Sue Merrell chose journalism in part because she thought it would be great training to become a mystery writer. But what she thought would only be a couple years as a reporter turned into 40, working at the Joliet Herald News in Illinois and the Grand Rapids Press. It was the news stories she covered, some of them quite gruesome, that drove her back to writing mysteries.
“What I wanted to do was to write books,” Merrell says. “But you can’t exactly go to college to become a mystery writer. So I went to college to become a journalist, because I read someplace that Mark Twain had said that the best place to learn how to write was to write for a newspaper.”
During most of her time as a journalist, Merrell says she worked in the features department. So the switch from writing human interest stories to writing novels wasn't difficult. Her novels often have roots in real stories she learned about in the newsroom, tweaked by her own imagination.
Merrell’s newest mystery is Full Moon Friday. The story unfolds on a Friday 13th during a full moon, as news editor Josie Braun gets pulled into a story that involves her young son on a school bus that's suddenly vanished. Other mysteries in the town of Jordan, created to be a fictional twin to the real town of Joliet, Illinois, intertwine around Josie's story.
Recalling her days as a journalist, Merrell says, “Every now and then, we would have a day when everything would go wrong. The police reports would be bizarre, and we’d get these phone calls from people asking us the strangest questions. Invariably, someone would say, 'What is it, a full moon?' That inspired me to write the book, because we like to blame the full moon for this kind of phenomenon.”
Merrell says the main storyline in her latest novel, “Does and does not have a basis in reality. When I wrote it, it was just something that came into my head and scared me to death. But then, when I started researching it, I found out there was such a case of a kidnapped school bus. It happened a long time ago, in the 1970's.”
That actual incident involved a hijacked school bus full of kids that was buried by the kidnappers.
While Merrell no longer works in a newsroom, she's written many theater reviews and interviewed many celebrities. Some of those stories have made it into her books, too. As for the profession of journalism, Merrell says, despite some changes, the current public distrust of media is largely undeserved.
“It's the method of delivery that has changed,” she says. “But the journalists I know are still really committed to the truth and fairness. And fairness somehow goes beyond the truth, because you can give facts but not give balance and be fair. The journalists I know work very hard at giving readers the truth but also fairness.”
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