I’m going to tell you a funny story, and it actually has a purpose.
After working in civil law enforcement, my closest friend and I both went to work for a law firm. Put in simple terms, in the early 1980s the attorney would dictate his notes and the legal secretary would transcribe his dictation.
We'd only worked there for a short time when my friend transcribed an attorney’s notes about a man who was killed in a fire which, of course, isn’t funny. She was shocked when the recording stated that he’d been having illicit relations with his power mower at the time of his death. Okay, his power mower? We carpooled, and needless to say, we had quite a conversation during the drive home that night. What on earth could a man do with his power mower? I won’t even go into the possible scenarios that were suggested.
The next morning I was in my office when my friend walked in with an odd expression on her face. When she arrived at her desk, the lawyer walked out of his office, laughing for all he was worth. It seems the man wasn’t having relations with his power mower, but with his paramour! I have to admit, it’s kind of an old-fashioned word and I didn’t know what it meant. She had to explain it.
By the time she left my office, we both had tears running down our faces from the laughter.
What could this possibly have to do with writing mysteries? Everything, in some cases.
What if a private investigator was hired to work on this case and he or she was given the original, incorrect, transcription. How could the investigator approach a case that involved someone making mad, passionate love to a power mower?
Even hearing a name incorrectly might cause problems. In Gin Mill Grill – A Sandi Webster Mystery, they took on a client named Eloise Nutcase. Really? Ms. Nutcase had a speech problem. Her name was actually Eloise Neuchase.
Hearing something incorrectly might cause all kinds of issues in a mystery. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to say, “I’m sorry. Would you please repeat that?”
It can really be an issue if someone has an accent. When I was a little girl some new people moved in next door. The girl next door was talking to me through the fence and she told me there was a “spadder” on my arm. For some reason, all I could think of was a spatula or a splatter. I’d honestly never heard a Texas accent before. She was trying to tell me there was a spider on my arm and she finally curled her fingers, turned her hand palm down, and made a crawling motion, after which I shuddered and she reached through the fence and knocked the spider off.
One other thing. It doesn’t matter if your book is dramatic or humorous, the misunderstanding of a word can change the entire story. Of course, it might lead to an interesting ending, too.
Mysteries are based on the facts as the protagonist knows them. A misconception can lead to misunderstandings, horror, drama or humor, or just plain confusion. In most cases, though, I think the protagonist would learn of their mistake long before the end of the book. Although, you never know.
Have you ever misunderstood a word or phrase someone has used and then had to backtrack to resolve a situation? I hope, as in the situation I mentioned above, it had a funny ending.
Until next time, listen carefully. In a mystery, your life could depend on it.
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Coming Soon (although don’t hold your breath while you’re waiting): People Lookin’ Half Dead – A Bogey Man Mystery. When Grandma Tillie moves to town and the first thing she does is invite some homeless people in from out of the heat, Chris and Pamela become involved in a case of missing people. Why would someone be taking homeless people off the streets?