By Debbie Burke
We might as well confess. As writers, we’ve been known to eavesdrop on conversations.
We wonder, what is that couple at the next table squabbling about? Or we listen over the dressing room partition to young women anticipating their lovers’ reactions to lingerie they’re trying on. Or we’re stuck on a plane beside a gnarly guy with strange tattoos who’s swearing at the unfortunate soul on the other end of his cell phone.
Writers can’t help being incurably nosy, because we’re always on the lookout for the germ of a great story idea.
But what about when a normal person listens in on conversations among crime writers? Those can veer into potentially gruesome territory, especially when we’re doing research with professional experts, like medical first responders, law enforcement, military personnel, and others whose jobs bring them in contact with violence, its perpetrators and victims. Such experts always have colorful stories to share about bizarre cases and unsolved mysteries.
However, those chats can get graphic. If a civilian (non-writer) happened to listen in on such conversations, they might overhear scary stuff they’d rather not know. On top of that, the gory details could ruin someone’s lunch if they’re unlucky enough to sit too close to your table.
GROSS-OUT ALERT: If your stomach is delicate, skip the next two paragraphs.
While hanging out in the hotel bar at a writers conference, an FBI agent told me the story about an obese female who’d died under suspicious circumstances. Because he wasn’t looking forward to observing the autopsy on a body that had been dead for several days, he’d skipped breakfast to avoid the embarrassment of losing it, and stuffed his nose with Vicks to deal with the smell. But he wasn’t ready for the visual about to unfold before him.
Decomposition causes gases to build up inside a body, the reason why drowning victims eventually float to the surface. When the medical examiner made the Y-shaped cut in the woman’s torso, yards of gas-filled intestines billowed up through the incision. According to the FBI agent, they looked “just like balloon animals.” He has not been able to look at balloon animals since without thinking of that unforgettable image. Neither have I.
Okay, it’s safe to resume reading.
One morning, I met for coffee at a local haunt with two mystery writer pals, one of whom is an emergency physician. I often query her about strangulation, gunshot wounds, blood loss, drug overdoses, etc. She’s an indispensable encyclopedia of medical knowledge.
The subject came up about how to kill someone using an IV in a hospital. The learned doctor suggested several drugs that couldn’t be traced in an autopsy. The three of us debated the pros and cons of various drugs, looking for an option that would be easy for a killer to obtain, but wouldn’t show on a toxicological screen.
Suddenly, we noticed other customers had moved far away from our table and were shooting concerned looks in our direction. Thankfully, no one called 911 to report three seemingly harmless, but obviously evil, women plotting the perfect murder.
Then there’s the time my husband and I were on vacation in Florida. We’d become acquainted with an interesting gentleman who was a retired coroner. Since I got up early and my husband slept late, for several mornings, the coroner and I wound up on side-by-side chaise lounges, sunning ourselves by the pool. Naturally we’d get talking. He told me about unusual cases and I’d ask him about various plot devices. At the time, I was working on a short story about a murder committed in a nudist resort. But where do you hide the weapon?
The coroner came up with the ideal solution. Take a bottle of sunscreen lotion. Add a particular lethal drug. The toxin is absorbed through the skin and mimics the effects of a heart attack. Brilliant!
Then we noticed sunbathers on adjacent chaises, suspiciously watching us. I’m sure they thought the coroner and I were clandestine lovers, plotting the murder of my poor, unsuspecting husband.
Nevertheless, this tale had a happy ending: my short story was published and, thankfully, my husband survived unscathed.
Writers get carried away with imaginary characters and imaginary crimes. Maybe we should issue disclaimers to innocent folks at adjacent tables. “It’s okay, we’re not really going to rob a bank. We’re just writers. Pull up a chair and help us plan the perfect crime.”
Debbie Burke wrote a TKZ guest blog several weeks ago about Kindle Scout. She plans to take the plunge soon and enter her suspense thriller, Instrument of the Devil.
Just be glad you have never had a group of romance writers nearby when you had children or elderly parents at the restaurant table! I have a few fun stories about that from friends.
Next time your romance friends meet, let me know where and when so I can eavesdrop!
Debbie, Thanks for sharing this info–even the part about the autopsy with unintended complications. Yes, crime writers’ conversations can raise the eyebrows of the “straight” world.
You’re welcome, Richard. These incidents make research fun.
At the Surrey International Writers’ Conference one year, a young(er than me) writer/doctor, Kim Foster, gave a session on things writers get wrong on medical subjects, and how to get them right. It was fascinating. Later, I took a friend to her table at the joint book signing, and had my friend ask her her most pressing manuscript question at the time: What do eyeballs *feel* like after the person has been dead a few days?
The conversation that followed was energetic, interesting, and probably quite nauseating to people with sensitive constitutions.
A friend of mine had a non-fiction book about forensics, and I enjoyed that book immensely, reading it several times. Some of the pictures were pretty nasty, but they helped with imagining. My friend looked at me strangely after I told him that (he refused to look at the pictures.)
I guess it’s a good thing I don’t have a sensitive constitution.
Crime writing does require a strong constitution, BJ. I don’t consider myself particularly squeamish, but the other day I met my limit, reviewing a scene with my critique group about a cattle rendering plant. It was written, not surprisingly, by the intrepid emergency doc I refer to in the above post.
A group of writer friends were discussing ways to get rid of a body over lunch at a coffee shop and were approached by a cop from the next table. They said they were writers, and he said that’s what he thought, but he felt like he ought to make sure.
If my husband and I go out to gatherings or just meet new people, he always says, “Be careful of what you say. She’s a writer.”
Terry, you’ve no doubt seen the tee shirt that says, “Watch out or you’ll end up in my novel.”
I have that shirt!
What great stories. So glad I read the one about the gassy corpse. Gross, but awesome.
I eavesdrop for stories all the time. Anybody have good ploys for pretending that you’re “not” listening? It’s always so obvious to me when people are listening to conversations, and I have a terrible poker face!
Have you tried pretending to be hard at work, typing on your laptop, when you’re actually transcribing the conversation?
Ooooh. That’s a great idea!
I have the reverse story. I like to find people who are speaking, but not in English. As unobtrusively as possible, I like to observe the body language, the emphatic rise of the voice, the responsive tsk, the narrowed eyes if the two speaking together don’t like one another, the arm-waving, crescendos of one telling another about the goal with a minute left in the soccer game. (Yes, I don’t but I don’t care.) The obvious hatred in political discussions. The guy who rattles and rants on and on about America and Americans, and then says, “Yes, I know they’re looking but I don’t care.) Or, the tear-filled stories in English about the fallen family members who gave up their lives for us.
It isn’t all good–but it’s all interesting.
Jim, your technique sounds like a great way to pick up meaningful details to build characters. Body language often says more than words do. Thanks for adding to the discussion.
This topic has been on my mind quite a bit this week, Debbie. We have been in Paris, and there’s a visibly heightened focus on security in public venues. As we did our tourist treks, I couldn’t help discussing (loud enough to be heard, I’m sure) which venues might be likely “targets”, how they were vulnerable, and what our emergency response should be in each situation. Sadly, these observations had more to do with “real world ” than being a writer, but my writer’s brain is somewhat responsible for always leading me down the path of doom and gloom thinking, I believe. That, and my upbringing. I was raised to project the worst possible outcome in any situation, and be prepared–just in case. (Example: during family vacations, my dad used a stopwatch to time the number of seconds it took for our plane to lift off at the end of the runway. He’d announce that if it took more than 30 seconds, say, we weren’t going to make it. Those were always the longest 30 seconds in my life ?).
I did get one startled reaction this week, in fact. I asked our concierge about booking a guided tour of Paris, and mentioned we’d like to find a history based tour. He asked me which era I was interested in particularly (Paris goes back a long way lol), and I said “German occupation of Paris in WWII). He looked quite taken aback–turns out, we were staying in the very hotel where the German high command had been located during the war. The German general who had to decide whether to follow Hitler’s orders to destroy Paris spent a long night on the top floor of our hotel, waiting for the long awaited Allied liberation. He knew if he delayed the destruction much longer, the Gestapo would assassinate him and find someone else to destroy the city. (Of course, I knew that part of the hotel’s history when I booked the reservation). I think that as writers, we tend to look for the interesting stories behind places and people, in order to create interesting stories of our own.
Wow, Kathryn, what an opportunity to stay at a hotel so haunted with dark history. Your story brought to mind the classic movie, “Is Paris Burning?” which I’d seen when it came out in 1966 or ’67, but after reading your account, I want to watch it again.
Your dad unwittingly prepared you to write fiction b/c the worst thing that can possibly happen is the best twist of the story.
I too expect the worst, probably a remnant from a Cold War childhood where air raid sirens still dotted street corners and were tested once a week at noon, causing dogs to wail. Elementary school kids drilled for emergency by ducking under our desks (as if that would protect us from the A-bomb), and neighbors built bomb shelters in their backyards (actually those turned out to be cool places to play). I’m recognizing a lot of parallels today.
Safe travels, Kathryn!
That is very, very cool Kathryn. As a history nerd I would’ve been doing flips.
Hahahaha. Love it, Debbie. Perhaps we should carry signs. When the conversation turns “ugly” we could drape it over the edge of our table. Something to the effect of, “Crime Writers Plotting. Eavesdrop At Your Own Risk.”
Thanks, Sue. Nah, it’s more fun if we leave ’em guessing! 😉
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