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.”