Posted by: Kathleen Mix | May 14, 2012

Off With Her Head

GuillotineResearch is a fun way for writers to find nuggets of odd information. While writing various books, I’ve searched for information about picking locks, hacking into top secret government software, and flying in the Bermuda Triangle. I’ve investigated the sex life of snails and checked to see what poisonous snakes live on Caribbean islands.

The information writers dig up on offbeat topics makes our books interesting, and accuracy lets readers know they can trust us to tell them the truth. Sometimes, a strange tidbit makes a book memorable.

The other day, I started re-reading The Memphisto Club by Tess Gerritsen. Ms. Gerritsen is one of my favorite authors. Her stories are always a thrilling ride, and I read them at least twice: once to race through the pages and find out what happens, and a second time to analyze her techniques.

Near the beginning of this particular book, two of Ms. Gerritsen’s characters discuss beheading by guillotine and debate whether the person who loses their head feels pain or is aware of what has just happened. Since one character is a coroner, we trust her opinions and tend to share her conclusions.

Ms. Gerritsen may have known how much brain function and conscious awareness a severed head would possess based on her medical training. Or maybe she asked a librarian, “Where can I find information about cutting off someone’s head?” Inquires of that nature raise an eyebrow or two. But isn’t seeing the look on a librarian’s face part of the fun?

As a reader, I love books in which I learn something new or can eavesdrop on a conversation about a subject I never would have otherwise considered. In high school our class read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I remember Madame Defarge knitting while heads rolled into a basket. But I don’t recall how the author described the victims or whether he questioned their awareness of death. So now I have another book to reread if I want to satisfy my curiosity. Maybe I’ll call it research. Knowledge about beheadings might come in handy someday.

I’ve already learned that, in France, where the practice continued until 1978, beheading was considered a more humane form of execution than hanging because it supposedly resulted in immediate death. France no longer has capital punishment. But I if they did, I’m sure modern scientists would have a good idea of the time required for awareness to cease and activists would dispute the ‘humane death’ theory.

My work-in-progress is set on a sailboat and two Caribbean islands. Boats and islands are topics I know well and can write about with minimal research. But the snake I have eyeing my heroine’s arm raised a question: Should she worry it might be poisonous or know it isn’t? So off I went.

The answer: Most Caribbean islands are free of poisonous snakes. But – and this is the good nugget – the extremely dangerous fer-de-lance has occasionally been spotted in Trinidad and St. Lucia.

My island is fictitious. My character is not an outdoorsy person. She might know that poisonous snakes are rare in the islands, but she also could have heard of the extremely dangerous fer-de-lance and not know if the snake in front of her is harmless or deadly.

Maybe I’ll have her react by chopping off its head. Hopefully, a snake won’t be watching his upper section drop and be tortured by the thoughts: I’m going to die! I’ve just been beheaded!

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