Sunday, February 26, 2012

Where to find dead bodies: A writer’s short guide to victim placement for prime effect

A pastoral Florida scene, but what's under the water?     

I was talking the other day with my critique partner about a popular event in the Big Lake area, a festival I missed.  It’s called Mud Fest, and it occurs each year at this time.  The article about it in the paper focused on the controversy between the fun seekers and the environmentalists over whether driving four wheel drive vehicles through wetlands is ecologically sound.  Well, of course it’s not.  But the thought of churning up the wetlands with those giant, really behemoth wheels got me thinking about what else other than vegetation and probably snakes, toads, and frogs might be uprooted.  I thought of a dead body, and knew I had to attend this event next year.  The opportunity to locate a body in all that muck is just too appealing for a mystery writer.

There are the usual spots for placing bodies to be discovered by amateur sleuths, unknowing passersby or police such as face-up (or face-down) in a swimming pool or other body of water—I wonder why they’re rarely found at the bottom of the pool.  Imagine how exciting a read if someone dove innocently into the water and landed on a body.  That gets the adrenaline pumping more than a casual, “Oh look.  There’s a body in the Smithington’s  pool.”

In abandoned houses, on the street, in the trunks of cars, in a garbage dump, in churches, apartments, state parks, on beaches, in motels, bodies find their way into the most familiar places in our lives. How about some uncommon ones?  This is my favorite way to go.  Put the body someplace unexpected.  Give your reader an extra shot of surprise and do it in the first five pages of the book, of course.  You can see why Mud Fest churned up more than dirty swamp water for me.

Here are some of my favorite locations: in a brew barn from A Deadly Draught or in the dumpster of a classy country club as in Dumpster Dying.  Perhaps in a beer cooler at a barbeque festival.  This one is the location in the second of my Big Lake mysteries entitled Grilled, Chilled and Killed due out this fall.  I do not avoid the more mundane locations, but I may sprinkle the scene with mysterious or, in the case of a humorous mystery, funny elements to get the reader’s attention.  For example, in Grilled, Chilled and Killed, the body is not only stiffening up in a beer cooler but it is covered with barbeque sauce and someone has shoved an apple in the victim’s mouth.  An over-the-top description of the body, but the clues are significant in solving the murder. 

In my brewer’s series Hera, my protagonist, has found her neighbor’s body on his brew barn floor.  In the second book, someone else discovers a body, but it is in her brew barn.  Now the brew barn has become an almost mundane place for murder, but in this case the question surrounding the death is whether it was suicide or murder.

If murder is not shocking enough, the writer can always locate a body in a wholly unexpected place.  It’s an attention grabber, and one the writer can use to advantage by making the location generate its own set of clues.

How do you like your bodies?  With a double shot of surprise, murder plus odd location, or decaffeinated, face-down in the Smithington’s pool?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Cows and Why I Love 'Em!

These are not cows.  These are sandhill cranes, not usually found in a city.  Definitely a rural experience.

I just came up for air this week as I completed work on a draft of my book which will be the second in my Big Lake murder mystery series.  It’s entitled Grilled, Chilled and Killed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about cows lately.  I love cows.  I grew up with them on a farm in northern Illinois.  Until I was sixteen, we milked a small herd of Holsteins, then Dad sold the milkers, and we fattened cattle and hogs.  The latter was much less demanding of my father’s time.  He no longer had to get up early to milk nor was he tied to milking twice each day.  There was only once in all those years that my dad was too sick to milk.  He was ill on other occasions, but he got out of bed to milk anyway.

I spent a lot of my childhood years out in the barn with him.  He played the old radio tuned to either opera or country music while he milked.  He claimed the cows liked it.  They never complained at his choice of music and they gave a lot of milk, so I guess they did like it.  I never helped him with the cows, but I followed him around while he cleaned utters, placed the suction cups on teats, poured the warm milk into a pail and hauled it back to the cooler.  My job came after he finished.  I washed the utensils, the big milkers and pails, hoses and teat cups by hand in big stainless sinks in our basement.

Our cows were a part of my daily life.  Only when I became a teen when school activities took me away from the barn did I miss a day smelling the manure, sweat, and hot, creamy milk in our dairy barn.

There are few pictures of me as a young child because my parents couldn’t afford a camera, but the one I treasure is of me with a Guernsey calf.  I was told she was my calf thought I don’t know if that is really so as I have few memories of her specifically but I know I named her “Essie” after myself (I couldn’t pronounce the Ls in my name).  As an adult cow, she was the only of her kind in our Holstein herd.  Dad said it was so we could have a little cream with our milk.

The calf I followed through her calf childhood into adulthood was a Holstein, and I didn’t keep an eye on her because I was fond of her.  My grandmother had given me a pair of red knitted gloves for Christmas when I was about eight.  I loved those gloves.  In the winter, the calves came into the barn for the night and were held in a small pen near the milking stanchions.  I often fed them hay through the bars of the pen.  One of the calves took the hay and the mitten off my hand, chomped down on both and swallowed.  I remember her distinctively and until she grew to give milk as an adult.  She had one eye with black eyelashes, the other with white.  She was forever the cow I despised.
Ah, autumn in the country

I got pink eye (conjunctivitis) from the cows one fall and was out of school that year (fourth or fifth grade) for weeks.  I kept reinfecting myself and, because it is so contagious, each infection meant I had to stay home for several days.  Mom and Dad could do little to keep me away from those cows, so it was months before it cleared up.

Holsteins are big, really big, very big when you’re a five year old told to round up Mary, one of our most cantankerous cows.  She wandered away from the others and never wanted to come in from the field.  I reluctantly pursued her toward the stand of oaks and she turned and rushed me.  Dad told me to turn and face her.  To me that was like facing a freight train bearing down on me.  I ran.

Dad didn’t always do so well with these huge beasts either.  Until we went to artificial insemination, we kept a Holstein bull.  They are always in a vile mood.  The bull was housed in a pen with a fence that was over eight feet tall and made of study rails.  Yet he never failed to get out somehow.  When he chased my grandfather up the windmill, Dad laughed.  But he did the same thing several months later to my dad and somehow he didn’t find that as funny.

Farm life and the cows we raised and milked there are a part of my childhood.  In some ways they are my childhood, as much a part of who I am now as my DNA.  I carry that life around in my soul and I write all my stories from it as I believe do many other writers of cozies.  No wonder I fell so comfortable positioning my protagonists in the country.  It’s not in detailed descriptions of rural Florida or of the Butternut Valley in upstate New York that I fashion the atmosphere and setting of the book.  My country roots write the people and their relationship to their land.  Storms, drought, floods, wild animals, herds of cattle, cowboys and horses, snakes and gators are the stuff of their lives and their adventures.  It’s country.  They are my adventures.  After all, I’m a country gal, and I write country.