I am happy to have Author Gilian Baker sharing a guest post on my Mysterious Musings Blog today. Welcome, Gillian.
Researching Murder is a Killer
I can dream up all types of interesting ways to kill off a character. The tricky part is to ensure the murder method is believable. That’s when careful research comes in. But researching murder can be a killer!
While writing the debut book in the Jade Blackwell cozy mystery series, I decided early on that I wanted to spice things up by including juxtaposition between the theme and the murder method. The world in which Jade lives and works is a modern one. She’s a blogger, and the book centers on the theme of cyber-crime. So, I thought it would be fun to offset the modernity by killing off the victim with an old-fashioned, natural poison.
Deciding on the murder method is fun and fairly easy. But the question becomes whether or not the method you’ve dreamed up will meet all the criteria you’ll need for your plot to function correctly.
For example, with poison as the murder method, you need to know things like:
- How long does it take the poison to act?
- What symptoms does it cause?
- How much of it is needed to kill a person?
- Does it have a taste or smell that will make the victim suspicious?
- How easy is it to get? Where can you get it?
With hemlock, my chosen poison for the victim in Blogging is Murder, I had to research:
- Does it grow wild in Wyoming? (The setting of the series)
- Where does it grow wild? How widely available it is?
- Which parts of the plant are poisonous?
- Do homeopathic herbalists still use it to treat illnesses? Which ones?
- What symptoms does it present?
- Is it still poisonous when dried?
- What time of the year does it grow in Wyoming?
- Is it frost-hardy?
Before I started writing the story, I researched some of the questions above. I needed to know right away if hemlock even grew in Wyoming. It didn’t matter what kind it was—there are lots of different varieties of the plant. I just needed it to be readily available in South-Eastern Wyoming.
As I got further into writing the book though, I came up with other ideas for the plot that were dependent on aspects of the poison. Back I went to research the plant further. Some of my ideas I got to keep. Others, sadly, I had to delete. If I wanted to keep hemlock as the murder method, I had to make its properties plausible in the story.
One of my ideas for the final chapters was to add in a freak snowstorm to build tension. I’d already started typing the scene when it dawned on me—I didn’t know how frost-hardy hemlock was. Even though I knew that Wyoming often gets snow during the spring, would all the wild hemlock be killed in such a storm? Could the killer use dried hemlock instead? And where in the heck would they get such a thing?
These questions led me to another realization. I’d written a couple of chapters that included light frosts overnight. Jade’s spring bulbs had already come up so she’d been diligently checking them to make sure they’d survived. But wait! If hemlock isn’t frost-hardy, it wouldn’t even survive the light freeze I’d already written into the story.
See how researching murder can be a killer? Sometimes it takes an author back to the drawing board. The research process never really ends. In this case, I had to go back and change the entire setting to a later time in spring to avoid overnight frosts. That meant rewriting those scenes where Jade worries about her spring bulbs.
Even though researching murder can be frustrating and can kill off great ideas, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Cozy mysteries are all about giving the reader a puzzle to figure out. Murder methods give cozy mystery writers puzzles too.
Gilian Baker is a former English professor who’s gone on to forge a life outside of academia by adding blogger, ghostwriter and author to her C.V. She currently uses her geeky superpowers only for good to entertain murder mystery readers the world over. When she’s not plotting murder for her Jade Blackwell cozy mystery series, you can find her puttering in her vegetable garden, knitting in front of the fire, snuggling with her husband watching British TV or discussing literary theory with her daughter.
Gilian lives in Columbus, Ohio with her family and their three pampered felines. In her next life, she fervently hopes to come back as a cat, though she understands that would be going down the karmic ladder.
Get the first chapter of Blogging is Murder for free! http://gilianbaker.com/blogging-murder-first-chapter/
You can find Gillian at: