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SunLit Interviews

The violent death of a childhood friend steered a Colorado author’s writing toward crime — and justice

The horrific incident in award-winning author Donnell Ann Bell's life had a lasting impact on Bell, prompting an interest in law enforcement, investigations and the exhaustive research that guides her fiction

Award-winning author Donnell Ann Bell knows statistically that crime and accidents happen within a two-mile radius of home. With that in mind, she leaves the international capers to others and concentrates on stories that might happen in her neck of the woods. 

Donnell’s novels “The Past Came Hunting,” “Deadly Recall,” “Betrayed” and “Buried Agendas” have all been Amazon e-book bestsellers. “Black Pearl, A Cold Case Suspense” is book one of a series. 

Bell worked for a weekly business publication and a monthly parenting magazine, but  prefers fiction writing over writing about stock portfolios or treating diaper rash. She has a background in court reporting, has worked with kids and engineers, and has volunteered for law enforcement and other organizations.

A Colorado resident for forty years, Bell and her husband now split time between Colorado and New Mexico. To learn more about Donnell, check out her website at www.donnellannbell.com.

The following is an interview with Donnell Ann Bell.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


What inspired you to write this book?

So many things. “Black Pearl” is a hodgepodge of people I respect and admire and a particular sorrow of mine. 

I lost my best friend from grade school to violent crime. We had gone our separate ways and I was in college when I learned of her death. I immediately went to see her parents who told me the horrific details. Her death affected me beyond measure, and I would say my female protagonist in this book is based loosely on that memory.

Years later, I became a volunteer victims’ advocate for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and attended two local citizens academies (El Paso County Sheriff and Colorado Springs Police Department). I would say my friend’s death paved the way for my desire for justice, my interest in police procedure, and the genres I’ve chosen. 

Also, I am co-owner of an online group called Crimescenewriter, created by Wally Lind, a retired veteran police officer who started the group to help writers. The friendships I’ve made over the years with members of law enforcement, medical examiners, coroners, a retired FBI agent turned private detective, and other writers, have been invaluable. 

Three women police officers (now authors) as well as an active Colorado Springs police officer, FTO (field training officer) helped me create Allison Shannon, my female protagonist in “Black Pearl.” I wrote an article called “Putting the Character in Character” https://www.writerspace.com/putting-the-character-in-character/ which explains the inspiration behind Allison.

I wrote Major Crimes Lieutenant Everett T. Pope based on a man I worked with at GTE Government Systems, a semiconductor company, in Tempe, Arizona, in the 1980s. Although my coworker wasn’t a police officer (he was in fact an electrical engineer), his last name was Pope. He was a lovely human being, I respected him immensely, and Lieutenant Pope was inspired by him. 

“Black Pearl” by Donnell Ann Bell.

As for Special Agents Brian DiPietro and Devon Taylor, these agents were based on numerous discussions I had with retired FBI agents Peter M. Klismet, Jr. and Steven Kerry Brown. Pete is a former FBI profiler, nonfiction author and constant contact for prosecutors and media when it comes to criminal mindsets and cold case consulting.

Steven Kerry Brown was a dear friend I connected with on Crimescenewriter. Steve passed away on Christmas Day 2019. He was completely generous in answering my insatiable questions and I am heartbroken still. I had just done a beta read for him, which an agent had requested an exclusive. I’m hoping that his heirs will have it published posthumously. Two months before he died, Steve wrote a blog for me called “All in a Day’s Work.” Readers can find it here:  https://donnellannbell.com/help-from-my-friends-friday-2/  

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?

“Black Pearl” is the first of a cold case series about a cold case squad of investigators. I felt that by choosing chapter six, the pages would include all four protagonists and hint at how the squad will be implemented into the rest of the book and series. 

Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?

I write around the theme Suspense Too Close to Home. Since I had placed one book in Colorado Springs and another book in Denver, I wanted to select a different Colorado location, and it was a toss-up between Grand Junction or Montrose. 

Problem was I didn’t know either location very well, so I contacted an old high school buddy, a longtime resident of Montrose, and asked what he thought. He obviously thought Montrose was a great idea. He immediately made me a video and took me on a tour, talking throughout the video, explaining some of the sights and infrastructure. Needless to say, I chose Montrose. I’ve made a few trips thereafter to see it in person. The entire Western Slope is magnificent, by the way. 

As an aside, my friend and his wife provided so much encouragement thereby squelching my desire to keep this book stashed in a drawer, I dedicated the book to them. 

As for research, so much. Without giving too much away, I read books by psychiatrists, a psychologist, took a month-long handwriting class by novelist and graphologist Sheila Lowe. 

I had long conversations with a retired deputy coroner, and her law enforcement husband. I did a ride-along with a Colorado Springs field training officer, consulted lawyers, medical examiners, two police chiefs and a structural engineer. I talked with a Denver crime lab supervisor and toured the office of the medical examiner in Denver, which I describe in the book.  And I obviously researched black pearls.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?

I think fear was my biggest challenge. I wasn’t sure I could transform the idea slamming around in my gray matter into a cohesive finished product. I have numerous drafts and dozens of unused chapters. 

But I also have brilliant critique partners, and Debra Dixon as an editor. Debra Dixon is the author of “GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict,” a staple writing guide in the industry. She is also my publisher, and when she told me she was going to edit my books, I literally froze, certain I wasn’t good enough. 

My biggest surprise (which was part of my fear) was finding that Montrose has a fantastic regional library which shares its facility with Colorado Mesa University. My plot includes a library. I eventually made up a fictitious name and concentrated on my original premise and remembered I write fiction.  

Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet? 

Shhhhh! I prefer absolute quiet!  

Because I’m writing police and FBI procedure, and bringing back my cold case squad, I am knee deep in research right now. The first thing I do is write an outline. Next, I talk to experts to see if my plot will work. 

So far, for book two, I’ve talked to a retired Justice Department trial lawyer, a retired senior ATF agent, a Colorado Springs private detective, a retired FBI agent, and a San Diego deputy who is also a search and rescue and explosive expert.

After the research, I’ll move on to the writing, which I do in a notebook. I take shorthand, which some may view as archaic, but I believe is a writer’s best friend. After all, I can do it anywhere and at any time—no booting up. After that, I’ll transcribe, printing it into my notebook and later onto my laptop. Sounds labor intensive, and it is. However, I’ve found my brain is ironing out the kinks the entire time, and my brain needs a lot of ironing. 

What’s your next project?

The sequel to “Black Pearl.” 

Buy “Black Pearl” at BookBar.
Read an excerpt from “Black Pearl.”


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