Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Too-Clever Ideas?

I was for several years a teacher of gifted students in a special program of Saturday mornings. Over a period of weeks we talked about mystery plotting and plotted a mystery together, which we “published” in the form of a booklet. Sometimes we’d go on a field trip as part of the research. One year they came up with the idea of stealing an artifact from a museum, and we visited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Their original idea had been to steal a painting but when we got into the Asian area, they fell in love with some ancient Chinese tomb artifacts.

The docent who was taking us around, explaining what we were seeing and answering questions, became alarmed as the children (fourth, fifth and sixth graders) swiftly came up with an idea THAT WOULD HAVE WORKED. It involved lifting a glass case to remove a T’ang Dynasty clay horse and hiding him up in the dropped ceiling during a faked fire alarm, replacing him with a replica. Later the horse would be carefully packaged and wrapped in white -- they had all taken part in one of those experiments to wrap an egg so that it could be dropped from the roof of their school onto pavement without breaking -- and tossed from a window into snow-covered bushes to be retrieved at night after the museum closed. There was more to the plot than that, I’m not telling you all the details. The docent remarked at the time that she sincerely hoped none of the children decided to embark on a life of crime. And I did notice some while later that some of the arrangements of the exhibit had been changed to make the children’s plot unworkable. Out of the mouths of babes . . .

One of the joys of mystery plotting is coming up with some really clever way of killing someone or stealing something. I know I was alarmed at myself when I came up with a way of murdering someone that would leave no trace behind -- two ways, actually. One I have refused to use in a book because I can think of no way of detecting the culprit. The other I used in Blackwork, because it turned out, after all, to leave a clue that something was amiss.

Other times some little factoid will appear somewhere that gives me an idea. For example: Did you know that if you have a bone marrow transplant that works, for the rest of your life the DNA of your blood matches that of your donor, while the DNA of the rest of your cells remain your own? A little thought might give you an interesting idea for a mystery story, as it did me. I intend to write it as a short story one of these days.

When I write a story using poisons or other esoterica as a murder weapon, I always try to leave out some little but important detail, lest someone take my book as a how-to rather than as a pleasurable read.

How important is it to you that you don’t give everything away in plotting a clever murderous tale?

8 comments:

Laura Marcella said...

I don't write mysteries, but I've read a few and sometimes I do wonder what would happen if those books were read by someone with questionable morals. It's sad these days that writers have to worry about their stories becoming a "how-to," isn't it?

Good for the kids, though! Just goes to show to never underestimate the mind of a child.

Linda O. Johnston said...

We write fiction, Monica, and it's a shame that we even have to consider someone stealing our idea and using it in reality! Most of my murders so far haven't involved trying to hide how they occurred, but now I'll ponder that even more...

Monica Ferris said...

I didn't think too much about it myself until I read "Silence of the Lambs," which struck me as a How-To for an otherwise unimaginative would-be torturer. I was horrified and wondered what would happen if it fell into the wrong hands . . .

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Monica, I don't worry about it. That said, I'm currently reading a book by someone the NYT adores. The start of it involves violence to a child. I'm having a tough time stomaching this. I'm not so worried that it will give people ideas as I am worried that this is what some reviewers like. Ugh. Is "gripping" just another word for "morally unacceptable"?

Monica Ferris said...

Joanna, nowadays when I read a book that has stomach-churning scenes, I put it down. My memory cells are too limited to waste any of them on scenes like that.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Monica, I'm trying to figure out what's so great about this book, so I haven't tossed it...yet. I bought another by her because the review was sooo glowing. I might have totally wasted my money.

Betty Hechtman said...

It seems like rather than getting ideas how to kill somebody from fiction, criminals have learned how to hide the evidence thanks to shows like CSI.

Julie said...

I once read that, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. Those who can neither do nor teach, become critics/ reviewers." I too wonder about the reviewers, especially those who hold themselves out as the arbiters of what is "important." And nobody ever thinks romances are important.
I have held back from revealing facts that someone might misuse, however. Writing about an attempted suicide, I didn't say what pills she took or how many, though in my notes I had a drug name and dosage. Didn't feel right.