Sunday, January 12, 2014

Forensics/technology is making my life miserable

Today, I am flying from Washington, DC to Austin, Texas for the next leg of the INDEPENDENT STUDY tour.  For the next couple weeks, while I'm bopping around the country, three fabulous authors are going to step into my blogging shoes.  First up, the amazingly talented author of suspense with the occassional hint of romance - Donnell Ann Bell.  I encourage you all to check out her work!  And, if you're in Texas (Austin or Houston) please come out and say hello.  

Take it away Donnell.....

Does anyone remember the day when you could Google, check out research material at the library, and have a pretty good idea how to write a believable plot?  I’m sure it happened once upon a time.  I can’t imagine Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler and other greats had to worry too much about DNA evidence, bloodstain pattern analysis, 3D printer guns, CODIS, IAFIS, LEDS databases and a multitude of other technologies that have ballooned seemingly overnight.

You might argue that technology has made our lives simpler, so why am I whining?   After all, these people used type writers with carbon paper for crying out loud.  They mailed their novels to their publisher in manuscript boxes.   
I’m whining because technology refuses to stand still while I finish my book.  Someone opened the door to the Information Age, created an avalanche and laid me out flat.  Oh, sure, I enjoy my laptop, smart phone, tablet as much as the next impatient person, but for a contemporary crime fiction writer, it’s a disaster.  For instance, say you start your book in January and finish it the following September, you’d better go back and check your facts, AGAIN, because during that short amount of time, based on today’s technology, your research has probably changed. 

Think I’m exaggerating?  Are you ready for what I learned last night?  Last night at Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America, our guest speaker was Greggory LaBerge, Director-Forensics and Evidence Division, Denver Police Department.  Along with learning that if a person breaks into a home and leaves his DNA evidence (blood, saliva, or hair) in Colorado and his DNA is left at another crime scene across the country in Michigan, that bad guy, once he is located, is going to jail. 

I also learned that DNA technology has gotten so sophisticated that if your detectives are having a conversation over the body, (which we’re known to do when writing a book to advance the plot and cue the readers in on possible clues) they’re contaminating the crime scene.  I like to think I don’t spit when I speak, but evidently we human beings do.  That’s how accurate scientists have gotten at identifying our DNA.

I didn’t even fret about ballistic fingerprinting or the fact that every automobile out there can be identified by the make and color of its paint. (And you can’t even confuse the issue by taking it to one of those autobody paint stores because forensic analysts can break it down by layers.)  Quite frankly, it’s getting darn hard for criminals, and for that matter, us writers.

The truth is I love storytelling too much to give it up, so I’ll keep learning and doing my best to stay ahead of the ever-changing curve.  But for you technology/forensic people out there so proud of the progress you’re making, would it hurt you too much to slow down? 

And they say writing historical fiction is hard.  
I’m curious, if you’re writing a contemporary crime novel, have you had to go back and make changes because the technology has advanced?  Have fun on your tour, Joelle!

Donnell Ann Bell is the author of three books, The Past Came Hunting, Deadly Recall, and her newest release, Betrayed.  Her debut and sophomore releases have been e-book best sellers and Deadly Recall is a 2014 EPICON nominee for best thriller/suspense. She co-owns Crimescenewriters with retired Veteran Police Officer Wally Lind.  Check out her webpage at


Mari Nicol said...

I know what you mean. I'm constantly checking and still always have the nagging feeling that I've missed something new.

Barb Han said...

I feel your pain, Donnell. It's impossible not to feel like we're missing something every time we turn in a story, forget what's changed by the time the story makes it onto the shelf. :-)

Great example said...

Donnell is very conscientious in ensuring she accurately depicts police and criminal procedures. If only every author took such pains to get it right. Check out her books

Wes Harris

Dana King said...

I have two ways to deal with it:
1. I write very little that requires a lot of state of the art forensics. My cops are in a small town. They often have to send their samples to a private lab, and the results can take weeks or months to get back, not "while you wait" as in many CSI shows. That way I acknowledge there are forensic concerns and not get too bogged down in what exactly they are.
2. I don;t worry about it. As Barb said above, who knows what will have changed by the time it's printed--even if I self-pub--and again by the time someone reads it. I'm a writer, not a crime scene investigator. Chancler and Hammett and McBain don;t suffer because the techniques are out of date. I worry more about the rest of the book. If anyone is so upset by some slightly out of date forensics they don;t want to read me anymore, they don;t have to read me.

Besides, these advances move at their own pace across the country. Not everyone gets them at once. There are many more reasons not to worry than there are to worry.

Unknown said...

I also write about crime in a small town, and my stories are as much about the romance as the murder. Even so, I used ricin as the poison in my first book, and had to go back to edit after some nutcase sent that poison to the White House last spring. Luckily, I still had time to make the changes! No way I could write about forensic crime - I'd screw it all up, for sure. Admire those who do it, though!

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Hi, there, hoping Joelle's having a smooth uneventful trip to Austin. I told her not to talk to strangers, so it should be interesting how many books she sells :)

I'm so glad to know I'm not alone in the technology/forensic explosion out there. Thanks Chief Harris, you've been invaluable and patient. Thank you for the nice reference. I'm not perfect but I sure try.

Dana, I appreciate where you're coming from. Ashantay, wow, you were ahead of your time! I might have been stubborn and kept it, but I totally, totally get why you changed your poison!

As for me, I do like writing cop, DEA and in the future FBI protagonists, so I'm willing to do the research. I'm fortunate to have so many resources willing to help a hand. For anyone who hasn't been to a citizens academy, see if your city has one. Wes Harris and Lee Lofland's Writers Police Academy and of course Wally Lind's Crimescenewriter a Yahoo group is also an incredible resource. I may get things wrong but it's not for lack of trying.

Diane Kratz said...

Hi Donnell!

In one of my books, my heroine is a social worker lobbing for affordable health care. I wrote about five years ago. Now, it's a plot change in my book.

Why? Because it's already came to pass and not very poplar to Americans. If there's one thing I've learned about time, it constantly changes!

And you are right Donnell, the writer needs to beware of those changes in order to write a believable plot/characters.

There are a couple of resources out there your readers and writers out here might find helpful.

Crimewriter how to is a group started by John Ouellet. John is a Former Army Infantry Officer. Retired FBI Special Agent, 23 years in the Detroit Field Office.

This group is designed for the established and aspiring crime novelist who is stuck in mid plot trying while project realism into the story.

Discussions will help the author with the details and day-to-day of how federal agents and detectives go about their work. Think the procedural.

Help can be provided on the bureaucratic make up of departments/agencies, proper titles, SWAT and tactical operations, task force alignments, jargon, etc

Also for forensic stuff, Tom Adair has a very helpful blog called Forensics For Fiction. Tom is a retired senior criminalist with 15 years of forensic experience.

His link is:

Another awesome group out there for any writer whose hero or heroine centers around law enforcement is, Public Safety Writer Association.

Memberships include, FBI agents, state, city, county LEO's, Homeland Security, forensics' people, journalist and mystery writers. Fantastic group of people eager to share their experiences and offer advice and information.

There link is:

Thanks for posting Donnell!

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Diane, yes, plots are constantly changing because real life events occur that screws them up.

Thanks for these resources. I'm familiar with Tom Adair, but not the other groups you reference. Will check them out!

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Two more resources to me who have been completely helpful is former FBI agent Steven K. Brown who wrote The Complete Idiots Guide to Private Investigating and Five Things Women Need to Know as well as well as Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman in How to Write a Dick. So many resources out there to help writers, and still I whine!

Terry Odell said...

I use the 'small town' scenario which helps avoid a lot of forensics. But all technology is advancing faster than we can publish, not just forensics. I had to get rid of a reference to a 'floppy disc' (and lose a GREAT line) when I revised a book after I got the rights back. Cell phones used to be the size of most of our cordless phones, and smart phones didn't exist. And forget it if you have a reference to someone getting film developed. I was talking to an ex CIA "spook" (his term) about cell phones and he said, "Don't worry about it. If they can't do it now, they will in 6 months.)

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Terry, agreed about technology. I think most readers assumed that with the smart phones once the batteries were removed a bad guy, Feds what have you would be unable to track. My understanding is now these phones come with a built in battery, which will make plotting more difficult in a small town or big ;) Thanks for commenting.

Al Tucher said...

In most of my stories I adopt Sue Grafton's solution and write in real time in the recent past. That has problems of its own. I once caught a character using Google in 1997, when it debuted in 1998.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Oh, Al, I love this solution. As I have a book that would be a complete failure updated and unable to work plotwise. And, yes, Google, would definitely not fit in that arena.

It happens. I read a Ken Follett novel in which he used an automobile that wasn't out yet. Not criticizing you understand, this is one of those things he shakes his head at and put on his website. Thanks for stopping by

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Joelle and Do Some Damage Blog, thanks for having me! I know good and well Joelle talked to strangers and sold a bunch of books!