Sunday, December 26, 2021

Tricks of the Trade – Any Trade …

The inside info that makes it all real

Zoë Sharp


When you think of tricks of the trade, it’s hard not to think of close-up magic artists and those who specialise in sleight of hand, although that wasn’t really what I was thinking of. Having said that, I remember watching mystery writer James Swain as he demonstrated how people introduce loaded dice into a craps game, throwing the standard dice inside his coat and the loaded pair down the table in the same movement.

He did this numerous times, at a fraction of normal speed, and still we couldn’t actually catch what he did.


Jim’s books were full of such tips and tricks. One of the things I love about reading any book is picking up those little snippets of inside information. Any information – it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s something that isn’t obvious, that dispels a commonly held belief, or is just one of those nuggets you store away for future use.


I recall reading a post years ago in which the writer detailed the sensations and feelings and knowledge that you collect in the filter of your daily life. You might not think it’s the stuff thrillers are made of, but it is. It’s the glue that holds the whole thing together. The aspect that gives a work heart as well as flash.


The bits that make the whole thing ring true.


In the course of my own writing career, I’ve picked up all sorts of obscure knowledge – how to dislocate someone’s shoulder; how to tell if a mirror is in fact one-way glass; how to steal a motorbike; how to tell immediately if a Glock semiautomatic has a round in the chamber, even in the dark; what to add to gasoline to make the perfect Molotov cocktail; what style of suit to wear on a close-protection detail.


All useful and highly entertaining stuff.


In fact, there was a book that came out about twenty years ago called The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. I still have a copy and it contains all kinds of similar information, like how to win a sword-fight, fend off a shark, land a plane, or escape from killer bees. Just one thing though – ignore the advice to lie down if faced by stampeding horses. It’s not true that they will avoid trampling you. In my painful experience, horses will put their clumping great feet anywhere they damn well please!


But all this is pretty esoteric stuff. Most of the time, even in fiction, your characters will be going about their normal daily lives. Even if they’re not a professional alligator wrestler, or a bullfighter by trade, this can be just as interesting, if not more so. Although the Internet is a wonderful tool for research, there’s no substitute for chatting to real people who actually do the things you want to write about. It’s all about the vital bit of colour that gives a work authenticity. Just as silly mistakes of any kind – like a flower blooming at the wrong time of year – will throw a reader out of a story, so those little snippets I mentioned earlier will help to draw them in.


Those tricks of the trade.


And until you think about it, you don’t realise what you know. To this end, I phoned my sister, who’s been a professional gardener for years. "Give me some tricks of the trade," I said to her. "Things that people wouldn’t know unless they’re involved in your line of business."


There was a long pause, and then she came out with a couple of belters:


“If you don’t want to use slug pellets to keep slugs away from your plants, tip used coffee grounds round the base of the plant instead. Got to be fresh coffee, though – instant doesn’t work.”


“To stop squirrels digging up your crocus bulbs, plant the bulbs with dry holly leaves and chilli powder. Curry powder also works, but they really don’t like chilli.”


For myself, working as a photographer for years allowed me to come up with one or two interesting factoids of my own:


“If you want to take a soft-focus shot, breathe onto the lens just before you press the shutter. It will clear from the centre outwards, giving an instant soft-focus effect, and saves coating the lens with Vaseline, which will take forever to clean off.”


“Resting the camera on a bag filled with rice or split-peas will take up a surprising amount of vibration and will dramatically reduce camera-shake during action shots. I used to use a bag of pearl barley or dried split peas for all my car-to-car tracking photography to keep it pin-sharp.”


“If you’re taking a female portrait shot in black-and-white rather than colour, cosmetics will create shadow rather than provide highlights. Hence blusher should be applied into the hollows beneath the cheekbones, to add definition, not on top of them.”


And that led me onto another make-up tip I read in an in-flight magazine:


“Professional make-up artists heat up mascara before applying it, to give a much fuller effect and increase the even coverage.”


I’ve no idea where that will come in useful, but I’m sure it will somewhere. And, as a motorcyclist, here’s an invaluable one:


“Always carry the metal lid of a jam jar with you on the bike. You never know when you’re going to have to park up on grass. The lid can be placed under the foot of the side-stand to stop it digging into the soft ground and causing the bike to fall over – which is not only extremely embarrassing, but can also be costly in repairs.”


And as for these others, they were picked up all over the place:


Graphic designers: “If you have a client who is unable to approve a proposed design without putting their stamp on it, just put an obvious error in the proposal – a logo that’s too large, a font that’s too small, or a few judiciously seeded typos. The client requests the change and feels they’ve done their part, and your design, which was perfect all along, sails through to approval.”


In a parking lot: “Improve the range of your car alarm remote control by putting the remote under your chin. It uses the whole of your body as an extension of the antenna.” (Wouldn’t do that too often, though, if I were you …)


Horse owners: “Baby oil works wonders to de-tangle a horse’s knotted tail, without pulling out lumps of hair by the roots and getting yourself kicked in the process.”


In restaurants: “If you’re serious about your food, eat in big city restaurants between Tuesday and Thursday, when the chef’s not just interested in turning over weekend covers, and he’s had his day off, so both he and the produce are at their freshest.”


For those with a delicate stomach: “Don’t order anything in hollandaise sauce. The delicate emulsion of egg yolks and clarified butter can’t be refrigerated or it will break when spooned over poached eggs. Unfortunately, this lukewarm holding temperature is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. It’s also very likely not only to have been made hours before serving, but also from the heated, clarified butter that’s been collected from the tables, with other people’s bread crumbs strained out.” And you can thank Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential for that nugget … as well as for:


“If you’re worried about the hygiene standards in a restaurant, check out the restrooms. If they’re dirty – and those are the bits the customer is allowed to see – imagine what the kitchen’s going to be like, away from public view.”


One for wine buffs: “It’s no longer necessary to allow wine to ‘breathe’ by pulling the cork and letting the open bottle sit for an hour or two before serving. This is a throwback to the days when wines were stuffed full of chemicals at bottling. It can still make sense for vintages earlier than approx 1980, when letting a wine stand dissipates the charmingly named phenomenon known as ‘bottle stink’. But, today’s wines are much cleaner and healthier than a generation ago, and exposing a surface area of wine the size of the bottleneck to air is unlikely to have any effect on the great bulk of the wine in the bottle.”


Wildlife documentary makers: “If you want to replicate the sound of polar bears rolling around in the snow on your latest documentary, but don’t fancy getting close enough to actually record the real sound, replicate it by scrunching custard powder inside a pair of nylons.” (Seriously, it worked for Sir David Attenborough!)


Car drivers: “If you live somewhere with a very hot climate, always fill your tank on the way to work in the morning, not on the way home. This way, the ground storage tanks will be at a lower temperature so the fuel will be at its densest, giving your more bang for your buck.”


Airline cabin crew: “A fractious infant can be quickly quietened by the addition of a helping of gin in the milk formula.” (Hey, don’t blame me, I’m just reporting what I heard!)


If you’ve got an ant problem, but have pets or small children in the house: “Put down bicarbonate of soda instead. It makes them explode, apparently.”


Cigar smokers: “Don’t dunk the end directly into the flame when lighting the cigar. Rotate the cigar gently above the flame. Do not inhale the smoke, just taste it in your mouth and blow it out. And don’t smoke it too fast, or it will burn hot and ruin the flavour.”


I should point out at this stage that all the above are comments and snippets picked up from a variety of sources and, should I ever feel inclined to use them in a book, I’d certainly double-check the facts before I used them.


OK, your turn. What little snippets can you pass on from a day-job, past or present? What do you know?


This week’s Word of the Week is legerdemain, which is the skilful use of one’s hands when performing conjuring tricks, deception or trickery. The word comes from the French, léger de main, which means light of hand, or dexterous.


  1. Fascinating! The only one of those I knew was the one about wine. Although if you suspect the wine is a bit young when you open the bottle, it's not a bad idea to decant it. You get much more area exposed that way, and the oxygen hastens the aging.

    1. Hi Michael. Thanks for that one. I know when people decant wine they try to introduce as much air as possible, but confess I'm not really a wine buff!

  2. If you ever get tree pitch on your hands, the easiest (and least chemically harsh) way to get it off is to pour a little vegetable oil on your hands and rub it around. The oil soaks into your your skin (getting under the pitch), and the pitch comes right off. Then, a little soap and water, and the oil is gone, too.

    Never get into a beehive when the temperature is lower than 55F, as the brood (eggs and uncapped larvae) have to be kept at 95F by the bees, and the sudden draft of cold air can kill the brood.

    When a number is written in binary, it can be multiplied by two simply by adding a 0 to the right-hand end, or divided by two simply by removing the right-most digit. (I'm sure that will come in handy in a mystery/thriller :-).

    Hummingbirds don't necessarily fly south for the winter. We're at close to 45 degrees (half way twixt the pole and the equator) and all morning, I've been watching a hummingbird sitting in a tree, about 20 feet from our feeder (guarding it), even though we had 3 inches of snow last night. The snow falling from the branches this morning hasn't phased that little fellow.

    When canning produce, always remove the rings after the jars cool. They're not needed for storage, and they're likely to get glued to the jar if you let them stay on the jar for months, making removal difficult.

    Never ask a question in an open forum unless you're willing to get swamped with verbiage. :-)

    1. Wow, EvKa, those are all brilliant. I misread the one about the beehive, though, and when you said 'never get into a beehive' I thought you meant actually climb inside it. Do you know, I can't remember the last time I had to do that... but I'm sure it will come up in a future book!

    2. Hah! You see, there's a beekeeper using beekeeping lingo without a thought to the listener. Sigh. Now, I'll never use that phrase again without that image coming to mind. :-)))

  3. Back when I was single, someone gave me a copy of "Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook" and I kept it on my nightstand for years.