Posted in Thoughts, writing inspiration, Writing tips

How Do You Research Murder?

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.

Posted in inspiration, Thoughts, writing inspiration

Using Sense and Setting

This was first posted on Pamlico Writers’ Group website, July 11, 2017,

The Pamlico Writers have been posting picture writing prompts. Many of these prompts are atmospheric. The setting or scenery is part of the prompt. In one picture we had a night time view of a house in the water, in the most recent a lonely road with storm clouds looming.

How important is weather and setting to your stories. How do you describe these conditions? When I think of a rain storm it is the smell of rain that comes to mind. The feel of electricity in the air that can make the hair on your arms stand up. The smell of ozone. Living on the water, there is also the changes in the weight of the air. When storms threaten, the air becomes heavy with humidity. The scent of the river and ocean become more apparent. The wind changes bringing a much needed coolness to the air or perhaps a chill. Choosing words to describe the weather, atmosphere and setting can set the tone for the scene, it can even set the tone for the book. What is it about our surroundings that can change a happy story to something foreboding?

In the book I am reading by Katharine Ashe, she uses a lot of weather. At the beginning of the story her heroine is caught in a hurricane on the island of Jamaica. She is new to the island and has no idea what is happening. Ms. Ashe weaves the character’s bravery and innocence along with her naiveté concerning the storm. She expertly shows the woman’s character with the clean up after the storm using sight, scent and emotion to heighten the tension in the story. Later, as she trudges through Scotland, we see a change in the weather and in the character. Like the cold, rugged terrain of Scotland the young woman grows older, colder and tougher. Ms. Ashe describes the weather and blends the two as if the setting is another character reflecting the changes in her heroine.

A member of the Pamlico Writers’ Group, Eileen Lettick has been sharing her story about a young girl who has been in an abusive situation. The character’s bedroom and the changes in décor also reflect the changes in her own situation. When her mother takes down the pretty flowery curtains in the living room and puts up the old, heavy drapes we get a sense of foreboding. The changes Ms. Lettick puts in her story are often subtle but the impact is powerful.

I use my hometown as the setting for my stories. I often reflect back to the things that have affected my mood or perception over the years. Here are some examples:

“The warm breeze swept my tears into the river. Their saltiness mingling with the brackish water. The earthy scent of mud and the promise of the ocean filled the air, comforting and frightening as the future that was still a mystery.”

“The dirt road was a ribbon of creamy satin in the darkness. The icy wind made my steps quicker, the effort lifting my spirits. I could smell the freshness in the air, a newness, a promise. The pearl-glow of the moon, a cameo set in silver against a velvet blue sky. The face in the moon brought comfort and lightness, everything would be okay. The child stirred within me, he too felt the promise in the winter night.”

“The smell of rain filled their senses. Their hair lifted in the quivering of wind and electricity. Glancing at the fields beside them, they saw the rain rushing towards them. Dancing across the parched field, drenching row after row as it moved closer to the road. They ran. The cool breeze filling their lungs as the first icy drops pelted their bare skin and sizzled on the pavement.”

I hope each of these scenes gives you a glimpse of my home and what I was feeling at the time. Our word choices, the images we wish to convey, the descriptions all are important parts of the setting and scene. Thinking of the setting as another character, realize its importance to the story. Study not only the landscape that makes of your setting but the feeling it evokes, the sights, the smells, the sounds. Use words that bring us to this place and help us feel we are there.

I could not tell my stories in another setting. In New York City I might walk along the streets alone and lonely but I am not truly alone. I maybe just another face lost in this ocean of people, but the sights, the smells, the emotions that happen in a large city would not be the same as walking along a dusty dirt road with nothing but trees and wildlife for company. How important is setting to your stories. How would a different setting effect what is happening? If I mention New Orleans and Katrina, you have an image in your head. But if I spoke of hurricane Katrina in another place, the story would be vastly different. As you write your stories, consider what makes it unique and paint us a word picture. Remember to use all of your senses to describe setting.

The taste of the jambalaya spicy on your tongue. The sound of the musician on the corner blowing an old jazz tune for the crowd of tourists. The smell of the Mississippi mingling with the sweat of too many people as the succulent scents of seafood frying in the Quarter calls us, reminding us of home.