Sunday, 14 June 2009

Killing people

Conversation in the car with Small Daughter:
SD: Have you killed someone?
SA: No.
SD: Not ever?
SA: No.
SD: Are you sure?
SA: Yes. I'm sure. Why?
SD: On Google Earth, you have a label that says 'dump body here'.
SA: Ah. Yes.
SD: And 'park car here to dump body.'
SA: Do you think if I'd killed someone I'd label it on Google Earth?

Some of you are familiar with my Facebook updates that say things like 'leaving boy to drown while I make dinner' and 'trying to hide the body'. The fact that the door hasn't been beaten down by the police suggests that either no-one in Echelon is watching or that writers have a special dispensation to talk about this stuff. [Murderers take note - become a writer!]

Killing is not as easy as it sounds. In a children's book, the main character is relatively unlikely to die, though
other characters may die from time to time. (There are exceptions in which main characters do die, of course, but I won't mention any as that would constitute a list of spoilers.) Killing people is a serious business. Death (or murder) should not be undertaken lightly; it must be meaningful and accurate. It's not feasible to go out and kill people so you need to do some other kinds of research. Forensic investigators practice on dead pigs; unless you live on a pig farm, you might find libraries easier to come by.

Books, t'interweb and experts will be your sources. There are several books for crime writers on how to kill people (how much arsenic does it take to kill an adult? how long does it take to strangle someone?), on police procedures, CSI and autopsies - see below. Online, the most excellent Muse Medicine gives the low-down on various ways of dying and lesser suffering, including natural forms of death and just illness from which your character might recover. The medical muse is a highly experienced nurse, writing for writers - just what we need.

Medical experts are usually delighted to help writers, too. I've had help from the pathology consultants of Addenbrooke's Hospital on how long a body must lie in a canal before it is unrecognisable, for instance. They will think to ask questions that hadn't occurred to you - what is the temperature of the air/water? Is the water salt or fresh? Is it tidal? How quickly does it flow? If your character is dying of illness, find out exactly how the illness you are using works. How do people die of malaria? Why does cholera cause diarrhoea? Yes, you need to know. You may not be writing a factual book, but you can't get the facts wrong. Do your research. No-one said murder was going to be easy.

Don't forget to get rid of the body properly, too, if it's a murder. How shallow is a shallow grave? Through how much earth can a dog sniff out a body? What happens to a dead body and how quickly? (read Stiff by Mary Roach, or Jim Crace's Being Dead) For getting rid of bodies (and any other geographical issue) Google Earth is useful - the conversation with SD came about because I had a boy spot the body from a train going between Peterborough and March. I needed a dyke visible from the train line, and the car journeys that go to and from the place needed the right turns, a level crossing in the right place, and so on. I may not actually mention the places in the end, but I know where they are and that it all works. So I haven't killed someone - but I could have done.

Killer's reading list:
Forensics and Fiction: Clever, Intriguing, and Downright Odd Questions from Crime Writers, Douglas Lyle, 2007

The Crime Writer's Guide to Police Practice and Procedure,
Michael O'Byrne, 2009

Strictly Murder: Writer's Guide to Criminal Homicide,
Martin Roth, 1998

Murder and Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensic Questions for Mystery Writers,
Douglas Lyle, 2003

There's another I can't immediately find on exactly how to kill people by different methods and diseases. I'll post it later if I can find it.

1 comment:

  1. Total brilliance and perfectly timed - thank you so much for this. I have three dead bodies and a near miss that I am ensuring are feasible. These references are just what I need.