How do you research Murder? How many people did you have to kill to get it right? Uh! What, wait a minute…
Contrary to some the writing sources I’ve studied, you don’t have to write JUST what you know. You can figure somethings out by relating them with similar experiences, or by taking classes, watching YouTube videos or documentaries. You don’t have to kill your neighbors in order to write about it. I mean, you could but then you’d probably be in prison or on the run and then it’s really difficult to do book signings.
Okay, enough of the silliness, seriously, most writers are nosey by nature. We want to know how everything works or why it doesn’t. We will do extensive research over something that only shows up in the background of a story just so it feels right. As readers we know that we are most engaged when an author piques all of our senses. No you cannot see, taste, feel or smell any of the descriptions but if they are done right, you can almost…
The experts say smell is the greatest memory. There are some smells you never forget. Growing up in a rural community with no public works, we had to dispose of dead animals ourselves or just let nature take its course. Neither is a pleasant experience but it did give me some insight into the dead.
So how can we get it right when it comes to murder? Well, I know what a decomposing body smells like. It may have only been a deer or a racoon, there was even a stray dog that went off in the woods to die but the smell filled the community for several days, but I believe the description of the smell is something I can provide in detail with some accuracy and enough similarity that the reader will believe me. I can also tell you there’s a difference if a body is found down on the shore versus up on the road where it’s been baked by the sun, especially in July, in North Carolina. There are experiences we can relate to that of our fictional murder to make it feel real. From the sicky sweet smell of rotting flesh to the grotesque swelling that comes from the gases building inside of a decomposing body, or the swampy, putrid aroma of a body washed up on shore of a brackish country creek. If you have ever come upon an older body nearly gone to bone in the woods, the loamy smell of flesh turning to soil.
I can hear people saying, “but animals smell different than people.” My Uncle Tucker would tell you that fish and relatives both stink after three days. Some don’t take that long. Death, human death may seem different especially in the cities or the civilized world of hospitals and home, but out in the wild it becomes more like the animals I’ve described. Check out the research from the Body Farm.
If you have ever watched a loved one die, you know that there are smells that go along with illness, medicinal odors, the scent of infection, decay or the stale, stagnate odor that comes with lack of movement and frequent washing. If you have visited a morgue or mortuary, you remember those distinct scents. Death has a smell, even the civilized, cleaned-up version of death most of us know just from life. But what about murder, what does murder smell like, how would it be different than death by illness?
If you are researching murder the results can be slightly different depending on if you are focusing on the murderer or the one investigating the murder. From the investigators point-of-view we have many books, documentaries, classes, etc. to assist the writer with getting things right. If you are writing from the murderer’s point-of-view, it can be a little trickier to pull off.
Many of us know a bit about character development from our own personalities, interacting with and watching other people. We have seen first-hand romance dos and don’ts, relationships that work and those that just never should have tried. But how do we research murder and murderers? As I know I don’t know any murderers, at least not any who would admit it. So how do we know what it’s like to kill? How do we understand the way a killer thinks or feels or why they do what they do? How much of that matters?
Things have gotten a little easier thanks to the internet but before YouTube videos and online classes, I watched PBS documentaries and read books. I talked to prison guards and former inmates. With cable and satellite television I’ve discovered the History channel, Discovery, True Crime, not to mention all of the shows that are focused on forensics and murder.
So how do you write it from the murders point of view? How do you develop the emotions the murderer is feeling before, during and after? Can we relate to them? Do we have similar circumstances we can draw from? I think much depends on why the killer has killed and how. Are they angry and this happened in the middle of a fight or was it premeditated? Are they a sociopath or psychopath? Is killing fun? Do they shoot, strangle, mutilate their victims? After doing all the research, it comes down to character development and imagination. What would your character do? How would they act and react? Have fun with it, but if you decide to experiment with murder, please, don’t come to my neck of the woods.