I love getting caught up in a good, suspenseful mystery. I love losing myself in the world the author has created, book (or Kindle) clenched in a white knuckled grasp as the protagonist closes in on the villain. What I don’t love is when the author does a forensic belly flop.
Often times it’s a lack of research, a simple mistake caused by confusion, or a reliance on what is shown on TV shows, but it can jar readers right out of the pages of a story when they trip on a “that’s not right” moment. Conversely, going the extra mile by including some factual science can draw a reader deeper into the story because you’re constructing a more realistic world for them to get lost in.
I no longer work in forensics, and I’ll be the first to admit that my wheels are a little rusty, but here are 5 tips (based on my biggest pet peeves) to strengthen the forensics in your writing.
1) When referencing blood, it’s spatter, not splatter!!! This mistake drives me absolutely insane, probably because it’s so common. Seriously. From TV shows to books released by major publishing houses to those published by indie writers, I see this all the time, and it’s simply not correct. (On a side note, the cast off of a blood pattern can tell a detailed story of an attack – it’s worth a little research to bring this element of your story to life. ) Please, make my world a better place and tell everyone you know – blood spatters, paint splatters.
2) No matter what your sleuth’s connections, they’re not getting immediate DNA results. It just doesn’t work that way. If you need a way to provide a means of getting information into your character’s hands more quickly, check out what serology can tell you.
3) If buried remains are recovered in your story, either skeletal or in any stage of decomposition, the professional recovering the remains isn’t just after the body. Some authors include screening the soil, usually having the analyst recover rivets from jeans, zippers, etc. This is correct, but only a tiny fraction of what the process actually entails. The recovery person or team will pedestal the body, removing the soil from the top and sides of the remains, documenting the location of any artifacts found around the body, and screening the dirt. They will also be looking for insect casings, which can help determine the time of year a body was interred, and they’ll collect soil samples for volatile fatty acid analysis to help establish TSD (time since death). With a little quick research, you can make this scene in your novel or short story much more memorable and impactful.
4) Any time I read a fingerprint scene, it’s so boring! And I’ll admit, fingerprint classification is tedious, but collecting them doesn’t have to be! Check out alternative methods (and the situations they are used in) to add a little spice to your scene. From superglue fumes to metal filings, there’s a more interesting way! (Also, don’t forget that other ‘prints’ can sometimes be lifted, like shoe prints.) But remember – fingerprints aren’t always present, and there are surfaces that do not lend themselves to collection.
5) I’ve read too many books in which evidence collection is just a random handoff of plastic baggies. This is not true! First, the collection of evidence is a very detailed and controlled process. Besides everything being photographed in situ before collection, not just anyone on scene handles the collection. A chain of custody for the evidence must be created and maintained, with certain information either labeled or written on the collection container, including the initials of who collected it. Finally, the container will be sealed with a tamper proof sticker or tape that will not allow the evidence to be opened and contaminated without obvious signs. Also, what a piece of evidence is determines what is used to collect it. For example, a bloody shirt would be collected and packaged in a paper bag, not a plastic evidence container. I’d love to read a story where some really wild stuff is collected as evidence – imagine how creative you could get – or make your characters have to get to collect it!
What are your pet peeves that you hate to read in books? Do you have any items you’d like to add to the list? Any forensic question in particular that you need an answer to? If so, I’d love to hear from you!
Please introduce yourself and what you write if you feel so inclined . . . we’re all in this together and I consider you a member of my #writingcommunity! I look forward to connecting with you here and on social media, and am open to guest bloggers who’d like to share their knowledge or experiences!