Dictionary.com defines reflection in a number of ways, the paramount two for my purposes are: The first is the act of reflecting, as in casting back a light or heat or mirroring, giving back or showing the image, The second, number 7 of their list, pertains to physics (not my strong point) or optics (I do wear glasses) which is the return of light, heat, sound, etc. after striking the surface.
This is important. It means nothing we see, say or feel is exactly as it is. In fact, things we see are inverted, the image comes to the eye upside down through a trick of the optic nerve and the brain reverses it so feet remain, well, on the ground. That’s quite a feat when you think that it happens in a millisecond (if that long) of time.
Even the phrase, ‘on reflection’ is nothing more than a classier way of shouting “Do Over.” Where is all this going? If nothing is as it seems, then what is? And how do we know what is, if our entire life is devoted to telling us what we think we isn’t? Anyone else remember the intro to the Patty Duke Show? Patty and Cathy are standing in a doorway making mirror image movements. When Patty lifted her left hand, Cathy lifted her right. The cousins, identical through they were, were reversed. They were reflections each doing What she saw, not what was actually done.
The simple act of reflecting has a greater consequence. Because what we experience is not the actual image, we are free to tailor it to our personal belief structure. A sharp edge here, no problem, our minds snip it off. A missing bit there, well, we’ll just add that. It works too, because on reflection, we are reporting not what actually happened, but how we experienced what happened. More often than not two very different things.
It’s this image of reflection/refraction that plays so well in real crime and in crime fiction. Studies have been done wherein a group of individuals is shown the exact same scene at the exact same time. Following the exposure (usually performed by trained actors), the witnesses write down what each has seen or heard. By the time all the witness statements are read, it’s nearly impossible to believe they witnessed the same event. The victim wore a red coat, not the assailant. The assailant had a red coat and heavy black gloves. He hit the victim five times. I’m sure I heard a shot. Yes, just before she fell. A shot. I’m sure of it. But on reflection, what you really saw was something far less macabre. You saw a man in a black coat bump a woman in a green coat and she fell to the floor yelling she had been robbed.
Your perception of the scene provided you with a reflection of what you saw strong enough that you could draw it. It just happens that what you drew may not be the right scene. Witness statements will always be a backbone of police work. If you can get enough witness statements to agree, or at least point in the right direction.
Witness statements, or any other kind of visual or aural statement are a boon for mystery writers. As our sleuth, or witnesses begin to reflect on exactly what he or she saw, the garden of misinformation is ripe for the planting of red herrings. Each one perfectly substantiated, each but one wrong. It is a perfect device borne of our very real human nature that nurtures our writing.
Have you ever been certain you saw something only to discover you had it wrong? Or has one of your characters ever been so convinced only to have to rely on his or her thoughts, on reflection?
I have, in both situations.