Perfect Timing

by Zoë Sharp

Yesterday, I went out and planned the best way to kill a man.

Nothing new in that, of course. I can’t remember how many people have died by my hand over the years. They’ve been shot, stabbed, overdosed, strangled, torched, blown up with a variety of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), been run over by moving vehicles, pushed down staircases, ridden off the edge of cliffs, had their throats cut, and their skulls shattered with blunt instruments. Or, on more than one occasion, finished with a single empty-handed blow.

And, let me tell you, it’s been fun.

But yesterday I went and walked the actual killing ground, which is something I haven’t done in a while. So, what was different this time?

Everything.

Originally, I intended to take the target down at his office, where he has a habit of standing by the window when he’s on the phone. Getting his number is easy, and I know exactly what to say to keep him on the line. But the more I went over his place of work, the more problems became apparent. Access, for one. Not that I need to get close to him, not by any means, but a clear line of sight is vital or the whole thing falls apart.

And then there’s the fact that my target is military. A career soldier – hard-bitten, experienced. He’s seen active service in every nasty corner of the world for nearly forty years. Sneaking up on such a man is not easy. Especially when he has a pretty good idea that someone’s gunning for him.

There’s no opportunity to set up a booby-trip, no time to rig his car, even though I’m sure I could cook up something that would do the job, in less time than it takes me to do the ironing. Taking him at home isn’t a much better option than work, which is probably why he chose to live there. Too hemmed-in for a long kill, too overlooked to get in closer. Because getting in close dramatically increases the chances of being seen, being caught. And, trust me, I want to get away with this, so egress is almost more important than access.

It’s got to be seamless, it’s got to work.

So, I’ve no option but to take him on the move, doing something routine, something he thinks is ordinary, even dull. Which is why we went out in the rain yesterday and drove the most logical route I knew my target would take from one confirmed location to another, and I looked for my opportunities.

Trouble is, I’m not dealing with open rolling countryside here. It’s chopped up, twisty, bordered by high hedges and dry stone walls a foot thick. It offers only short bursts of rapid-motion exposure, with little forewarning of his exact time of approach. Habitation is sparse, but people here are wary of strangers, and prolonged stay will attract their attention. It has to be done fast, in and out.

My target’s entire journey is less than five miles. I drive it, increasingly anxious, finding nothing for the first three. Then, there it is. A blind, ninety-degree corner onto a narrow bridge. Heading in the same direction as my target, car drivers are forced to brake almost to nothing before turning in. We park up and pace it. The bridge is thirty-three metres long, almost flat, crossing a disused railway line. My target drives an old Land Rover with all the acceleration and aerodynamics of a Post Office. I estimate it will take him between four and five seconds to cross.

And ahead of him, as he drives onto the bridge, the ground rises maybe eighteen metres to the tree line, a fifth of a mile away from that initial turn-in point. Three hundred and twenty-two metres. Back when I was actually shooting in competition, I could reliably take out the centre of a target at a little under that distance, even with an indifferent, rough-zeroed rifle and open sights. For this I have somewhat more specialised equipment in mind.

There’s a farm close by, but the trees provide a degree of separation. Not ideal, but a manageable risk, and there will only be a single shot. By the time the farmer gets his boots on, I’ll be gone. The elevation gives me uninterrupted visibility – a head-on target, travelling at relatively low speed for a calculable time period, at a quantifiable range. Not perfect, but as near as makes no difference.

It still confounds me, having stood and looked down from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, that the killing shots were not taken as the presidential motorcade progressed, slow and stately, almost directly towards the building along Elm. But instead the gunman – plural or singular, I’m open on this – waited until that awkwardly sighted, tight turn into Dealey Plaza, partially obscured by trees, to open fire.

But I digress. So, now, armed with no more than my notes from yesterday’s excursion in the rain, I can sit down, cosy at my desk, and write the fictional scene that makes use of all this fascinating research. What? You didn’t think I was actually going to …?

Sometimes, imagination alone is more than enough to write the kind of books we do, but if I can blur the lines between fact and fiction, slide some invention between the cracks of reality, so much the better. I’m not suggesting becoming a method writer, who has to see, hear, touch, taste and smell every experience before they can be portrayed. I didn’t go crawling round brothels in Brooklyn in order to describe the inside of one in THIRD STRIKE, although, I did seek advice from multi-award-winning Long Islander, Reed Farrel Coleman as to most probable locations. He sent me the kind of amazingly detailed answers that only a fellow crime writer can provide.

But I did spend a day going over a cross-channel ferry before I wrote ROAD KILL, and – even if I didn’t fill in all the blanks – the method of disabling it I used in that book is absolutely real. Not only that, it’s better than anything I could have come up with. Because I wouldn’t have made it so worryingly easy.

Working blind, I doubt I would have invented that bridge, that corner, that hill. If nothing suitable had turned up during that five-mile drive, I would have pinpointed a ficticious location entirely out of my head for my unknown, equally ficticious, assassin to carry out that hit. Somewhere that would undoubtedly have done the job, but it wouldn’t have had that extra little tinge of realism to it. I know part of our job description is that we Make Stuff Up, but to be honest, I couldn’t have imagined a better spot for an ambush if I’d tried.

So, what do you all favour – pure invention or partial reality? Do you need to go and walk the ground, take photographs, notes, clippings. And if you can’t get there in person, what do you rely on to feed your imagination?

This week’s Word of the Week is deadline, which was used for years in the newspaper business, where writers had to have their copy filed by a certain time in order to make the following day’s paper, or the story was considered dead. It’s a word that strikes terror into the hearts of authors everywhere, which is rather appropriate to its original meaning – it was supposed to. During the American Civil War, the prisoner of war camp at Andersonville used a white painted line instead of external walls or wire. Marksmen placed around the perimeter had orders to shoot any prisoner who attempted to cross that white line, no questions asked. Hence, you were allowed to go right up to the deadline, but woe betide you if you went over it.

I know the feeling …

27 thoughts on “Perfect Timing

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    I’ve done both. For the gun battle in the streets of Fayetteville, North Carolina in THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND, I actually drove over there and walked the area. The church in GOOD DAY IN HELL is a real place, as is the hog processing plant.

    The Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks in SAFE AND SOUND are there, but the one I describe in Keller’s first confrontation with DeGroot is a total invention, as is the Devil’s Throne and the cabin/firetower.

    Pine Lake in BREAKING COVER is mashup of two little North Carolina towns.

    The rest is just stuff I made up.

    Reply
  2. Zoë Sharp

    I really like that mix of real and imagined, Dusty, and your Jack Keller books evoke a real Deep South feel to them.

    Question is, which satisfies you more – the real places you used, or the ones you invented?

    Reply
  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    This is such a great topic, Z! My screenwriting partner and I used to act out fight and action sequences and you just gave me flashbacks.

    I went to Boston on three separate trips to research THE PRICE. Boston is such a unique and specific city, so very different from everywhere else I’ve lived, and there were certain things I just needed to get at least halfway right.

    Plus I find when you demonstrate the commitment to go there in person, magical things happen. When I decided to set THE PRICE at a certain hospital complex in Boston and started planning my first research trip, I learned my cousin had just been assigned a surgical residency there, and I’d have “backstage” access to everything. And when I went to Boston again recently to research my fourth book, I was able to get an amazing tour of the forensics lab at Schroeder Plaza. Being there in person is gold – all kinds of doors open to you when you make that commitment to your book.

    I set my third book (current title THE UNSEEN), which concerns a poltergeist investigation, on an estate in a small town in North Carolina that’s been turned into a writing retreat, and I got to stay there for a whole week with other author friends Margaret Maron, Sarah Shaber, Diane Chamberlain, Mary Kay Andrews and Brynn Bonner (and thank God I wasn’t alone there, too, because the place really is haunted).

    I knew that house like the back of my hand at the end of the week – all its eccentricities AND its ghosts – and that’s invaluable when a house is literally a character in the book.

    Research is one of the true rewards of the writer’s life.

    Reply
  4. Zoë Sharp

    I spent a little time in Boston for SECOND SHOT. I’d been there quite a few times, but I needed to go to specific places that I had an idea I wanted to use in the book, like the Boston Aquarium. Their website’s wonderful, but it isn’t until you walk in and discover that the open-plan layout of the modern building means that the first thing that hits you, from the café upstairs, is the smell of fried fish. Bit unkind on the exhibits, I thought.

    And I never would have given the Boston Harbor Hotel padded wallpaper unless I’d seen it for myself …

    Hope you’re not suffering from those flashbacks, thoug ;-]

    Reply
  5. Stephen D. Rogers

    I know. Send your target an email telling him he’s won the Nigerian lottery. Then, as he steps off the plane to accept his prize….

    For me, one special thing about making the plot work with real places is that the story feels more tied into the fabric of reality.

    Stephen

    Reply
  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    The trick is to stitch the two in together so you can’t see the join!

    And, funnily enough, the other day I did indeed receive an email telling me I’d won the Nigerian lottery!

    Oh dear, do you think someone’s trying to kill me?

    Reply
  7. Dana King

    Great post. I have made several trips back to Chicago to do “location research” for the exact reasons you stated here, down to driving around a series of industrial parks to get the proper locations for achase scene.

    On the other hand, sometimes you just have to make something up. The book I’m about to start has me torn. part of me want to use a purely fictional location (due to flexibility in police organization, crimnal codes, etc. a la Ed McBain), but there’s a part of me that knows the previous efforts were better grounded for having taken place in real places.

    Of course, the other books are as yet unpublished, so maybe that’s not helping as much as I’d hoped. -:)

    Reply
  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dana

    You could always follow the Sue Grafton model – use a lightly disguised real location (Santa Barbara) but call it something else (Santa Teresa). That way, you can still drive the streets and get the feel, but without the downside you mention.

    Reply
  9. Ally

    Well, what really jumped out at me is the image of you doing the ironing. I couldn’t help but picture you standing with the iron in one hand, thinking of ways to hurt someone with it – throw it to his head, drop in on his foot, garrotte him with the lead…

    I mean that in a nice way, Zoe. Please be my friend. IEDs scare me.

    Reply
  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hey, Ally

    If you think I’m dangerous with a steam iron, you should see me with Drano and tin foil … ;-]

    Seriously, I made that bit of the post up. I rarely iron anything. As my brother-in-law once wisely said: “Why put flat clothes on a round body?”

    Reply
  11. R.J. Mangahas

    So, Zoe, were YOU the unknown shooter? I promise not to tell ;-]

    As far as using real places, it certainly gives a better feel to it. Although with places that are made up, you certainly get a lot more flexibility.

    In my current WIP, I’m using a made up location, but it has a somewhat familiar to feel to it. It’s a place I know fairly well. Actually it’s a combination of two places.

    And I must agree with Alex. Boston is a unique city. I should know. I lived there for a few years. And I have to say, not only is the location interesting, I discovered a more than fair share of characters there as well.

    Reply
  12. Jo Parker

    I think it’s helpful to have that little bit of real, because that trip out or those snapshots taken can do many things.

    You may find that they evoke a response that makes the words flow easily, they may give you a kick start in a slump, spark a new idea or completely change the vision you had planned in your minds eye. They may also help remind you of that important little nuance that had slipped your mind in the frenzy of creativity, and of course they may well help keep your e-mail inbox free from people e-mailing you to say..

    ‘You can’t drive East on Paul Street, because it’s one way.’

    Reply
  13. Tammy Cravit

    I think the key is plausibility. Whether your story is set in a real-world locale or an imaginary one — or, as Sue Grafton and both did Ross Macdonald did with Santa Teresa, a combination of the two — isn’t so important. What’s important is that the way your story plays out be plausible given the way things work in the real world. And sometimes, the best way to make sure of that is to anchor the fiction in reality, like you did with your drive, Zoë. That’s why I bristle (as I’m sure do many of us here) when we see the hero of a book shoot a gun out of someone’s hand at 500 yards with an un-scoped Glock 19, for example.

    Side note: That’s exactly one of the reasons I hate reading much of the vampire/supernatural fiction that’s out there, because it seems to me that even a vampire is bound by the laws of physics.

    But I don’t think that real-world experience like the one you describe is *necessarily* required as part of the writing process. If you can get that same sensory experience solely in your imagination, great. I can’t, and I don’t know many people who can, so I tend to use a mix of what I experience and what I imagine. Plus, getting out there in the real world is just plain FUN!

    Reply
  14. Louise Ure

    Hoo boy. anyone stumbling across this post without knowing you’re a mystery writer would have sent the feds to your door tout de suite! (Duh, you don’t have our feds knocking at your door over there, do you?)

    So well-written, Zoe, so evocative. I think you’ve just put Murderati on the Homeland Security watch list.

    Reply
  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    “(Duh, you don’t have our feds knocking at your door over there, do you?)”

    Erm, do the words ‘extraordinary rendition’ have any relevance here?

    “I think you’ve just put Murderati on the Homeland Security watch list.”

    I think, with a name like Murderati, you were all on their watch list ten minutes after the site first went live … ;-]

    Reply
  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tammy

    The plausibility issue is a whole nother can of worms! Particularly when it comes to weapons handling, or motor vehicles. I mean, I can understand people getting stuff wrong about guns. Not everybody is familiar with them, particularly not on this side of the Atlantic. But just about everybody has been into close contact with a car, for heaven’s sake.

    The only thing I really hate when people use real locations, is when they prove it by turning the book into a travel guide. You don’t quite get GDP and annual rainfall figures, but it’s pretty damn close.

    Reply
  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jo

    Yup, been there, done that – driving the wrong way up a one-way street. Fortunately, an eagle-eyed copy editor spotted it!

    I absolutely agree that pictures and notes from the time you visited a place are perfect to spark off those little touches that give it added flavour. I made a load of notes and took several hundred photos during a trip to NYC in 2005, way before I knew I was going to set part of THIRD STRIKE there, but it came in sooo useful.

    Plus I had a great excuse to go back, of course!

    Reply
  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RJ

    Boston was a great city and I’m looking forward to going back when I can. But without the food poisoning that got us last time we were there.

    I liked being able to juxtapose big city Boston, with small town North Conway, NH. And there, I used lots of real places – like Jonathan’s seafood restaurant and the White Mountain Hotel, combined with fake ones – the surplus store west on Rt 302. The fake ones are usually where something bad happens!

    Reply
  19. pari

    Truly excellent post, Zoe.

    I do both — walk and drive the towns, eat at the restaurants, sleep in the hotels etc.

    I make stuff up when absolutely necessary.

    But as gas has become more expensive and being away from my family more difficult, I’m using people in those locations to help with some of the details. I don’t have writers per se, but locals who’ll take pictures for me and give me tips about the places I need to know about.

    This latter approach isn’t always what I wish I could do, but it helps when I’m in a pinch.

    Reply
  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    You don’t have to tell me about the price of gas – we’re being stiffed over $10 a gallon over here. This is why I mentioned the piece of road I needed to check out was only 5 miles long ;-]

    I’m torn over whether it’s better for your location scout to be a writer or not. Writers kind of know exactly the kind of little vital detail you’re after, but it’s hard for them not to start putting their own interpretation on the scene.

    On the other hand, people are really happy to help. When I needed info about the location of a suitable industrial area near Houston, I emailed David and McKenna at the excellent Murder By The Book. They came back to me right away with several suggestions that were perfect.

    Speaking of which – can I just wish those two the very best for their forthcoming wedding in bonny Scotland this Saturday?

    Hope it stays fine!

    Reply
  21. j.t. ellison

    Z, fabulous post!

    I felt like I was there, doing the recon on your target. You’re amazing. That was a very cool glimpse into the mind of a writer.

    I do my research first hand. For 14, I went to New York. Even though there’s on a few scenes set there, I hadn’t been as an adult and had a very specific spot I needed to “see.”

    Setting a series in Nashville makes it easy, because I’m a fifteen minute drive to just about every setting I need. I like to walk in my character’s shoes, see what they see, smell what they smell. It makes the story come alive for me, and hopefully for the reader as well. Though I do fudge a few things, only when absolutely necessary

    Reply
  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    You’ve hit the nail on the head with that comment – “see what they see, smell what they smell” – so many people forget to include the other senses, and nothing stirs memories like a half-remembered scent.

    Although, on the streets of NYC, sometimes those scents can be quite pungent …

    Reply
  23. Becky Hutchison

    Zoe, great topic. As a writer, I sometimes have a hard time deciding between real or imaginary locations for my stories. Developing my own little town for the setting gives me a lot of freedom with writing the description for the community, but using a real town, especially one I know really well, frees me to worry more about the characters and plot instead of how I’m going to structure my government, businesses and local services.

    However as a reader, it doesn’t matter whether the location is real or not…just that it’s consistent. If I’m reading a book that’s based in DC (where I lived for four years and still visit),then I want the story to reflect the streetscape as it truly is. When a story describes the scenes out of order, I stop believing. Say the main character arrives at National Airport and is going straight to the White House, I know it’s way out of the way to go via Eastern Market and then Georgetown. I would think the writer hadn’t done his or her research and that I’d be wasting my time reading the book.

    Personally I like to read novels based in Washington BECAUSE I know the town so well and can feel a connection to the characters as they move around the city. That makes the story truly believable for me.

    Reply
  24. Jake Nantz

    Wow Zoe, great post.

    I set my WIP (my first novel attempt) in North Carolina, because I’ve lived here almost my whole life. I didn’t drive to the setting in Durham where the chase would take place, because I was using a fictional neighborhood. However, I did use real roads because the area is just as affluent as my fictional ‘hood. i’m also very glad i spoke with two friends of mine who are area cops and found out that there is no Homicide Division in Precinct #whatever, because they don’t use precincts and it’s the Major Crimes Unit.

    I’ve also taken liberties with Rock Hill, SC and the woods of North Raleigh and Wake Forest (as well as adding a nice little deli called “Tulley’s” near downtown Police HQ), because, to be honest, I didn’t want to name a real place (or there wasn’t one in some cases) and offend the people that frequent or live there.

    On a side note, between T.A.O.L. and posts like this one, my Creative Writing students are going to get a real eye-opening experience in terms of a peek inside a writer’s mind. I love it for them almost as much as I do for my own growth as a writer.

    Reply
  25. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Becky

    I know exactly what you mean. As with watching a movie, I don’t want to be able to see the join between live action and CGI, and it’s exactly the same in a book.

    When you pick up a novel, you enter a contract with the author, where you trust that author to carry you safely through the ride. As soon as the author does something stupid, that contract is broken, and the trust is gone. It can be mistakes in geography, like those you mention, or on any subject, for that matter.

    I remember reading a thriller years ago where there was a small scene that took place on a powerboat in the Caribbean. As a closer to the scene, the author had the boat surging away … just as a crewman threw a bucket over the side to begin mopping the decks.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to do this, but even from a slow-moving sailboat, a bucket on a rope acts as a significant sea anchor. Unless he’d tied off the rope pretty securely, when the skipper opened the throttles, the poor unfortunate crewman would have been whisked into the water before he could blink. Maybe I’m being unfair – maybe the writer just cut away from the scene before the Man Overboard drill began … ;-]

    Reply
  26. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jake

    You just have to think yourself into the part, which can sometimes be a very scary proposition. It helps to have some deep-down inner rage you can feed on at appropriate moments.

    When it comes to the whole department/precinct/unit question, I don’t know about the US, but there can be a great deal of variation in police terminology and procedure between different forces in the UK. I spent some time with the crime scene investigators in Cumbria, who definitely call themselves CSIs. But when I used this term to a senior officer from Lincolnshire, he corrected me. “No, they’re SOCOs (Scene Of Crime Officers) – CSI is American.”

    So, you may well find that even if a police officer reads something that might be an error in procedure, he may just think, “OK, that’s not how we do it here, but it might be how they do it elsewhere.”

    Of course, JD Robb (Nora Roberts) has a brilliant solution to this problem – she set her terrific Lt Eve Dallas IN DEATH series in mid-21st century NYC.

    Reply

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