I spent the early days of my television career covering a lot of crime. Heinous crime, as they say. Gruesome, grisly, shit-you-see-in-movies, kind of crime. I’m particularly fond of the words “gruesome” and “grisly” because you can always depend on some chiseled, blown-dried anchorman or exquisitely coiffed, high fashioned and bejeweled anchorwoman to utter those morbid expressions whenever the lead story is murder. And the lead story is almost always murder. No matter what television market you live in. I loved/hated my days in TV news. But that story is for another blog and another time. I bring up my TV career only to share with you some of the inspiration for Desert Remains. I’ve been to many crime scenes. I’ve covered too many murder trials to mention. And as much as I am quick to disparage the media’s obsession with death and destruction, I understand the human fascination with violent crime. No. Scratch that. I can’t pretend to understand the human fascination; I do, however, understand mine. Without knowing, of course, that the seeds of a crime writer were being sown, I would visit crime scenes and I would sit through trials, trying earnestly to crawl inside the minds of the criminals (I probably should have been taking more copious notes for my news stories, but the psychoanalytical implications of the cases were far more compelling). I wanted to understand the thinking of violent criminals, particularly suspects in random acts of violence.
Do they think through their crimes? How do they choose their victims? How much lucidity, if any, is part of the process of their violent offenses? And ultimately, what does it take for one human to harm another, particularly a stranger?
Crimes of passion present a slightly different list of questions, sometimes with an overlap of answers. How angry do you have to be to harm a loved one? How injured must you perceive yourself to be to seek revenge? How close is any one of us to losing control? Maybe closer than you think. Or maybe you don’t want to think about it at all.
Which is why you have crime writers. We think about it and think about it and think about it. We talk to scientists, consult with psychologists. We read articles that confuse us. We drink a lot of coffee. We talk to our characters out loud. And yes, it has occurred to us, as a group and individually, that our minds are as dented as the criminals we write about.
When I talk to my characters I ask them about their rage and their sorrow. I dig deep into my own experience, to a particular vulnerability or fear from childhood, and I use that experience to trigger a conversation with my characters. Or I choose defendants from those trials of my TV news days and I set up imaginary appointments to discuss their cases. I probe. They tell me everything. This can take hours or days. Which is why I don’t always answer the phone. When I create a criminal character, it’s like I do an MRI of his brain and a CT scan of his mind.
Sometimes it’s not completely imaginary.
Although it’s rare to interview a defendant, particularly one on trial for murder, it happens (it happens a bit more commonly after a verdict, but still not the norm). I’ve interviewed criminals. I’ve interviewed murderers. I still have my notes—ask my spouse, I throw nothing away). The notes are better than most anything I could have jotted down in court. The notes solve some of the mystery.
It’s a strange place to be, sitting here, most days, living with criminals real and imagined. But I don’t mind. Because as much time as I have to spend with them, I also get to spend with the other characters in my stories. And I really like most of those characters. I enjoy our time together. Which is really important since I’m going to be with them for approximately 400 pages. I’ll talk more about the importance of liking your characters, even the shitty ones, in a future blog post right here.