By J. H. Bográn
In her new novel, RACKED, author Sue Coletta returns to Grafton County, the setting of three previous thrillers featuring crime writer Sage Quintano and her husband, Niko. This time around, the plot revolves around five missing boys and an adult corpse found in a small town’s water shed. After a hooded stranger gives Sage and Niko’s son, Noah, a stuffed animal—the exact Christmas moose given to all the missing boys days before their abductions—their lives spiral into uncertainty.
The origins of this story date back to when Coletta toured an abandoned house in Bristol, New Hampshire, with the idea that it’d become a murder scene in one of her books. While there, the owner and the author crept up a rickety staircase. “A palpable feeling of sadness and pain overwhelmed me,” Coletta recalls. “When the owner swung open the upstairs bedroom door, two white orbs zoomed straight at us. In that moment the message was clear: Leave now! Something awful had happened in the house, which set the crime writer brain ablaze with two main questions: What happened there? Why are these souls so tortured that they can’t move on? Needless to say, I walked into the ‘haunted’ house with one story and walked out with another. Yet, oddly enough, it’s more psychological thriller than paranormal.”
A confessed researchaholic, Coletta enjoyed that stage of the writing process. “For this book, I learned about adipocere, also known as corpse wax, which is a saponification process that occurs during putrefaction when bodies are submerged in cold water during the winter,” she says. “I reached out to my consultant at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Grafton County (the chief forensic investigator, who’s also a reader of mine). As a reader who enjoys realism in fiction, my consultant involved the state’s forensic anthropologist. These two savvy women gave me homework: find the water temperatures for the specific months the body would remain trapped inside the water shed. Which doesn’t sound like a major deal, until you take into consideration that this story is set in 2008. So I straightened my detective hat and dug through umpteen records. Turns out, 2008 was the perfect year for cold water temps and adipocere in Bristol, New Hampshire.”
One of the most chilling aspects of the novel is the stuffed animals that appear as a sign of imminent peril. “This also stems from the abandoned property,” Coletta notes. “Everything I depicted inside that house really existed. The tattered stuffed animal and one lonely shoe on the floor had the greatest effect on me. I changed the stuffed animal to a Christmas moose to make it more terrifying for my protagonist. The holidays should be a joyous time, yet in RACKED, children are going missing. As a mother, this cuts Sage on a deep, personal level.”
RACKED also goes the extra mile and puts the topic of domestic violence in the center of the action. “If thriller writers can help shine a light on important issues without detracting from the plot, then I say go for it,” Coletta says. “There’s so much power in the written word. Why not try to make the world a better place through storytelling? I want readers to feel something when they finish my books. Lecturing or grandstanding is obviously a no-no, but if we can weave in a powerful theme, an implied message, then the story will be stronger for the effort.”
All the titles in the Grafton County series—Marred, Cleaved, Scathed, and now RACKED—have double meanings: one to show the emotion of the protagonist, and one to reflect the killer’s activities. RACKED can refer to both physical pain and emotional peril, and the embodiment of both meanings is evident throughout the book.
“It gets harder and harder to find one-word titles with double meanings,” Coletta admits. “Each new book in the series takes a bit more time to figure out a title that works. More often than not I find the word hiding somewhere in the completed manuscript; it’s never the working title I use while writing the first draft.”
Part of the author’s website is dedicated to helping other writers with research on many topics. “As mentioned above, I love to research,” Coletta says. “When I first started Murder Blog, I was sharing my passion for learning interesting tidbits. Over time I noticed many writers dreaded doing research for their books, so it evolved into a place where I could share my passion while helping others in my community—a win-win situation for sure. Later, once I got published, it morphed again to include articles for crime readers as well as writers. Now, as long as it involves crime, my mixed audience loves almost anything. On occasion I also include articles with interesting factoids about animals—crows especially—to share my unwavering devotion toward furry and feathered friends.”
For her next project, Coletta is changing gears. “Back in May, Globe Pequot (an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield) reached out to me about writing a historical true crime book about female serial killers of New England,” she says. “I’ve written numerous true crime articles on my blog but hadn’t given much thought to veering into the true crime genre. The inquiry intrigued me. After diving headfirst into preliminary research, I knew I had to write this book. So I wrote up a proposal and sold the book.”
The whole process, from the initial phone call to signing the contract with Globe Pequot, took less than three weeks. Penning a true crime story involves a significant amount of research and pre-planning, but since those are two of her strengths, she’s enjoying the ride as much as the destination.
“It’s been a whirlwind of excitement, with a little panic thrown in to keep me humble,” Coletta says. “Pretty Evil, New England: Female Serial Killers of the Region’s Past is slated to hit stores in fall 2020. Can’t wait!” And neither can we.
For three years running, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the Net (Murder Blog sits at #5). Sue’s also the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project and a proud member of the Kill Zone, where she blogs every other Monday.
To learn more about Sue and her work, please visit her website.