer is easy: like the rest of the world, I’ve become a true crime junkie.

After watching dozens of documentaries and listening to countless podcasts, the story of a formidable documentary filmmaker who looks into a grisly, ten-year-old murder began to form in my mind. At the time this idea started percolating, I was in the middle of writing my second novel, The Girl Who Was Taken, so I jotted down a few notes and created a “Book #3” folder. Throughout the process of finishing my second manuscript, I continued to add to this folder anytime a thought came to me.

One thing nagged me, though, about all these documentaries—the endings rarely satisfied. In fact, they often created more questions than they answered. Hours of intensely building suspense frequently ended in a flurry of disappointment and confusion with the core mystery of the story clouded in as much fog as was present during the original hook. An Alfred Hitchcock quote sums up the reason for this phenomenon: In feature films, the director is God; in documentary films, God is the director. 

The filmmakers behind some of our favorite true crime documentaries are retelling events that actually took place and are therefore limited by the facts of the case. How much fun would it be to write a fictionalized version of one of these documentarians hunting for the truth? My filmmaker wouldn’t be limited by the facts like the documentarians in real life because I’d be creating the facts as I wrote the novel. As I continued to fill my Book #3 folder with ideas, I was determined to create an ending to my fictionalized true crime tale that not only satisfied readers but shocked them as well. I wasn’t sure exactly how I would pull this off. I only knew that I had a great premise for what could be a really fun story.

After finishing my second novel, my family and I headed to the island of St. Lucia in the Eastern Caribbean for spring break. At the end of a full-day excursion that took us to an active volcano and bubbling hot springs and concluded with us snorkeling at the base of the majestic twin Pitons, we finished the day on Sugar Beach—a pristine strip of sand situated between Gros Piton and Petite Piton on St. Lucia’s southwest side. While our kids swam in Pitons Bay, my wife and I cozied up to the beach bar with the warm Caribbean sun on our shoulders, drinking Piton beers and sipping piña coladas.

Sugar Beach in St. Lucia. Photo

My wife and I came to several revelations while we sat at that thatch-roofed beach bar. First, we learned that the bar was part of a beautiful hotel called Sugar Beach Resort, an idyllic tropical destination where Matt Damon had renewed his wedding vows a couple of years earlier. We decided the location would make the perfect setting for my third novel. We also agreed it would be a great place for our anniversary trip, which was coming up the following year. The last thing we learned while sitting at that bar on Sugar Beach was that the pleasant Oceanside tavern was open only to guests of the resort and was strictly off limits to day-trippers who were snorkeling the Pitons. My wife and I figured this out when another couple from our group tried to enter the bar and was sternly turned away. We played this discovery off casually and politely declined our bartender’s offer to refill our drinks. We slipped money under our empty glasses and quietly escaped Sugar Beach with our kids.

A year later, my love of true crime documentaries had translated into a manuscript that had my editor excited. It was about that time that my wife and I returned to Sugar Beach for our anniversary. This time, we were legally enjoying our drinks at the seaside bar as registered guests of Sugar Beach Resort. The warm Caribbean sun was again on our shoulders, Pitons Bay was glistening in front of us, and the twin peaks of the famed Pitons were peering down from the heavens. I was putting the final touches on my novel, and our anniversary in St. Lucia was doubling as a research trip.

In addition to all the perks of an epic beach vacation, my wife and I also had the opportunity to tour the inner workings of Sugar Beach Resort where my character’s blood would be discovered in a beachside sports hut, hike up Gros Piton where the victim of my novel would be pushed to his death before washing up on Sugar Beach with a devastating head injury, and visit the Bordelais Correctional Facility, the lone prison on the island where the accused will spend ten years of her life for a murder she swears she didn’t commit. In a final effort to prove her innocence, she reaches out to an old college friend who is a well-known true crime documentary filmmaker. For the first time in a decade, she feels like the truth has a chance to be discovered…

That anniversary trip to Sugar Beach was an unforgettable journey my wife and I will cherish forever. It’s the place where, more than a year earlier, I envisioned the perfect setting for what I thought might be a special story. And where I eventually wrote the final sentence of Don’t Believe It while sitting in villa 306—the same villa tucked into the foothills of Sugar Beach Resort where my fictional filmmaker stays on her first night in St. Lucia before she starts shooting her soon-to-be hit true crime documentary.

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Don’t Believe It by Charlie Donlea!

To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

Don’t Believe It Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at http://www.criminalelement.com/the-making-of-a-fictional-true-crime-story beginning at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) May 31, 2018. Sweepstakes ends at 2:29 p.m. ET June 12, 2018. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

 

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Comments

  1. John Smith

    She’s a puppet in a sinister game! Can she be saved?!

  2. DanielM

    sounds like a fun one

  3. Becky Kasper Shemeley

    I am such a HUGE true-crime junkie~ a podcast listener as well. So I will def. add your book to my TBR list!

  4. Tiffany

    This looks great!

  5. Karen Hester

    clever use of true crime in fiction

  6. Jean Barber

    Sounds like a good read.

  7. Tammy Mitchell

    Im looking forward to this book.

  8. Lani Strom

    Having been to Sugar Beach, I think it will add intrigue to reading this novel. Really looking forward to it.

  9. Kate Vocke

    Sounds awesome!!

  10. Melissa Pereira

    Looks great

  11. Vernon Luckert

    Love a good thriller!

  12. Karen Mikusak

    Sounds great. Would love to win!

  13. Esther Whatley

    Sounds like a winner.

  14. Lori P

    This article felt like a mini-vacation (i.e. interesting and evocative). Thanks for that!

  15. Dawn Ruby

    I love the inspiration for the book. It looks beautiful…add a crime mystery and it’s perfect. Looking forward to reading it

  16. Michael Carter

    Great!
    Please enter me in this sweepstakes.
    Thanks —

  17. Rose Jones

    This is a marvelous concept.

  18. Laurent Latulippe

    sounds like a fun read.

  19. Jill Porco

    Interesting premise to write a fictionalized true crime book. That appeals to me more than an actual true crime story. True crime is about real things that’ve happened. I prefer my murders as made up stories versus real life events– real life is scary enough that I don’t want to know about actual crimes that will freak me out even more!

  20. Laurie

    I loved Don’t Believe It by Charlie Donlea and would love a copy to give to my daughter since I keep telling her, and all of my reading friends, how fabulous it was.

  21. Catherine Myers

    I am fascinated by St. Lucia

  22. Carole Knoles

    Smart thriller! Smart being the operative word.

  23. Jamie Rasmussen

    I want to read Don’t Believe It.

  24. susan beamon

    I don’t listen to podcasts on any subject. I used to read true crime but I find I like fiction better. It’s the old “fiction has to make sense” thing. True life is sometimes too messy.

  25. lasvegasnv

    cool

  26. luvlife4ever24

    Sounds very good. Thanks for sharing.

  27. Melinda McClellan

    Already on my tbr….I love true crime and this book sounds fantastic!!!

  28. Susan Morris

    Loved reading how you got the ideas for your new book! Sounds like a winner!

  29. Teresa Young

    Drinking ‘illegally’ at a bar sounds like something I would do, and get busted! Sugar Beach sounds like a great setting for an anniversary celebration & crime novel.

  30. Karen Minter

    I enjoyed reading the origin of how you created this book. It makes me look forward to reading it even more!

  31. Susanne Troop

    Sounds great!

  32. Debbie Krenzer

    The book is excellent!! Read my review: http://debbiekrenzer.booklikes.com/post/1763974/post

  33. pat murphy

    Sounds great !

  34. RD

    Looks good!!!

  35. Carolyn

    Looks like a great book!

  36. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  37. carloshmarlo

    True crime has been a guilty pleasure of mine for years. Why do I enjoy tales of actual human depravity? I don’t know but I suspect the reasons are pretty dark. Thanks for the chance to win this great book.

  38. Sandra Hinojosa-Gomez

    Looks like a awesome read….cant wait!!!

  39. Karen Terry

    I love true crime

  40. Rhonda Stefani

    I’ve just started The Girl Who Was Taken, fabulous so far, in anticipation of hopefully reading Don’t Believe It sooner rather than later. His newest book sounds even more exciting & I’m so looking forward to it! I’d absolutely love a copy!

  41. Jean Feingold

    Nice setting for a murder

  42. HESTER MAYO

    A good book to read while at the beach!

  43. Leslie Davis

    Sonds great. Love true crime.

  44. Kara Lauren

    I love true crime, can’t wait to read this one!

  45. Linda Cosby

    This sounds like a great book.

  46. tex2309

    love anything and everything about true crime….would love to win this book!!

  47. Marisa Young

    Loved the photo

  48. zenlady21

    I love the two Charlie Donlea books I have read: “Summit Lake” and “The Girl Who Was Taken”. This one sounds even more intriguing! I am a true crime junkie too….

  49. Janet Gould

    Great article.

  50. Vicki Andrew

    sounds like a good summer read

  51. julie hawkins

    Sounds like a great book for my summer reading list.

  52. JAMES LYNAM

    Love Sugar Beach. This I should enjoy.

  53. Patricia Mansker

    Interesting take on where you get ideas

  54. Polly Johnson

    Although I love crime stories, I have never read this author but think I would enjoy him greatly. Has a great writing style just in this post. Thank you for sponsoring the contest.

  55. Joyce Benzing

    Thanks for the chance to win.

  56. Leela

    Thanks for the giveaway!

  57. Barbara Lima

    This sounds so exciting!

  58. Brenda Elsner

    Sounds like a wonderful book!!!

  59. susan smoaks

    thank you for the chance to win

  60. Ed Nemmers

    I would like to read the work of Charlie Donlea.

  61. Linda Peters

    Love a good crime story.

  62. Sand Lopez

    I would love to read this!

  63. 23sunnystreet

    Thanks for the giveaway!

  64. Steve

    Sounds like a great read.

  65. Betty Curran

    I’m a true crime addict too

  66. Buddy Garrett

    It sounds like an interesting read.

  67. Lily Kwan

    Thanks for the great giveaway!

  68. Elizabeth Visak

    Thank you for this giveaway.

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