The joy of book research

“There is no delusional idea held by the mentally ill which cannot be exceeded in its absurdity by the conviction of fanatics, either individually or en masse.”

This is a quote I found in an academic paper on the subject of delusions. I was researching whether someone can be delusional and still appear rational to those around them. The quote was attributed to “Hoche”.

Since I’m on holiday this week, I dug a little deeper to see who this Hoche might be. I thought the most likely candidate would be Alfred Hoche, a German psychiatrist from the early 20th century. Wise man, right? And then I dug into the name only to find out he co-authored a 1920 paper titled “Permitting the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Living”, which appears to be believed to have been a harbinger of — and  source of inspiration for — Nazi thinking with regard to the worthiness of different lives.

This is why I really love book research. It could be depressing sometimes, such as when you read psychiatric nurses’ accounts of their experiences with patients because you’re writing a character who’s worked as a psychiatric nurse. It could be anxiety-inducing if you research brain tumours and their symptoms and treatments. But then there are those gems like the above quote that raise a corner of a curtain on some pretty interesting and occasionally sensitive, to put it mildly, topics.

Funnily enough, I found two more papers on delusion that quote Hoche in the same way that the first one I came across does, with a … in front of his name. It was the fourth that mentioned his full name but the reference showed the author was quoting the first paper, which got me thinking: did Hoche even say this? Sadly, I don’t speak German and can’t carry out proper research. But I know someone who does speak German and might be able to do it for me.

What the hell does all this have to do with book research? Absolutely nothing but it shows one of the many perils that authors face on their way to finishing a manuscript. It also shows why you should not believe everything you read online, even if it comes from a psychiatric journal. Maybe Hoche said this. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe it was another Hoche. The mystery will remain a mystery unless I remember to ask that German-speaking friend a favour.

But let’s move on to the equally fascinating topic of burned human remains. Did you know that there were several degrees of damage to bones from burning (okay, it’s obvious that there will be degrees) and they had names like “well preserved, semi-burnt, black burnt, blue-grey burnt, blue-grey-white burnt”?

Here’s the paper I learned that from while I looked for DNA testing of bones because there is no way I’m identifying my burnt victim through her dental records. I hate the dental record trope. Not everyone in the world has had to have a full dental X-ray. I have but that was because of a specific complaint that required it. If I hadn’t had a traumatic cyst in my lower jaw I wouldn’t have had a full dental X-ray either. Now, at least, I can burn to death in the comfort of knowing I will be identified by my teeth.

Anyway, I dug deeper as is my habit with anything that catches my interest, manuscript be damned. The digging led me to this paper, which has so much fascinating stuff in it I want to write a whole other book.

“Bone changes color drastically when it is burnt. Since the color of the bone surface varies with exposure temperature, many researchers have attempted to find a correlation between bone color and burning temperature in order to establish an index for estimating the exposure temperature of questioned bone samples. The degree of bone coloration also varies with burning time, and a long period of burning results in more severe color alteration.”

It all makes perfect and quite simple sense but that’s because we’re complacent with our knowledge or what passes for knowledge we have gained from watching police procedurals. Real forensic work is, I’m sure, very different from what we see on TV.

Just look at this part: in order to establish an index for estimating the exposure temperature of questioned bone samples. Imagine how many bones researchers would have gone through to establish that index, and how much coloration changes they would have had to log and then compare and analyse. Not that this makes forensic science any less fascinating and it is things like this that make it so indispensable.

Among the other things I’ve researched with much pleasure and not a little awe are poisonous plants and aviation but I won’t go into these right now. The above should suffice for the point I’m making, which is, as follows: Have you any idea how hard it is to tear yourself away from your research in order to write the damn book? Well, now you do.

Before I go and try to construct another chapter – instead of reading that Japanese bones paper – there’s something on the Hoche quote to add. I agree with Hoche and his co-author that certain individuals at some point lose the right to life. Unlike Hoche and Binding, I believe these individuals are not the residents of mental asylums (of course). Those that have lost the right of life are the subjects of John Douglas and his colleagues as described and discussed in “Mindhunter”, “Journey into Darkness” and “The Anatomy of Motive”.

I’m afraid these are books every parent should read, or at least “Journey into Darkness”. Me, I’m reading them solely for book research purpose. Of course I am. When you write books, everything you do can pass for research. Yet in my defence, I am writing about a serial killer this time. And he’s got a great motive. I slightly admire him.


Before you go, check out my book-peddling corner (because books won’t sell/download themselves much as I’d like them to).

For dragons and vampires, press The Lamiastriga (which you can’t read for free on this blog).

For a mystery featuring a vanishing plane, press Sky High (which you can read for free on this blog or on Kobo. I always appreciate feedback).

For random scary stories, here’s a complete list of my published shorter fiction.

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