09 October 2007

Writing Lessons: Interviewing a Suspect

While this sounds like a mystery writing technique, the first time I used it (way back in '81) it was for my first occult fantasy. I had given my first draft of the novel to a friend whose opinion I valued to give me feedback. I gave him all 120 pages of my first novel! When he gave it back he said, "Wow! It's really freeze-dried. If you added a little hot water it would be a whole book." Well, that got me thinking. Having read the book again myself I started out thinking about what else I'd like to know about what happened. As a result, I started interviewing my main character, asking question after question. That was the moment that my character, J. Wesley Allen, took shape as a real person with whom I could carry on a conversation. He became so real that he took control and I wrote five little booklets of his philosophy with a hundred short pithy quotes that I called collectively "The Book of Wesley."

Last year, you saw a lot of that technique as I explored the creation of my characters Dag Hamar and Deb Riley. Many of you actually participated in making them real. So here is the technique I use to interview my characters, and specifically for those writing a mystery, how to interview the suspect.

First, understand that the suspect doesn't want to give you the information that you need. If she did, you just have to ask her, "Why did you kill your husband?" and she would fill you in on all the details. End of mystery. So you have to do two things: collect evidence that will convict the suspect, and try to get the suspect to give you enough information that she entraps herself.

It is an old saying that a murder (or other crime) requires three elements: Motive, Means, and Opportunity. So, in your interview you have to elicit these three pieces. Let's start with motive. For convenience sake, I'm going to stick with the example I just started. I suspect the wife of murdering her husband. Here are some of my interview questions.
  1. How did you and your husband meet? Was it love at first sight? Did you marry for convenience? Do you have children? (The intent here is to get the character to talk to you about things that don't seem all that threatening. They aren't accusatory, they are just going to fill you in on what the relationship used to be like.)

  2. Do you do all the child-rearing yourself or was your husband actively involved? Did you agree on how to raise the children? Did he ever take the children out by himself? Was he abusive to the children? How about to you? (Now we're beginning to get into one of the three biggest areas that married people have extreme fallout over. The children. You are actually playing an elimination game here. Subtly you are getting around to the abuse subject. You want to know if she trusted him.)

  3. Was your husband's job stressful? Did he have any enemies at work? Was he responsible for anyone being fired? Did people envy him for his position or his wealth or salary? (Notice that here you are opening a door for the wife to accuse or try to direct your attention to someone else. But the real deal is you are trying to find out whether they fought over money. Was she satisfied with her social and financial status? Was her husband a wastral? Unemployed? Spending more than he earned? Insured?)

  4. Did your husband always come home at night? Was he prone to working late? Did he travel a lot? Did anyone travel with him? Did you ever suspect him of being involved with something against the law? Drugs? Embezzlement? Did you know about his affair with the secretary? (Sex. That's really the third big area. You are working her around to letting you know that she hated her husband for cheating on her.)

This group of questions was all focused on getting a motive. That's usually the hardest part because you have to get inside the suspect's head to find out what motivates her. So the next thing you have to figure out is whether or not the suspect could possibly have done it. Did she have the means?
  1. Are there any firearms in the house? Could you hand me my briefcase, please? Do you enjoy cooking? You have a degree in botany; can you identify edible mushrooms?

  2. How long have you been confined to a wheelchair? When did you start taking self-defense classes? How did you get that scar?

  3. So these questions are focused on two major areas: Did the suspect have the physical ability (strength, health, mobility) to commit the crime, and did the suspect have access to the necessary weapon (firearm, poison, knife, etc.)? Now, we have to establish whether the suspect could have been in the right place at the right time to commit the crime. I'll start with the obvious.

  4. Where were you the night of the fifth between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m.? (In reality, that's not a great question to ask unless you are intentionally misleading the suspect into thinking you believe the murder was committed at a different time than it was. You could follow up the question with "Then did you go straight home?")

  5. What time do you pick the children up from school? Who else knew you were going to see a movie Friday? Did you often ask your husband to stop at the grocery story on the way home? (Now you are establishing routine and patterns that put the suspect in proximity to the victim.)

  6. Where else did you go when you went to pick up the children? Did you speak to the crossing-guard when you got to the school? Why were you at Safeway in Issaquah at 3:00? (Now you are trying to spring information that you have gathered on the suspect to take her off-guard and get her to paint herself into a corner with lies that you can already verify. You already know that she left half an hour earlier than normal to pick up the children, that the crossing-guard was home sick, and that she used her credit card to buy gas in Issaquah.)

Assuming that you have reached a reasonable conclusion that the suspect had motive, means, and opportunity to commit the crime, you still have to collect the hard evidence that will convict her. But now you know that she did it; you just have to prove it. She was distraught over the fact that her husband threatened to leave her for a younger woman, she is missing a steak knife from the kitchen drawer, and she was in the parking lot where he was killed. You need the weapon (preferably with her fingerprints or identified as part of the set) in order to get an airtight conviction.


Chris said...

Excellent advice!