Murder, how to research for things you would never do

research, murder, torture, verisimilitudeI spent one evening writing with a group of writers as we came to the end of NaNoWriMo and saw someone doing the same thing I do when visualizing the action. Their eyes closed, they were moving their hands in a weird way.

She was trying to visualize where her characters were on a cliff face. I will close my eyes and try to imagine picking a lock, or flipping a latch. I got me wondering about other things, things authors can’t or don’t want to visualize; murder, torture, abuse.

 How real does it have to be?

This is dependent on the type of book, and the target reader. For me it has to feel real for my reader. That can mean it would look right on Law & Order, or it might need to be factually real.

When we are told to write what we know, it doesn’t mean we have to know what it feels like to commit a horrible crime, it means we need to be able to translate another experience into the story event. If my reader wants to skip the details, it shouldn’t have any effect on their enjoyment of the book. And on the opposite side of that, reading the details shouldn’t kick the reader out of the story.

How to find out information – using your Google-Fu

The mechanics of almost everything you need to know is somewhere out there. Keeping my fingers crossed that no one in authority is checking my internet cache, I type in all kinds of questions about the mechanics. What kind of weapons are used for different crimes? How do you make poison? How to escape from zip tie handcuffs. How to use a throwing knife… it goes on an on.

Some things I appreciate as a written document and others as a video – I can handle gore in writing but not so much on Youtube.

How do I use the research?

Well this is an interesting aspect of writing. I don’t always put the violence on the page. That doesn’t mean I don’t need to know how the action takes place, it just means I don’t have to write it out.

An example of this is the ritual murders in Closing the Circle. The murders happened off the page, but the results were very much on the page. In this case I couldn’t just make it all up, I had to know if things were possible. So I had to research questions about clean up of blood, the soundproofing qualities of concrete, and the best way to get your hands on a strong sedative.

Dumping the body – or disposing of the evidence

This was the most fun part of the research for Closing the Circle. Not because I disposed of any bodies, but because I got to drive around San Francisco looking at where the killer had dropped his messages. I had to make changes to the book because of two things.

I hadn’t remembered the name of a building that was critical  – Google Street View isn’t a complete help.   I found out that it wasn’t what I thought and that it wasn’t a landmark. I had to move the body dump.

I didn’t realize that there were cameras all over the place in a second location so I had to make sure the cops discussed why they couldn’t identify the killer from the video.

Whether you need to hide the body or send a message, it’s critical to get the location correct.

Knowing how real the setting should be

In every genre there are people who will tear a book apart for using the wrong weapon (or calling it a gun when in real life it would be called a weapon), or using bad science, or having the traffic run the wrong way down a one way street. As an author, I need to decide who I’m writing for and make it real for them.

I do as much research on my imaginary things as I do on the real world. In the Quinn Larson Quests and the Madeline Journeys, I had more trouble with the magic rules than I did with the layout of the Downtown Eastside in Hubris. It may be hard to believe, but getting to make up all the rules and locations is harder to deal with than just figuring out how someone would react to specific poisons. In an early version of Off Track, I had Madeline walking down a corridor that clearly didn’t exist in the house as described.

The final thought

It’s all fun. If you ever hear anyone saying something along the lines of ‘I wonder if I threw a rock in the landscape lighting, would it explode’, don’t worry they are more likely to be an author than a murderer.