06 October 2015

Murder at a Nudist Colony? Ah, the Joys of Research.

Questions I've asked over the last few years that never would have crossed my mind before I became a mystery writer and editor:
  • If you're found with a murder victim and the police take your clothes for examination, will they also take your underwear?
  • If a murder occurs at a nudist colony, and the suspect is a colony member, how does the pat down work during arrest?
  • Is it easy to break into a home by crawling through a doggy door?
  • How does a groundhog react when cornered?
  • What's the approval process for exhuming a body? How hard is it to dig up a casket? What does an exhumed body look like? And smell like?
  • If I'm writing about someone who's a douchebag, when I spell out the word, is the bag removed from the douche?
  • How many synonyms are there for male genitalia, and why does the word johnson make some women laugh so much?
Yes, I now know the answers to all these questions. I'll give the answers below. But first, a few observations:

It pays to have friends. How do I know the answer to the underwear question? I asked my friend
Robin Burcell
author Robin Burcell, a former police detective, who's always there in a pinch to take my odd questions. Robin's not the only expert who helps mystery authors. Dr. Doug Lyle, Luci "the Poison Lady" Zahray, and Lee Lofland, another former member of the law-enforcement community, have all shared knowledge with me (and many other authors) over the years. A big thank you to you all.

It pays to have friends who pay attention. How did I even come up with the nudist colony question? I learned from my friend Donna Andrews (thank you, Donna) that a Catholic church in our neighborhood used to be the home of a nudist colony, and in the 1940s, a murder occurred
there. That sparked a very interesting discussion about where a nudist might try to hide a weapon (not having pockets and whatnot), and it
Donna Andrews
resulted in my story "Murder a la Mode," which appeared in the anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Second Helping. It's set at a nude Thanksgiving, and was a lot of fun to write.

It also pays to have friends with a good sense of humor. My unpublished novel involves a phone-sex operator, and writing it required coming up with a lot of synonyms for certain body parts. How a writer toils for her art. And what she learns, sometimes, is that the wrong word can take a reader from eagerly turning pages to laughing out loud. And not at an intended time, either. So thank you to my friend Laura Weatherly, who several years ago burst out laughing when she read about a man on the phone talking about his johnson. "You have to find another word," she told me. Done.

It pays to have access to the Internet. No, this isn't for research for the phone-sex book. It was for the groundhog research. When I began writing my short story "The Shadow Knows," (which is a finalist for the Macavity and the Anthony awards at this week's Bouchercon mystery convention), I knew I wanted to write a caper about a grumpy man who believes his town's groundhog is responsible for
Old groundhog who visited my yard.
every long winter, so he decides to get rid of him. But it wouldn't be a caper if things went smoothly. So I began researching things that could go wrong, and I learned many fun tidbits. Did you know that when groundhogs feel cornered, they might bite? Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg learned this the hard way. Thank you, Mister Mayor. Groundhogs will also squeal extremely loudly when upset, dig up drywall, and scratch with their long, sharp claws. All this detail went to good use in the story. Yes, research sure can be fun.

Now, back to the questions:
  • Will the police take your underwear? If the victim's blood has soaked through to them, they might indeed.
  • Can you break into a home by crawling through a doggy door? Yep, if you're petite. But beware: there's going to be a dog inside. And he might not be too happy with you.
  • What are the details about exhuming a body? Every state's process is different, but it's not that easy to get approval, and digging up a casket, then breaking the vault open, is hard work. And then there's the state the body might be in. I'll give you one word: mold. Yuck.
  • If I'm writing about someone who's a douchebag, when I spell out the word, is the bag removed from the douche? Nope. In this context, it's all one word. (And you thought copy editing was boring.)
  • How many synonyms are there for male genitalia, and why does the word johnson make some women laugh so much? This one, I'm leaving up to you to find out. Ask your friends. Make a party of it.
  • How does the pat down work during arrest of a nudist? This one ... well, you'll have to read "Murder a la Mode" to find out. It's too good to give away.
  • And, finally, how does a groundhog react when cornered? This question is answered above, but if you want to see the resulting story, which puts all the fun facts to good use, head over to my website: http://www.barbgoffman.com/The_Shadow_Knows.html
But don't stop there. All the other nominated stories are available online, too, through these links: http://www.bouchercon.info/nominees.html (for the Anthony finalists) and http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2015/06/read-all-macavity-short-story.html (for the Macavity finalists). You should check them all out, especially if you're going to vote. They're all good reading--no question about it.

So, authors, what's the most interesting question you've researched while writing? And readers, what's the most interesting tidbit you've learned from fiction? Please share your fun facts. I really want to know.


  1. Very funny, Barb, and informative.

  2. Good luck with the voters at the Boucheron.

    My most interesting research conversation was with a nice fellow at the state agricultural office about whether pigs would eat a person.
    Answer, yes they would and with relish.

  3. After reading this I'm once again grateful I'm not a police officer and that other people are will to do that job!

  4. Thanks, Rob! See you soon.

    Janice, now that is cool information to have. I feel the wheels turning ...

    Sherry, there are so many jobs I'm thrilled other people are willing to do. Imagine being the person who works at the crematorium whose job it is to grind down with a mortar and pestle the bones that didn't make it to ashes during cremation. A real job!

  5. Great post!
    Oh my...questions:
    For The Bootlegger's Goddaughter (out 2017) How do you make an illegal grappa still blow up?
    For Rowena Through the Wall: What REALLY is said ( and done) during a Satanic wedding?

  6. What is said and done during a Satanic wedding? Come on, Melodie. Don't leave us hanging. Can you give us a hint?

  7. Great post, Barb! For both of my novels, INTERPRETATION OF MURDER and FIGHTING CHANCE (released today!), I had to do a lot of research about martial arts. Fortunately, I have a resident expert--my fifth-degree black belt husband. If you really want to write realistic, specific descriptions of martial arts scenes, though, listening to explanations isn't enough. You have to act them out, and sometimes you have to act them out many times, so you can get details straight, pause to jot them down, and begin again. And since my husband knows a great deal about martial arts and I don't, he always played the winner in our enactments, and I always played the loser. Research can be a painful process.

  8. Oddly enough, I knew the answer to the groundhog question, but then I’m a rural kid. (Plus, I’d also read your story.)

    Most of my research I obtain either by reading or doing. The latter includes shooting, flying, and living with an alligator.

    Vis-à-vis the pat-down, it could depend heavily upon the chemistry of the patter and the pattee.

    I have a question for Janice: Is that pickle relish or mustard?

    1. Living with an alligator? That requires more information, Leigh.

  9. The oddest research question I've asked (online, for a story I haven't written yet!) is what clothing Egyptian slaves would have worn 3000 years ago. (Answer, usually none. Too hot for clothes!) As for nude pat-downs, I know (more research, I've never been in one) that in prison, inmates are strip-searched regularly, but I didn't know how cops would approach it in a nudist colony setting. (And I don't believe I just wrote that last sentence!)

    1. Imagine working amid all that scratchy sand without clothes and suntan lotion. Shudder.

  10. Vis-à-vis the pat-down, it could depend heavily upon the chemistry of the patter and the pattee.

    So, if the pat-down occurs at a nudist colony in the Bayou, instead of being called the "patter and pattee" are the participants just both referred to as the "patois"?


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