The Story Behind the Story

Louise Ellis and Brett Morgan
Louise visiting Brett in Pittsburg Institution, early 1990s.

Spoiler Alert! If you want to read Tell Anna She’s Safe as a mystery and a thriller, don’t read this page until after you’ve finished the novel.

On April 22, 1995, my friend and colleague Louise Ellis, a freelance writer, left her home in Ottawa and disappeared. At the time she was living with a man named Brett Morgan—a man who had a criminal past, including a manslaughter conviction. Louise had, in fact, met Brett while he was still in prison and had successfully advocated for his release. I knew Louise through work: she was the contracted writer of the Canada Post annual yearbook, which I was contracted to edit. At the time she went missing, we had been working together for a couple of years.

Two days after Louise left her home that Saturday morning, I happened to spot her car parked on the shoulder of a rural road near my home in Chelsea, Quebec­—I didn’t even know she was missing until Brett called shortly after I returned home, to ask if I’d seen her. The finding of her car was the catalyst for an extensive search by police, family and friends. I spent 10 weeks searching for her on my own, aided by tips from a deep-trance psychic. In early July, her common-law partner, Brett Morgan, “happened” to find Louise’s remains in a remote wooded area; he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

The trial finally got underway in the fall of 1997 and lasted six months. I was one of more than 90 witnesses who testified for the Crown alone. On the strength of entirely circumstantial but compelling evidence, Brett was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life, with no chance of parole for 25 years. He died in prison of Hepatitis C seven years to the day after he reported Louise missing.

I knew I was going to write about Louise’s disappearance from pretty much the moment I found the car. After testifying, I received permission to attend the rest of the trial. At the time, I had a half-time in-house editing contract, so I was able to attend court every morning. Over the six months, I filled seven notebooks.

I also spoke with Louise’s other friends and colleagues, as well as her ex-boyfriend (whom Brett had tried to frame for the murder). I visited the two prisons where she had visited Brett—Warkworth (medium security) and Pittsburg (minimum security) institutions. I was given access to the visiting areas, as well as to the houses on site at Warkworth where Louise and Brett had had “private family visits” after getting common-law status. I read two of her journals that had been used as trial evidence.

On the surface, there was a stereotype she seemed to fit: a woman taken in by a convict and con artist, trying to “rescue” him. Louise had not been trying to rescue Brett, that much I knew. From our conversations, I knew she had been on a specific journey of her own. But I didn’t understand it. And I wanted to understand. I wanted to tell her story with empathy. We had been friends, but not close friends. And her growing negativity the previous fall had put me off: I had shut down the personal side of our working relationship. So I didn’t know what had been going on in her life in the five or six months before she went missing—or really very much about what had happened in the years before that. It took many years before I found real understanding of her interior journey.

My first attempt was to write a true crime story. But even after all my research, I didn’t have the full story. No one did. A more serious stumbling block was that my own story came out sounding so self-conscious it fell flat on its face. Then I tried fiction—wholly fiction. But the things I did know about Louise, her circumstances and her character, and even the setting and so much about my own search, were too compelling to fictionalize. After many false starts, I simply allowed to come through my pen whatever and whoever wanted to be in the story, whether factual or not.

Ultimately, I came up with a structure that intertwined the story of Louise’s developing relationship with Brett with the story of my own search for her. For Louise’s side of the story, I compressed the timeline but kept the facts and actual circumstances and characterization as much as I could (from what I had learned or knew about Louise), although out of respect for her family’s privacy I changed the details of her family and upbringing. For my side of the story, I injected fictional characters and backgrounds and relationships into the real circumstances of my search and changed the deep-trance psychic assistance into dreams and visions experienced by the main character, Ellen (though some of her dreams are similar to actual ones I had).

I finally completed the novel in 2005, a full decade after Louise went missing. I spent the next five years looking for a publisher—and then an agent—getting nowhere. I live in a rural area nowhere near publishers or agents, but, ironically and wonderfully, I found my publisher through—in fact, in—my local book club, which had kindly agreed to read and review the manuscript as a book club choice. One of the members was Luciana Ricciutelli, who happens to be the editor-in-chief of Inanna Publications. She came to the meeting with something I was not expecting but will always be grateful for: an offer to publish.

Although it took 16 years after Louise disappeared before the novel was published—much longer than I ever anticipated—it became clear that it was the perfect time to release the story. Around the same time that Tell Anna received official acceptance for publication, two documentaries about the case were televised. One was an episode of a Canadian TV crime series called Murder She Solved, the other an episode of a U.S. series called Hardcover Mysteries. It seemed the stars were aligning for the world to hear Louise’s important story at last.

© 2017 BRENDA MISSEN | ALL RIGHTS RESERVED