By: K.J. Scrim
No matter what genre you write in, the need for a crime scene of some sort may crop up somewhere in the course of writing your book. It is imperative for you to get your facts correct. You must respect the laws of how the human body reacts to violence, the mechanics of safe cracking, or the physics of an explosion.
In doing research for a new novel, not only was I treated to a tour of Colorado’s CBI Forensics lab, but I also attended a workshop presented by a forensics expert (thank you Sisters in Crime!).
Here are a few things I learned on the tour and at the workshop.
- If an officer is hit in the protective vest by a bullet, what does that really feel like? Like getting hit with a baseball bat. The higher the caliber, the bigger the bat.
- What can a pet’s nose print tell an investigator? Nose prints from a dog or cat are unique in much the same way as a human fingerprint. If you look closely at your pet’s nose you will see lines and ridges that make their nose unique.
- Does broken glass tell a tale? Broken glass can tell you a few things, but the most basic is from which direction the glass was hit. If it was hit from the outside inward, the glass lands inside. Easy solution there. But what about multiple bullet holes in a windshield? Not only can a forensics expert tell what order the holes were made in, but also what direction they came from. [Side fact: a skull will shatter nearly the same as glass.]
- Diatoms? What the heck are diatoms? Algae. It is found in fresh water, marine water, in soils, and decomposed bodies. But they do not occur naturally in a living human body. If any diatoms are found in, on, or around, a body, the investigator may be able to determine the location of the crime. Diatoms vary by season and geographic location. They even differ between those found along the shore vs the center of the same lake.
- Today, aerial photography is done with drones. It is the best way to get the layout of a crime scene and the area around it. Rest assured CBI does not do surveillance with drones. That’s not saying no one surveilles with drones. [Queue dramatic music.]
- How long does it take to process DNA? Because of a huge backlog at CBI, it takes 4-8 months to process. If there is a priority on a case it can be faster. The process itself only takes 24-72 hours.
What do writers get wrong?
- Miranda Rights are not read at the time of an arrest. They are written out and the criminal must read and sign them when they are processed into the system.
- Cordite was used during the 1890’s in elephant guns and has not been manufactured since 1945. It would not be smelled at a crime scene. Put it in a revolver and it would explode.
- At a homicide, evidence is not collected in plastic bags. Especially not anything that may have biomaterial. Dump the plastic and use paper. There are instances where a plastic bag is preferred for evidence so do your research for the preferred method.
- DNA information collected by the CBI, or by companies like Ancestry.com, is never shared between agencies. If you send your DNA sample to find a long lost relative, that information cannot, and is not, used by law enforcement agencies. It is inadmissible to use it for a case because there is no paper trail as to where that particular sample came from.
To further your research, here are a few online resources:
- Colorado Bureau of Investigation – Forensics Unit
- Parker Police Ride-Along Program – This link is for information with the Parker, Colorado police department. Check with your local station to see if they have a program in your area.
- Sisters in Crime – SinC has a plethora of resources and information regarding most aspects of crime. Whether you’re a fan of crime fiction, or a writer, you will have a vast resource at your fingertips.
- Mythbusters – I loved this show, especially when they blew stuff up. Many of their shows were based on the what-ifs that found their way into TV and novels. MacGyver was one of their favorite shows to bust, but if you are looking for a twist in your story, this list will give you some explosive ideas.
If you should have a fight scene, murder, assault, robbery, or other type of criminal activity in your story DO YOUR RESEARCH. The entire scene, or even the entire novel, could be ruined by lazy research. Talk to police officers, detectives, or forensics experts before you publish. Take a tour or attend a workshop led by experts in the field. They will open your mind, and your writing, to the realities of true crime.
Managing Editor, Kathie “KJ” Scrim, is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her inspiration for blogging, flash fiction, short stories, and the long haul of novel writing comes from her many life experiences. When she’s not writing you can find her somewhere in Colorado walking, hiking, or rock climbing at the local gym. You can catch up to her on her website or blog.