THE SCENE OF THE CRIME – Real places, sure, but I’m not above taking liberties

by | Aug 26, 2021 | Tracy Clark, On writing | 3 comments

by Tracy Clark

I dunno about you guys, but I don’t just dump a body anywhere. I give it some thought. A lot of thought. You know I’m speaking fictionally, right?

Location is important. It sets a mood. If you choose the right spot, it can give a reader thrills and chills. If you really nail it, your reader will never be able to look at, say, a garbage truck in quite the same way again. Fun, huh?

Your body dump should be evocative, dramatic, sometimes creeepy. Of course, this all depends on what you’re writing. I write PI fiction and suspense. Dark streets. Tough guys. I am not hiding body parts in a three-tiered wedding cake or stuffing dead ladies’ maids in a scullery. Although now that I mention it…. No, never mind.

Basically, it goes like this. I get an idea for a story and then I look around the city I live in – Chicago (shout-out!) – for a bar, a neighborhood, an alley, a dodgy street, an abandoned factory, or any old spidery nook or dusty cranny to bring to the page–the darker, the grittier it is, the better I tend to like it. There’s nothing scary about dropping a body in the middle of a crowded Walmart during the Christmas rush. Although….

I’ll stick a pin in that.

Normally, I’m looking for some lonely place with an end-of-the-world feel—a boggy ditch, an abandoned auto garage … a church.

Interior of the church that became St. Brendan’s. Note the pews. You can get under them if properly motivated. Trust me.

Threw you with that last one, didn’t I? You’d think a church wouldn’t fit my criteria for a perfect body dump spot, but I made it work in my debut novel “Broken Places.” I made it work twice—one body slumped in a confessional, one sprawled on the altar steps in a pool of blood.

I set the scene well, I think. I’ll never look at a confessional the same way, that’s for sure. The murders take place on “a dark and stormy night” (Thanks Edward Bulwer-Lytton), after midnight, lights out, the entire church dark as pitch. Ever been inside a dark, empty church in the middle of the night while a thunderstorm raged outside? Me either, but I imagined how it might be and made it creepy as all get-out.

The church

I was sitting in “St. Brendan’s” when I pictured a shoe sticking out of the confessional. I didn’t have to make up the marble floor or the rose window. I did have to move the altar table a teeny bit. I needed more sliding room. I used the rectory next door, too, and added a flimsy gate and lock where I needed them.

The photo of the church’s interior gives you a good look at the pews. My main character, Cass Raines, ex-cop turned dogged PI, had to crawl over the kneelers, row by row, trying to get away from a crazy killer. I had to eye-ball the clearance to see if it would be possible for a 5-foot, 7-inch woman to snake up and over with a busted knee, motivated by the threat of certain death. If you don’t mind bumping your head on a few hymnal racks, you can just about get it done. A killer pursuing you would definitely motivate you to get it done in record time.

63rd St. Beach House

The 63rd St. Beach House. Nice-looking during the day, creepy as a haunted house at night.

Everybody loves a calm, relaxing beach. Only a mystery writer would muck up all that love and summertime frivolity by introducing murder most foul.

I dumped my third body under a tree right outside the historic 63rd Street Beach House in Jackson Park. I pass the park almost daily as I go about my business. In the daytime, the beach house looks kind of nice, quaint even, but it takes on an eerie feel at night when the streetlights cast weird shadows and you can hear waves lapping against craggy rocks just a few feet away.

The structure’s classic revival and there is a lawn, a nice fountain and lots of trees around it. Pre-pandemic there would be charity events and wedding receptions held here. Children flitted barefoot through the fountain; musicians sat under the canopy of trees for impromptu jam sessions. Nothing chilling or creepy.


The tree. Body number three turned up here. I may have moved it a couple yards and made it fuller than it is normally.

My intrepid PI squeezes through the locked gates barring entry to this beach house. It’s dark, naturally, the entire beach and park deserted. She’s looking for a witness and believes she’ll find him hiding inside. The back of the beach house faces a wide beach that gives you a panoramic view of Lake Michigan and a faraway glimpse of the Chicago skyline. For my purposes, though, I only needed a cold, empty place where no one would think to look for a person, somewhere footfalls echo on cold stone steps. I may have added a few extra steps.

The beach house dates back to 1919 and was an honest to goodness “bathing pavilion” back when folks waded in the waters in striped bloomers instead of string bikinis. When I chose this spot, I could only get as far as the entrance. (Dang locks). What ended up on the page, the interior, was what I could find on the internet and what came out of my head. I needed cover out front, so I added a line of dinged-up trash barrels, and I may have bounced a few bullets off the beach house walls.

So, you see, writing can sometimes be fun. You can anchor a book in a real place and then play around with it. But now I’m thinking about three-tier wedding cakes. How many disjointed limbs do you think I could stuff in one of those babies? Fictionally speaking, of course.

Has an author ever ruined a perfectly normal setting for you forever? Can you not stand to look at a beach house or church the same? Let us know!

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  1. Chris Goff

    I’m not sure ruin is the right word. I do know that if I find myself in a really isolated place, I rarely feel safe. I used to feel safe. As a young child, I loved to explore the woods, old cabins, remote locations. Now I do so with a little more trepidation. And I tend to lock the doors when I’m staying places I never would have locked the doors before.

  2. Lisa Black

    I totally agree!! I was born to be an architect (until I discovered it might involve math) so I adore huge, sweeping, intricately detailed structures. A dead body more than deserves a dramatic backdrop, with extra points if the place or its history fits into the plot or if the plot circles around and comes back to it for its final battle.
    I don’t think the craziest plot could ruin a place for me—it would only make me want to see the place more!

  3. Karna Small Bodman

    First – welcome Tracy as a new Rogue!!! Now, it’s obvious why Tracy is such a bestselling author when she uses such authenticity in her description of unique settings along with her great story lines. . . . although reading all of this just might make me wary when I find myself in any of those rather “scary” situations. Thanks for a great blog!