I’d first like to thank every one who contributed a post to this month, Fictorian and guests alike!
The idea of a month devoted to not just research collection (because we’d like to spend more time writing instead, right?), but also some new concepts and ideas we might not have thought of to apply to our stories, thus making them more believable, realistic, or even helping us think of what might be true in the future.
Overall, I hope that our information was useful.
Some of my favorites (and there were many), in no particular order:
If we don’t care enough to get it right then we offend readers of that ethnicity — thus losing them as readers — AND we mislead and misinform the readers who aren’t familiar with that ethnicity. Also, by misrepresenting that group we’re ultimately contributing to the cultural oppression of that group — even though we don’t mean to.
I shared how to look for, and write about, a character drowning. Also please watch out for everyone at the pool. Even if they’re a strong swimmer. But especially watch the little ones because I had to pull a kid out who was panicking and that was so scary for them. Pools are supposed to be fun and safe summer memories.
Developing crime scenes that are both intriguing and realistic is a delicate balance. Popular TV shows are notorious for depicting scenes that are dramatic, but anyone in law enforcement would call criminally stupid.
Certainly you know that DNA results don’t come back in an hour or that you can’t snap a picture of a fingerprint, and one minute later have a match and a photo of the perp. NCIS’s Abby Sciuto knows more than a fleet of forensic experts rolled into one. Horatio Caine in CSI: Miami drives a Hummer, which would make a real CSI snort her iced tea. Not only do they not make that kind of dough, they are civilians, who do not carry guns or arrest people.
Here are a few insights I learned from an active crime scene investigator on how to get it right.
Real homicide scenes are messier, smellier, and nastier than anything shown on TV. Decomp is an odor no one ever forgets. Victims often loose more than blood. (I’ll let you use your imagination on that one.) One mistake often seen on TV is that they don’t consider the amount of blood loss that would be normal for each type of injury. They might have a knife wound to the belly and show buckets of blood spatter. Not realistic. Or Hollywood might have a character with a scalp wound and show little or no blood. Scalp wounds bleed profusely.
By the way, spatter is the correct term, not splatter.
The trick for writers is to view every element of the scene from the investigator’s perspective. It helps to draw out your crime scenes in detail so that they are vividly clear in your mind. Then, when you sit down to write, you’ll have all the evidence and elements of the surroundings, which will captivate your readers. It also saves you from discovering ten chapters too late that you had a key piece of evidence in a spot that doesn’t make sense.
So, how does a crime scene investigation work? A patrol officer is normally the first person at the scene. His or her mission is to “show up, call it in, and don’t touch.” Securing the scene is the first vital step. As a writer, this is a great opportunity for conflict. Imagine the possibilities. What if the victim is a superstar? A horde of fans might show up, including thrill-seekers looking to grab evidence that they can sell as murdermobilia online. Now your officers really have their hands full.
Next your lead detective arrives. Mistakes aren’t limited to the TV scripts. Every police department has had someone who did something stupid, even though they knew better.
Let’s imagine a scenario where we have a patrol officer responding to a call about gunfire in the apartment next door to the caller. On scene, the officer finds a deceased male on the bed, calls it in, and guards the door. Perfect, until the detective shows up. He goes straight to the body, checks for an ID, and wanders through the room, searching for clues.
What’s wrong with that? Enough to give a CSI nightmares!
He didn’t wait for CSI, who would’ve set down access tarps that would allow for visual inspection of the body without disrupting trace evidence.
He didn’t see a casing on the carpet and kicked it out of place. Remember: you only get one shot at a crime scene. Once something is moved, you can’t go back. Location is just as important as the piece of evidence itself. In our scenario (taken from a real scene) the victim had been shot by an intruder standing by the closet, but because the detective kicked the casing, that vital bit of evidence’s value is now greatly diminished. That could throw-off the court case, but for writers it’s an opportunity. What if your detective is the killer? His footprints are expected to be at the scene and he can “accidentally” disrupt evidence to protect himself.
When touching the victim, he could have left trace evidence from his own body and clothing behind and he would’ve left fingerprints on the wallet. Gloves, booties, and Tyvek suits are used to prevent scene contamination.
Everyone rushes in to view the victim, but many seasoned investigators don’t because it’s too easy to be distracted by the body and miss important details. The investigator I know starts at the outer perimeter and ends at the body. In one case, she found a critical bit of evidence along the side of a house. The victim was in the kitchen.
Before anything is touched the entire scene is videotaped, photographed, measured, sketched, and documented in detail.
Investigators are real pros at preserving evidence and knowing which items will give them the most information. Did you know that they almost never test pubic hair? They collect it, but in reality hair that falls out usually doesn’t have the root ball needed for DNA testing.
Have you seen TV detectives using a pen to pick up a pistol by the barrel? Wouldn’t happen, folks. Not only is it an exceptionally dangerous method of holding a firearm, you risk disrupting evidence.
Now to the victim. In most cases, the medical examiner takes charge of the body. Once it’s back in the ME’s autopsy room, the full examination begins.
By the way, dental records are only good for confirming a victim’s ID. Think about it. How are you going to find the dentist, who has the records, if you aren’t fairly sure of the victim’s identity? I saw a show where they used a database to ID a victim through dental records. Nope. I promise that the dental x-rays from your last cleaning didn’t automatically go into a national database.
Research is a lot of work. Why not just make it up as you go along? Two reasons: you want your writing to be credible throughout; and you don’t want to reinforce the “CSI effect” and teach jurors at trial to have unrealistic expectations of seeing a Hollywood style show, where everything is tied up neatly. Real crimes and evidence are rarely so tidy.
I hope you find this helpful. For more information, http://www.crime-scene-investigator.net is a great resource. I went through the Citizen Police Academy and have a hands-on approach to research. If you’re interested in doing the same, check with your local police department for this program.
Best of luck with your writing. Maybe next time we can talk about Killers, Cops, and Fire Power.
MARTA SPROUT is an award-winning author. The Saturday Evening Post published her short story, The Latte Alliance, in their anthology “Best Short Stories of 2014 from The Great American Fiction Contest.” Her essays and articles have been published in newspapers and major magazines such as Antiques Magazine. Known for her thrillers, Marta writes full-time, assists the Corpus Christi Police Department with crime-scene, training scenarios, and enjoys kiteboarding, scuba diving, and snow skiing.
Many genres hand over arsenals of handguns to their characters to use as they stumble through the complex plot their writers have invented. From the trusty Western six-shooter to Han “I Shot First” Solo’s blaster, guns are an integral tool of the trade.
When a writer has no first-hand knowledge of how to use any firearms, and let me note that this is an excellent personal choice for those who prefer never to touch a gun, they still have to write about the use of a handgun without driving their readers away. Otherwise, one can come up with disasters like this picture, which went viral on Facebook because the poor young man was clueless.
For those who don’t know, the young man is holding a revolver and the magazine from a different weapon in one hand, as though the revolver used magazines. They don’t — you can see the revolving cylinder above the trigger that holds typically five or six rounds. People had a good laugh, even though the gentleman seemed far too young to legally have a handgun and his finger was on the trigger while posing. Others posted their versions of the Clip-a-zine picture using other objects that one does not usually use with a revolver.
With that said, let’s discuss some common issues that annoy readers who have a familiarity with handguns.
Rounds, Cartridges, Bullets — Oh My!
Let’s start with the little items that pop out and cause damage to others. A round or cartridge is a complete package, ready to load and fire. It includes the actual projectile, called a bullet, gunpowder, a primer that starts the process of expelling the bullet at a high rate of speed, and a casing that holds them all together. In the early days of handguns, one would put powder into the barrel of a weapon, add in some wadding, and then jam a bullet on top. Once that was accomplished, one would either use a primer or some sparking method like a flint to cause the gunpowder to explode.
When someone came up with the idea that one could make reloading fast and efficient, it was a game-changer.
Some law enforcement officers prefer revolvers because they normally don’t jam unless severely damaged. Some use them as a backup weapon just in case their semi-automatics jam. A pistol is another name for a semi-auto handgun, not a revolver.
As mentioned, a modern revolver has a cylinder that holds rounds, or cartridges. When the trigger is pulled, the cylinder is rotated so that a cartridge is lined up with the barrel. The hammer then falls on the firing pin, which strikes the primer. The primer starts a tiny explosion that causes the gunpowder load to burn, which expands rapidly and forces the bullet to exit the barrel of the weapon. Pulling the trigger again repeats the process. Some older revolvers required the user to “cock” the weapon by pulling the hammer back until it locked. Modern versions typically allow one to cock the weapon or to have the trigger pull back the hammer before releasing it.
Older versions of the revolver were hand-loaded as previously described. A built-in lever allowed the user to compress the bullet against the wadding and the gunpowder. Sometimes they would also add in a bit of grease on top of the loaded cylinder to prevent cross-firing, which could cause the revolver to detonate. Clint Eastwood uses a hand-loaded revolver in several of his movies, and some of the early revolvers allowed the gunfighter to swap out a fully-loaded cylinder.
After the usual six shots are fired with a modern revolver, the user has to remove the spent casings and load in fresh cartridges. Police officers who prefer revolvers tend to have small round devices called speed loaders, which hold six rounds with a device that allows the user to reload faster than doing so individually.
Semi-Automatics or Pistols
Semi-automatic pistols have been around for over a hundred years. These weapons are designed to hold more cartridges and to allow the user to reload quickly using a magazine. Note that the magazine is sometimes called a clip, which is actually incorrect. A clip is a device that holds several rounds together and allows a user to slide a set into the magazine. Rifles such as the Russian-designed SKS use these clips, sometimes called stripper clips, to load the built-in box magazine. Modifications allowed the rifles to use larger removable magazines that were hand-loaded with cartridges. So many people call magazines clips that they’re becoming equivalent, but it is something that drives some readers crazy.
Pistols use these magazines to hold a lot of rounds. Some stagger the rounds, making the grip thicker, but allowing for seventeen cartridges in the magazine and an additional one pre-loaded in the barrel and ready to fire. The large improvement in the number of available rounds before reloading is why many users switched to pistols. The down side is the semi-automatic is more complex and can jam, making the pistol useless until fixed. Revolvers, with their built-in simplicity, typically do not have this problem.
A semi-automatic will fire a single shot every time the trigger is pulled. The force of the exploding gunpowder forces the top slide back, ejecting the spent casing and automatically allowing the next cartridge to load into the barrel. Some semi-automatics will also push the hammer back to fire, while other designs use the movement of the trigger to move the hammer back.
While there are fully-automatic pistols available, they are very rare and expensive, requiring a special license to own. With such a limited number of rounds in the magazines, a fully automatic pistol would be empty in a couple of seconds.
Assuming you are not adverse to trying to fire a weapon on a gun range with experts to help you, I would recommend you do it for the experience. It will help your writing, and you will get additional safety tips from your instructor. If you do not wish to ever handle a weapon, I would recommend you go to a gun range and have an instructor demonstrate everything for you. Either method will allow you to experience being in the presence of a weapon firing. Note that it is incredibly loud, especially if your characters fire in an enclosed space. Their ears will be ringing for quite a while, something that tends to be forgotten. A military user or a law enforcement officer always counts down when they fire so they know how many shots they have left. Above all, anyone who has handled weapons and has had any training knows that one always treats any weapon as though it was loaded. Never point it at anything you don’t want to hit, even accidentally, and always keep your finger off of the trigger unless you are ready to fire the weapon.
About the Author:
Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.