STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Jaden Terrell

Jaden Terrell wrote A Cup Full of Midnight, a mystery/thriller set in Nashville, Tenn and the second mystery focused on PI Jared McKean. When McKean starts working a case involving vampires and the occult it strikes close to home. His teenage nephew had been involved with the older victim. My review here.

In addition, Terrell contributes to Now Write! Mysteries, a collection of exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for writers of crime fiction. Terrell is the executive director of the Killer Nashville Thriller, Mystery, and Crime Literature Conference and a recipient of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.

Jaden Terrell website

Jaden answered some questions via email.

Amy Steele: What appeals to you most about writing mysteries?

Jaden Terrell: I think we often write about things that frighten us or things we don’t understand. In real life, justice isn’t always served. Criminals are released on technicalities. Crimes can go unsolved, and even when they are solved, we’re left wondering why they happened. Mysteries explore both the motivations behind criminal acts and the effects of crimes on the victims and their loved ones. In the conflict between good and evil, good ultimately wins, though often at great cost. It’s reassuring to think there are strong, brave people standing between evil and the rest of us. Writing about Jared, the hero of my private detective series, reminds me that those people exist.

Amy Steele: How difficult is it to come up with a new storyline?

Jaden Terrell: It’s very easy to come up with new ideas. They’re everywhere. But developing those ideas into full-blown story-lines is harder. Plotting doesn’t come naturally to me, so going from the seed of the idea to the fully realized story takes a lot of work.

Amy Steele: Do you base your stories on anything you’ve seen or heard in the news?

Jaden Terrell: It would be more accurate to say they’re “inspired by” rather than “based on” actual events. My books incorporate elements of news stories, but the real-life incident is more of a jumping-off point or something that provides texture. In A Cup Full of Midnight, the second book in the series, I drew from several incidents in which young adults using vampire personae committed murder, but beyond the initial idea, there’s little correlation between the events in the book and the details of the original cases. The third book, which is in progress, explores human trafficking, and the fourth involves the practice of soring in the Tennessee Walking Horse Industry (soring is the use of pain to give a horse an exaggerated gait). Both issues have been in the news, but the plot is independent of any one case.

Amy Steele: Have you developed a working relationship with the Nashville police or with any private investigators so that you can bounce ideas off them?

Jaden Terrell: I attended Citizen Academies for the FBI, TBI, and Metro Nashville Police, which gave me some great contacts in all those agencies. I’m also friends with a former private detective, and I took a firearms course from a firearms instructor for Metro’s police department. Both have been extremely generous with their time and knowledge. When I was researching A Cup Full of Midnight, I took a medical examiner to lunch and interviewed him about what an autopsy would reveal about a murder described early in the book, and later, I met with a homicide detective to see what the on-site investigation would have been like.

Amy Steele: How do you describe the death scenes so vividly? Have you been to some crime scenes?

Jaden Terrell: Thank you for saying they’re vivid. I haven’t been to a crime scene, but I’ve seen a number of mock crime scenes staged by the TBI (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation), and I’ve read a lot about crime scenes and crime scene investigation. When possible, I’ve looked up photographs or interviewed professionals. I think one thing that makes a scene like this seem authentic is the reactions of other characters. For those, I relied on interviews with investigators and observations of how we behave when people we care about are sick, injured, or have passed away.

Amy Steele: How important is a title to a mystery?

Jaden Terrell: I think the title is very important. If a reader already knows and loves your work, they may pick it up regardless, but for a lesser-known writer, it’s often the title that first catches a reader’s attention. Since most print books are shelved with the spine out, the title is often the only thing a reader sees. If it’s catchy or thought-provoking, there’s a better chance a browser will pause to take a look. With e-books, it’s a little different, in that you see the whole cover and not just the spine, but since they’re usually just thumbnails, the effect is similar. Of course, you can’t always control your title. Publishers often change writers’ titles, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

Amy Steele: Have you always been a fan of mysteries?

Jaden Terrell: I’ve always been an eclectic reader. Mystery, fantasy, thriller, western, horror, literary…I’ve never been much for romance, but everything else has always been fair game.

Amy Steele: Who are some mystery authors past and/or current who you admire?

Jaden Terrell: Timothy Hallinan, Dennis Lehane, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, John Sandford, Lawrence Block, S.J. Rozan, Jonathan Kellerman.

Amy Steele: You belong to several mystery and writing organizations, how do these help you in your writing?

Jaden Terrell: I’ve met so many exceptional writers through these organizations (and through my work with the Killer Nashville conference). We give each other support and encouragement, and I learn more about the writing craft by reading their books. I try to open doors for those whose work I admire, and those who have read and like my work do the same for me, so we end up reaching more readers than any one of us alone could do. So I would say both my writing and my writing career benefit from being a part of writing and mystery organizations like Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.

Amy Steele: Where did the idea for A Cup Full of Midnight come from?

Jaden Terrell: In the first book, Jared’s nephew, Josh, runs away from home and becomes involved with a dangerous fringe of the Goth subculture. Much of what happens to him occurs offstage, but there’s an indication that he’s become involved with an older man, Razor, who calls himself the Vampire Prince of Nashville. He was a Machiavellian character, and I wanted to explore both his ability to manipulate others and the consequences of his behavior. I also wanted to look at the difference between role players (since I’ve been one for years) and people who are not playing but rather living their personas. One day, I read a quote by Wayne Dyer describing God as a vast ocean of love and goodness; no matter how much you scooped out, the ocean itself was never diminished. I had the thought that evil was no different, and got an image of Razor standing beside a sea of darkness and dipping in a chalice to scoop out a cup full of that blackness. I knew then that Razor’s dance with the devil would end in his death and that Jared’s attempts to solve Razor’s murder would unveil layer after layer of machinations and lead him and Josh into danger.

Amy: What type of research went into this book?

Jaden Terrell: I did quite a bit of reading, both online and in books, about the “real” vampire culture, including blogs by people who believe themselves to be vampires. I knew a lot already about roleplaying and role players, so I didn’t have to do much in that area. In terms of Jared’s investigation, much of what I learned from my general research came into play (though I made a rookie mistake with one of the firearms—I changed Jared’s handgun from a Glock to a Taurus and back again, and when I changed back to the Glock, I forgot to remove the safety). One of the challenges in writing a PI novel is keeping the police on the sidelines without making them seem incompetent. I spoke to several police officers about ways to achieve that.

Amy: Why did you want to write about vampires and the occult?

Jaden Terrell: I didn’t think of it that way. I started with the idea that Josh was into the Goth subculture but involved with someone much darker. The vampire subculture is the darker end of that spectrum, so it seemed like a natural fit. Because I had played the vampire role-playing game, I was both interested and appalled by the real-life murder cases in which vampire wannabes committed murder. How do you cross that line from pretending to be a supernatural monster to becoming a real one? In the book, the Storyteller in the game, Chuck, describes players whose characters are “sharks in people suits.” My friends and I always played “superheroes with fangs,” the whole point of which was creating characters who resisted the monster inside. Why would someone deliberately embrace it? And what would make a group of seemingly normal teenagers allow themselves to be drawn into such a dark and elaborate web?

Amy Steele: Let’s talk about your main character, the P.I. Jared McKean. Why did you decide to write a man and from a man’s perspective instead of a woman? How did you come up with this character? He’s strong but very sensitive as he has a special needs child and his best friend has AIDS. What made you add those additional characteristics?

Jaden Terrell: I was trying to write about a woman, and it wasn’t working. She was a stereotypical feisty female PI, and no matter what I did, I kept coming up with bad Kinsey Milhone knock-offs. I always ended up making her so different from me that I couldn’t identify with her or so similar to me that she refused to take any risks (“No, seriously, I’ll stay here and lock the doors and call 911. YOU sneak into the basement and take on the bad guys.”). I kept getting the image of this tall, handsome man in jeans and a leather bomber jacket leaning on a whitewashed wooden fence in front of a horse pasture. “I’m your guy,” he’d say, and I’d say, “No you’re not. I’m writing about this feisty female detective.” Eventually, I sat back and said, “Okay, let’s see what you’ve got.” I wanted him to be very strong, but also to have a depth of compassion. Because I had taught special education for twelve years, I gave him a son, Paul, with Down syndrome, and because I had lost a close friend to AIDS, I thought it would be interesting to explore a lifelong friendship between a straight, tough-guy, former cop and a gay man with AIDS. Both these relationships soften Jared and—I hope—give him depth and dimension.

Amy Steele: What do you like best about Jared?

Jaden Terrell: That’s a hard question! I love his loyalty, the way he never gives up on anyone he loves. His horse is almost as old as he is. His dog is ancient and arthritic. He’s still in love with his ex-wife. His best friend is gay and may be dying. He finds a way to make relationships work, even when it’s hard, even when making them work means redefining them. He’s flawed, but he tries to do the right thing.

Amy Steele: What is your favorite aspect of A Cup Full of Midnight?

Jaden Terrell: Some of the characters have very complex motivations. They have conflicting emotions, conflicting desires. Depicting that complexity was both challenging and rewarding.

Amy Steele: Why do you write?

Jaden Terrell: The usual answer to that question is, “Because I can’t NOT write,” but that’s not the whole story. If I stopped writing, I would still enjoy watching the movies in my mind. I would still be writing in my head. Sometimes it’s hard to make yourself move past that stage and actually write the story. But the movie in your mind is never really complete and therefore, enjoyable as it is, is never totally satisfying. It’s not until it’s written down that you see its real potential. Then, as you edit and revise, the layers and subtexts reveal themselves and the story becomes so much more than it was when you were only imagining it. There’s nothing like reading a scene and realizing that, while it seems familiar, there’s also something alien about it. It’s almost like it was written by someone else, and by Jove, it works.

Amy Steele: I’m fascinated that you’re a writer and a certified horse massage therapist. When and why did you become one?

Jaden Terrell: I’ve always loved horses and, at the same time, been a little afraid of them. I’m uncomfortable with riding, partly because of the danger and partly because I’m overweight and it seems unfair to the horse. But I love to brush and pet them. I love their company. I love the way they smell. When I first read about equine sports massage and realized I could take a course in it, it seemed like the perfect way to enjoy the company of horses without having to get off the ground. I’ve never done it professionally, but my palomino quarter horse, like Jared’s, is in his 30s, and massage is a gift I can give him in return for all the years he gave me and his previous owners.

Amy Steele: What’s the best advice someone’s giving you about writing?

Jaden Terrell: This came from my friend and fellow writer, Philip Cioffari, who wrote Catholic Boys and Jesusville. He said, “Be ruthless with your writing time. Protect it with your life.” I have trouble saying no to other obligations, so I have this posted in my calendar, on the notepad on my phone, and everywhere I write.

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