Outdated Laws Or Plot Twists Fact or fiction?
By Helen Dunn Frame
Recently a friend emailed me a list of allegedly outdated laws he discovered when surfing the web. At first I was simply amused but then it occurred to me that a number of these could provide fodder for plot twists and a zany column. It reiterates that writers need to be constantly on alert for angles.
For example, one lingering law states that in the city of York in England it is legal to murder a Scotsman within the ancient city walls if he is carrying a bow and arrow. In a romance novel taking place in this wonderful city, couldn't a character carry this weapon on the way to a game or party and get shot? At the trial, a clever barrister could cite this law in freeing the guilty defendant.
If the locale of a story were in London, someone - either a member or a spectator – might die in Parliament, which for some reason is supposedly illegal. It is difficult to believe this has never happened. Hasn't someone ever suffered a heart attack? If the law was known, did the coroner claim the decedent died after being removed from the sacred halls? A murderer could transport a corpse stuffed in pieces inside a suitcase unbeknownst to a cab driver in the City of London , another no-no.
Have you noticed how often directions in appliance manuals contain prohibitions that most of us think are obvious? Usually this means that someone got electrocuted in the bath tub while using a hair dryer, for example, and the company was sued. Following this line of thought, supposedly in Alabama it is illegal for a driver to be blindfolded while driving a vehicle. Duh!
In an attempt to verify the information that was sent to me, I searched on "outdated laws" and variations on the theme on Google and found tons of listings. On the BBC News site, it confirmed that in Lancashire, England, no person is permitted after being asked to stop by a constable on the seashore to incite a dog to bark. Could this happen accidentally in a novel which leads to the discovery of a body?
While I didn't take the time to research the entire list, it occurred to me it might not be necessary for fiction because one could conjure up his or her own peculiar laws to fit the plot. Consider these humorous examples that might be real and that can be expanded to spice up your creation.
1. "In France it is forbidden to call a pig Napoleon." In a children's book about animals, this would fit in superbly. Or, you could do like I've done and name one after your former spouse because they both have big ears.
2. "It's an act of treason to place a postage stamp bearing the British monarch upside down" on an envelope. Was I guilty of inadvertently doing this when I lived in England?
3. "In Ohio it is illegal to get a fish drunk." Supposedly one can still drink like a fish!
4. "In London, Freemen are allowed to take a flock of sheep across (the) London Bridge without being charged a toll." It would be interesting to find out if it is legal to have livestock in London in the first place before using this in a novel.
5. "In Florida, unmarried women who parachute on Sundays can be jailed." What if the character in a short story or book were trying to crash a party a la James Bond?
6. "In Kentucky, it is illegal to carry a concealed weapon more than six-feet long." Does that mean carry on one's body? Are we looking for giants? Might this work in a fantasy or science fiction book?
7. "The head of any dead whale found on the British coast is legally the property of the King: the tail, on the other hand, belongs to the Queen (just) in case she needs the bones for her corset." Again this would fit in a romance novel set in the era when women wore corsets.
Once you stopped smirking, did you start conjuring up how these obviously frivolous cannons, all probably created by male lawmen simply because women weren't a part of the legal community back then, could add spice to your story? I'm eager to find a place to include some even if just tongue in cheek – like this column.
Helen Dunn Frame. A Syracuse University journalism school graduate, published in major newspapers, magazines and trade publications in the United States, England, and Germany. Her writing skills and love of travel led her to write her mystery novel Greek Ghosts. Email: email@example.com Web site: http://www.helendunnframe.com