Tag Archives: research

Where The Research Takes Us: How To Kill Your Characters

Kass here to tell you about today’s guest blogger, cozy mystery writer Gilian Baker, who is about to release her debut novel, Blogging Is Murder (which I review below).

She will entertain us with a fun little post on how to kill one’s characters (I swear, the FBI is going to come knocking any day now).

First, let’s get to know Gilian a bit…

Gilian BakerGilian Baker is a former writing and literature professor who finally threw in the towel and decided to just show ‘em how it’s done. She has gone on to forge a life outside of academia by adding blogger & ghostwriter to her CV. She currently uses her geeky superpowers only for good to entertain cozy mystery readers the world over. When she’s not plotting murder, you can find her puttering in her vegetable garden, knitting in front of the fire, snuggled up with her husband watching British mysteries or discussing literary theory with her daughter.

In her next life, she fervently hopes to come back as a cat, though she understands that would be going down the karmic ladder. She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona with her family and their three pampered felines.

Disclaimer:  Do NOT try this at home, folks! This post is for entertainment purposes only.

Researching How To Kill Your Characters

by Gilian Baker

I love to plot murder! Yeah, that’s not a sentence you read every day, but it’s true. In my first cozy mystery, Blogging is Murder, the murder victim is poisoned with hemlock.

Why hemlock when there are so many new, man-made chemicals available?

I’ve just always wanted to kill someone off with an old-fashioned plant. And when I started researching the properties of hemlock, I knew I had the perfect murder weapon for my first mystery with my protagonist, Jade Blackwell, amateur sleuth.

Here are a few of the questions I had to research to determine if hemlock was a viable murder weapon for the story:

  •  Does it grow wild in Wyoming? (The setting of the series)
  •  Where is it found there?
  •  What parts of the plant are poisonous?
  •  Why would Jade’s friend, Liz write about hemlock on her blog, The Wise Housewife? Is it still used in herbal remedies? What ailments was it historically used for and what is it used for now?
  •  How does it kill? What are the symptoms of the poisoning?
  •  Is it still poisonous when dried?
  •  When does it grow?
  •  Is it frost hearty? Or is it killed off easily by a heavy frost?

I researched some of these questions before I wrote much of the story. But other questions didn’t occur to me until the plot developed, and I needed to know. For example, I was considering adding a freak snowstorm to add tension to the last third of the book. It’s not uncommon to get snow in Wyoming eight months out of the year, so that could work.

I’d written a couple of chapters that included light frosts overnight, which worried Jade since her spring bulbs had already come up in her garden. But wait! Would even a light frost, let alone a big snowstorm kill hemlock that was growing in the wild? If so, how would the murderer get fresh hemlock to kill their victim? Did I want to change the plot so the killer used dried hemlock?

You see how plot twists and new ideas for where to take the story impact the research that needs to be done. In this case, I had to go back and change the entire setting to a later time in spring to avoid overnight frosts. That meant rewriting those scenes where Jade worried about her spring bulbs.

detail from The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David

Detail from The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (public domain)

I bet you want to know the answers I found in my research, right? After all, who doesn’t want to know more about hemlock? Okay, to satisfy your curiosity, here are the answers.

  • Does it grow wild in Wyoming?
    Yes, in fact it grows wild in most states in the U.S. There are many types of hemlock and most regions have the right conditions for several types to grow.
  • Where is it found there?
    It’s found most anywhere, but it likes a damp climate. During a wet spring, ranchers have to keep an eye out for the plant in their pastures. It’s one of the most poisonous plants to humans, but also to cows, horses and other animals.
  • What parts of the plant are poisonous?
    All of it.
  • Why would Liz write about it on her blog, The Wise Housewife?
    It is still used in herbal remedies, but only in minute doses and only in the hands of a skilled alternative therapist or homeopath. It was historically used for a wide range of ailments, including bronchitis, mania, anxiety, epilepsy and asthma. The Greeks also used it to put criminals to death.
  • How does it kill? What are the symptoms of poisoning?
    Hemlock affects the central nervous system so that the brain continues to function, but the person can’t move. They are paralyzed, but aware of what’s happening to them. It eventually stops their heart.
  • Is it poisonous after it’s dried?
    Yes, for up to three years.
  • When does it grow?
    In the spring.
  • Is it frost hearty?
    No, it’s not. That’s why I had to change the setting of the book and forgo my inspired idea of a freak snowstorm.

But I’m sure I’ll be able to find another way to use that idea in later books. 🙂

If you want to find out who exactly gets knocked off with hemlock and whodunit, well I’m afraid you will have to read the story.

book coverBlogging Is Murder, A Jade Blackwell Mystery

Former English professor Jade Blackwell’s promising new career as a blogger falters when she learns of a hacker who is controlling her friend and fellow blogger Liz Collin’s business remotely. Then the hacker is found dead, and Liz is thrown in jail.

Determined to help her friend regain her life and livelihood, Jade teams up with Liz’s reluctant lawyer to get Liz off the hook and out of jail. What she learns will break the case wide open, while unraveling her faith in humanity and the safety she has felt living in the quaint Rocky Mountain hamlet of Aspen Falls.

Available on AMAZON

Posted by Gilian Baker. You can connect with Gilian on Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter or at her website. Blogging Is Murder is the first book in her Jade Blackwell series.

Kassandra Lamb’s review of Blogging is Murder:

This is a very good debut cozy mystery. The pace is lively and the characters likeable. (I particularly enjoyed the quirky elderly neighbor of the murder victim.) The twist at the end was unexpected but plausible.

I also enjoyed the glimpses into the life of a professional blogger. I had no idea how much work was involved in that business. I’m looking forward to reading more of Jade’s adventures and getting to know the residents of Aspen Falls, Wyoming. Four out of five fingerprints!


We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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Ask A Shrink: “ADHD is a Fictitious Disorder” and other Myths Perpetuated by the Web

by Kassandra Lamb

A couple of months ago, I ran my first Ask A Shrink post, and invited our readers to ask questions about psychology. Some questions I answered privately and one that I thought would be of common interest, I answered here on the blog.

But there was one question I have been putting off answering. One of my fellow authors asked how to best research mental disorders and other psychological phenomena.


Computer research on Wikipedia may be fine for most things; not so good for psychology.  (photo by Jeff777BC CC-BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve put this one off because there is no easy answer to it. The first thing I would say is to be very skeptical about sources of information, especially if you are, like me, using the writer’s favorite research tool, the Internet.

We find out all kinds of cool stuff much easier than in the past. Before the World Wide Web, we writers had to find an expert in the field and either talk to them on the phone or perhaps go visit them. Now, we just Google it.

But the risk here is that there is a lot of garbage on the Web. And sometimes that garbage is so oft repeated that it begins to take on the ring of gospel.

Also, even “experts” in a certain field can hold biases. Then you factor in what sells books and magazines and builds reputations, and you’ve potentially got even more bias.

In recent years, there have been multiple posts on the Internet claiming that Dr. Leon Eisenberg, the child psychiatrist who first identified ADHD as a developmental disorder in children, “made a deathbed confession” saying that “ADHD is a prime example of a fictitious disease.”

Here’s what really happened. Seven months before the man died (hardly a deathbed confession), he was interviewed by a German journal. In that interview he made a statement that could be mistranslated and misconstrued, if taken out of context, to mean what he is being quoted as saying.

Here’s what Snopes.com says about it:

However, when one allows for the vagaries of translation from German to English and reads the statement in context, it’s clear that Dr. Eisenberg wasn’t asserting that ADHD isn’t a real disorder, but rather that he thought the influence of genetic predispositions for ADHD (rather than social/environmental risk factors) were vastly overestimated.

Having now pointed out that what multiple posters on the Web said that Dr. Eisenberg said wasn’t really what he said, I’m sure I will get some comments and maybe even some nasty emails telling me I’m wrong. That he really did say that.

Why will I get such comments and messages? Because people tend to believe what they hear first if it seems the least bit plausible (and especially if it concurs with what they already believe). Then they filter later information through that belief, discounting what doesn’t confirm it and believing what does confirm it.

There are even psychobabble terms for these tendencies: belief perseverance and confirmation bias.

So bottom line, while the Internet might be a viable place to research how to get out of a straitjacket or how to build a secret room in your house (both topics I have researched for books), it is often not a reliable source for accurate information about psychological topics.

What are reliable sources? Usually information on the websites of professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers can be trusted.

However, even there, an individual article may be biased.

Probably the most reliable source of information on psychological disorders is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition (DSM-V).


DSM-V (photo by Yoshikia2001 CC-BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

This is published by the American Psychiatric Association, and years of scrutiny of the scientific research goes into each new edition. Committees of experts on each category of disorders meet for several years to review the most current research to determine what disorders should remain, what new ones should be included, what the diagnostic criteria should be for each disorder, etc.

The problem is that this book is written for mental health professionals, so sometimes you may need an interpreter to make sense of what it is saying. It also does not usually address causes of disorders nor treatment approaches.

Another problem is that not all psychological issues have been formulated (yet) as diagnosable disorders per se. For example, before 2013 when this fifth edition of the DSM was published, there was no diagnosis for childhood abuse or spousal battering (neither for the abuser nor the victim). In DSM-V these are still not diagnoses, but they are in there as “Other Conditions that may be a focus of Clinical Attention” (otherwise known as V codes).

So how can you be sure you have the psychology right when you’re writing a story that touches on psychological phenomena (which many stories do)?

Well, you can ask a shrink, like me. But unfortunately, we all have our human foibles as well, so we can also be biased. 😀

And now you can see why I put off answering this question!

I’d love to hear your take on this. Why do you think people are so gullible? What have you believed on the Web only to find out later it was a hoax?

If you have an Ask A Shrink question for me, include it in the comments.

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

Where the Research Takes Me–the Desert and a Mexican Jail!

by Vinnie Hansen

Whether I consult my reference book Deadly Doses or tour San Quentin, all of my mysteries involve research. Death with Dessert, the newly re-released fifth book in the Carol Sabala series, required the most difficult research of the seven books.

Death with Dessert contains an immigration sub-theme. Illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States is a complex topic. In my long career as a teacher I worked with immigrant families and heard many of their stories. But I still spent many hours reading about the Operation Wetback program of the 1950s, watching documentaries, and talking to workers from Humane Borders and the Mexican Consulate in Tuscon.

3 Points restaurant

3 Points restaurant

However, there’s no substitute for personal experience. I needed to see my immigrants’ path in a more earthy way.

So I flew to Tuscon, rented a car, and drove Highway 286 from Three Points down to the tiny border town of Sasabe. I stopped along the way to smell the desert, to note the plants and landscape, and to listen to the sounds (mostly border patrol vehicles driving up and down this corridor, ATVs jouncing in the backs of their trucks).

I noted the arroyos under clumps of mesquite, great for hiding from aerial surveillance, but deadly in a flash flood. I imagined walking this beautiful, desolate countryside, the scorpions and rattlesnakes and lack of water.



Downtown Sasabe, just over the border.

I returned from my trip more confident that I could create the illegal immigrants’ experience in a convincing way. As the adage says, “Write what you know, or know what you write.”

At the start of Death with Dessert, my private investigator Carol Sabala launches on a mission to track down her missing father in Mexico. I set Carol’s destination as Zihuatenejo, because my husband and I had spent many winter vacations there. But once I decided the town would be featured in my book, instead of photographing the sunsets, I turned my camera toward policemen and street scenes.

20060104_0087My side trips in Zihuatenejo also took a turn. Because Carol Sabala spends time in a Mexican jail, I had to visit one. My husband, ever the game one, accompanied me to the El Centro de Readaptación Social.

20060105_0107The barren lot outside the facility teemed with police officers, many armed with sub machine guns.

I’d heard about the police in the state of Guerrero—that they worked 24-hour shifts and were paid horribly, that they were corrupt and hated, that they had disappeared people during the Guerra Sucia, the Dirty War.

Nonetheless, I approached the “office,” a cubicle open to the air in the stucco building. It contained a battered desk, a manual typewriter, and not much else. In my limited Spanish, I explained to the officer that I was a mystery writer and asked if I could tour the jail. I have done several jail tours in the United States, so this did not seem like an outrageous request to me.

The officers thought differently and regarded me with immediate suspicion, asking if I was a Human Rights Watch activist, and wanting to see my passport.

Fortunately I had left my passport in our hotel, otherwise they might have confiscated it. As it was, officers frog-marched us to the curb where a taxi mysteriously appeared to transport us back to where we belonged.

I didn’t get inside the jail. If I had, my view probably would have been from behind bars! The police department’s worry about Human Rights Watch hinted at the conditions inside. My imagination rounded out the picture.

Please check out Death with Dessert, and I have a giveaway going on over at Goodreads. Today’s the last day so hop on over there and sign up. Hope you win a copy!



Death with Dessert, A Carol Sabala Mystery (#5)

A dead mother. A missing father. A mysterious man.

They all spell trouble for private investigator Carol Sabala. When Carol’s mother dies unexpectedly, Carol is left with no family—only money, grief, and an envelope. Her mother has charged her with a mission: deliver the envelope to her long-lost father.

Enroute to Zihuatanejo, Mexico, to track down her father, Carol encounters the alluring Mark Escalante, who snares her in a deadly pursuit of his own.


Posted by Vinnie Hansen. Vinnie is a retired English teacher and award-winning author. Her cozy noir mystery series, the Carol Sabala mysteries, is set in Santa Cruz, California.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )