The Writer’s Alibi: My Terrible, Dreadful, Hope-the-FBI-Doesn’t-Look-at-This Search History

The internet search histories of novelists can be quite disturbing. Writer Kathleen Valenti shares the methodology behind web searches for her newest medical mystery.
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The internet search histories of novelists can be quite disturbing. Writer Kathleen Valenti shares the methodology behind web searches for her newest medical mystery.

A Writer's Alibi

I’m waiting for the FBI to ring my doorbell. Or maybe the CIA, the NSA or, forgoing the alphabet soup of government agencies, the City of Bend Police Department.

The reason? My, um, interesting internet search history.

I have an excuse for my alarming litany of search phrases. I’m a mystery author, and Googling things like “using prosthetics to create fake fingerprints,” “can you kill someone with an icicle?” and “how long does it take to dissolve a body in acid?” comes with the territory.

The truth is, I’m used to research, web-based and otherwise. My books are medical mysteries, heavy on pharmaceuticals, requiring deep dives into medical journals, interviews with physicians and pharmacists, and spelunking down internet rabbit holes. My recent search history is a bit different, however. Perhaps because my newest book is a bit different.

As Directed, the third book in my Maggie O’Malley Mystery Series, was inspired by both the Tylenol murders of the early 1980s and my protagonist’s change in profession. The Tylenol murders, in which victims were poisoned via tainted Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules purchased over the counter, struck such fear into my 12-year-old heart that the crimes stayed with me for 37 years. It was the first time I realized that it didn’t matter what you did or how old you were, (the first victim was the same age as I was) anything could happen to anyone at any time. Suddenly, everything was possible. And not in a good way.

This fear planted the seed of an idea that blossomed when my series’ eponymous heroine transitioned from a pharmaceutical lab to the pharmacy counter. The move put Maggie in an environment in which items could be tampered with and those she served could be made vulnerable in ways they never considered.

It was like a Venn diagram where past and present, real and fictional, salubrious and poisonous, converged. It was the bones of a book that was both difficult and satisfying to write, and to which readers and reviewers have responded positively to the great joy of 12-year-old me. And current-me.

All of which brings me back to my terrible-super-not-good-potentially-incriminating search history.

The book’s subject matter forced me to seek out information more suited to an autopsy table than the dinner table. I learned more about poison, tamper-resistant packaging, chemical and biological warfare, cracks in national security, risks to our food and water supply, and thwarted terrorist attacks than I ever thought possible.

Not all of my queries were disquieting, of course. Some were intrinsic to plot development. Others informed the book’s underlying themes. Still others revealed my quest to deepen my characters’ inner lives, inspire their conversations or motivate their actions.

Then there were those searches necessitated by the series’ running themes of movie quotes, medical theses, and goofiness. And those queries that reflect the spiraling labyrinth of both the world wide web and the human mind.

The end result is a list that’s frightening and funny. Kind of like the book itself.

So without further ado, here’s a glimpse into the weird, wonderful search history from the development of As Directed.

  • Poisons from the garden
  • Poisons from around the house
  • Untraceable poisons
  • Ways to infiltrate the food supply
  • How secure are drink caps?
  • Store security
  • The Tylenol murders
  • Tylenol murders: suspect list
  • Why did the Tylenol murders go unsolved?
  • Cold case conspiracy theories
  • Pharmacy mistakes
  • Tainted pharmaceuticals
  • Weaponizing drugs
  • Autopsies
  • Medical examiner vs. coroner
  • Famous cold cases
  • Classic murders
  • Weird murders
  • The weirdest murders ever
  • Best alibis
  • Worst alibis
  • Cops reveal worst alibi they’ve ever heard
  • Dumb criminals
  • You had one job
  • Police interrogation
  • Arrest procedures
  • Common hamster markings
  • Dog breeds
  • Cat breeds
  • How cats plan to murder their owners
  • The nature of evil
  • The biggest evil ever
  • Does Satan have a goatee?
  • Satan’s facial hair
  • Best movies
  • Best movie quotes
  • Worst movies
  • Greek weddings
  • Greek funerals

There’s more, of course, some of it more appalling, some less. It’s been a fun digital trip down memory lane, and I’m eager to create more terrible/wonderful/worrisome searches as I embark on book number four.

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