A staple location in any mystery is the crime scene. You know, the one where cops and forensic scientists take photos and collect evidence. It’s that evidence that helps our detective crack the case. In other words, forensics are integral to any mystery or crime novel.
The only problem is that the task of collecting and analyzing evidence is usually grossly misrepresented by Hollywood. It is also detailed work, which makes getting it right in your novel paramount.
To make things more interesting is there are numerous sub-fields to the discipline, so you’ll need to craft different characters for each role. Thankfully, there are writers out there that have blazed a trail for you and amassed numerous resources for us to use.
What is Forensics?
Before we go any further into the resources and how to use forensics in our writing, let’s define what this scientific discipline is:
Forensics: The application of the methods of the natural and physical sciences to matters of criminal and civil law.
According to Britannica, forensic science is involved in criminal investigation and prosecution and civil wrong cases, such as willful pollution or industrial injuries.
The Different Types
And if you think about it, there are many different types of sciences used in forensics. For instance, here are 16 types of forensic science:
- Trace Evidence Analysis
- DNA Analysis
- Digital Forensics
And that’s not all of them. There are more, and what you use in your story will depend on the type of crime your character is investigating.
It makes this a bit daunting when you’re thinking about the research you’ll have to do into each branch. There are ways around this, but you should know the basics about evidence collection, who collects it, and how it’s analyzed.
Forensics Research Resources
When writing our detective story or police procedural, our focus is on the investigator of the crime. We aren’t looking closely at our secondary characters, which means we may not be doing our research.
And if we aren’t doing proper research, we might be assigning our detective duties outside of their role. Before we go into anything else, I want you to look at this infographic from Rasmussen College on who is present on a crime scene.
Aside from the police officers on-site, you also have a forensic photographer taking pictures of the evidence. Your medical examiner and forensic pathologist are there to figure out how and when the victim died and to gather any evidence to help confirm these details later. And finally, you have a forensic science technician that collects all the evidence from the crime scene and classifies it, so it goes to the right people back at the lab.
Just because several people are on the crime scene, it doesn’t mean the crime scene is a free-for-all. There is a strict hierarchy of who is allowed on the crime scene at a given time.
Also, make sure that you’re up on the latest technology to lift fingerprints, collect DNA, etc. Here’s an infographic from eLocal Lawyers to get you started:
Get to Know Your Forensics Field
Each branch of forensics deals with a particular part of an investigation. For example, ballistics deals with guns, odontology deals with dental work, etc. If you are using a specific type of evidence, like dental work, look into the following things:
- What evidence is looked at by that branch?
- How that evidence is collected?
- How long it takes to analyze the evidence?
- Does the evidence support the investigation and prosecution of the crime? And in what ways?
- What a negative result looks like and what successful results look like?
- What’s real or made-up by Hollywood?
Here’s an infographic that explains the myths surrounding DNA evidence by Criminologia:
Some other authors have also created in-depth articles about specific forensic fields, like this one from the Creative Penn.
Besides knowing who does what, you need to look into several other avenues to make your fiction as realistic as possible. Here’s how you can do that:
Read some books.
The best way to find some things to look into is by reading within your genre. And if you want a thoroughly entertaining read from a forensic scientist, then you can’t go wrong with Kathy Reichs, the author behind the Bones TV show.
I’ve linked you to her about page. It tells you about all of her real-life experience in the field, so she knows what she’s talking about. The about page also links to numerous institutions that contain valuable, credible research information that you can use in your story.
You can also turn to nonfiction and read the following books and articles for writers:
- Howdunit Forensics: A Guide for Writers by D.P. Lyle, MD.
- Forensic Science for Writers by Phill Jones
- The Mystery Writer’s Guide to Research by Christine Duncan
- Researching Mystery Short Stories by John Floyd
You can also check out textbooks for forensics students, biographies, true crime stories, etc.
Check the Internet or Your Local Library
Libraries, especially your local university or college libraries, are fantastic resources for finding information. These libraries house academic texts and often have specialized collections and rare materials.
The college library is also the place to research articles from professional, scientific, and academic journals. These journals are a great way to find information about the latest news, breakthroughs, theories, and research within the various forensic specialties.
Additionally, your friendly search engine is an excellent way for you to start amassing your library of links on forensic science sites. You want to look for websites affiliated with educational institutions, media outlets that investigate and cover forensic issues, professional forensics organizations, law enforcement agencies, and experienced forensic investigators.
Talk to the Experts
The best place for you to find the information you need is to go straight to the source: the forensic experts. That means you’ll need to leverage your networking skills to find someone. You can also contact professors from your local college or university.
And if you don’t want to talk to someone, you can flip through some forensic science magazines to read interviews and articles on the subject. Or to get contact information so you can speak to them. (It’s still your best bet to get the information you need.)
Forensic specialists are busy people, so it may be worth your time to learn how to conduct an interview (AKA, ask pointed questions to get what you need). Here are some resources for helping you hone your interviewing skills:
- Anne Wingate’s Scene of the Crime includes a tutorial on interviewing experts.
- If you need to polish your interviewing skills, read an interviewing guide, such as Creative Interviewing: The Writer’s Guide to Gathering Information by Asking Questions by Ken Metzler.
Remember to thank your expert for their time and send a follow up “Thank you” note.
Your story might not cover the case’s prosecution, but it’s good to know how forensic evidence is used in court and what types of evidence are seen as “more concrete” than others.
What can affect your story is the collection of evidence from a suspect’s home or person. You may want to look into the legal documents or statements that police and investigators need before they begin taking objects into evidence.
How to Write a Forensics Novel
Now that we have the research portion of our writing process out of the way, we need to focus on putting it into action. So without further adieu, here is what you need to think about when adding forensics to your story:
Setting up your crime scene.
You need to give this some thought on two fronts. First, you need to provide clues that will help your protagonist solve the crime. You also need to think about what your antagonist will do to cover their tracks.
Here’s an infographic on some ways your murderer may cover his tracks:
Why does this matter?
Because whatever your criminal does will leave behind certain types of evidence – your red herrings. These are a must-have in mystery or thriller because they help create suspense and keep your readers guessing until the end.
Put it in writing.
Earlier in this post, I told you there was a way around creating a new character for every forensic expert your protagonist interacts with. And the best way you can do that is by giving your protagonist reports to read.
And this is where you can have some fun. You can have your protagonist talk to their partner about the results, or you can format your page to look like a report. (It could look a little like this.)
Focus on one aspect of forensics.
I’m not saying that you need to focus on one type of forensics only, still use common evidence types, like fingerprinting, DNA, etc. but focus on an aspect you want to explore. Once you do that, exploit it for all the drama you can get out of it.
A common thing to focus on in true crime accounts or other crime stories is the killer or criminal’s psyche. People find this fascinating, and you can play into that to make your story more dramatic and suspenseful. Whatever you choose, ensure it is a central theme or piece of evidence for your novel.
Don’t commit to a specific time of death.
As author C.S. Lakin puts it:
Many mortis factors are considered when estimating time of death. Temperature is the biggie, followed by body mass.
A dead body will naturally adjust temperature (algor) to achieve equilibrium with its surroundings and will display time-telling factors, such as muscle stiffening (rigor), blood settling (livor), color (palor), and tissue breakdown (decomp). The presence of toxins also effects body changes. Cocaine amplifies the mortis process, while carbon monoxide retards it. Be careful in getting your forensic guru to commit on specific time.
The answer is in forensics.
Or the smallest of details. Author Sue Coletta highlighted this beautifully in her post about writing realistic crime scenes. She provides her readers with two cases and alters the crime scene in a small way.
When the officers find a small changed detail, they can solve the crime and arrest the appropriate person. That’s why many TV shows and novels have the detective go through all the evidence again to find that one small thing they missed.
And you can do this for your novel as well. If you want to, that is. You can always try to come up with a new way to bring the perpetrator to justice.
Forensics is an essential part of any investigation. It helps our detective find out who the killer is and bring them to justice.
They are also nasty little details that can make or break your reader’s suspension of belief if they’re not well-researched. Hopefully, I’ve made your research easier by providing you with a list of resources for you to use.
And don’t forget to pay attention to how your criminal will cover their tracks. It could be a small detail that’s their undoing.
Why are we fascinated with forensics and crime? Any Bones fans out there? Did I miss anything, or do you have any more tips? Please let me know in the comments below!
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.