Those Pesky Dead Bodies

This last weekend I attended the Writers’ Police Academy. It was awesome. It had an impressive list of classes and an equally impressive array of instructors. My first class included walking through the house used to teach cadets how to navigate through billowing smoke. There was no smoke but the smell remained and it was dark. Very dark. My respect for firemen rose about 100%. We learned how to shake down a cell for contraband—it turns out prisoners can be very creative—then how a police dog is trained. After working, she lay at her handlers’ feet, contentedly letting us all pet her while she bit a rubber chew toy instead of an arm.

We watched EMTs roar up and save a gunshot victim’s life. They made the scene was so real that for a moment I thought the victim had actually been shot. We learned about blood spatter patterns and how hard it is to get rid of blood from a murder scene. They even dug a shallow grave in a grove of trees, filled with an obliging dummy and lots of bugs and bad smells. We had a vivid lecture on how hard it is to dispose of a dead body and why cemeteries don’t use shallow graves.

Every mystery/thriller writer knows that the body is always a problem. You can leave it in plain sight, in the dining room where someone is sure to find it quickly, or you can hide it in the woods, where it may take a while before it’s found. That’s where the information we gleaned from this class comes in handy. Most murderers use a shallow grave because they don’t want to put in the hours, or work, it takes to dig a deeper one. After all, the longer you are out there digging, the better the chance someone may notice. However, they also want the evidence to disappear. A totally decayed body is much harder to identify, or so most folks think. But, the decaying process is messy, smelly and takes a while. Ergo, lime.I perked up when he mentioned that, as I’d had some personal experience with it.

Years ago, lime was used a lot in mysteries. So when a neighbor came over one day and complained that a mouse had managed to wedge itself behind her wall board and die, and that the smell was about to drive them into a motel, I suggested pouring lime down the wall. Worked beautifully on corpses in the mysteries I’d read. The only way to do it was to remove the light switch plate and pour a large quantity down the opening so that we’d have a better chance of covering the body. We got rid of the mouse and the smell all right, but we also took out all of the wiring on that wall of the house. I knew what lime did to mice and wires, and was interested in what it might do to bodies. Turns out it’s not nearly as effective, or as quick as it was with the mouse. It is effective at keeping the noxious odors from seeping up to give away the location of the body, but burying it wrapped in heavy plastic is better. It’s bugs and worms that assist in the decaying of a body. If it’s wrapped in plastic, they can’t get to it. However, you’d better bring a piece of plywood to put over the body because all that loose dirt is going to settle. A dead giveaway that something is buried there.

Interesting as all of this has been, I think I’ve given up on shallow graves. After all, I write cozies. It somehow seems more fitting, and a lot tidier, to stick with Miss Scarlet with the pistol in the study.

The Tortuous Path from Idea to Story

Yesterday, I taught a workshop for the OLLI at Clemson University. OLLI, for those of you too young to know, is continuing education for seniors and a chapter can be found at many universities. They delve into all kinds of subjects; from teaching you how to clean your computer of extra stuff you don’t want (a class I need to take) to the history of Jewish Folklore (a class I took) My workshop has been included in their curriculum.

The object of the workshop isn’t to teach people how to write a novel, that pretty much takes a lifetime, but to show them the difference between an idea and a story, and the steps an author takes to make that leap. I handed out an outline I’d brought and started with an idea. We could start to build a story from it several ways but we still needed the basic ingredients. Like baking a cake, only in this case the ingredients were the antagonist, the protagonist, conflict, setting and so on. After we spent a few minutes discussing the outline, I passed out cards and everyone wrote down an idea of their own. We picked one at random and we were off.

An hour later, we had a protagonist who actually was fleshed out. We knew what he looked like, what his childhood had been like, that he was a widower, and a lot about his frustration with getting old and loosing his independence. Not an unusual topic in a class filled with sixty pluses. We had a secondary character we also knew a lot about. We’d explored his background, knew how he was raised by a single mother, knew his struggles with his sexuality, his resentment against the world and particularly with the great uncle who he was obliged to drive cross country. We knew the journey was going to be the adversary and that it would change both of these people. Did we have a story?

No. Not yet.

Stories are about what happens to people. About events that change them, in little ways and profound ones. About conflict and how the person, or persons, in our story react to that conflict. No two people would react the same way to the same situation. One might burst into tears at, for instance, the injury or death of a loved one. Another might retreat into private misery. One might freeze in the face of danger, another might attack. It depends on the person. Given a couple more hours, we might have constructed a story about Frank and Kevin’s trip and the things that happened to change them. What we did do was lay down the foundation for a story, by breathing a little life into two characters.

Every time I do this workshop, I’m reminded that stories are about people and what happens to them. What happens to Frank and Kevin is yet to be discovered, but now that we know them, we’ve got a place to start. What fun!

Bittersweet

Sunday is the eleventh of September, the tenth anniversary of the terrible attack on the twin towers in New York. It’s a day none of us will ever forget. After all these years, it’s stored in all our family lore, either because of tragedy, close and personal, or because of the sheer horror of what happened, but each of us has a story to tell about that day. Let me tell you mine.

My youngest daughter was due to give birth to her first child, but said child didn’t seem too eager to put in an appearance. So, when she called me early on the morning of September tenth, I knew we were finally on our way. Call the doctor, I said, and started to make my own preparations. I lived on California’s central coast; she was in the LA area, four or more hours away.

The baby was in no hurry. We spent a difficult night, my daughter, the baby’s father and me, while the hospital staff popped in and out, monitoring her progress and the baby’s heart beat. On toward morning, there was much discussion why she wasn’t making progress and worrying about a dry birth. They weren’t as worried as I was. So, even though the television was on, I missed it. “An airplane just flew into that building,” the baby’s father said, staring transfixed at the TV. “Not possible,” I answered, but I turned to look We both stood, uncomprehending, as the second plane went in. Nurses came in to check on my daughter and paused to stare at the TV. We spoke to each other in hushed tones, as if to speak too loudly would make what we were watching real. Suddenly, for me, it became very real. Paralysis melted and my brain had started to function. One of my sons worked in New York, across the plaza from the Twin Towers! They were talking about other buildings on fire! Which ones? I had visited his family not that long ago. One evening, after I had spent the day in the city, he and I met after work and walked over to one of the towers for a glass of wine before returning to Long Island. We went to the top, took our wine out onto the viewing area and watched the lights of New York come on. It had been magical. It wasn’t magical now. I had to know where he was. I grabbed my cell phone and ran downstairs. It was impossible to get through to New York. I needed to get back upstairs. My daughter’s pains were coming faster and she was in extreme distress. I was worried about her and about the baby. An emergency C-section loomed large in my mind, but so did my son. Where was he? I phoned another daughter who lived in the LA area.  She had heard the news but was on her way to her job as a teacher. Don’t leave until you find your brother, I instructed, no one is going to send their kids to school today anyway. Upstairs, things weren’t going so well. The doctor was on her way; nurses were glued to the fetal monitor with scarcely a glance at the TV. It stopped me, however, when I heard the announcer say all planes were grounded. Anything in the air was to land immediately. No planes on the ground could take off. My oldest daughter and my son-in-law were supposed to have left for Texas that  morning. Where were they? A quick check of my watch said they should be halfway from San Louis Obispo to LA. If they made it there, they could go no further. Someone would have to get them. It wasn’t going to be me. The baby had finally decided to make its appearance. Come help her, the doctor directed. I held one knee, the father the other while the doctor instructed my daughter to “push.” The TV screamed the fate of the third plane in the background.