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Article posted by Nina Davies with the permission of Cheryl Kaye Tardif.
A Murder Wall is a vital tool for crime novelists. Imagine trying to write a story without knowing your suspects or their possible motives. For any great crime novelist, your job is to treat your novel like a police investigation, following the clues and the evidence until it reaches the outcome or climactic resolution. If you watch most great crime dramas such as Law & Order and Without a Trace, you will notice that investigators often use visuals on a wall to keep each case organized. This is a Murder Wall.
Developing a fictional crime and its cast of characters can be confusing and overwhelming without a tool to keep everything organized. A Murder Wall shows the structure of the crime and the characters who are involved. On a wall close to your computer for easy access, tape up letter-sized pieces of paper featuring photos and key points on each character linked to a murder or crime. This technique enables the writer to visualize the cast of characters more fully, to give each suspect or victim a face and to bring them to life. It ensures that the basic facts of each character’s existence are easily accessible. And it keeps you consistent with the facts of the crime and the evidence presented.
A Murder Wall consists of four main elements:
You will want to include important facts, clues and info on each victim, suspect and witness. On the killer’s paper, I often find it helpful to have a picture of a silhouette, rather than the killer’s appearance. It helps me to create the ‘mystery of not knowing’. Then once I’ve reached the last few chapters, I may change this. This also acts as a ‘non-spoiler’ in case someone walks into your office and sees your Murder Wall.
On the Murder Wall, keep the victim’s paper in the center. Add the suspects around the victim, and add the witnesses along one side. Link a strip of paper from one paper to another if two characters had a past connection. For example, one suspect may know another suspect because he delivered her pizza the night before. The killer’s paper can be off to one side and strips of paper may link him to one of the witnesses or suspects. Be sure to make notes on the strips connecting them.
Find photos of actors whom you think physically resemble your suspects and victims, and add a small photo to each paper. Most often writers already have a clear picture in their head as to what the character looks like. If you can draw, then go ahead and create your character. If not, then go online and search the celebrity sites. Pretend you are a casting agent. Whom would you cast in the role of the serial arsonist in your crime novel or the evil doctor in your murder mystery? One of the easiest ways to find your actor is to simply watch television. If you are looking for a face to play your slasher, then check out some of the detective shows. Find the face that inspires you, that makes you believe ‘Yes, he is Hans VanBuren, a demented, psychopathic killer!’
During your novel’s progression, there will be many tidbits of information that you can add to each Murder Wall paper — secrets from their past, important clues and more. The key to writing a good mystery is to mislead the reader and drop clues in the guise of foreshadowing. Twists and turns are important elements of a good crime novel or mystery. And don’t forget to list any bad habits your character might have. If she is a compulsive liar, make a note. If he’s a shifty-eyed procrastinator, the note on his paper will act as a reminder and keep you consistent. As each character develops, continue to add any new information to each sheet. Plots change and characters mutate. They grow, they learn things, and they react.
Not only will a Murder Wall help to keep your suspects, victims and witnesses organized and in your face, you will start to really see them. And once an author can see her characters, there is a better chance that the reader will visualize them also. Choosing an actor to represent these characters will give them a voice, a stance, a personality, and life. No novel can survive without characters with depth, heart, soul and spirit. And a crime novel cannot survive without a strong motive!
A Murder Wall is an invaluable tool that will show you the victims, suspects and evidence in a clear, visible way. It will help you to plot a more believable crime, to create multi-dimensional characters, and to keep the crime, suspects and motives on track. It is much easier to plot or solve a crime when everything is laid out before you. Even criminals have a plan. Why shouldn’t the crime novelist? And your plan should start with creating a Murder Wall.