Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Professor Plum in the Billiard Room with a Lead Pipe

… or, How My Homework Ate My Summer Vacation. A Guest Column by Elspeth

Imagine you are writing a murder mystery. You have devised a victim, envisioned the scene of the crime, chosen a sufficiently effective method of homicide. You choose to begin the story when your protagonist is called upon to investigate the murder of Professor Plum in the Billiard Room, apparently with a Lead Pipe. It is up to you to engage the interest of the reader, to choose how much you will reveal of your characters, their histories, motivations, even physical appearance. You have three goals: make it interesting, make it make sense, and keep the reader reading to the end. If something fails to serve one of those goals, you may – indeed, should – excise that thing from your manuscript, or change it until it serves you better. 

Fact,” I observed with some chagrin, “is slower than fiction.” 

My friend Scott replied, “I'm constantly reminded that [while] fiction has to make sense, reality is under no such imposition of plot and pacing...” 

How right he is. 

Now, imagine again that you begin with Professor Plum, lying skull-crushed in the Billiard Room, a bloodied Lead Pipe chucked in one corner. This time, you are writing a scientific doctoral dissertation. Here are some of the questions you may be called upon to consider: 

What were Plum’s age, gender, and country of origin? Had he signed willing consent to participate in this homicide? Did he have previous homicidal experience, either as perpetrator or victim? How was Plum recruited? If Plum was not randomly selected, what steps did the murderer take to ensure that Plum’s experience would be generalizable to a larger population? Or is this a case study? Or preliminary work with a prototype (in which case please describe how you would make the next iteration of this murder more efficient, effective, and user-friendly)? Was Plum limited as to the amount of time he was allowed to complete the experience of being murdered? If Plum had been allowed unlimited time to complete the experience, how might that have changed the results? 

Next, how did you choose the scene of the crime? Have murders been committed in Billiard Rooms before? If so, are there validated, peer-reviewed studies upon which you can call to hypothesize as to the results of your murder, before it has been committed. If so, please summarize in your chapter on previous work. Make sure to note any differences between your Billiard Room and previous examples of murders in Billiard Rooms, not omitting analytical conjectures as to the likely effect of variations between those venues and your own, nor your estimate of the validity and importance of any such previous murders. Be certain to provide a clear history of any and all fictional murders of relevance in similar locations, as the reader will need to clearly understand the landscape in which your murder stands with regard to choice of location. Did you consider trying this murder in each of the other rooms in the house to determine which was most effective? 

Now we move on to the method of murder. A lead pipe, you say? How many murders have been committed with lead pipes as a percentage of the murders in English literature? And what of worldwide literature (if you do not read all other world languages you may rely on survey articles for this question, provided they have been peer-reviewed)? Can you think of any other weapon you could have chosen that would have been more effective, or less expensive? In a Billiard Room, could you not simple have used a pool cue as a club? Please speculate on the likely difference in results between assault on the human cranium with a lead pipe and a pool cue. Cite references. If a pool cue was your original choice and you later replaced it with a lead pipe, make an analytical conjecture as to why the pool cue would not have worked. Describe the metallurgical composition of the lead pipe, and its density relative to the human skull, as well as to all metal pipes (lead or other) used as homicidal weapons (potential or actual) in the genre of murder mysteries. Make sure that your acknowledgements section thanks the funding agency whose grant paid for the lead pipes used in your murder and in the pilot studies.

Given the age, gender, and professional characteristics of Professor Plum, the environment provided by the Billiard Room, and the known physical properties of the Lead Pipe, how many times would you have to commit this murder to prove to a statistically significant level (α > 0.05) that this subject did not die by chance? Provide power calculations and vector diagrams. Using terms that will not antagonize your thesis committee, speculate on how this method might apply to the larger academic population. 

Finally, describe the contributions of this work to the field, and your plans for future murders to build on the results of this one. 

Oh, and don’t forget to make it interesting and keep the reader engaged and comfortable! 

Meanwhile, this morning, my father sent me this link. Considering the source, I hope it's not a suggestion!

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).