Charlie Donlea’s second novel, The Girl Who Was Taken, is the work of a determined writer with a knack for high-tension suspense. It’s the story of two high school seniors, Nicole Cutty and Megan McDonald, who go missing after a beach party in a small North Carolina town. Two weeks later, only one of them returns. The memoir Megan writes about her ordeal makes her famous but also plunges her into the search for the still-missing Nicole, whose older sister Livia, a fellow in forensic pathology, is obsessed with discovering Nicole’s fate. It’s a fast-paced story in which clues unfold as Livia and Megan try to help each other make sense of the past.
Donlea took an unusual path to becoming an author; he was a late literary bloomer but then became totally obsessed with writing. “I didn’t read my first novel for pleasure until my junior year of college, when I picked up John Grisham’s The Firm, became fascinated with the suspense, skipped classes to finish it, and decided I would someday write a novel,” he says.
Donlea’s first three manuscripts ended up as trunk books, but he was determined. An encouraging friend urged him to give it one more try: “‘Fret about it,’ he told me. ‘Study it, rewrite it.’ [He said to] seek out others who knew more than I did. Then, when I could honestly call the manuscript my best effort, he told me to take it back to the door of the publishing world, where I’d been before. This time, however, instead of knocking softly and waiting for someone to answer—he told me to kick the damn thing down.”
It worked. “I don’t know that I kicked any doors down,” Donlea remembers. “But when one opened just a crack, I stuck my foot in and refused to remove it. My first novel was published a few months later.”
For a late starter, Donlea learned the tricks of the trade quickly and deeply. He knows how to mine his past and his own obsessions for material. His debut novel, Summit Lake, has a setting that “was considered a character unto itself, a gathering of many beautiful places I’ve seen in my life,” he says.
Donlea says that this time he used writing his second novel, The Girl Who Was Taken, as an excuse to delve into a subject that interests him: forensics. “My inspiration came from my fascination with medicine,” he notes. “I had the opportunity to do some captivating research for The Girl Who Was Taken. One of the main characters, Dr. Livia Cutty, is a fellow in forensic medicine studying to become a medical examiner. Unlike other forensic stories, whose protagonists are experts in their fields, my character doesn’t have all the answers. She is a student learning the craft, and bent on using her skills (and the bodies that roll through her morgue) to find her missing sister.”[pull_quote]
Connecting with his readers is one of Donlea’s favorite things about being a writer. He goes out of his way to meet with book clubs and other groups reading his novels. Unlike many other writers, he’s forthcoming about his writing process and his journey to becoming a writer. But though he’s open in person, he believes that, in his books, it’s his job to hook readers and keep them in suspense. And he loves surprises: “The signature twist that sparks my imagination is the one I never saw coming. I love books that fool me!” he says.
Donlea has three strict rules for writing artful suspense. First: “No deceiving the reader. I cannot lie to the reader in order to create the mystery of the story.” Second: “The villain has to be hidden, but also has to be part of the story. The worst mysteries for me as a reader are when the big reveal comes and the bad guy is a tertiary character that was never on my radar.” The last rule is: “If my efforts fail and the reader sees the twist coming... Well, I can’t be upset. I simply ran into a skillful and astute reader. But ultimately, I got them to the end of the book and kept their interest. It’s still a win all around!”
And there’s plenty to keep readers hooked along the way. As Megan delves into her past and Livia pieces together clues from a series of seemingly unrelated cases, The Girl Who Was Taken tightens its hold on the reader.
Charlie Donlea is on his way to becoming a major figure in the world of suspense.