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?


  1. I definitely like the double shot of surprise, the not-stock, the unexpected. You name some great ones, Lesley.

  2. Definitely with a double shot. Or maybe a triple shot - murder, odd location, unexpected or unknown person. Good post

  3. I like to use things that are in my local area that might be unique to readers. In FOOLS RUSH IN, it was in an irrigation canal; in WHERE ANGELS FEAR it was in one of the pump houses. In my current novel, A SNITCH IN TIME, I'm about to plant a body on a strange modern art structure up in the foothills. There's also a "Buzzard Tree" in a school playground that I'm tempted to use, but it would probably freak out the kiddies. Although why the community thinks having buzzards in the schoolyard is acceptable is beyond me.

    1. I have a protagonist who writes children's books, and her most recent is one about a buzzard. Needless to say, her agent isn't convinced it will be a good sell!

  4. Lesley thank you for sharing, how about in the toilet next to the one that you are in and the toilet keeps running, outside on the door there a note reads out of order until you hear a thump.

  5. I ended up putting two bloody bodies in nasty 18th-century Parisian graveyards in two different novels. Both dictated by the plots. Appropriate, at least, if not exactly appealing!

  6. I enjoyed your post, Lesley, but I had to laugh as I read your words and the comments. I'm laughing because it occurred to me that here we all are talking about good places to stash bodies - and find them - as if we were discussing the weather. No one but a mystery writer would understand!

  7. No telling where a mystery writer's imagination will go, and, you are so right, Pat, only mysery writers understand our macabre facination with bodies. That's why we are such a fun group of folks!

    Thanks for all your comments. I like where you've decided to locate your bodies. I'm particularly fond of the toilet stall. Did you us that one?


  8. For my first novel, GRAVE PASSGE, the victim was found hanging from the climbing wall on the top deck of a cruise ship. The point being, if you're going to go to that much trouble to kill someone like that, then you're willing to assume a lot of risk.

    William Doonan

  9. Terrific blog, Lesley. It used to be you could hide bodies way out in the desert, but since people have begun ATVing, a couple of bodies have turned up. Interesting. I agree with Pat. Who, other than us writers, would talk so calmly about where to hide a body.

  10. I'm with you, Leslie--definitely the unusual places. I've left them on an abandoned lot in the middle of town (Something In Common), a playground (Corruption's Child), the toilet of a disreputable bar (Being Someone Else) and, most recently in a new submission to OTP, in a coal mine with two foreign substances in the victim's body as possible COD.

  11. Location, location, location! I'll have to think about where to put the bodies in my books. My hero has a bad habit of actually being with the victims when they expire. In my next book, I plan to have the victim suddenly collapse while walking inside a movie studio with my hero, who is quite surprised by this (oops, was this a spoiler?)
    Sally Carpenter