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“False Memory” an interesting tool to use in writing

“I remember so clearly taking a medal that belonged to my father and burying it in the garden. I then looked for it for ages, digging up little pieces of the earth but never found it. When I think of it now it must be a false memory. Why would my father have medals? Why would I bury them? But my memory feels like truth – shiny color and crisp edges.”

This memory was donated in the False Memory Archive; an art project started by a London based artist, AR Hopewood, who got interested in people’s distortion of the truth.

Other examples of “False Memory” are people who believe they have experienced an aircraft emergency landing or a car crash. A typical one is war veterans in group therapy, they gradually adopt each other’s stories.

Something that is so troublesome in the real world could be very useful in fiction writing.

“False memory” can prove a useful tool to develop interesting plots.

In 1844, master storyteller Edgar Allan Poe managed to trick American into believing that the first transatlantic crossing in a hot-air balloon had taken place. It is one thing to trick people into believing something that hadn’t happened but totally another thing to make them understand that something they believe that had happened but actually hadn’t.

The “false memory” research provides writers and particularly crime writers a unique tool. Crime writers the concept in three ways.
1. To question the memory of witness of a crime
2. As an interrogation technique
3. To assign a motive for the crime

1. To question the memory of the witnesses

The judicial systems all around the world are based on the assumption that eye witness is telling the absolute truth. And nothing but the truth. But memory research is proving there is no such thing as ‘absolute truth.”

“The truth of the witness statement is seldom questioned,” says Jorn Lier Horst, once a Norwegian police investigator and now a best-selling crime writer. Eyewitness psychology plays an important role in the plot of his crime novel Ordeal, in which a false memory is gradually uncovered. To write the book he took an interrogation course by real Norvigian detective Asbjørn Rachlew.

Rachlew states that many crime witnesses are surprised by how little they know when they compare it to what they’ve seen in crime stories. “Witnesses are unreliable and often remember things incorrectly.” Once he worked on a murder case where four witnesses described seeing the suspect riding a moped. The trouble was that everyone’s description was all totally different.

The interrogation methods used in crime films and books are totally wrong. Behaving boorishly in front of witnesses, interruption them in the middle of a sentence or threatening them is not the way the real interrogation is done.

2. As an interrogation technique

In the gangster films and crime TV shows, the good-cop/bad-cop routine has been used to the nth degree. The tough cop goes, “we know you did it; it’s just a matter of time until you break. The good cop wins the trust of the accused little by little and gets the confession. In real life, that is not the case.

In real life interrogation, the investigators work with the fundamental laws of memory. The methods used by memory researchers trying to create false memories in test subjects can be used in your fiction interrogation. Letting the suspect create the story rather than tell him your construction of how it might have happened, provides a great way to bring the twist in interrogation technique and also to exploit the false memory.

3. To assign a motive for the crime

There are three different types of false confessions. 1) Forced confession, where people are tortured to make a confession. 2) Voluntary confession, when people confess to something that they haven’t done because they think they deserve the punishment. And 3) a confession based on false memory when they believe they’ve done it but there is no evidence of them having done it. Which makes a very interesting concept.

Although the first and second types have been explored endlessly the third one provides an opportunity for great twists in the story. What if the accused has not committed the murder but believes he has. What if the protagonist is running from law thinking he as done something terrible getting into more and more trouble while in fact, he hasn’t done anything wrong at all.

The techniques of writing crime fiction are based more on what we see in movies and crime serials rather than real research. Even small real-life research, “False Memory” can provide means to add an interesting twist in your fiction writing.

Rather than following the beaten track of writing crime scenes based on TV serials, use the latest research to plot your story. You are sure to find something completely new.

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