Suggestions to Improve the Forensics in Your Novel
All writing depends on the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief but even the best fan has limits to what they will accept. Even novels from best-selling authors can have forensic or investigative mistakes. Many readers may not even notice them and even when they do it doesn’t ruin the story. Having said that, these are some of the more common mistakes I see in modern crime thrillers and mysteries.
1. Don’t rush writing your “crimes”. One of the reasons criminals get caught is that they fail to cover all their tracks and CSIs have the luxury of time to pick apart all the clues. Every action has the potential to leave evidence behind. It’s what we CSIs refer to as the Locard Principle. The same relationship exists between writers and readers. Readers have all the time in the world to pick apart the “evidence” in your scene so avoid any loose ends that may contradict your storyline.
2. Know your terminology. A criminalist is not a criminologist any more than a deputy is an officer. Blood spatter is not the same as blood splatter and a bullet is not a cartridge. Using the proper definitions can be summed up thusly; it’s better to know your sh*t than know you’re sh*t.
3. Expand your contacts with experts. Get more than one source for scene and character development. One detective or CSI may have an entirely different view of the world than others in a similar position. Even I have other forensic experts I consult. One excellent way to get exposure to police culture and develop contacts is to take a citizens academy. The more realistic your experiences, the more realistic your writing will become.
4. Does the evidence prove what you think it proves? Is there an alternate explanation? Just because someone’s fingerprints are on a gun doesn’t necessarily mean they fired it. Similarly, finding a wife’s DNA on her dead husband may not prove anything, even if it is blood. When you have that “ah-ha” moment in scene development take a break and play devil’s advocate. Challenge your assumptions. It’s the best way to ensure you have a strong scene.
5. Silencers (technically called a suppressor) only silence subsonic ammunition. The sounds we hear associated with gunshots are primarily the result of two events. The ignition/explosion of the gunpowder and the sound the bullet makes when it breaks the sound barrier. A suppressor can minimize the sound of the initial ignition but has no real effect on the bullet traveling at supersonic speed. A suppressor also has no effect on the sound of the bullet striking an object.
6. CSIs work cases, CEOs go to meetings. If you’re going to make your protagonist the Chief Medical Examiner of a major metropolitan area you’re going to have to explain how they avoid all of their other duties (autopsies, budget meetings, personnel conflicts, policy meetings, campaigning, etc) while traipsing around town investigating only one case out of the thousands that come in each year.
7. Over-using slang and acronyms. While CSIs do use some acronyms we don’t use them often. Certainly not like the military. Now, certain slang can be found at the individual level or within a small regional area but it is not universal to all law enforcement. I’ve noticed some television shows use a lot of cool sounding terms but frankly it sounds more like the characters are texting than speaking. I’ve been to thousands of crime scenes and I’ve never heard a detective declare “The VIC has 5 GSWs UNSUB at large”. Most cops don’t talk like that. We keep it simple; “Dude’s got five bullet wounds” or something like that. Now if you know a particular agency (especially military or federal) uses a specific term frequently then that’s fine, but avoid overdoing it.
8. Out of scene, out of mind. It’s easy to overlook little details that may derail a scene. I had an author contact me a while back about a scene in which a body was stolen from the morgue and planted at a staged murder scene. I asked “how are you dealing with the fact that the body will be missed and it’s a small town? Won’t the cops realize the missing corpse and the suspicious death may be the same person?” They had never considered what the “unknown” characters would do about reporting the missing corpse because it had never been a part of the original scene. One way to counter these oversights is by role-playing. Consider the “how” of every action. If you killer digs a grave it’s going to take time and he’s going to get tired.
9. CSIs are people, not robots. We see a lot of dark things and those experiences have an effect on our personal lives. It’s hard to enjoy a “date night” with your spouse if you’ve spent the day at the scene of a six year old girl who was sodomized, strangled with a bike chain, and dumped in a ditch like a piece of litter. When you are developing your characters don’t forget to consider how the crimes they are investigating might affect their mood and temperament.