Crime fiction writers would make bad criminals

There’s always that running joke laying in wait whenever anyone finds out I write murder mysteries. “Oh, I better not get you mad. You’d know how to kill me and get away with it.”

I guess from another person’s perspective, that would seem completely logical. I do in fact research how to kill a person on a fairly regular basis. I’ve learned lots of things along the way, like how many poisons and hallucinogens can be made from garden variety plants (pun totally intended). I’ve come across lots of ways to get rid of bodies, as well as great places to hide in the rural enclaves of the vast and varied state of Wisconsin (and eastern South Dakota apparently works too).

But here’s the thing. In order for a writer to be at all good at his or her job, they need to cultivate one very important human trait…empathy.

Good characterization requires a writer to imagine how the world works from the perspective of others. A writer not only has to get into the heads of the criminals, but also the heads of the victims. Even if writing from a first person perspective, the characters need to have their feelings, their values, their dreams, their nightmares conveyed to the reader in a convincing matter. That requires empathy.

Maliciously harming a person requires, in my opinion, the opposite…apathy. There has to be a removal of feeling from the situation to take the life of another human being, even if only for a moment. Feelings are shut down in order to devalue a human life to the point where a person is capable of removing someone from existence. Intentional homicide is cold in every sense of the word, precisely for this reason.

Writers are generally sensitive people, sometimes too sensitive. Just like other artists, writers write to get all those feelings out in a safe way. I write about things that scare me because I can explore scary topics in a universe where I’m in charge. But it would never occur to me to intentionally hurt or rob or defraud someone in real life, simply because I would not want those things done to me.

So, maybe the more accurate running joke should be, “Oh, I better not make you mad. I’ll end up as a corpse in your next book.”

The coincidences of “Making of a Murderer” and my fiction

SPOILER FOR NETFLIX SHOW, IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED IT YET. SORRY

So, since my new job requires me to stay at home and I don’t have cable, I get exposure to a lot of local news programs. Among those is the local variety-type show, “The Jason Show”. He’s pithy and funny enough and a bit of a nerd, which I can relate to, so I’ll usually watch him before switching to whatever I can tolerate streaming on Amazon Prime. It’s while watching this show that I discovered the mania surrounding a Netflix documentary entitled “The Making of a Murderer”. As Jason tried to explain his obsession with the show without spoiling it for his audience, I deduced this Steven Avery business was the same thing I had run across, not just once, but twice. The first instance involved the research I was doing for my writing.

As my readers know, I always start a new book in my Dairyland Murders series immediately after I finish its predecessor. Such was the case when I completed Book 3, Cop Incognito. I wrote the excerpt for Book 4, Torso in the Torrent, in which a couple is engaged in dismembering a body and putting the identifiable parts into a burning barrel. Naturally, as a matter of research, I googled “burning a body in a barrel” or something similar (yes, it is disturbing, as most of my computer browsing history tends to be when I’m thick in my writing). Buried well into the fifth or sixth pages of the search, the murder of Teresa Halbach came up. I didn’t really think much of it. It simply confirmed my theory that there was a history of trying to dispatch with a body via burning barrel, so I moved on and continued writing.

It wasn’t until quite some time later that my husband and I were on some long road trip and we were listening to a public radio show. It was an interesting but sad story about this woman who had been brutally raped and left for dead, how her life had been torn apart by this horrible event, and how the man she had thought was the monster she had helped to put behind bars turned out to be innocent. The documentary continued with the man’s highly publicized exoneration, he and this woman’s tearful and forgiving reunion, the lawsuit against the authorities who wrongfully prosecuted him, and the shocking arrest for the horrible murder of the young female photographer shortly thereafter.

“Hey, I remember reading about that murder…”

What I find so shocking is the world-wide public reaction to this documentary that is turning it into a cultural phenomena. After all, the underlying themes of the crimes and allegedly bias investigations are actually pretty universal to small town Wisconsin, or any rural area in general. That’s why these themes turn up in my Dairyland Murders series.

Dairyland Murders has crimes that involve families with notorious members who have criminal records and questionable scruples. There are also apathetic law enforcement, over-reaching federal departments that turn manhunts into a bureaucratic nightmares, and good old government cover-ups for the sake of maintaining high end positions and reputations. All these forces cause grief, tragedy, and major life upheavals to those caught up in it. How they recover is a testament to their resolve and character.

Much like Fifty Shades of Grey mainstreamed the literary genre of erotica, “The Making of a Murderer” documents just one of the many examples of unspeakable crimes, questionable investigations, and open ended questions that are left to victims, criminals, and the rest of us to try to answer.

It’s just an outline…

All artists have a process. Some processes are more fluid than others. I’ve read about writers whose processes are so disciplined and sacred, they admit to being downright neurotic about them. I’m admittedly neurotic about a multitude of things, but my writing process is not one of them.

I do an outline, but it’s never at the beginning. The beginning is the title and the excerpt that I put at the end of the previous novel when it is finished. Those first two things force me to begin the outline. I have a title. I have a tone set with an excerpt. They are both already published with the previous novel. Now I’m bound to do the work.

Outlines are work. They have structure, a time line, the introduction or re-introduction of characters, the mood and pace of the plot and its purpose in the overall story line of the series. However, my outlines are not bibles. In my opinion the rigid adherence to an outline is the first step toward making a novel formulaic, the death knell of a fiction writer’s career.

An outline is simply a guide, a rough idea as to the direction the book is going. An outline doesn’t take into account detours that the characters may run into along the way. It can’t predict where a particular scene may veer an entire chunk of plot off course, move events around on the time line, or change the nature of character relationships to add misdirection for the readers.

It’s those unintentional and spontaneous twists and occurrences that make the writing fun and make the story stay vital and exciting. Enjoy.