Murder in the Name of Writing
One of the great things about being writer is you can get away with some fucked up shit in the name of research (just ask Pete Townshend http://tinyurl.com/4363epx). And when you are writing crime fiction, the berth granted is even wider. I have had to Google how to hotshot Malaysian hookers (a little name-dropping love for my large contingency of followers in Malaysia), how to dissolve a body in a bucket of acid and use the skull fragments for jewelry, how many organs can fail inside you after a beating but still allow you to walk, and if it is possible to cut someone's throat and sever their vocal cords so they can never sing again but still won't die (yes, it is possible. Bet my ex-wife wish she'd known that. Might've saved her some money). Normally, these are awful, unspeakable things, but I had to use the specifics for stories I was working on (except that Malaysian bit; that's just for my hommies down in the M-Lay. Much love).
In noir/mystery/thriller/crime fiction, you are forever scouting newer, more clever ways to kill and literally get away with murder. Think about the escape scene in Silence of the Lambs. I remember a professor of mine at FIU, mystery writer Jim Hall, describing the first time he read Thomas Harris's fresh take on the classic locked room mystery. First, Jim said, he was thrilled, invigorated, inspired. Then he immediately grew depressed. Because he knew the bar had just been raised. (Oh, and if you ever meet Jim, don't bother mentioning my name to him. I took classes with the guy, was in a graduate program he co-directed for three years, had dozens of conversations with the man, and he still didn't know who I was when I graduated). (Referencing Silence of the Lambs now gives me an excuse to post this. Always a good thing.)
You are only limited by how far your deviant mind will take you. Which can be a problematic, I suppose, if you are deeply Catholic and easily wracked with guilt. But really it's freeing, if you think about it. You have license to be degenerative, to be sick and evil, to dream up nightmarish ways to dismember corpses and use the severed limbs to put on a puppet show for a mutant man-child named Jeffery, all in the name of your craft, because you have to think like a criminal and killer if you are going to write stories about them. (Then you just have to get your ass in the chair and actually write the fucking things.)
Although, it doesn't work the way you think.
When you write a one of these noir stories, you rarely can start at the beginning. Sometimes you can. Sometimes you can follow E.L. Doctorow's advice in Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird, which is, in my opinion, the best book on writing out there. The Doctorow quote goes something like, "writing is like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." And that might work. For literary fiction. But usually not with thrillers or mysteries, where you generally don't stumble into a solution. In fact, the better the trick, the tougher it's going to be to write your way out of it. I don't know for a fact, but I'd be willing to bet the $326 I just won by betting on Detroit to beat the Yankees in that deciding Game 5 that Thomas Harris didn't find himself with Hannibal Lector in a giant birdcage, trapped on the 6th floor (I think it was the 6th), in a building crawling with Federal agents all there to secure his not escaping, wondering how in the hell he was going to get him out of there (skin suit!). Harris came up with the escape first, conceptually, and then worked backwards. I guarantee it. It's the only way you can do it. Which is one of the reasons writing, as a profession, sucks. You are now in the business of decoding and analyzing what was once wondrous and magical.
I am not putting myself in the company of these writers. I just write aw-shucks little noir stories that seem to find homes on web ezines. Still, it's the same principle, where you come up with the concept, the twist, whatever original take, and work backwards.
I've had this idea for a murder for a while. It was pretty clever I thought. Not Thomas Harris clever. (Then again Thomas Harris isn't always Thomas Harris clever. If you thought Hannibal the movie sucked, try getting stuck on a 3-day Greyhound ride, kicking heroin, and only having that piece-of-shit book to read. I don't blame him. He had to up the ante. Screwing off someone's head and frying brain parts for dinner might be "upping the ante." But it ain't good. Not sure this blog review is talking about the same Hannibal, but it's still pretty fucking awesome http://hannibalsucks.blogspot.com/). But I thought my idea was good enough for a short story. It was just a matter of how to incorporate this idea organically into a plot.
The gist: one man murders another, and extracts all the dead man's teeth. He lights the body on fire, burning it beyond recognition. Knowing that a body in that state won't be able to be identified using conventional methods, the murderer then extracts some of his own teeth, which he sprinkles onto the fire at the scene. All the police will have to go on will be the dental records. So, essentially, the authorities will be searching for a dead man.
Maybe you don't find this stuff interesting. Personally, I always liked the "Behind the Music"-type anatomies of how art gets made. Then again, I wouldn't be so interested in hearing the impetus behind the crappy garage band down the street's opus, "Refresh My Mammaries."
But if you give a shit, and it looks like you do because enough of you read this blog, I tried several times (unsuccessfully) to incorporate this murder-by-dentistry concept into longer stories. Never came up with anything I liked. I ended up using it in a piece of flash fiction that went up today on Flash Fiction Offensive, a very cool flash site run by the same folks who bring you the wonderfully twisted Out of the Gutter. Hope you like it.