Tuesday, May 02, 2017

You’ve got to be paying attention

by Rick Blechta

Aline’s comment about everyone scribbling notes at one of the presentations during the weekend conference she organized really resonated with me. For those of us who write crime fiction, these opportunities can be incredibly important , because not only can we make use of the “nuts & bolts”-type things to which Aline is referring, but we can also make use of “motivational” (meaning plot motives) items that are encountered almost daily — if one is paying attention.

That’s why I nearly always read accounts in the media of crimes and criminal proceedings. If I had the time, I would attend trials too. Anytime I’m around those involved with law enforcement, I may not be keeping actual notes, but I’m doing my best to memorize anything said that might be used later.

Here’s a good example of what I mean: When I first got involved with Crime Writers of Canada years ago, the Toronto chapter held monthly meetings. Quite often an expert on something or other would come in to give a presentation. There were many good ones over the years: a court clerk, a profiler, policemen (from beat cops to the brass upstairs), a firearms expert, and even one person who was a specialist in hand-to-hand combat.

I always took a notebook to those meetings! You’d invariably come away with tons of useful little details that only insiders know, and even though I’ve only used a handful of them over the years, I’ve kept my store of them dry and ready to use at a moment’s notice.

One experience, though, sticks out above all others. The chapter meeting wasn’t really well-attended which was a huge shame, but those of us who came sure got our money’s worth.

The guest that evening was a senior homicide detective from the neighbouring municipality of Peel. He brought a slide presentation with photos of an actual crime scene. He’d arranged the ones he’d chosen (he told us there were over a thousand) to take us through the scene of a murder investigation as the police had found it.

The police had been called because of the smell coming from an apartment in a large building. The murder took place during the summer and the body they found in the bedroom was a mess. Fortunately, he only showed us one or two of the less-graphic ones, but believe me that was enough to viscerally bring home what it must have been like for the forensics team.

The owner of the apartment was gay and had picked up the person who murdered him at a Toronto bath house. The weapon used was a long kitchen knife and there was blood all over the place: floor, walls and ceiling. It was immediately obvious the body had been there for several days. (The apartment didn’t have air conditioning.)

The detective told us they were pretty sure from start that the murder had taken place around three days earlier. One of us asked how they knew that without a postmortem or witness statements.

“See that glass on the night table in this shot? Both men had been drinking screwdrivers (vodka and orange juice) in those last hours. You can still see half of it in the glass.”

“What’s the black stuff floating on top of the orange juice?” I asked.

“Flies. We found a two-inch layer of dead flies in that glass. It takes about three days to get a layer that thick, so we knew right away roughly when the murder had taken place.”

Now there is a detail that would set a written murder scene description way in front of the rest of the pack of usual descriptions, wouldn’t it?

I have my little file of oddball facts gleaned over the years. Every so often an opportunity to use one comes up. To a writer of crime fiction, it’s pure gold.

So for those of you out there who read crime fiction, keep a notebook of these sorts of details. To those of you who only read crime fiction, this is a good example of where those juicy (and in this case cringe-worthy) details come from.

But you've got to be paying attention.


Sybil Johnson said...

That's a very interesting note on the flies. Sounds like it was an interesting meeting. Our chapter of Sisters in Crime here in Los Angeles has some good speakers too. The one I remember the most was a man who owned a crime scene cleanup company. He had some very interesting pics of scenes they'd cleaned up and how they did it, what precautions they had to take, etc. I took notes just in case I ever need them.

Rick Blechta said...

That's exactly what you have to do, Sybil. I'm sure I won't find a use for a lot the tidbits I've collected over the years, but if I find a use for anything, I've got all the details. Plus, I've found that simply writing it down, I remember the broad strokes of the information and can go to my notes for the details.

Sybil Johnson said...

I agree. Writing things down always help me remember things. More so than typing the info into a file. There's something about the physical act of writing that makes it easier for me to remember stuff.

Charlotte Hinger said...

The Rocky Mountain chapter of Mystery Writers of America has terrific speakers. Unfortunately I stopped going after I moved to Fort Collins as I didn't like the long drive to Denver late at night.

Rick Blechta said...

Yeah, it's no fun when there's a long drive in the dark afterwards. Glad to hear the MWA chapter is so active. It's always a good thing to hand out with one's colleagues.

Donis Casey said...

I do exactly the same thing, Rick, try to pay attention and memorize every detail I ever hear about a crime. Sometimes the strangest things come in very handy