By Jennifer Graeser Dornbush
I met Jennifer Graeser Dornbush a few years ago at an ACFW conference. She held us spellbound, and I immediately bought her book Forensic Speak: How to Write Realsitic Crime Dramas. Am I a fan? You bet I am, and this is going to be fun!
Have you ever wondered if coroners really eat sandwiches while doing autopsies? Or if investigators wear low cut dresses and high heels to investigate a murder? Can you always find DNA at a crime scene?
There are many common forensic misconceptions portrayed in crime fiction (on screen and on the page). Let’s go behind the scenes to examine why these forensic shortcuts are necessary and how writers fudge forensics in order to make their stories more entertaining.
Forensics is popular in tv, film, novels etc. Is forensics often portrayed accurately in pop culture? What are some popular misconceptions about forensics portrayed on TV?
Here are a couple of my favorite examples of faux forensics in storytelling. And why they work!
The first one I call the Tick Tock Effect. Writers fabricate time in crime stories. Meaning, crime stories have to be compressed for time’s sake. We have to accomplish a great deal of storytelling in a very short time (just minutes for TV or pages for novels!). We have to reveal the crime, the characters, evidence, and investigation, and resolution. We have to introduce a case, weave a story around the event, and get out. We absolutely have to compress time and select exactly which elements of the case and evidence we want to reveal in order to tell the story.
In real-life forensics, investigations take a very, very long time. Months to years to decades. Even lifetimes. Case in point, the Shannon Siders cold case, which Hole in the Woods is based on, took over 25 years from crime to conviction. But I’ve told the story in just over 300 pages. Tick tock!
The second forensic faux pas I find fascinating is what I call, Trigger Happy. This is the myth that all types of investigators carry guns and go around wielding their weapons. Have you ever noticed how in crime storyland investigators do a lot of shooting and get into a lot of gun fights? In fact, many climax moments of crime stories culminate in a gunfight. And Hole in the Woods is no exception to this! I admit I fully leaned on this forensic trope!
In real life, however, only sworn investigators carry guns. CSIs, coroner’s, and M.E.s do not. Also, gun fights on the field are the exception, not the rule. Gun fights are more rare than commonplace.
And if you’ve ever been around gunfire or shot a gun, you know that the sound is deafening without earplugs. Most people involved in a gun fight would have temporary deafness, ringing in ears, or limited hearing right after a gun fight. But on screen or on the page, this is rarely addressed or has any effect on the people involved in the gunfire.
The excessive use of guns is a popular forensic faux pas (or trope) in crime fiction for a couple reasons. First, when your protagonist wears and handles a gun, it depicts power and authority. You want your protagonist to be the power player. And second, gun fights are a dramatic way to increase the stakes of your story because they immediately threaten your protagonist’s life.
Those are just two examples, but you get the idea. Writers should always try to be authentic in their forensic facts. Yet, we need to keep entertainment value at the forefront.
What forensics were used in your latest novel, Hole in the Woods?
I hand selected a few pieces of forensic evidence from the real Shannon Sider’s case to use in my fictional version of it. And then, I made up or massaged a few other pieces of forensic evidence for entertainment purposes.
In the novel you will find the use of DNA detection and witness testimony (but I don’t want to say who from!). There are also several personal articles of identification that help the case forensically.
What are the three biggest mistakes new writers make when writing in the crime genre? How can they best fix them?
Three things. Not spending the time, energy, or research to get the forensic facts right. Thinking that what they see on TV or in movies is correct procedure. Writing crime scenes that come off at cliche, plastic, or static (in action and dialogue!).
Fix it #1 Shameless plug! But please… get yourself a copy Forensic Speak. It’s my labor of love for crime writers! There are over 300 forensic terms, plus, a list of over 50 resources that will make your crime writing better.
Fix it #2 Make friends with a cop, coroner, toxicologist, or crime scene investigator who can show you the real ropes. Get first hand knowledge. It will make your story more authentic and exciting. Always!
Fix it #3 Know the correct forensic terms and how to use them. Don’t over use terms. Layer in the facts of the case/evidence to keep the plot moving, but center the focus of scenes around character conflict, tension, and emotional needs. Focus on great storytelling first. Then go back and authenticate where you can and must.
Jennifer, thank you so much for joining us today.
Readers, here are some links if you want to get to know more about Jennifer.
Hole in the Woods on Bookshop
Facebook: Jennifer Graeser Dornbush
And Jennifer graciously sent me this infographic about fingerprints!
Thanks for spending time with Jennifer and me today.