The question of identity is always an interesting one. When someone asks what you do, do you dare say, "I'm a writer?" Is that title reserved for those who have sold X numbers of copies or who have been recognized by literary critics as legitimate?
I have a completely different litmus test. I gauge my own writerliness on how quickly I am to fictionalize the world around me.
I first noticed this last summer--I was walking around a perfectly beautiful section of Paris--when I suddenly started thinking, wow, the green trees all around, the Seine, the lack of people, the quiet, the isolation--what a perfect spot for a murder!
Yet I wasn't convinced. I thought to myself, perhaps this burst of creativity is due to the difficulties of traveling with someone--that brings out the Boston Strangler in people. But by now, a year later, I find that this happens to me again and again. I don’t simply look at a pretty setting and think, picture perfect! Instead I think: whom can I kill at this very spot?
I'm teaching summer school in Orvieto, Italy, an Italian hilltop town. A walking path runs most of the way around the hill, and since swimming pools are difficult to reach in Orvieto, I use this path almost daily in lieu of water exercise. Most of the trail is flat. In other places, however, a well-placed shove could send one tumbling down the side of sheer rock into the brambles below.
For a scene in a murder mystery, that would be perfect!
If you have such an odd way of looking at the world, then you have to be very, very careful with whom you share such information. Most regular people would think you’re gloomy or depressing or weird.
In my case it was even worse. My most recent walking companion was one of the students taking summer classes. “What’s the matter?” she asked when she caught me staring into space. “Oh, just thinking,” I said. “But your expression was so intense,” she said. “It’s like you were in another world.”
Indeed. And so I spill the beans. I admit I was looking for a spot to kill someone off. Fictionally, of course.
“Cool,” my walking companion says. “Last week I went down into Patrizio’s Well. That would be a great spot to kill someone as well.”
Ha, we both smile in perfect conspiratorial fashion.
The next week we go on a field trip to Pompeii. What better place for a setting for a murder story in a town that nature murdered in 79 A.D.? But the current-day situation is even more useful. The site is run by people who are so incompetent that not even the tour guides understand which sections are open and which are blocked off. Funding has… disappeared or at least dissipated. The government-paid custodians who are delighted to have been won a position that is more solid than tenure-track at a liberal arts college do nothing—nothing at all—to protect the sight or to help its tourists.
“Did you notice the huge section beyond the brothel that was blocked off?” my student asks. The areas are “blocked off” with vague plastic strips and a bit of wiring. Even someone who loves to follow the rules would be tempted to ignore such nonsensical barriers. “You could stuff a body behind the wall and no one would notice it for weeks.”
My student is right. No one would notice because the so-called guards pride themselves on doing nothing at all. That way they don’t make one another look bad by showing off.
My student and I wink. We know what one another is thinking. We know that as soon as we finish our tour, we’ll reach for our notebooks: Note to self: Kill someone off at Pompeii.
Maybe even a custodian.
Meanwhile, my identity is easily confirmed. Not “writer” or even “mystery writer.” Instead, my identity is “murder mystery writer.”
The following week the students ask if I have any advice.
“Always keep your eyes open to new possibilities,” I tell them. “You never know when a field trip might give you the perfect setting for crime.”
They nod in agreement.
“And another thing,” I tell them. “To be on the safe side, don’t ever be mean to me.”
When people ask me what I do, I no longer fudge around with calling myself a teacher who writes. I’m a murder mystery writer. And if you have any snide comments, be careful that I don’t know how to find you. Just in case.