Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Some Tips for Mystery Writers

This week, we welcome novelist, Marilyn Meredith to our blogging team!

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For my first post, I decided to report on some of the things I learned at the Public Safety Writers Association’s conference. Most of the people who attend are either connected to law enforcement in some way or writing mysteries.

The first panel consisted of police officers and a prosecuting attorney who talked about what bothered them with what was portrayed on TV, movies and in books.

Several mentioned procedural problems such as using lights and sirens when going to the scene of an ongoing crime, like a bank robbery. Nothing like letting the bad guys know it’s time to scoot.

Not knowing the difference between the police and sheriff's departments, parole and probation, and using the terms interchangeably drove another police person nuts.

Though it happens often in movies and TV, lieutenants don't go to the crime scene or do the leg work, they take care of the paperwork and procedure.

CSI people never walk all over the crime scene nor do they go into the evidence room. One woman hated to see ties with short-sleeved shirts.

The lawyer said that police don’t continue questioning a suspect after the attorney gets there–once the attorney arrives, questioning is over.

A big bugaboo was female cops with long flowing hair and not wearing bullet-proof vests, and female detectives wearing high heels.

Lack of research by authors concerning the use of guns was another problem mentions such as a magazine is put into the gun, not a clip; a .38 has no safety; and no one in police work has an empty chamber in his or her gun.

Every state has different laws--but constitutional law is always the same.

A non-officer gathering evidence is against the law like what happens on The Mentalist.

In the '70s and '80s, cops didn't wear bullet-proof vests.

A former undercover cop confessed that one had to be half-psycho to be undercover, no one knows what you're doing or where you're going, often the other cops don't even know who you are.

An author needs to use the correct jargon for the area he or she is writing about. There is a big difference between the words used--on the East Coast cops make a collar, West Coast cops make an arrest. Number codes are different within jurisdictions too.

Because suspects talk different depending upon the time period, don't use too many slang words.

One of the funniest comments was when a cop was asked if he used his flashlight to check out an indoor crime scene at night. The answer was, "No, I turn on the lights." How many times have we watched the CSI team on TV doing their entire crime scene investigation using only flashlights?

What I learned most from this panel was to make sure to check out anything that I wasn't sure about and never ever depend upon TV or movies for your research.

Another speaker was Steve Scarborough, a forensic expert who served with the Las Vegas P.D. and also was an expert witness in numerous case for the police department and the FBI.

Here is what he had to say:

Forensic Evidence can narrow the leads and eliminate suspects.

Forensic facts can make your story come alive, but you need to be careful.

You should know the direction your story is going before you do the research.

Fingerprints are the most conclusive form of forensic evidence though fingerprinting and DNA should get equal billing.

It's hard to get fingerprints off of towels, the sofa, etc., metal and glass works better.

Ballistics evidence depends upon certain conditions of the bullet.

Other types of evidence are hair, fiber, glass fragments, ABO blood types, and shoe prints.

Everything is circumstantial evidence except an eye witness.

What you must have is Means, Motive and Opportunity.

It's a myth that anything can be done--nothing is proven quickly, and some of the science seen on TV is make-believe.

You can't tell race or sex from fingerprints.

There is no such thing as a three point or four point match in fingerprints.

Detectives don't follow the evidence to the lab.

And the labs don't have everything they need in forensics. The smaller the place, the less they will have in the way of crime labs.

I found all of the above fascinating and thought what I learned might help out other writers.
Marilyn Meredith is the author of over twenty-five published novels, including the award winning Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series, the latest Kindred Spirits from Mundania Press. Under the name of F. M. Meredith she writes the Rocky Bluff P.D. crime series; No Sanctuary is the newest from Oak Tree Press.


  1. Wait a minute, wait a minute. CSI on TV fakes it? Turning on the lights in a room instead of using a flashlight is better? Real forensic labs don't have 2D graphic walls that you can scoot information across with a wave of the hand? The head of the CSI team doesn't lead all investigations and the police don't answer to him and wait for him to tell them what to do? And women don't have breasts made of steel, able to stop all bullets, which is why on TV they don't wear vests, bras, or shirts with top buttons?

    Thank you Marilyn for going to the conference, then sharing with writers. Talking with the professionals really does make a difference in your writing.

    Straight From Hel

  2. This is very useful information, Marilyn. Thanks so much for sharing it.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. Marilyn, welcome to The Blood-Red Pencil, and thanks for an excellent report. The PSWA conference is obviously a good place for mystery writers to broaden their knowlege of procedures.

  4. The legal shows are even worse. Courtroom rantings, bad evidence, badgering witnesses, ignoring judges orders, DA's doing on scene investigation (often as a crime is happening), complex civil cases being tried in a day, I can go on and on.

    My wife hates watching t.v. with me because I cringe and complain about everything wrong in the shows. The main problem is most of the law is boring as all can be. Personal satisfaction is derived from the culmination of a lot of little things, not the Perry Mason "I did it" moment.

  5. Lots of great tips here. thanks for sharing. and here are a few of my own thoughts from past experience.

    What bothers me even more than crime scene technicians doing investigations, interviewing and arresting suspects is when (as seen on NCIS) an officer keeps his loaded service weapon in a desk drawer. No cop ever lets his weapon out of his grasp. It's on his or her person, in the holster, or it's out to be used. When off duty, it's locked up. Guns are never kept where they can be messed with, stolen or lost.

    Another thing is that, as you noted, guns always have a round chambered. So having a character jack a round to warn people is the act of an idiot.

    Likewise, if you just shot someone and they are on the ground, the first thing a cop does is secure the weapon the perp has (kick it away and make it safe) then cuff the gun shot victim/arrestee and search for more weapons before administering first aid. (You don't want to get shot or injured by someone who may have a second weapon.)

    So many of the practical realities of law enforcement are overlooked by tv. I can forgive much, but ignorance of firearm safety really gripes me more than anything else.

  6. Helen, I laughed outloud at your response. Glad I am not the only one who HATES the way women detectives are dressed on these shows. Come on, what does bursting boobs have to do with detecting?

    Your levity aside, however, this was a great post with some good info.


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