The Murder House

by Janis Patterson

In the real world most murders are common, unimaginative things – shooting, stabbing, strangling, blow(s) from a blunt or not so blunt object, occasionally a drowning. Pretty much routine and little finesse.

In a fictional world, however, writers have to be more creative than that. Readers want style and creativity, and most of them marvel at the variety of murder weapons that exist. Exotic poisons, strange firearms, garrotes of unknown material… all so exotic that they are easy for the police or private detective to track down and say, “It was so-and-so who killed him in the library with a whatever…” Then the reader wonders at how could anyone live where the tools of such murderous mayhem are common.

They never stop to think that the average American home is an arsenal of very practical murder weapons. Right – even right now in your own home. Obviously every house has large knives in the kitchen, screwdrivers and shovels, scarves or pantyhose or even curtain-pull rope lying around; some have guns. But even those are all pretty mundane. There are even more murderous riches if one thinks creatively.

(These are only informational examples for writers and mystery readers – please don’t try these at home!)

Grind up a piece of crystal ware (the thin kind works best) until it is a fine powder, then add it to someone’s food.

Certain over-the-counter pain relievers can, if given in specific quantity over a limited amount of time, can cause catastrophic organ failure. (And no, I’m not going to tell you which ones – I repeat, this is purely an informational think piece, not an instruction manual!)

Even a ball point pen jabbed into the neck or groin can cause a rapid and fatal exsanguination if it breaks one of the arteries, but this implies a certain knowledge of anatomy, which can be a clue to the perpetrator.

The water in a vase which held a large bunch of narcissus stems for a fair length of time can be fatal if ingested, but as with all organics getting the right (i.e., strong enough to cause death) dosage can be difficult to estimate.

Certain flowers chopped up into a salad can be fatal, but see the warning above.

There’s the classic case (from Hitchcock, I believe) of the wife who beat her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooked it and served it to the policemen who were investigating her husband’s death. Considering the outrageous price of lamb these days, I assume a large beef or pork roast (preferably bone-in for more heft) would work just as well.

If it’s winter and you have a wood-burning fireplace, a log can be effective as a weapon and then burnt. It can be wrapped in something (perhaps a towel and then a garbage bag?) to keep trace evidence of the wood from adhering on or in the victim.

Plastic wrap from the kitchen or from a dry-cleaners’ bag or a garbage bag can suffocate a victim most efficiently – just be sure to get rid of it thoroughly.

Every household is just full of poisons – for the garden, for bugs, for cleaning, etc. – but one must be careful to get the right dosage and then get rid of the container – or have a very good excuse why it’s there. There’s more to a successful poisoning than just dumping a couple of tablespoons into Uncle Whoever’s morning oatmeal!

Relatively bloodless crimes are always preferable if committed in the home – there is no way to get rid of all blood traces. No matter how much you clean, no matter how much you bleach, there is always the inevitability of a single drop going someplace and that can be enough to convict you.

Even cars are not safe. Don’t simply cut a brake line – a clean straight cut can be obvious even if the car burns. Instead take a sharp rock and pierce the line, allowing a little of the fluid to leak out at a time and making it look as if the line was damaged because of a road hazard. Just be sure to get rid of the rock and don’t touch the line or car’s undercarriage – fingerprints and smudges in the existing dirt are sure signs of tampering.

Got a smoker in the house? Soak some tobacco in a small amount of alcohol (vodka will do) and the liquid becomes a nicotine extract. Internally it will kill; depending on the toxicity, it can also be fatal when applied externally to the skin. Just be sure to not get any on yours!

Certain nutritional supplements can be ground up and added to food – some are incredibly toxic, others take a time of assiduous application to work. The best kind are the ones that occur naturally in the body and – unless there is cause to think this might have been an unnatural death they will not be tested for in an autopsy… because they occur naturally in the body!

A final thought – if you’re going to commit murder in what you think is an untraceable or exotic way, you might consider doing it in a county that has a Coroner instead of a Medical Examiner. MEs are physicians who can sometimes spot a suspicious death even if the evidence is slight – and they can do an autopsy. Coroners are usually not physicians and are elected and a lot of the time won’t call it murder unless there are obvious holes from blade or bullet or crushed body parts. If you are planning an away-from-home murder, you might want to do some discreet research!

Feeling unsafe now? This is just the tip of the informational iceberg. I’ve barely touched on the lethal objects that a clever murderer can use. The trick in a book is to choose something relatively simple and readily available that the readers will understand and can relate to. (Though not too closely, I hope!) I’ve read mysteries with exotic poisons from ones that come from plants which will grow only on some remote tropical island to the skin secretions of jungle frogs. They’re fascinating, but the question that beggars any semblance of reality is how do ordinary people get ahold of such things? When greedy John wants to do away with rich Aunt Jennifer he’s much more likely to grab a crystal glass to crush or a tin of ant poison rich with arsenic than track down an exotic poisonous frog. And if he happens to work with exotic reptiles, I sincerely hope he’s not so stupid as to ignore the fact that if Auntie died of tropical frog poison he’s going to be the prime suspect!

Although, (sound of mental wheels turning) it would be a lovely red herring and a way to frame John by his up to now goody two shoes cousin Jim who secretly has massive gambling depts… though the question would still be how did he get the stuff? What if…

Help. Stop me before I plot again.

My Voice by Paty Jager

From the first writer’s meeting I attended decades ago I heard people talking about voice. My first thought, being a newbie writer, was, “What is voice?”

No matter how many people explained it in various ways, I couldn’t grasp what they were talking about. But writer’s voice is the writer’s influences into the story. The writer’s feelings and emotions that are shown through the characters in the book. How the syntax and phrases flow in the story.

It has taken me over a decade to see my voice in stories. Where readers think I did a good job describing setting, I think it might have been sparse but it was as I saw it in my mind. My writing has always been, what I’d call sparse. When I first started writing, historical romance books had to be 90-100,000 words. I struggled to get to 90,000. I’ve always been a minimalist with it comes to words, in writing and when talking. 😉 However, I do try to make the few words I use have an impact. Whether it is setting, a character, or dialog.

When I come up with new main characters, I don’t just sit down and start filling out a chart or character sheet on them. They live in my head for several months or a year, living a life outside of their books. When I sit down and write their books, I’ve been thinking about the book, the title, what they will encounter and how they will react before the book starts.

With my mystery main characters, who are Native American, I read all I can by and about their tribes. I want to try to see and feel things as they would, not as a not quite senior citizen white woman would see it. I’ve always been interested in other cultures and felt anger over how so many races have been mistreated. I use this as my catalyst to feel and hopefully show the correct emotions when I write.

My latest project has been something I knew I would write the second I’d decided to write the Gabriel Hawke novels. I have heard and seen so much about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women cause that I had a desire to tell the story and hope that it would open more eyes to the problem.

Where does this come in with my voice? My voice in my books, is not only concise working and phrases, it is the need to show justice can be found and a need to show where there is an injustice. My beta readers, line editor, and final proof reader all say this is my best Gabriel Hawke book.

The woman, Kola Shippentower-Thompson who worked with me to make me see how things worked on the reservation when a tribal member is missing gave me this review: “The story was captivating, I couldn’t put it down. So many memories were brought to surface, so many emotions, like this has been lived before, because it has, this is a glimpse into our reality in the Reservation. Thank you for seeing us & helping tell part of the story.” She is the Co-founder & Director of Enough Iz Enough, a non-profit organization that works to teach women and children how to be vigilant and safe and who support the MMIW cause. Proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to the Enough Iz Enough organization to benefit the MMIW movement.

When Kola was reading the book, she told me she had to stop at one point because it brought back so many sad memories. She has lost multiple family members and has never received any answers about what happened to them.

My hope is that this book will enlighten more people to the plague of violence they Indigenous women, children, and even men have been enduring. The ebook is available for pre-order publishing on May 18th. The print books should be available by the end of the month.

Stolen Butterfly

Gabriel Hawke Novel #7

Missing or Murdered

When the local authorities tell State Trooper Gabriel Hawke’s mother to wait 72 hours before reporting a missing Umatilla woman, she calls her son and rallies members of the community to search.

Hawke arrives at the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation and learns the single mother of a boy his mom watches would never leave her son. Angered over how the local officials respond to his investigating, Hawke teams up with a security guard at the Indian casino and an FBI agent. Following the leads, they discover the woman was targeted by a human trafficking ring at the Spotted Pony Casino.

Hawke, Dela Alvaro, and FBI Special Agent Quinn Pierce join forces to bring the woman home and close down the trafficking operation before someone else goes missing.

Pre-order purchase link:

This also happens to be my 50th published book! I’m having a 50 Book Bash event at Facebook and this week I am featuring my Mystery Books. So come on by, learn about my mystery books, leave comments and get in the running fore the daily prizes. Here is the URL:

Adding my voice to my books wasn’t a matter of me finding my voice. It was a matter of me realizing what my voice was. Can you tell an author’s voice when you read a book? Or do you just enjoy the characters, the narrative, and the dialog and afterword, just smile, knowing it was a good read?

Expositions Are Like Prunes by Heather Haven

A writing teacher once told the class, “Get off the front porch.” What she meant by that was to stop explaining the who, what, why, and get to the story. As every writer knows, this can be tricky. You have to ground your reader. You have to let them know where they are. But you don’t want them to get lost in nothing but details. Or bore them to death, either. You have a story to tell. So get off the front porch and tell it.

Naturally, I forgot the teacher’s advice. Again. In rereading the first draft of The Drop Dead Temple of Doom, Book 8 of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, I couldn’t believe how much backstory and explanation I’d put in. I even had the effrontery to open the book with three pages of a case Lee, the protagonist, just finished solving.

Really, Heather? The reader is interested in three pages of gobbledygook about a case that has nothing to do with the ongoing story? I don’t think so. What I was trying to get across was the protagonist had had a bad three weeks and was exhausted. All she needed in her life was to go traipsing off to the Guatemalan jungle.

Okay, why didn’t I just cut out all the junk and say that? Because sometimes we writers get caught up in how much exposition is enough and what is too much. That’s why I say they’re like prunes. Are five enough? Are six too many? It’s what writers grapple with continually. Expositions, not necessarily prunes.

Opening paragraphs set up the story, too. Or should. That’s where we make our contract with the reader. They are going to know right then and there what kind of a read they will have. Naturally, the writer has to live up to that contract. We can’t promise them an easy, breezy cozy with a happy ending and then hand a child or the family dog off to an axe murderer never to be seen again. A writer like Ruth Rendell has a different kind of contract. When she writes, “It reminded Burden of a drowned face he had once seen on a mortuary slab. They put the glasses back on the spongy nose to help the girl who had come to identify him” we know right where we’re going.

Within the first couple of paragraphs of my latest wannabe book I wrote, “The most vengeful I get is wanting CEO and mother, Lila Hamilton-Alvarez, to have the frizzies for just one minute of her life. Then I’d hand her some anti-frizz conditioner saying, welcome to my world.” These lines may stay or they may not. This is after all, only a draft. But it certainly does set up what kind of read follows. Within the first few opening paragraphs, the reader’s appetite is whetted for what’s going to come, how it’s going to come, and how much they are going to love it. Heady stuff.

This is not only about justifying the $ they spent to buy the book (I could have used more dollar signs, but my books are on the cheap side). Mainly, it’s because we want them to keep on reading. Not just this book, but all our books. And in order to do that, we have to make things clear, bring the reader to the starting point, but get on with the story.

After I reread the beginning of Drop Dead Temple, I wound up taking over half out of the first three chapters, in particular, the opening pages. I realized — again — it needs to start with the current problem and just a hint of why we are where we are. I am also in the process of taking out much of the backstories of my continuing characters. I will, of course, be sneaking some back in further on down the line. This is not only for newbies or because I try to make each book of a series a standalone, but as reminders to my ongoing readership. But this is after the story is moving, the reader is invested, and when they want to know more. Hopefully, after fourteen books I will know what I need to share and when I need to do it. But there are no guarantees. It changes with every book.

It’s a tricky bit of business, this exposition stuff. Please pass the prunes.

Confessions of a Paper Magnet

I have been doing a major decluttering job on my office. In fact, I wonder if it will ever be over. It’s the very definition of ongoing.

Decades, anyway. I’ve lived in this condo for nearly 30 years. And I’ve been accumulating stuff for longer than that. And no, we won’t talk about the walk-in closet that I’m afraid to open for fear of what might fall out.

I confess. I am a paper magnet. Show me a writer who isn’t. We collect ideas for stories and nuggets of research and stash them away like squirrels gathering nuts for winter.

Because I might use that piece of paper one of these days. It’s a plot point, a character study, an interesting setting. Or it’s just the intriguing bit of research I need to bring that scene to life.

Case in point. About fifteen years ago, I clipped a short, intriguing article out of the San Francisco Chronicle. It told the story of wallets found discarded in the heating ducts of an old military barracks at Camp Roberts, wallets with cash missing, but in many cases, personal items such as IDs and letters left inside.

Camp Roberts, World War II

Camp Roberts, which straddles the Monterey and San Luis Obispo county lines in central California, was a military base back in World War II. At the time, it was the largest military training facility around, with thousands of soldiers passing through. The base was deactivated after WWII, then reactivated during the Korean War. Nowadays, Camp Roberts serves as a base for the California National Guard.

As for those wallets, the theory was that they had been stolen from soldiers in the barracks, the valuables taken. Then the thieves tossed the wallets into the heating ducts, where they were found decades later, when the building was torn down.

A National Guard officer at Camp Roberts was taking steps to see if he could locate the wallet owners, using what papers remained. Later articles outlined some success in doing that.

I clipped that article out of the newspaper and kept it on my desk for several years. I was sure I would use it, someday. I was right. Those stolen wallets at Camp Roberts turned out to be an important plot point in Bit Player, a Jeri Howard novel.

One newspaper article leads to another. In fact, it led me to the Bancroft Library at Cal, where I looked at the Camp Roberts newspaper during the war years. I found out what movies were playing at the base theater and what a fried chicken dinner cost at a local restaurant. And the cherry on top? Bing Crosby and his band played a gig at Camp Roberts at the time I was writing about. That’s just the sort of detail I love, one that adds flavor and spice to my writing. Of course, that mention of Bing wound up in the book.

I used to clip articles out and leave them in folders, part of a work in progress. I still get vital information for my plot from various newspaper. Though these days, I don’t save the print copy of the article, Instead, I save the URL, or cut and paste a copy into a Word document. Or the pertinent piece of paper can be scanned and saved electronically.

Much less clutter. Paper clutter, anyway. Then there’s digital clutter, which is a topic for another day.

Waiting, Hoping for Things to Get Back to Normal

During this stay at home time, I’ve written and published two books, have another written waiting on critiques, and started another.

What I haven’t done is gone to writing and mystery conferences, book and craft fairs, held in-person book launches for my newly published books–and I know my fellow authors haven’t either as all these things have been put on hold.

One of my favorite writing conferences put on by the Public Safety Writers Association is planning on having their conference in July of this year in Las Vegas. And yes, I’ve signed up for it and will be helping with the pre-conference writing workshop.

I’ve also been thinking about planning a book talk,/signing, in my little home town. I do have a place to hold it, just need to decide the best time to have it.

Whether or not his will all happen, I have no idea–but I’m hopeful.

My two newest books are NOT AS WE KNEW IT (The Rocky Bluff P.D. series wirtten as F. M. Meredith ) and END OF THE TRAIL (The Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series.)

What about you? Is anything happening to give you hope that thing are getting back to normal?