A Writing Tip by Snowden Wright

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

At an Oxford, Mississippi, courthouse last summer, I sat in on the trial for the most recent person to try to assassinate my father, a circuit court judge. Things went poorly for the defendant. The prosecutor played the recording of a call he had made to his cousin while he was awaiting trial. During the call, he asked his cousin to Google information about the accusations against him—the guy might as well have asked his cousin to visit some website called I’mGuilty.com.

But that’s not what I found most interesting about the call. Whenever the tape went silent, presumably while the defendant’s cousin searched the internet, a strange tap-tap-tapping could be heard, like the sound when a stand-up comic, bombing on stage, hits the microphone: Is this thing on?

After playing the phone call, the Assistant DA prefaced her examination of a detention officer by asking about that sound, and the officer explained that because the phone system is computerized, it automatically drops the call if there are more than twenty seconds of sustained silence. “Inmates figured out that tapping the mouthpiece fools the system.”

The circuit board of my writer’s brain surged with electricity. Ah, the dramatic potential! By the time the direct and cross-examinations wrapped up, I had invented and field-tested, examined and re-examined, appraised, cataloged, and filed away dozens of ways I could use the tapping in a work of fiction. Not only could it provide support to the narrative—as a red herring for some layperson listening to the tape, as a smoke screen for relaying secret messages from jail—but it could also help with the secondary elements of atmosphere, suspense, and rhythm. The tap-tap-tapping could break up otherwise blocky chunks of dialogue. For readers, it could subconsciously mirror a character’s pounding heart. And I’m sure there are more uses for the metronomic tapping that I haven’t yet thought of.

Although I ended up not using it for my work-in-progress—a literary Southern Gothic crime novel set in the 80s, years before computerization reached jailhouse phone systems—the tapping has remained in my head, a reminder not of the missed opportunity but of so much potential. I can almost hear the tapping when aspiring crime writers ask for advice. Visit your local courthouse, I tell them. Most criminal trials are open to the public, and hearing schedules can typically be found online. Watch. Listen. You never know what you’ll pick up.

Snowden Wright

Snowden Wright is the author of American Pop and Play Pretty Blues. He has written for The Atlantic, Salon, Esquire, and the New York Daily News, among other publications. A former Marguerite and Lamar Smith Fellow at the Carson McCullers Center, Wright lives in Yazoo County, Mississippi. His third novel, The Queen City Detective Agency, is forthcoming from HarperCollins in August 2024.

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