Let Your Senses Run Wild
As a suspense and thriller author, I write a lot of murder scenes. It’s a hazard of the job. Sometimes I write them in the moment, as the blade is being swung or the trigger is pulled; sometimes it’s the seconds that immediately follow. And other times, the scenes are days old, stale and tinny, with evidence caked in unexpected places as a detective combs the room for clues.
As someone who’s never murdered anyone (besides admittedly regular attempts with snark and shade), it takes pulling on all of my senses to create authentic and nuanced murder scenes. In addition to conducting as much research as one’s stomach and nerves will allow, one of the most important things authors can do to write a compelling murder scene is to draw upon all the tools in their sensory arsenal.
What does it look like?
On the surface, this is the easiest of the senses to take on. What does the room look like? Not just the color of the walls or a list of furniture in the room, but the fray on the edge of the drapes and the grain of the hardwood floor. Where and how did the body fall? Where is the eye drawn when you first walk into the scene? Seemingly nonessential details of space and setting provide critical information about the people in them—both the living and the dead.
How does it smell?
There are so many smells to consider at a crime scene: the perfume and sweat of the murderer who just left the room, the uneaten takeout on the coffee table, the vanilla breeze plug-in in the kitchen. Not to mention BOBoF (my quick and palatable shorthand for blood and other bodily fluids). Suffice it to say that murder scenes are known for a lot of things, but smelling good is not one of them.
What does it sound like?
A crime scene sounds very different, depending on the moment captured. Just before the murder, it may be loud and chaotic. Voices rising, a scuffle, a scream. Then there’s the moment of the act itself: a gurgle, a gasp, the smack of flesh against the floor. And, of course, there’s the quiet after the deed has been done, that thick, heavy, jarring silence, which may be broken by any number of sounds: the patter of mice running across the floor, the steady drip of a faucet, the clank of a radiator turning on.
How does it taste?
Can a murder scene have a taste? Of course it can! If it can have a smell, it can certainly have a taste. If a wedding, for example, tastes sweet (vanilla? lavender?), then a murder scene might be briny and bitter, with hints of chalk, ash, or metal.
What does it feel like?
As our trusty detective walks around the scene, she reaches out to feel the sharp edge of the broken wine glass at the victim’s feet or the splintering chip in the wooden door. Maybe, beneath her feet, she feels the slight pitch in the floor that helps her find the evidence that has rolled behind the couch. The temperature of the body, the room, and the wine bottle on the table—all of these can be incredibly telling as the detective feels her way through the scene of the crime.
Now that the author has an array of sensory details at her fingertips, she determines if and when to reveal them to the reader. Some details won’t make the cut—those, for example, that do not further the story, are gratuitous, or would merely serve as a distraction. Genre and story goals also dictate how much is shared. But by having a deeper understanding of how a murder scene looks, smells, sounds, tastes, and feels, the author is able to provide just the right amount of information to help readers immerse themselves in another world—at least for a few pages.
Tell me—what sensory details help you connect to stories?
And, please, for the love of all things cozy, do not say BOBoF.
Nic Joseph’s third novel, The Night in Question (Sourcebooks Landmark), will be released in October 2018. She is the author of Boy, 9, Missing and The Last Day of Emily Lindsey. As a trained journalist, Nic has written about everything from health care and business to aerospace and IT. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s in communications, both from Northwestern University. Follow her on Twitter @nickeljoseph.