Tuesday, March 15, 2011

RESEARCH: Responding to a Fire

Well, let's take a look at arson and arson investigation as I'm on a real crime scene roll. It's funny but some of the information I've found, such as how bright red the blood and organs can look when someone dies of carbon monoxide poisoning, could be useful even in my fantasy world. After all, if I mention the red flames and black smoke of a cooking oil fire, I'd have gotten it wrong. It just goes to show that all research is good research!

An arson investigation begins with an exterior examination where the people involved will talk to the first responders, witnesses, and whomever called the alarm. They pay attention to the people present at the scene or even those who have risked themselves to save a life as vanity fires from wannabe heroes are surprisingly common. They try to learn what sort of smoke and flames were released in the early stages of the fire as that can give a lot of information. Red flames are cooler and white fires are the hottest at around 2500 degrees celsius. Since arsonists generally start fires with accelerant, oddly hot fires can suggest foul play.

Other than temperature, what can flames / smoke reveal?

Well, I'm glad you asked! Here's an example: White smoke with a white or light yellow flame indicates gasoline, while brown smoke with a deep yellow flame suggests a cooking oil fire.

The investigators then do an internal investigation where they try to determine the point of origin which is the place the fire started and how it spread. A V-shaped burn pattern on a wallcan hint at the starting point because as heat rises it spreads out from that point. Wooden beams and heavy wood furniture can be used to identify the fire path as damage can occur more on one side than the other. Charred wood looks like scales and one can measure the amount of char to see how long the wood was exposed to high heat. The closer this bit of wood was to the point of the origin, the deeper the char and the smaller / closer together the scales. Window glass tends to discolor from soot but the hotter the fire, the less soot. Incadescent light bulbs normally shatter in heat but, if it has somehow remained intact, it will melt and curve toward the head source. The same effect can be found sometimes with glass salt shakes and even plastic milk jugs.

The examiners will try to rule out possible accidental causes, such as exposed wiring of the stub of an unattended candle. They also look for obvious signs of foul play such as suspicious stains that might be tested for accelerant or long lines of ash that may indicate "trailers" (lines of paper, gasoline-soaked towels or ropes, etc. that are designed to spread the fire). The debris is also carefully sifted for any signs of an igniting device.

Hydrocarbon Indicators can be used to detect accelerants. They are about the size of a flashlight and will report any traces of an accelerant. Sniffer dogs can also locate accelerants though a dog's nose won't stand up in court so the investigator needs to get a sample from the location and get it tested in a laboratory. These samples must be kept in clean paint cans-style equipment since plastic bags can react chemically with the accelerant.

So there you go, a quick look at arson investigations. Hmm, what should I research next? Advanced states of decomposition? Stages of child development? Hmm.... Any ideas?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

TIPS: Diversify Your Dialogue

Well, since I'm facing this issue myself, I thought I'd do up a post about it so that we can muse together and I can share my thoughts.

What is manner of speech?

It is their tone of voice, the volume, how quickly they speak, their inflection, emphasis and pitch. Where film can actually let you hear all of these play out, books need to show you through clever use of punctuation and phrasing. Look at the difference between this:

“When I sit here and look at you there is nothing I would like better than to punch you in the throat.”

“When I sit here and look at you ... there is nothing I would like better than to punch you in the throat.”

“When I sit here and look at you, there is nothing I would like better … than to punch you in the throat.”

“Wh-when I s-sit here and look at you, there is n-nothing I would like b-better than to p-punch you in the throat!”

Read them out. How do they sound to you? Do you naturally change your pitch, the speed of the sentence? Emphasis and tone? And that's without going anywhere near the italics and how an italicised word changes the sentence. If you want to see how italics can play havoc with meaning by stressing certain words, just take one of those lines and repeat it over and over but with the stress on a different word each time. Different people would stress different words.

Then you've got sentence structure. This also requires punctuation changes but it's more than that. It's how wordy they are. How many frills, bells, and whistles they use. How many similes, metaphors, and how simple or convoluted they speak. Some might speak in overly long paragraphs that indicate breathlessness (though don't overuse these or you might strain the reader's mind) while others might be terribly succinct.

“I sit here. I look at you. I want to punch you in the throat.”

“I sit here, right, and I'm looking at you, and all I'm thinking about is punching you in the throat.”

“I can't stand sitting here and looking at you. All it does is make me want to punch you in the throat.”

Last but not least, you have the actual spelling changes to indicate accents. This is the last one I'm mentioning because, unfortunately, it's quite easy to just mess with the spelling and keep everything the same. While this tactic will still make the lines of dialogue recognizably different, there is, of course, further you can go.

“I can't stand sittin' 'ere and lookin' at ya. All it does is make me wanna punch ya in the throat.”

“I cannot stand sitting here and looking at you. All it does is make me want to punch you in the throat."

Finally, you've got the actual metaphors, slang, and similes they might use. In South Australia, people disparagingly talk about those with low IQ as being 'Mindas' as there is an organization called Minda that assists people with very low IQ. Even people who don't know about the institution will probably know the word. People in the Northern Territory, probably wouldn't use that term.

In Curse of the Rose / The Butterfly Lady (really must settle on a title), a lot of the slang used are either nautical terms, mystical terms, or terms related to the ghastly salt plains that raise the dead. “Salt it!” becomes a terrible swear word and polite people therefore avoid asking for anyone to pass the salt and instead ask for seasoning. It's not a taboo word like our F word or even the C word but it's still stronger than 'damn it' as it conjures up images of rotting flesh. Other phrases include 'barrel fever', 'loose canon' and 'having a cold soul'.

So, do you have any advice about how to make characters sound different and diversifying your dialogue?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

DIAGNOSTIC: Blood Relatives - Ed McBain

So, here's another time where we sit down an analyse just what made a particular book work for me. Well, Ed McBain is an interesting author because he does so many things that should be wrong and that we've all been told not to do and somehow does it in a way that is not only forgivable but actually add to the character of the novels. He writes procedural crime fiction, generally from the Point of View (POV) of the detectives who work out of the 87th precinct (he has other series of novels but Blood Relatives is an 87th precinct novel so that's where we'll focus).

So what does he do wrong/right?

He breaks the POV rules: He writes with multiple POVs (generally only one per scene, though) though sometimes he drifts into an omniscient POV with a distinct author voice. Somehow, it works for him. I think part of the charm is that the omniscient POV is really interesting. I mean, really interesting. He'll use it to describe people and places in a way that is generally humorous in a sometimes dark / sometimes light way and it just really adds to the setting. The characters are rich and full creatures and he'll frame the entire scene through some of the omniscient drift.

Like this:

The average garbage can on any city street got battered and bruised within the space of a week because these men loved their work so much. (Some people insisted these men also loved the smell of garbage, but that was pure conjecture).

This is part of a few paragraphs that introduce a few garbage men, their conversation, and their daily rounds. The garbage men have a very small part to play in this novel. In truth, their entire job is, well, their job. They move trash from the kerb to a garbage dump and, in so doing, allow another minor character to find the diary. The omniscient tone keeps the scene lively and interesting and makes it seem somewhat important. It also satisfies the voyeur in me as it describes things more interestingly than the obvious options for the POVs.

Part of how it works for him is because of its structure. He a) doesn't head hop; b) generally only does it much with the minor POVs or criminals; and c) tends to do it at the start of the scene and then start narrowing it down to a particular character's viewpoint.

List-like Descriptions: This works because the POV characters are generally cops and therefore actually think in a more orderly fashion, because he varies the sentence length / structure, and because he generally slips in unexpected information. For example, he might slip in a bit of evidence that stands out more because of the orderly description:

The man was wearing a dark suit and a white shirt, no tie. His hair was brown. There appeared to be bloodstains on the front of his white shirt.

Or because they give some interesting and additional information that tells you a lot about the person:

The fifth man who approached Kling's desk had black wavy hair and blue eyes. He was wearing a navy-blue jacket over a pale-blue sports suit. His trousers were a dark blue too, but they did not quite match the jacket. Jacket and trousers alike were crumpled, and there was a beard stubble on the man's face.

Where a less interesting author might write:

He had black wavy hair and blue eyes. He wore a navy-blue jacket over a pale-blue suit. His clothes were crumpled.

See the difference?


Well, hope you found that interesting. There's much more that Ed McBain does right but I'll leave it until I analyse another one of his books (which I will do). Does anyone have any suggestions for another book I should analyse?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

RESEARCH: Bullet Wounds

Again with the pathology! Hmm, I wish I could find out what a sword cut or arrow shot looks like. Anyone know any markers of medieval-style wounds? As a disclaimer, this research is helpful for you when writing up your draft but always make sure to always double check your facts with your professional. After all, different types of guns, different places shot, and different types of ammunition may all lead to very different wounds. The only way to know for sure is to ask a pathologist or other specialist.

Anywho, to bullets:

The entrance wound for a bullet is often circular with a darker abrasion rim that shows where the bullet had scraped against the skin while the exit wound is more uneven and ragged due to all the bunched up flesh that's being knocked out. The range of the gun from the victim also affects the wound. If the area where the bullet exits was pressed against the floor, or otherwise supported by something solid, you'll have a "shored" wound.

Tight-contact wound: A gunman standing behind a woman with the gun pressed against her back would leave a tight-contact wound. Gas and residue from the gun would be blown into the wound and the wound itself would be more ragged. Tight contact wounds, especially against the scalp, are more star-shaped.

Near-contact wound: If that same gunman was standing pretty close but the gun wasn't quite pressed up against her, say, it's 1 inch away, there would be 'fouling' (residue) around the wound but not so much blown into the wound.

Close-range wound: Have the gunman take a step back so the gun is fired about 6 - 10 inches away. You can still see fouling but now you can also see stippling, or tattoing, which is caused by the various powder grains burning around the wound in dots.

Intermediate-range wound: Have the gunman take yet another step back so the gun is between 10 to 36 inches away and you'll see stippling but no fouling around the wound.

Distance-ranged wound: Have the gunman anywhere beyond three feet away and the wound will be clean. No stippling. no fouling. Distance wounds are more round and small.

Anyone know of any other wound markings? Especially from bows, crossbows, maces, or other more fantasy-style weapons?

Friday, March 4, 2011

RANT: Why I Love Post-Apocalyptic Horror

I'm desperate to crack open a post-apocaylptic novel or two as I've watched quite a few films lately. I think it's partly voyeurism. With all the rules gone, you can't help but traipse through other people's living rooms and see what's inside their fridge. True, you won't be thinking 'ohmigod, the Davidson's buy jam chutney' when you're busy hoarding food from the Legions of Hell, but it's still kind of cool getting to take a look. In a post-apocalyptic world, you're basically mandated to root around in other people's houses! (Am I a bad person?)

This is why I love video games. In video games, such as Fall Out but also including non-apocalyptic fantasy games like Zelda, you can wander around and sneak into people's homes and see what kind of furniture they have. I'm pretty weird because I really do love exploring the map and seeing what lays around the corner. What does a factory look like? I know! I'll go inside and take a look. Hmm, what about the back rooms of a museum? No security in this wasteland! Time to scope it out.

It's funny because I rarely get a chance to read, watch, or play post-apocalyptic games and yet they get me all the time. There's other reasons (easily comprehensible horror, having to get along in a group of disparate people, us vs. the world, an interest in natural disasters) but one of the big ones would have to be the fact that I'd just love to poke around in other people's things but would never do it in real life.

What about you? Also, does anyone here have a post-apocalyptic tale to suggest I read?

WORTHY LINKS: Editing Tricks

Here is a really neat article from Terry Odell on how to edit your work with a fresh set of eyes. Who would've thought a change of formatting and some post-it notes could be so useful? I'm certainly going to try this.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Themes, Moods, and Examples

So as another exercise of the mind, I've generated a list of possible themes and moods (obviously not a complete list - that would be impossible) and I figured it might be worth doing an exercise which looks at bringing a theme and a mood to life. I'm going to use the Urban Fantasy sub-genre with a focus on Vampires as they're rather popular these days. I rolled some dice to figure out which theme and mood from the list I would be using.

The theme will be A Choice Between Two Evils and the mood will be Bittersweet. Yeah, yeah, I know. Not exactly a hard theme / mood for the subject matter but, in my defence, I settled on the subject well before I rolled the dice. The dice decided the rest. Go blame the dice.

Let's imagine the vampires are gathering, as they do, in typical vampire fashion to be all cold and callously political. I could run with some sort of kill 5 people to save 100 dilemma or perhaps have someone choose between two other creatures - perhaps a werewolf and a demon - but neither of them seem very bittersweet and moral dilemmas tend to fall a bit flat with blood-sucking creatures of the night. So, let's go with a trial.

The trial involves two vampire brothers murdering another vampire but claiming they are both innocent of the act. The vampires wish them both dead but for the prince, after weeks of deliberation, is prepared to make a settlement: If one of the brothers points the finger and tells the court who truly killed the vampire, the murderer will die and the other one be spared. After all, the prince can't have such a display of solidarity between vampires go unpunished.

The prince and all the other vampires expect the two to fall upon each other and claim the other did it. Instead, one simply stands shocked. The other brother steps forward and claims that he felled the final blow and that his colleague is innocent. That vampire is summarily executed and the other allowed to go free and continue his immortal existence. A bittersweet ending as the survivor gained what he wished for (freedom) but at a terrible price (his own loyal compatriot).

So that's the theme fully engaged through the plot itself. The choice between two evils is a choice between suicide and mutual destruction. Neither are good choices. So how about the mood?

The bittersweet mood can be reinforced through recollections of better nights, conversation between the two accused, and signs of nostalgia in the area such as grandfather clocks. The court room should be elegant and opulent, the vampires dressed in finery, with most vampires looking both beautiful and young to emphasise the benefits of the vampire race. Richness, opulent surrounds, power, and ever-lasting youth are so often wished for. Also underscore the subtle disconnects between alleged allies, discreet blood stains around the lips, deathly lack of movement in the older and more powerful vampires, glimpses of fangs and inhumanity, a layer of dust over parts of the court room that hasn't been updated since 1800 - each showing the unforseen consequences of being forever dead monsters. Thus the bittersweet mood of gaining something one wished for but with a terrible consequence is highlighted through the location alone.

Hmm, this exercise was a bit of fun. Is there any interest in me doing future ones of these or should I look to another writing exercise?

WORTHY LINKS: Lust, attachment, & committment

Lianna Brooks does an excellent and funny article on lust, its effects, its hormones and what influences us in mate selection. Read it here. She also does an article on the attachment phase of a relationship here. For a look at how commitment develops in a relationship look here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

PSYCHOLOGY: Contagious Emotions, Oh My!

One element that is often lacking from conversations between characters is emotional contagion. Panic breeds panic. Self-doubt can infect others. Laughter is contagious! Think about it when writing your novels. While each character will react differently, it's easy to be absorbed in someone else's anger and to start responding in kind. Even burn out and engagement can spread throughout work places ... why not between team mates?

Have you ever used emotional contagions in your novels?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

RESEARCH: The Mortis Family: Livor, Algor, and Rigor

Well, this is the real meat of the research I've been doing into crime scene research as my fantasy novels aren't set in a world advanced enough for Medical Examiners. It is advanced enough to have microbes devouring corpses and since murder, wars, famines, plagues, and other really messy stuff are common enough in fantasy worlds, it's certainly worth taking a look at what happens to bodies after we die. Forgive me because I'm ill and tired so I'm going to write this using metaphors and silliness. I lack the brain power for seriousness.

Firstly, the Mortis Family. Livor Mortis is the eldest son, steadfast and noticeable but nobody really talks about him all that much because they're focused on the youngest child, Rigor Mortis, and like to throw his name around. Livor Mortis involves the blood collecting in the lower parts of the body. After about 6 - 8 hours (again dependent on variables such as ambient temperature), it is fixed in place and if the body is moved the Algor Mortis will still be visible in the original spots.

Algor Mortis is the middle son, easily noticed but he rarely gets any attention. He represents the cooling of the body (about 1.5 degrees per hour until reaching ambient temperature in an adult body) and he allows the dramatic moment when the protagonist discovers someone seemingly asleep in a chair and grasps their cold hand. Of course, extremities cool before the core of the body, it depends on how hot / cold the surrounding area is, and the size of the body so you have a bit of leeway as an author with Algor Mortis.

Rigor Mortis is the youngest son and the one everyone pays attention to and he's the gradual stiffening of the muscles that is first noticed in the small muscles of the face and then spreads out to the larger muscles. Generally, after 12 hours the muscles are so rigid the joints won't bend. When Rigor Mortis goes away, it starts disappearing from the bottom of the body and starts moving upwards. After about 36 hours, the body is flexible once more. Rigor Mortis works quicker in the heat and in smaller bodies.

And there's a brief summary of the Mortis family. Hope you enjoyed it!