Saturday, July 19, 2008

What's That Smell?

By Pat Browning

I have no real experience with dead bodies. That’s why I decided to write cozies. The really nasty stuff takes place offstage.

Even so, I can’t ignore it entirely. What’s a murder mystery without a murder and a mystery behind it? Who, how, why?

I started FULL CIRCLE from Scratch Minus One and was enrolled in online writing classes the whole time I worked on it. When I finally got around to a murder victim, I set the scene in some detail.

The protagonist climbs a circular staircase to the tower of an old jail converted to a bar. It’s based on a real jail/bar. I’ve made that climb to the tower so I felt confident that I got it right:

“The stairway was narrow and winding, and halfway up I stopped to get my breath. No more midnight rambles for me. Music coming up through the door downstairs bounced off the walls. Doody-wop-doody-wop …”

On the class bulletin board the instructor wanted to know what the scene smelled like. Smelled? I didn’t have a clue. Someone suggested a sickroom smell. Someone suggested the smell of vomit. I hadn’t vomited in at least 30 years (and then only after some jerk slipped me a Mickey Finn) but the memory never goes away. I added this:

“I went on up, stopping at the top to call again. Heard nothing. Smelled something, a sick room smell. I forced myself to take a small step inside the room. … I ran to her, got down on my knees, and turned her over. She lay in vomit, her eyes open and staring, her face pale, distorted. I sat back on my haunches, my eyes watering from the smell.”

Here’s where I need a little Twilight Zone or Inner Sanctum music. I swear I’m being coached from another Dimension. Once I conquered vomit, I went out for a hike around the neighborhood. I turned onto a cul-se-sac and saw a huddle of people at the end of the street.

Some primitive instinct for self-preservation kicks in at such times. I stood stock-still. Goose bumps jumped up on my arms and turned them to ice. Finally someone left the huddle and told me an elderly couple had been murdered. A florist delivering a bouquet looked through a window in the front door and saw the bodies. I went home and added this to the scene in the tower: “Goose bumps jumped up so high on my arms that my whole body felt cold.”

Later on, when another dead body turns up, a character merely says, “Whoo-ee! Musta been a big rat died up here!”

Don’t blame me. I’ve already told you I don’t have much experience with dead bodies.
I read somewhere that a writer should evoke all the senses on every page. That sounds like sensory overload to me, but it’s something to consider. James Lee Burke, one of my favorite authors, has a gift for it. He may work as hard as everyone else but you’d never guess, given the rhythm and cadence of his words. The reader simply comes upon a lovely passage, such as this one from IN THE MOON OF RED PONIES:

“The wind was up, balmy and smelling of distant rain, denting the alfalfa and timothy in the fields, puffing pine needles out of the trees on the slopes. The two sorrels were running in tandem across the pasture, their necks extended, their muscles rippling. In the distance I could hear thunder echoing in the hills.”

Is there a sweeter smell than distant rain? “Whoo-ee! Musta been a big rat died up here!” just doesn’t compare, does it?

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