-When we're talking about murder, the motives are farts.
Back in the early aughts, I had the opportunity to interview a homicide detective from Dallas P.D. It was an amazing experience, not just because I was starting out as a new writer, but because I'd been turned away by half a dozen smaller police departments, and I was beginning to think I'd have to start my first novel without having done any firsthand research. So there I was, completely ignorant of my chosen topic with a chance at the mother lode, thanks to the generosity of one man.
One Saturday morning, I got to drive into Dallas, see the inside of the Crimes Against Persons division at the station on Lamar, and spend some quality time inside an interview (interrogation) room, the chosen venue for the event.
The interview lasted about 2 hours, and I learned an incredible amount, things I could have never garnered from internet research. Everything from how calls are routed through the department to the history of the pump-action shotgun they keep hanging on the wall of the office. I was very lucky. Nobody else would even talk to an unpublished kid, let alone dedicate several hours of his time. This one particular detective did, an act for which I am eternally grateful. Unfortunately, the book I was working on at the time didn't turn out, and I've always been afraid that interview would go to waste.
This past week, I just crossed the 15k word mark for my new novel and hit a wall. There's a murder at the beginning (I mean, it is a David Barclay story), but I couldn't figure out who was behind it or why it needed to happen. That might sound ludicrous to some — I mean, I am in charge of the story — but be that as it may, my characters wouldn't talk to me. I spent a few days floundering around until I remembered something the detective said all those years back: "When we're talking about murder, the motives are farts." You can probably guess what I said next: "What?" And his response: "Fear, Retaliation, Theft, Sex: F-R-T-S."
Acronyms are rampant in police jargon, but I've never encountered this one before or since. And wow, it's elucidating. No matter how complicated the circumstances or how intricate the details, the motive behind most homicides often boils down to one of these four reasons.
If you do a search, you can find plenty of other lists out there. Lists that distinguish between love and lust, that add contract killings and other edge cases, etc. But when we're talking about every day, garden variety murder, I think I like this simple acronym better. Sure, Theft is a bit more broad than, say, Property Dispute, but don't they basically boil down to the same thing?
When I started to think about this list in relation to my story, I realized how useful it was. I knew 2 of the motives didn't apply right off the bat. After some brief thought, I discarded a 3rd. What was left was a gross representation of the reason behind the killing; all I had to figure out was the details. Once I had those, I knew who did it. When I knew who did it, the other pieces started to fall into place, and I was suddenly unblocked again.
I suppose the moral of the story is that research is a strange animal. Sometimes the details you think are important aren't. Sometimes seemingly inconsequential items become important later on. And if I could offer one piece of advice, it would be to get away from your computer once in a while. You never know what you might find, and how long that information will stay with you.