If Walls Could Talk: The Art of the Murder Board

M.H. Norris

When I was involved with a web series, I was the one who would write a script and try to hide things on notes, papers, desks, wherever I could stick little hints, clues and spoilers. I’ve parted ways with that project but eventually might find another one that allows me to do that again.

But even without that project, the notes have stuck with me.

I’ve found a new writing hidey-hole here in town at the library at our local campus. The study rooms have been painted so that they allow people to write all over them in dry erase markers.

Do you know how much fun it is to plot out a novel on four walls of several-feet-taller-than-you walls?

If you do not, you really should try it sometime. After an hour, I’d made some serious ground with the mystery I’m working on, because I could see different aspects of the crime.

While working on those walls, I had my own murder board. Usually, my notes get condensed to a legal pad and (ask James) the notes for my current project are pretty thick. But there was something about being able to have it in front of me like that.

Have you noticed that murder mystery shows have a lot of “murder boards”? Sometimes they call attention to them, sometimes they are hanging in the background. But most, if not every murder mystery show, utilizes the use of a murder board (alternate names are crime and/or evidence board).

Usually, shows bring attention to it when they need to find a way to give you some clue or to tell you some information. I threw one into Notches several times because it allowed both Deidre and me to sort out our thoughts as we made our way through the story.

Here are the most helpful things I’ve thrown on murder boards.

1) Victims

Vicimology can make or break an investigation. Criminal Minds loves to utilize the concept. The race, age, gender, geographical location, and even the sexual orientation of victims can tell you something about your UnSub. (NOTE: for those of you who do not know, UnSub is a shorthand way of saying unknown subject).

Also, when and where they were killed could reveal information.

2) Suspects

Sometimes dead ends are just that. But to get there, they have to be eliminated.

I mentioned to James that some people say it’s an rule that you have to meet your UnSub at some point before you actually reveal that it’s them. Playing fair with the reader.

But to get there, you have to have suspects.

3) Locations

This can be multiple things. A location your victims have in common, crime scenes, scenes of the crime (yes, they can be different – maybe that’s something I should talk about sometime).

When I was writing on the wall, I wrote out several locations and what I could find at each one that would help the story move forward. Then I could bounce back and forth between my suspect wall, my UnSub Wall, and that wall.

It helps you sort it out.

Those are the three that immediately came to mind and are ones I’ve noticed are most often used in shows and books. While it is an excellent storytelling tool for you to use with your detective/PI/fake psychic (I really needed to find a spot for a Psych reference here), you can also use them in real life to help you map out your story.

Granted, it might not be a room with walls that are painted so you can write on them (I did jokingly consider painting some walls with it in the basement) but it could be a bulletin board or a little dry erase board.

I feel like I got more done in that hour than I had in over a week.