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Traveling with (Fictional) Murder in Mind

Readers often ask me how I come up with my ideas—since I’m a crime writer, they mean ideas about murder. On the page, of course. On a recent Baltic Sea cruise, my husband Glen and I enjoyed beautiful scenery and got crash courses in local history—all while I gathered writing ideas. My fellow tourists inspired many of my murderous ideas—while most tourists are well-behaved and polite, many are, well, not.

The cruise started in Copenhagen and took us to the port cities of Rostock, Germany; Tallinn, Estonia; St. Petersburg, Russia; Helsinki, Finland; and Stockholm, Sweden before returning to Copenhagen.

Rostock, Germany is in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). When we got off the ship Glen and I signed up for a bus tour of the city. The guide grew up in the GDR and was generous in sharing his knowledge. A large group of a certain ethnicity annoyed the guide (and the rest of us) with loud talking. The guide often admonished them and referred to their ethnicity when he did so. He wasn’t successful in shushing them. I mentally filed away the idea of making the vocal group and/or the politically incorrect guide murder victims.

After visiting a couple of churches we had time on our own. Glen and I found the Stasi Pre-Trial Prison, where GDR political prisoners were interrogated before being sentenced. The Stasi, East Germany’s notorious secret police, spied on its own citizens and kept extensive files on millions of them. Those records are available to the public. Would you really want to know if your spouse, parent, or child informed the Stasi of your “subversive activities” and casual comments against the government? Talk about grounds for murder! For writers in the paranormal genre, the Stasi Prison would make a great setting for a ghost story.

Tallinn, Estonia is a medieval city with many stone streets and steps. Plenty of opportunities for “accidents.”

In St. Petersburg, we visited the opulent Catherine Palace and grounds; lunch followed at an English pub called Ring O’Bells where, interestingly, we ate Russian cuisine. We were hustled through the Hermitage Museum, a slow hustle with the throngs of tourists. Advice to future tourists: go to the Hermitage on an evening tour. It’s a premiere museum that deserves more time than we had available.

It would be easy to kill someone at the Catherine Palace or the Hermitage—a push down the many steps or a knife in the back would do it. The sites are so packed with tourists that no one would notice. And the tourists are distracted by their cameras, phones, and chatter. But someone may inadvertently catch the act on video—a good plot point to work into a Hitchcockian story.

The next day, we enjoyed a boat tour through St. Petersburg’s waterways, followed by a tour of The Church on Spilled Blood (pictured above). This church was erected as a monument to Alexander II, who was killed in 1881 when an anarchist conspirator threw a grenade at his carriage. Perhaps I could create a re-enactment of the tragedy. Murder ideas aside, The Church on Spilled Blood is a must-see with its beautiful mosaics, richly decorated façade, and onion domes.

Russia remains a land of intrigue, infused with a hint of danger. Since we didn’t have visas, we were often cautioned not to become separated from our tour guide. What if we did? Hmm.

In the clean and bright Helsinki, I had to really use my crime writer’s imagination. The spots we toured—the Rock Church, Sibelius Monument, and the Lutheran Cathedral—were light and airy; while wonderful places to see, they’re not conducive to nefarious deeds (well, maybe the Rock Church would be). And the Lutheran Cathedral has a long, steep set of steps outside, so there’s that.

Now Stockholm … no problem generating ideas there. The Vasa Museum is dark! Again, I could stage a re-enactment, this time of the 1628 sinking of the Vasa less than an hour into her maiden voyage. The changing of the guard at the Royal Place offers fictional killing opportunities galore. And a lovely, and dark, church in Old Town would suit me as the perfect setting for murder.

Many interesting folks sailed with us. I have a particular victim in mind: the brash, militant woman who rendered the beautiful French language less so. But she did have the French flair for scarf tying. My fictional killer could ask her for a demo—and then strangle her.

As the ship cruised past the many islands off the coast of Sweden, I strolled around the ship, passing an attractive middle-aged couple. I heard the woman say to her (presumably) husband, “Take out your phone. Please! I want some pictures of these islands.” When he didn’t comply, she repeated her directive, without the please and with the distinctive sound of gritted teeth. I expected to soon hear “Man, overboard” or whatever they say when a passenger ends up in the water. Really, if this woman couldn’t get her husband to snap scenic pictures she should get her own camera. But then I’d had to ditch that story idea.

I only hope I didn’t inspire a fellow crime writer to kill me on the page!

For further reading

Rostock, Germany

Stasi Pre-Trial Prison

The Lives of Others: 2006 movie depicting the monitoring of East Berlin residents by the Stasi

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn

St. Petersburg

Catherine Palace

Ring O’Bells

Hermitage Museum

Church on Spilled Blood

Helsinki

Rock Church Sibelius Monument (pictured above, right)

Lutheran Cathedral

Stockholm

Vasa Museum

Changing of the Guard at the Royal Palace (video)

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