There’s Method in My Murders

Dial M for Murder 1954

It’s a bit harder for a mystery writer to come up with murder methods today. I don’t mean it’s harder to find them. It’s just that readers are more sophisticated and expect police and even amateur detectives to work with much more difficult scenarios. Your villain has to be wilier not only in their methods of homicide, but also in methods of evading discovery. And today’s crime writer must take care to not get caught in a mistake by a reader who happens to be knowledgeable in a particular field. With email and the internet, they feel compelled to let you know when you’ve goofed. And they will tell their friends: “Don’t bother reading this book, the author doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

One of the most helpful sites in my own research has been FBI homicide statistics from the 2019 Crime in the United States report. If you’re interested in a state-by-state breakdown of commonly used weapons, this is fascinating stuff. The most common weapon in the U.S. is the handgun—no surprise there. While we may deplore the plethora of handguns in film, television and novels, they only mirror reality, at least here in the U.S.

After firearms comes the ever popular “blunt instrument”, often just long pieces of wood, metal tools, objet d’art, whatever comes to hand, so to speak. Pretty simple, but know that the reader will be looking for the DNA results.

There’s a category of murder the FBI labeled as “hands, fists and feet” which brings up interesting pictures in the mind of a writer. Then for most U.S. states, knives and other cutting instruments come somewhere between firearms and fists. And there’s a small section that includes homicides by poison, explosives, fire and narcotics. For various reasons, poisons have largely gone out of favor in this century, in true crime as well as fiction. Until the 19th century, poisons couldn’t even be detected in the human body, making them the perfect weapon. But today, with advanced technology and toxicology, homicidal poisonings are statistically rare. Anyone who watches CSI, Law & Order, NCIS, etc., knows there’s no longer such a thing as an “untraceable poison”, which was a favorite of writers even in the last century.

I did use strangulation in one of my murder stories because I felt the killer’s motive was more up close and personal. My perpetrator was not the kind of person who would keep a gun handy or be inclined to beat someone to death. But he could be overcome with rage as well as fear that the person who meant so much to him would leave him for someone else. He went into what they call a blind rage and strangled his victim. Strangulation was used a lot in older stories, but again, today there’s the possibility of DNA on the cord or cloth.

Arson can be a method of homicide, but it’s more often used to make identifying the body difficult. And it’s tricky for a perpetrator (and a writer) as technology becomes ever more advanced. The leaps that technology has taken means that being an arson investigator now involves one of the most rigorous of training requirements, training that didn’t exist thirty years ago.

It’s still possible to come up with even stranger and more bizarre methods of homicide if you want to put in the time for the research. Those novels are fun to read and write, but for the most part, far-fetched no longer shocks, and readers are sophisticated, knowledgeable and what’s worse, skeptical. We writers have to work harder to get you all to go along with a plot and give us what we call your “willing suspension of disbelief”.

So … What goofs have you caught in your murder reading? Did you decide to let it go because it was a favorite author? Or did you throw the book across the room in disgust?

The Desert or the Woods?

What’s more mysterious?

When I first moved to Vermont from the southwest, I was as enchanted as I was told I should be by every New Englander I met. The green everywhere felt like I’d fallen into a fairy tale. The soft air caressed my face instead of dragging hot dry fingernails across it. And there was flowing water everywhere!

I didn’t think it would be a problem coming up with murder mystery plots. The afore-mentioned deep dark woods, the swift river currents, the campers and hikers who try to get as far away from cell phone coverage as they can. It’s rather creepy out there with the silence (no distant traffic sounds carried on the hot wind), the menacing chitter of unknown creatures, the shadows that seem to follow you like eyes in a portrait.

Then the culture shock set in, and I hit writers block. Don’t get me wrong. New England has culture, tons of it. Libraries, universities, theater groups, book groups. Book writers. The desert just has heat and grit and a lot of strange-looking people who revel in being different. Which means, of course, that they end up resembling each other.

One thing they have in common with New England is that they just want to be left alone. In the desert it’s hard to find them. In the eastern woods, it’s real easy to stumble upon them and then hope they’re carrying that shotgun for squirrels.

I tried widening my knowledge of the area. I went for long drives and found it was easier to get lost in Vermont than out in the desert. I hadn’t realized how much I had come to depend on that fifty-miles-in-any-direction view to keep me anchored. Even after I bought a small compass, somehow it didn’t help to know where north was if there was a solid wall of green mountainside all around me. I discovered that you can go for a hundred miles looking for the town that the car navigation swears is just ahead. The only signs you see give you the name of that spooky little road that runs off through a gap in the trees. Sometimes I’d find a town and could make a guess at its name by the clever signs on the shops. Sometimes I would simply come to a T, turn right or left on a mental dice throw, and after another twenty miles bang on my steering wheel and cry, “But what road am I ON?”

I really didn’t worry about being lost – states are small enough here that if you just keep going, you’ll hit Canada (border) or New Hampshire (Connecticut River) or New York (flat!) or Massachusetts (rush hour!). I expected to find a lot of coffee shops in New England, preferably with outdoor seating where I could contemplate a beautiful green view and work on my latest novel-in-progress.

Surprise.

Unless you live near a university in the middle of a town, cafes of any type are thin on the ground, especially ones with outdoor seating. People looked at me very strangely when I asked. I finally realized that nine months out of the year here, you’re risking hypothermia sitting outside. Anyway, I was a struggling writer, and a college-town five-dollar cappuccino isn’t my cup of tea. I was told there are nice riverside parks, BYO-Coffee. I haven’t found any yet and nearly got arrested trying to find one. How was I supposed to know it was some New Yorker’s summer cottage on the river?

Gas stations sometimes have a picnic table outside, useable three months out of the year if you don’t mind sucking up the fumes from the pumps. No vista to contemplate and no pedestrians to talk to. Just folks in a hurry to get where they’re going.

So I thought, get closer to the ground. I went for long walks hoping for inspiration. The villages here have three or four blocks of sidewalk which constitute “downtown”. Past the last house, the roads are inches from the trees, forcing you to walk out on the tarmac with your heart thumping at every blind curve, wondering if you’ll end up like Stephen King, famous as much for his broken bones as his books. There’s a reason his novels are dark, people.

In the desert, I would sit out on a high dune, stare at the far horizon and come up with dead bodies. There’s tons of them out there, just ask any southwestern CSI. Tons of reasons for them too, with convoluted back stories and a plethora of motives that can stretch across several states. The desert is such a great place to lose a body, it’s a short step to thinking up reasons for finding one.

In New England, murder seems to come mostly from pride and short tempers which lead to impulsive and immediately regretted killings. The cops generally know whodunnit before they even get there. My son’s on the Volunteer Rescue Squad and often laments the too-many desperate deaths, things like overdoses, suicide and freezing to death. Not to mention the stupid deaths, people who don’t realize you can’t just go for a stroll in the woods in January wearing a plastic windbreaker. And you can’t ride a boogie-board over the rocks, and you can’t bungee-jump off a picturesque but short bridge.

Trying to design a long-term mystery novel can be a challenge. But I’m getting braver. I poke down those spooky roads and scuttle through tired alleys that haven’t been gentrified yet, just to see what I can find. I read the paper and attend town meetings to study the resentment caused by the latest housing development that’s pushing out the oldtimers. I wonder about the people who might be holding a serious long-term grudge against the neighbor who legally built a fence so it blocks access to a favorite squirrel-hunting trail or shot their dog while aiming at a rabbit.

I’ll come up with something.

A quick one:

I wrote this 100-word story from the following picture prompt, posted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields for the Friday Fictioneers. What struck me was that the room seemed so empty, so I wrote a story that is along the lines of “be careful what you wish for”:

The Children’s Room

Monica simply wished Joey would stop jumping and screaming so she could have some peace.

“Take him to the library,” said Peter.

Joey stared in silent awe as they walked past the shelves. She led him to the Children’s Room and chose a book.

“Look at the pictures for a minute, okay?”

He didn’t look up as she left. The silence was heavenly.

“You’re holding a book for me,” she told the librarian. “Please hurry.”

Book in hand, she rushed back.

He wasn’t there. She searched the room, then ran through all the rooms, her screams shattering the silent building.

If you’d like to join in, it’s easy. Just write a 100-word story of your own, post it on your blog or a webpage, then click on the froggie and add the link to ours. Don’t forget to read the other stories and comment — it’s fun to see the different takes on the same picture.

Click to Enter

Celebrating the Dreamers

And no, I’m not talking about the immigrant children who grew up to become unpapered Americans. That’s a political question for another time, perhaps.

I’m referring to those of us who suffered the impatience of loved ones when we wanted to spend our lives on things that would never make us rich, might not even make us a living. Things we saw in a dream and tried to recreate with words, crayons, paints, clay, stone, fabrics or musical instruments.

When Rochelle Wisoff-Fields posted this picture prompt for the Friday Fictioneers, many of us saw a man making a small living creating beautiful art.

I saw a man drawn to draw, whether it made money or not.

While I have had my books published, I also have piles—many years-worth—of notebooks, journals and digital files that will never be seen by anyone but me. They are the dreams I just had to write down in some form or other, and earning money was never a part of it. I only wish my father had lived long enough to see some of my dream come true.

If you have a dream, work on it now. Even if you have to hide it from impatient people. Even if you can’t explain it to those who love you but don’t understand why you do it. Even if you have to fit it in around “making a living”. Celebrate your dreams and make them real, if only for yourself.

As a start, take a look at this week’s picture and dream up a little 100-word story of your own. You can make it less than 100 words, but no more, at least not for the Friday Fictioneers. (You can turn it into something bigger later. I have.) Post your story on your blog, your website, wherever. Then click on the froggie below and share the link — let us know where we can find it! We’re all dreamers, aren’t we? We want to read it. Be sure to click and comment on the other dreamers’ stories.

Here’s mine:

The Street Artist

PHOTO PROMPT © Brenda Cox

I glared across the street.

“Mama,” I said, “is Papa painting pictures again?”

“He is making money, my dumpling.”

“Not very much money.”

She pulled on my arm, dragging me down the street to ask the grocer for more credit. She thought forcing me to come along would enure me to being poor. It only made me hate our poverty even more.

“Why doesn’t he come with us?” I demanded. “Why isn’t he the one to beg food from these people? Then he would understand what he puts us through.”

“Why doesn’t the bird stop singing to hunt for food?”

Hope and Solstices

© Eugenia Parrish 2021

Dear Folks:

This blog has never had an absolute purpose (you may have noticed). My posts are mostly of two kinds: either small stories I wanted to share or bits of simple musing. I love it when folks respond to either kind (kindly), and I wanted to take a moment to thank you and wish you all, including those who aren’t inclined to respond but still come back for more, a happy holiday season.

It’s cold and dark where I am, which after several years is still a shock and an adjustment for someone who’s spent most of her adulthood in climates that did not require snow tires and thermal underwear, climates where sunlight was a given year-round. Winter solstice was two days ago, and I can’t describe my anticipation, how I eagerly searched the sky for any sign of a break in the gray. Even if there’s not much sign yet, there’s hope, and that’s what matters, isn’t it? The hope of ever increasing light. The hope of warmth. The hope of spending more time with those who matter, the hope that we’ll find ways to meet in the middle, the hope that Mother Earth will forgive us for our arrogance and abuse. The hope that we will forgive each other.

Throughout my life I spent so many holidays away from loved ones, I’ve pared my decorating down to one thing —  a small tree, preferably in a window where any lovely passing stranger could see and feel the nearness of another person, feel the hope of something better. I’m doing the same thing now, as I sit in my tiny office. If you drive by, give my little tree a wave or a honk. I’ll raise a glass of eggnog to you. May your day be merry and bright.

In peace and with so much gratitude for readers like you…

“Changing Values”

I have been a bit busy (’tis the season!), so this is my first Friday Fictioneers post in a while. For those who don’t know, every week Rochelle Wisoff-Fields posts a photo prompt on her blog “Addicted to Purple“. The rules are: no more than 100 words! If you’re feeling like a storyteller and want to join us, go to her blog and check out the latest photo. Let your ideas flow, then write your own 100-word story (all experience-levels welcome). Post it on your own website or blog. Then click on the froggie below and add the link to your story to the others posted that week. Be sure to credit the owner of the photo (in this case it’s our own Rochelle). And be sure to read everyone else’s story to see all the different ways people see the photo. Comment and join the group! Or just scroll down and enjoy my attempt:

PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

“Your grandfather kept all this wine down here? There must be thousands of bottles! Didn’t anyone ever want to drink it?”

“No, these are too valuable. It would be like wearing the Crown Jewels to a picnic.”

“But the Crown Jewels are worn on special occasions, aren’t they? He’s had this stuff hidden away for decades.”

“Not hidden. Cared for. This is a controlled environment. It would take a nuclear war to disrupt it.”

“And after a war or a pandemic destroys civilization? Will anyone care about thousands of bottles of priceless wine?”

“Not if they drank enough of it.”

ONE EPIDEMIC LEADS TO ANOTHER?

I often find that things happening out in the world will trigger a writer’s plotlines and characters. But sometimes they just get me to wondering.

For instance, I recently read that this country is suffering from an “epidemic of violence”. Well, I thought, that’s kind of silly — this has always been a violent country. Just read our novels and watch our movies. People in other places have long been appalled by our love affair with guns, our enjoyment of fisticuffs, our loud, oftentimes bloody political arguments.

It occurs to me that we do not now have an epidemic of violence. What we have here is an epidemic of arrogance.

Since the Revolutionary War Americans have taken pride in being citizens under a government where we can express opposition publicly without fear of reprisals. We’ve had heated elections and then accepted the results and moved on. Now and then we’ve had episodes of violence that made us shudder. We wrote them off as aberrations.

But what we have now is everyday arrogance.

We have the arrogance of people who use their personal unhappiness with an election as an excuse to mob our Senate Building, frightening those inside, even harming some, and then taking souvenirs and selfies in order to boast of it.

We have the arrogance of a teenager taking an AR-15 into another state to “protect” a demonstration that had nothing to do with him.

We have the arrogance of white citizens “arresting” and then killing a black man for daring to run through their neighborhood, and then insisting it was self-defense.

The arrogance of a policeman ignoring a screaming, pleading crowd while kneeling on a young man’s neck until he suffocates.

The arrogance of people who think nothing of using a vehicle as a weapon against a crowd of strangers. Or hunting down an errant spouse like a frightened deer or turning a gun on a neighbor.

We’ve always been a proud people and yes, at times an angry people. But when did pride and anger turn to arrogance?

Crime Bake 2021

Exciting times! Last weekend I attended (in person – first time in two years!) the New England Crime Bake conference for writers and readers in Boston, Massachusetts. I was proud to be chosen as one of three Honorable Mentions for the 2021 Al Blanchard Short Crime Fiction contest.

The winner was Joseph S. Walker, and you can read his haunting story “Herb Ecks Goes Underground” as well as my own and many others in the Best New England Crime Stories anthology “Bloodroot”.

Cover Design © Darlene Albert/Wicked Smart Designs

Looking Back

The railings had a hard rough frost yesterday that didn’t feel slick at all, more like the gritty stuff they put on steps to keep people from slipping. Winter is coming. As always, and four years after moving here from the city, I’m still amazed by the utter silence in the mornings. My heater is blasting, and here I am, looking at one year left before I’m three-fourths of a century old. Or young, as they like to say now. The doctor who recently gave me my physical did say I’m in better shape than anyone he’s ever seen my age. I told him I should be – I work hard enough at it.

I’ve been trying to look back on seventy-four years, but there’s just too much to take in. The fact is, I’ve lived through so many wonder-ful, interesting and plain stupid things in my life, I’ve had people accuse me of making them up. Maybe that’s part of the reason I became a novelist. Fiction is all about “making things up”. But one thing most people don’t understand is that, if we put even half of what we know to be true into our fiction, many would reject it as implausible, suspect, hard to believe. Hence, I believe, the recent surge in memoir writing. Folks want to put it down somewhere, and be damned to those who don’t believe “it actually happened like that!”

When my mother passed away, I invited my niece and nephews to come and get the things of their mother’s that Gram had saved since my sister’s death: school records, programs, toys, craft projects, her wedding dress which had been made over for my niece when she got married and then stored away again. Photos, photos, photos. Every time they came to Mama’s house, I said, “Please go upstairs and go through it – I can’t take it all home with me.”

Well, I did end up taking it home with me – who can bring themselves to throw such things away? Many years later, when my niece was drawn to her own ‘looking back’, she sent an email asking if I still had anything of her mother’s. I bundled it all up and sent it to the last address I had for her. She had moved some months before without mentioning it on Facebook (today’s version of a phone call), and we had a time tracking it down. Luckily she knew the people who had moved into her old house. They were about to throw it out.

My point is, such yearnings for memories must come at their own time, each at our own age. And if that time comes late, we are left wondering what we’ve missed. Maybe not letters these days, but Gram’s old books, Pop’s collection of brochures of the places he dreamed of traveling to someday, Mama’s handwritten notes for the guitar class she took when her babies were young. But most of all, long leisurely conversations. All those things that would give us a better understanding of what kind of people they were, not just our own memories of what kind of parents they were.

I must start jotting things down and hope I have time to make a sort of memoir so my grandkids won’t someday regret all the questions they were too far away or too busy with life to ask while I was here. Like the things I regret not asking my own Granny about – living through the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, the War (any of them). Widowhood. Two husbands. Six kids born at home. Remembering her, I will try to let my grands and great-grands know what all I was up to before they became aware that Grams must have had their own lives, after all, not just adjuncts to their own.

I only hope they won’t say, “Well, that’s pretty hard to believe. I’ll bet she made it up!”

C’mon, Granny

It’s been a busy summer with not much chance to take another walk through the woods. I did write this 100-word tribute to a friend who was born to a mining family.

PHOTO PROMPT© Roger Bultot

“Smile, Grandma!”

“Get that thing outen my face.”

“C’mon. All your grandkids want to see you.”

“I’m still livin’ in the same house.”

“Most can’t afford to travel so far.”

“Shouldn’t’ve left the place they were born, then. Nothing wrong with it.”

“Except there’s no jobs.”

“Plenty of jobs. Just lazy people who don’t want to work.”

Meredith sighed. “We can’t all work the mines, Granny.”

“Good enough for your grandpap.”

“Who died from Black Lung, remember?”

“Balderdash. Old fart wouldn’t stop smokin’ cigars his whole life.”

“Forget it, Merry,” said Thomas. “Some old dogs you can’t teach anything.”

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Most soul-crushing jobs kill you early. Coal mining takes its time.