When researching my book, Extension (Crescent Moon Press, June 2014), I learned one darkly delicious secret – know how to be practical in your research, no matter how frightful it might be.
This is especially true when researching psychopaths. When I first started out with an idea about a character who had lost his soul, I immediately thought of crafting this character based on a serial killer, but my knowledge was limited.
Then, one day, a friend in my writer’s group handed me Gerberth’s, Practical Homicide Investigation Handbook. I wondered what could be practical about homicide? The word practical felt emotionless, detached, and even cold.
I flipped open the book and then just as quickly slammed it shut trying to erase from my mind what I had just seen.
Several days later, I tried again. From a good three feet away, I turned each page with the end of a spatula. Mangled corpses, burned, tortured, eaten, disemboweled (sorry, if you’re eating breakfast) but it’s true – it’s out there, it’s happened, and these poor victims are proof of it.
I managed a few more pages, taking notes on staging a body and a few identifying characteristics of a murderer, then scrounged through my house for a picture of Jesus. I couldn’t find one, but found a picture of Noah on his ark instead, cut it out, and placed it squarely between a half eaten body and a train accident victim, and then closed the book.
It was a few days of sleeping with the lights on. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for detectives who must see these images over and over again.
From a writer’s perspective, the point of research is to flood your mind with as much information as possible so when it comes time to write you’re ready to draw on everything you know, or wish you didn’t know, but still know anyway. It helped, and a few scenes in the novel are influenced from my research not just from this practical guide but also from reading interviews with serial killers and watching documentaries.
A few weeks into my research, I found myself bizarrely numb to the images. That’s when I knew I had to stop. Part of the reason why I kept researching was because I wanted to figure out why these events occurred. I kept looking for reason behind the madness. A broken family? An abusive childhood? A traumatic injury that damaged the frontal lobe? But, nothing seemed to justify the deaths. I was on a loop, searching for resolution to traumatic events. It was time to accept the obvious – sometimes resolutions are only found in fiction.
After the book was written, the Practical Homicide Handbook went back to my writer’s group. My browser was erased for fear someone would think I was planning something sinister and the notes were hole punched, shelved in a binder, and labeled “practical research”.
I realized practical is the right word. Sometimes it’s best to be practical – especially when it comes to murder.
Extension, Crescent Moon Press, June 2014