by Donnell Ann Bell
One meets the most interesting people when writing romantic suspense and mysteries. Like it or not, writers are forced to leave Google every once in a while, walk out the door or pick up the phone to do research. There’s many a raised eyebrow and snicker aimed at writers who perpetrate their fictional situations and crime scenes. And I’m certainly no different.
My plot is elaborate—and complicated. I’ve devised a devious way for a hit man to frame my heroine. She’s a furniture maker and in her shop, she has a wood press. And in her back yard, there conveniently stands a peach tree. I want the killer to pick a peach, remove the peach pits and pulverize said peach pits in the wood press. Then, of course, I want my hit man to poison heroine’s husband, effectively framing my protagonist for murder. But in case he doesn’t have time to smash several peach pits to smithereens, he probably should have some actual arsenic on his person. How to get it?
I ever so politely contact my pharmacist to ask about arsenic, and learn it’s a controlled substance? That’s certainly not helping my plot any.
Darned pharmacist and his controlled substance.
I’m committed, however, and unstoppable. I contact my neighbor who works in a Cripple Creek silver mine. One of the side effects of mining silver is … voila … Arsenic. That’s how I’ll get my hands on the poison! Neighbor listens politely, then says, “Sorry, Donnell, EPA regs make us account for every ounce of arsenic that’s produced.”
Seriously? Are the writing gods out to get me?
Very sure this plot is going to launch my career, I call up my county sheriff’s office and arrange an appointment. I sit down with a sergeant and a lieutenant, stutter around my plot, all the while the lieutenant’s eyes are narrowing, he’s tapping his pencil and memorizing my name and address. “Where does your story take place?” he asks.
“El Paso,” I reply.
He scratches his chin and looks to the sergeant—again with that raised eyebrow thing. “Well, why don’t you have your hit man go across the border into Mexico where he can buy the arsenic without any problem?”
I blush to my hairline. “Or I could do that,” I reply.
It may sound glamorous to the non-writers out there when we authors interview professionals, but as you can see, for me it’s been an intensely humbling process. I mean, Google’s amazing and convenient, but the information is often skewed, outdated and all over the place. I want my research as accurate as possible.
I’ll leave you with one final anecdote on what one writer (ahem, yours truly) has had to go through.
Stalled on another story, I pick up the phone and place a call to the coroner’s office. When a woman answers, the confident, professional voice I’ve practiced comes out nothing short of a croak and a squeak. “Hello. . .” I say. “I’m this writer, and I’m working on a mystery… and I wonder if you could tell me what kind of rigor a body will be in, say . . . twelve hours.”
“You’re who?” she booms. “You want to do what?”
Luckily this booming woman is entirely generous, and today my very good friend. She’s spoken to numerous writing groups at my begging, we wrote a mock coroner’s inquest together, which was so much fun, and often we find ourselves alone in restaurants when people either move far away from us or we find it’s three o’clock in the afternoon and the lunch hour well over.
To get over my discomfort in asking the professionals for advice, I’ve volunteered, taken citizens academies, and finally joined Crimescenewriters, a Yahoo group started by retired veteran police officer Wally Lind, and now in its tenth year! Numerous experts are on Crimescenewriters, and this is a fantastic, giving group.
Take it from one who learned the hard way―If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Sure beats having someone say, “You’re who? You want to do what?”