This is an excellent post with recommendations about writing crime. Thank you so much for your article, Connie.
I recently began reading a murder mystery where the author used a mushroom to kill the first victim. That’s where this book fell apart—the idea was good, but the facts and execution weren’t.
Using a mushroom stroganoff to poison him was a poor choice because fungi is an undependable weapon unless you are an expert. Also, individually, one mushroom may be more or less poisonous than another of the same kind, rather like people are. Judging how many one would need to kill a three-hundred-pound man takes more thought than I am capable of plotting out.
Also, it was stroganoff, which is basically beef and mushrooms in a sour cream sauce. This author danced over the fact that serving the food at this dinner party would have been a tactical nightmare. It would have been nearly impossible to ensure the intended victim got the poison mushrooms and no one else did, which is how this murder was written.
Agatha Christie knew that and regularly poisoned entire dinner parties, literarily speaking. Her murderers made everyone at the table sick but only the intended victim actually died.
This particular mystery was set in Scotland, and I don’t know how poisonous their mushrooms are, but I think that logic would hold true there as well as it does here in the Pacific Northwest.
If I hadn’t been on several nature walks with Ellen King Rice, a wildlife biologist and amateur mycologist who writes well-plotted mushroom thrillers, I would have accepted the slightly contrived fatal dinner as written and focused on the other failings of this novel.
This experience reinforced my belief that readers are often more knowledgeable than we authors are. E-readers can do the research just by highlighting the word and hitting search.
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with independent authors of commercial fiction, particularly crime, thriller and mystery writers.
Louise provides us with two ways to write about physical violence in crime fiction and thrillers, a phenomenal blog post which I had to share.
Thank you, Louise.
Not every reader can stomach violence in fiction, and not every writer wants to go the whole hog with it. Here are two ways to approach it: compressed reporting after the fact; and showing it all as it happens.
Compressed reporting after the fact
Reporting the outcome of violence after the fact can be a superb alternative to detailed descriptions that might upset or sicken authors and their readers. This technique is used on the screen too.
In Series 5, Episode 3 of Line of Duty (BBC1), the perpetrator breaks into the home of a core character’s ex-wife. The transgressor proceeds to torture the victim. There’s a drill involved and lots of screaming. It’s gross. Well, it would be if we saw it. But we don’t. All we see is the outcome.
The ex-wife lies in a hospital bed, bandaged from head to toe. We glimpse patches of skin, her flesh swollen and angry. Her face is physically untouched though trauma is etched into it. And even the slightest movement results in a whimper and a wince; despite the medication, she’s in pain. All we know so far is that something awful has happened to her but we don’t know what.
Crime writer Sue Coletta provides us with a fascinating forensic case which I read with great interest. To my surprise the comments to the post are about as informative as the post and I couldn’t resist sharing it with other writers!
In late November/early December, something on a Discovery ID show blew my mind. On the dramatization of this real case, the detectives investigated a dead body found in the Oregon forest. Nothing new there, right? Here’s the kicker … The victim was decomposing at three alarmingly different rates. The corpse was not dismembered, either. One intact body, from head to foot, but with three different decomposition processes taking place at the same time.
The legs looked fresh. No change in appearance, very little, if any, discoloration. The torso had decomposed enough to show most of the ribcage, with exposed, decaying organs. As if that wasn’t bizarre enough, only hair was left on the head, the scalp sliding off a bare skull. No face, no tissue, nothing left but bone and teeth.
This rarity baffled the forensic expert they called to the scene. It also drove me crazy, because they never said what caused it. Instead, the show concentrated on the multiple homicides and finding the suspect. Probably made for better TV. A short comment at the end of the show stated they hadn’t unraveled the mystery. At the time of the homicide, that may have been true, or they just didn’t want to shift focus.