Weird Writer Questions

Fun post by Elaine Viets at Kill Zone Blog: Questions of Life and Death.

Can a body fit in your car trunk?

I sprung this question on a sweet, silver-haired couple who owned a Lincoln Town Car, the same car as Margery Flax in my Dead-End Job mysteries. They were in a shopping center parking lot when I asked that question. Maybe I have an honest face. Or, since they were Florida residents, they were used to crazies. For whatever reason, they obligingly opened their trunk. Yep, the Town Car trunk was definitely big enough for a body. Two, if the bodies were small.

This is not just writers. I was shopping with a friend once, just keeping her company, and she asked the salesperson, for no reason at all, just because she’s that kind of person, “Hey, could a body fit in this chest freezer?”

I don’t recall whether the salesperson said yes or no or politely pretended not to hear the question. I do remember lifting the lid of the freezer and deciding you could definitely put at least one body in it.

My favorite question at the linked post regards how long it takes to defrost a frozen body, which is nicely relevant to the above question about the freezer. I do wonder whether all pathologists get questions like this, or just the one in Elaine Viets’ town.

Most of the time, I expect Google and Google Maps can answer writer questions adequately. I remember researching how to hotwire a car — that’s another one Viets mentions:

A friendly mechanic spent an hour giving me lessons until I could describe the process. Don’t worry. Your vehicles are safe – nothing sparked no matter how many times I tried.

I didn’t get that far myself. I read about the process and decided it was too complicated by a mile and just left the key in the ignition instead. That provided a much smoother car theft.

This wasn’t a question, but it might have been — the time I was trying to figure out if you can make an (ordinary, normal, empty) car explode by shooting it (with an ordinary handgun). The answer is basically no, or as close to no as matters, so (as you may recall) I didn’t have Miguel shoot a car to get an explosion; I had him make explosives out of ordinary household materials instead. I don’t know that this would work, but I bet fewer readers know either, whereas a LOT of people know all about shooting cars and making them explode. When I commented about this on Facebook, they all explained how to make it work. (Pack the car with explosives, basically. Or use a much bigger gun.)

This sort of thing comes up here and there, including Quora — could XXX work? Would it be possible to YYY?

The basic answer, if you’re writing fiction: If almost no one knows it can’t work, then your job is to make it sound reasonably plausible when you put the incident in your novel. There are quite a few topics — guns, swords, horses — where mistakes will be noticed by a lot of readers. But there are many, many more topics where, if you make something sound plausible, nearly all your readers will accept it.

My favorite — don’t have a link, sorry — was when someone on Quora asked whether it would be okay to coat an entire space station in cobalt dust, which ought to happen because Reasons. I answered that it would certainly be fine with me. As a reader, I would enjoy a sparkling blue space station, and I wouldn’t be able to tell whether the dashed-off explanation made sense or not.

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12 thoughts on “Weird Writer Questions”

  1. Ha. Regarding explosions, I would definitely ask my brother. He’s a true pyromaniac (mostly within reasonable limits), and he just finished up an internship at an airbag company, where he learned how to make the mini-explosions that expand said airbags. Also he’s the kind of person who’d research – and then test it – for fun. And he LOVES explaining it all in excruciating detail.
    I’m lucky enough to live near a university, so I can ask around about all kinds of subjects. Makes my life easy as a writer. :)

  2. Your brother would be really handy, E.C.! Mine is great for history and random trivia of all sorts. I also was talking to someone … oh, I think it was Theresa Romaine, she writes historical romances … whose brother is a doctor, so when she needed a permanently disabling injury of the arm, he would tell her exactly what kind of injury would do the job.

  3. I remember the discussion of whether it was possible to preserve a human corpse by pickling it.

    We got rather silly. And one writer reported back that he had told his wife and she had serenely said research is better than experiment for that question.

  4. E.C., after reading In the Waves: My Quest to Solve the Mystery of a Civil War Submarine by Rachel Lance (highly recommend if you are interested in how science happens, even if you are not particularly interested in submarines) which is about blast waves, I can’t watch or read about any explosion without thinking “I think they’d be dead if they were really that close to an explosion.” The book is mostly a science mystery with memoir like detail about what it’s like to study explosions as a woman in science.

    I’ve asked the frozen/defrosted body question and I once set off an entire room of writers into the giggles by asking out of nowhere if a normal fire would be enough to cremate a body. Often I seem to look up more less life and death things like, how long does it take to travel on a river in a steamboat and what was the Mexican-Lebanese immigrant experience like.

  5. That In the Waves book sounds interesting, R Morgan – thanks for the pointer.

    My brother is handy for questions like, “How long would it take for one person on horseback to travel a hundred miles through such-and-such terrain? How about a small army?” He’s also the person I once called to ask, “Hey, who would be a good patron saint for people threated by werewolves?” (Saint Walpurga, by the way.)

    Not that long ago, I looked up what bones would be left after cremation with a normal fire. Also what color the bones might be. But I’ve never yet needed to know how long it takes to defrost a human body.

  6. Hmm. I think the defrosting question has actually been empirically studied because of trying to deal with corpses in permafrost. When a corpse in permafrost gets exposed, how long do you have before it thaws? How much does it depend on weather conditions? And if you want to thaw it under controlled conditions, what is the optimal approach and how long does it take? Doing a little quick googling, it appears that a lot of people have been thinking about thawing corpses in permafrost, but often that is because they are worried about viruses in the corpses becoming active again. Huh.

  7. Allan, honestly, I’m a bit appalled this seems to come up often enough in real life that it needs to be studied.

    The virus thing is certainly reminiscent of a zillion SF and horror movies. I have a (very partial) SF novel that starts just this way …

  8. After we installed our 10,000 gallon underground rainwater cistern (we live in a desert), we showed it to several of our neighbors. Three out the first four spontaneously commented that it would be a great place to hide a body. I had never, ever thought of that. Does that mean I am naïve or that I live in a really rough neighborhood here in Oro Valley, AZ?

  9. Carol … whoa. That does seem like an unusually high percentage of people to comment about that.

    Also, I have to say, it doesn’t seem like a great place to hide a body to me. Wouldn’t that contaminate the water for an inconveniently long period of time? Not to mention the knowledge that there are bones in the cistern would bother me forever, even though I’m generally not very squeamish.

  10. I remember a short story that had a corpse hidden in a septic tank. The plumber had procedures on what to do in that case. The home owner was impressed – that they had procedures – and weirded out about it at the same time. The plumber was grossed out but practical about it.

    I also remember reading about the defrosting question when they found that Stone Age corpse in the Alps a couple decades back.

  11. I believe they were able to get the original Spanish Influenza virus sequence because of bodies frozen in permafrost.

  12. I wouldn’t have expected thawing bodies to come up so often. Huh.

    A septic tank is one thing; a cistern with, presumably, drinking water in it, is something else.

    But I’m a little weirded out that there are procedures, too.

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