“Humankind cannot take too much reality.” ~T.S. Elliott
I love it when a grizzled detective on Dateline or 48 Hours shakes his head in amazement and says to the interviewer, “This crime is so twisted. You can’t make this kind of stuff up.” As a mystery writer, I can’t help but think, Oh, but we do.
Crime fiction writers spend countless hours researching their novels—the law, law enforcement, crime scene investigation and technology, the elements of their crime, you name it—but we still rely on our imaginations to utilize the information and create scenes from what we’ve learned. And you know what happens when a writer’s imagination kicks into gear? Mighty chaos can break loose. We try to “stick to the facts, ma’am,” but it doesn’t always work out that way. The truth might get tweaked or facts might be dramatized for fictional purposes.
Still, facts and fiction intermingle. I’d like to give you a few examples from my debut, Killing Trail: A Timber Creek K-9 Mystery. Prior to writing the book, I was fortunate to shadow two skilled police dog trainers and watch them work with dogs and handlers. These professionals told me stories about the amazing things their dogs accomplished on the job. The crime fighting duo in my Timber Creek mystery series are Deputy Mattie Cobb and her K-9 partner Robo, a dog cross-trained in narcotics detection and patrol. So when I sat down to write, what does Robo do? He finds the body of teenage girl!
This discouraged me, because patrol dogs are typically trained in cadaver work or narcotics detection but not both. A phone call to one of my consultants solved my dilemma. “The trainer could have tested the dog for cadaver work when he was young but ultimately decided to go with narcotics detection training,” she said. “Some of these dogs remember everything.” Ah…okay then. Keep writing.
Here’s another example: My husband is a veterinarian and he helps me plot my stories. Before I wrote Killing Trail we brainstormed elements of the crime and came up with the idea that drug traffickers would use large dogs as mules by force-feeding them balloons filled with cocaine. Several months later, I was walking the treadmill while watching television and saw a news clip on drug traffickers in Columbia who used greyhounds as mules by surgically implanting bags of heroin under their skin. This example of how reality followed fiction told me a couple things—one, our idea wasn’t too far-fetched, and two, these crooks can be more cruel and inhumane than my husband and I can imagine.
And one more: In my series, ranchers and merchants of Timber Creek are concerned about drug traffic through their community, so they donate money for the sheriff’s department to buy a narcotics detection dog. After the book was written, a friend of mine sent an article from a small town newspaper about townspeople organizing a committee to raise money for a narcotics detection dog for their police department. The town council nixed the concept. Some speculated it was turned down because several council members were participants in the local drug traffic problem. Hmm…fact or fiction?
Don’t you think T.S. Elliott would be shocked by the reality television shows we have in our world today? I know I am at times, and I agree that it’s debatable whether or not some of these shows are scripted. But I’ve come to believe that both fiction and reality can startle, shock, and sometimes be downright unbelievable. And as to which one is stranger—I think it’s a toss up.
Margaret Mizushima has a background in speech pathology and practiced in an acute care hospital before establishing her own rehabilitation agency. Currently, she balances writing with assisting her husband with their veterinary clinic and Angus cattle herd. Her fiction has won contest awards, and her short story “Hay Hook” was published in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers 2014 anthology, Crossing Colfax. She enjoys reading and hiking, and she lives with her husband on a small ranch in Colorado where they raised two daughters and a multitude of animals. She can be found on Facebook/Author Margaret Mizushima, on Twitter @margmizu, and on her website.
This post was previously published in December 2015 at Patricia Stoltey's blog.