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One of the most interesting and sometimes-complicated aspects of a writer’s life is the inspiration that they use for their breakthrough novels. Tess Gerritsen recently shared with us the inspiration behind her latest release in the beloved TNT Rizzoli and Isles series, I Know a Secret. Here’s the story behind her inspiration in her own words:
As happens with most of my books, the plot of I Know a Secret is a fusion of two different ideas. This is often how I come up with my stories, by melding together two or more premises into one. My 2010 thriller Ice Cold, for instance, was inspired by two different news articles, one about a U.S. military nerve gas accident in the ‘70s, and another about drivers who blindly followed their GPS’ into dangerous situations. My 1999 thriller Gravity came to me after I read about recently discovered bizarre single-celled organisms, and then combined that information with the news about a crisis aboard the Mir Space Station. I think that creativity is all about using available tools to invent something new and different. And that’s what I do; I combine bits of information in new ways, to come up with something fresh.
The first element of I Know a Secret came to me while I was exploring churches and art museums in Italy. Many of the paintings I saw were sacred art, and I was getting bored, seeing the same religious themes in painting after painting. In Florence, I bought the textbook How to Read a Painting about symbolism in religious art, and it opened my eyes. Suddenly I knew how to identify what had seemed to me merely nameless figures. Now I knew that a woman holding an ointment pot must be Mary Magdalene, the wild-looking man dressed in shabby animals hides is John the Baptist, and the man shot with arrows is St. Sebastian. I became obsessed with decoding the meaning of every painting. Then (because I’m a crime writer) I thought: what if a killer staged murders in the same way medieval artists depicted religious scenes?
The second thread of my plot came from a real-life experience I had as a filmmaker. A few years ago, my son Josh and I joined forces to make a horror feature film called “Island Zero,” about islanders off the coast of Maine who are suddenly cut off from the outside world after the ferry suddenly stops coming. Their phones are dead, and every boat sent to the mainland fails to return. I wrote the script, Josh directed, and we shot the film during a very cold March in Maine. Immersing myself in the world of horror films was a quirky, exhausting experience, and we faced all the challenges of indie filmmaking, from hiring crew and actors, dealing with bad weather, and of course the inevitable snafus. Now that “Island Zero” is on the film festival circuit, I’ve discovered that horror fans are pretty cool people, and I thought it would be fun to set a novel in their oddball world.
I combined those two themes, horror filmmaking and religious symbolism, to come up with the plot for I Know a Secret. The story kicks off with a murder scene that baffles Det. Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles. The victim is a female horror film producer whose eyes have been removed post-mortem, and Jane and Maura wonder if the killer is copying scenes from the victim’s films. Other murders follow, each crime scene bizarrely staged. To crack the case, Maura must call on the man who could once again break her heart: her former lover, Father Daniel Brophy. Jane and Maura race to catch the killer before the final target dies. And the ultimate clue might be the one hiding in plain sight – on a movie screen.
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