You may think that being a writer means I have few, if any, occupational hazards. Certainly I can avoid many of the difficulties and occasional dangers that surround “ordinary” working life. For example, I have a strong measure of control over where I work, when I work and I provide all my own equipment so if I get electrocuted by my computer it’s my own damn fault. There are however a number of potential hazards that are unique to a writer, especially a crime writer. Take an everyday situation – standing in a queue at the shop or sitting in a cafe. Whilst others might look around, enjoy their coffee or gaze out of the window I find myself unexpectedly hacked on the ankle whilst my partner hisses, “Stop staring like that!” Looking around I realize several other customers are watching me warily whilst a family seated at the next table are packing up, leaving their tea and juice half-finished on the table. Absorbed in observing and trying to capture the pattern of their conversation I have gone very still and rather too intense for comfort.
Gathering information is fraught with problems and potential hazards. Whilst shopping in town recently I was watching the butcher sharpen a particularly impressive knife. He knows me well and was quite happy to chat about the size and thickness of blade best suited to separate a human head from the torso (he recommended using a cleaver to sever the spine) but a couple of customers left the shop rather rapidly. A hardened hunter went a strange colour and retreated to the back of our local sports shop whilst I talked to a very knowledgeable young man about the composition of shot-gun shells. He showed me the types of pellets commercially available and we discussed their likely impact. It was when we wandered into self-made shot territory, looking at the effects of, for example, small hexagonal nuts, that we found the place deserted. Hexagonal nuts, by the way, are likely to produce a result best described as “horribly mangled”, which was just what I wanted to know at the time.
It is on my trusty computer however that lurks my greatest occupational hazard. God forbid anything happen to my partner but should they suddenly fall down dead and the police decide to investigate me as a possible suspect I am in rather a sticky situation. My recent searches include photographs of an autopsy suite, stages of human decomposition, adders – including locations, habitats and the strength of their venom, a table of temperatures for spontaneous combustion of various materials, head trauma and the thickness of the human skull and identification of poisonous mushrooms. My browsing history alone would probably be enough to earn me a week or so locked up as the prime suspect.
So never mind the more mundane problems of repetitive strain injury from using the computer mouse, eye strain and headaches, jitters from too much coffee and sleepless nights as deadlines loom. The true occupational hazards for a writer come before the writing actually begins. And linger long afterwards. Now if you’ll excuse me, I really must clean out my browsing history…