I was thinking about how much darkness mystery writers have to take in – and deflect – every day. What made me think about it were the shocked and horrified faces of friends and family after I’d related what I thought was an amusing anecdote about going to the morgue.
It was a basic visit and discussion with the medical examiner. We talked about the usual signs of death, what type of things he’d witnessed, and suggestions on how to write about poisoning deaths in realistic detail.
Stock-in-trade stuff for mystery writers, right?
I can’t imagine what my friends would have done if they’d gone to various luncheons I’ve been to where crime scene photos were shown while we ate. Actual blood spatter patterns and arterial spray would have provoked a lot of lunches to come up.
I know WHY we do this. As mystery writers, we want to understand and be able to express death scenes and investigations accurately in our work.
My question is HOW do we do it? Why aren’t we squeamish about blood and death itself? Is something missing in our psyches that prevents us from being totally grossed out by blood and guts? Are we immune to the terrible realities of our world in a way that others aren’t?
Mystery writers put themselves in the place of killers, stalkers and kidnappers for our work. We know about guns and knives and the damage they can inflict.
My friends are terrified because I can rattle off information about every poison plant they have in and around their homes, with pertinent details about how the poison would kill them and how long it would take.
As opposed to romance writers, who visit romantic places for inspiration and enjoy looking at romantic poetry, we long to visit a body farm and constantly plot how to kill our next victim.
Fantasy writers are frequently found at Renaissance Festivals, eyeing the swords and maces, thinking about dragons they might slay and princesses they could rescue. Mystery writers are wondering how big a wound would be from that sword blade, and how to hide the sword in a suit coat.
Science Fiction writers look to the future through the lens of what is possible today. Mystery writers are busy trying to figure out if a new forensic technique will someday involve removal of a corpse’s eyeballs.
We examine police records and ask questions about how to tell if rigor has set in. FBI and Secret Service agents, along with local and state police, are eager to share their knowledge of homicides and other terrible, AWFUL things they have seen and done.
We sit at tables or desks, scribbling down their information as though every word is gold. We have hundreds of snapshots documenting the worst moments in many people’s lives.
For other professionals who do this same job, there are counselors and shrinks to help them through it. Sometimes they have to take time away from the job because they see so many hideous things. No one wants violence to become part of their nature, yet police officers have one of the highest rates of suicide and family abuse in the country.
We have ourselves and our word processors. How do WE deal with this?
Is it because none of this, no matter how grisly, is real to us? We know it will become part of a story that will cause readers to become more engrossed in our work. We know, even though many of our facts are real, what we write about them isn’t.
Is that how we do it?
Some authors say it’s the act of writing that stabilizes them, even takes them out of day-to-day life. Writing is therapeutic, psychologists say. Taking things in and getting them outside of you is the way to handle what we normally can’t process.
When I was a kid, about ten years old, I saw a woman go through a plate-glass window. I won’t go into what that looked like here, but I can still recall every detail. I didn’t know then that I wanted to be a mystery writer, though I was reading mysteries at the time.
A friend was with me, witnessing that event. She sobbed and even vomited. She ran away from the scene as fast as she could.
I stayed and watched, taking in the details. I even asked questions of her later (yes, she survived), and of the police at the time.
My mother said it was ghoulish to watch. Now I know; I’m just a mystery writer.
Joyce Lavene writes award-winning, bestselling mystery fiction with her husband, Jim, as themselves, J.J. Cook and Ellie Grant. She has written and published more than 65 novels for Harlequin, Berkley, Amazon and Gallery Books along with hundreds of non-fiction articles for national and regional publications. She lives in rural North Carolina with her family. Visit her at www.joyceandjimlavene.com.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)