I don’t write crime thrillers but love reading a good crime novel. I’m intrigued when I read a well-crafted crime scene. Even a romance (which is my genre) can have a crime scene. But after reading my friend and fellow-author’s book Whiskey Sunrise. I knew he was the guy to explain as the title suggests how to tailor your scene to your audience.
John: Thanks for the plug for my latest novel.
My pleasure. Take a seat on my not so white couch and I’ll pull out my notebook. John, I don’t know where to begin to write a believable crime scene. So I yield to your expertise. How does one set up a realistic crime scene?
John: A scene is a scene is a scene. If you’ve never been to a beach, how would you describe a beach scene in your writing project? You could go look at pictures of beaches. You could use Google Earth and look at the locale of your beach scene. You could talk to people who have been to the beach. You could read books that use a beach scene. And finally, you could actually go to the beach yourself. Anyone up for a field trip?
That’s great advice…if I wanted to do a beach scene. But, how does that relate to a crime scene?
John: I’ve never been a cop, nor have I played one on TV. Yet, as a writer, I need to put the reader at the crime scene. First off, know your genre and your audience. Are you writing a police procedural? A thriller? A noir? A cozy? And what audience are you targeting? YA? New Adult? Young mothers? Christian men?
The particular type of mystery will dictate the kind of details. If it’s a cozy for teenage girls, the grisly minutiae will be completely off stage. However, if it’s a thriller aimed at a male audience, I might give a shot by shot, cut by cut detail.
Interesting. Why is knowing your genre and audience before writing the scene important?
John: It sets the parameters of what can be included. The boundaries of what can or cannot be included. If you’re doing a cozy, you wouldn’t need to know about gunshot residue or blood splatter or lividity or decomp. If you are doing a police procedural, you better know that stuff.
In other words, you know what ingredients to add or leave out.
John: Exactly. Second, learn to write good scenes. There is a balance between not enough detail and too much. Give the reader some room so their mind can create the experience. But don’t leave them high and dry. There’s plenty of good writing books and videos on developing scenes.
Can you define what constitutes a crime scene?
Well, there is a crime scene and the scene of the crime. It sounds like a minor point, but it is major in knowing how to set up the scene. The crime scene is anyplace connected to the crime. If a criminal flees the crime and tosses away his weapon, that becomes a crime scene. The crime did not happen there, but that locale is now connected to the crime. The scene of the crime is where the actual crime took place. And this is where the writer enters the world of criminal investigation.
Then let’s enter…
John: Forget CSI. Forget Criminal Minds. Forget NCIS. Fun shows. Enjoy watching them. But they will not help you lay out your scene. There’s an old saying, “Wherever you go, you leave some trace of you behind and take some trace of the location with you.” You go to a public restroom, the person before you has left trace elements of themselves on the toilet seat.
Now you’re just grossing me out.
John: Sorry about that. But that is key to criminal investigation, to your scenes and your plot. It will help add clues and red herrings. Things to remember, the first responder (usually a beat cop) takes control of the scene. He must determine if the victim needs medical assistance or a trip to the morgue. If the suspect is there, he must try and apprehend that individual. And he must preserve the scene. Going back to the toilet seat example people enter the area leaving and taking from the crime scene.
As more cops join the scene, some kind of management has to take place. Someone is assigned to a logbook to record those who enter the scene. Detectives are assigned to the case. Crime Scene people go over the area with a fine tooth comb looking for fingerprints, hair samples, dirt particles, insect or insect parts and any blood splatter. If it’s a shooting, bullet casing are located. The scene is drawn out on paper or software, documenting which things were found where. With digital cameras, you can’t ever get enough photos.
An important detail to remember and NCIS gets this right. Cops control the scene, the coroner controls the body.
Let’s pause here. This is good information. But where does a writer who has no experience in law enforcement learn this stuff?
That’s kinda obvious. Can you give us some leads? (See how I connected my question our subject? J)
John: Very clever.
I thought so. So, where do I begin?
John: There are many, many places to get your information right. A good place to start is Lee Lofland’s Police Procedure and Investigation, his blog the Graveyard Shift, and his Writer’s Police Academy Conference. All great places to delve into the mindset of an investigation.
Then there are blogs and web sites. D. P. Lyle, MD has a great web site—https://writersforforensicsblog.wordpress.com—covers all kinds of details on Forensics from a doctor’s POV. His nonfiction books include Forensics: a Guide for Writers, Forensics for Dummies, Murder and Mayhem, Forensics and Fiction, and More Forensics and Fiction. There are tons more resources than just these two.
Other areas of interest would be managing a crime scene investigation, forensics, guns, searches, interrogation techniques, and driving techniques.
I’ve brought my laptop so let’s do a quick search.
Wow! That’s quite a few.
John: This is only the Barnes and Noble site.
- US Marshalls: Inside America’s Most Storied Law Enforcement Agency by Mike Earp,
- 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman by Adam Plantinga,
- Under Alone by William Queen (going undercover in a motorcycle gang),
- Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas,
- Effective Police Supervision by Harry W. More,
- Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm by William Bass,
- True Crime books, especially those by Ann Rule.
Do you have a favorite book?
John: Hallie Ephron’s Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel takes you from a blank page all the way through to a finished mystery. I highly recommend it.
I see you’ve stopped at an interesting website. What is it?
Let’s click on their Alphabetical Listing of Law Enforcement Agencies. Under the letter C I find a link to my hometown police department, the Cincinnati Police Department. It gives me a three paragraph summation of the department. In those three paragraphs, I have information to use as a background and a springboard to go deeper.
How would you go about going deeper?
Many police departments have a public relations department. Often, they are willing to talk to authors. Only one way to find out is to call them. Be courteous and you might end up with invaluable resources.
I am a member of a Sisters in Crime chapter. (Guys can join the chapters too.) We often have guest speakers from some aspect of law enforcement, including a facial reconstructionist, a prison warden, highway patrolmen, lawyers, judges, and true crime journalists. We visited the Columbus Crime Lab, and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
What if you’re not a member of the Sisters of Crime?
John: A great resource are cops themselves. I know…go figure. But just listening to them talk will help you refine your character’s cop-speak. For example, cops will often refer to residents as citizens, to cars/SUVs/etc. as vehicles. They can not only provide accurate details, but they can infuse your muse with more stories. Then there is the ride along. You have to check local departments to see if they allow this activity.
My mind is spinning from all this information.
JT: And that’s just skimming the surface. Here’s the advantage a writer has over the police. The police have to investigate a crime set up by someone else. The writer gets to set up the crime for her investigator. So go forth, and detail dastardly deeds done by dudes and dames doing-in dumb delinquents.
Do any dastardly deed writers out there have any tips or resources to share with others of like minds? Leave a comment below.
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