Getting Into a Crime Scene

Forensic

My friend Ben Ireland, author of the Young Adult Urban Fantasy Billy Blacksmith series asked me via Twitter:

In my WIP I have a murder scene—39 workers slain at a work site—we need my MC and his demonic friend to get into the crime scene. Who would be allowed in? A police officer? A detective? Mulder and Scully? Large outdoor worksite, but it’s pretty remote. They have tents hiding the bodies from anyone that can manage to look over the fence. And my MC has a disguise so he can pass off as a legitimate police officer.

Thanks, Ben. The answer is too complex to be answered via Twitter so I’m posting the response here. I’ll start with general procedures then move into some specifics. Keep in mind that I’m not a law enforcement officer nor do I play one on TV.

The first responder is generally the patrolman. His first job is to clear the site of any danger. They don’t know if the killer is still on site. With a large and/complex site, they may call for backup before doing this. Once danger is cleared, then he will render aid to any victims. They may not be dead, but injured. The first officer will call in the incident and request detectives and maybe an ambulance and paramedics. He will then secure the area to make sure evidence does not get contaminated.

If paramedics and ambulance has been called, they may arrive before the first policeman. They will often attempt to render aid to the victim. This will likely include moving the victim, which can cause loss or contamination of evidence, but keeping the victim alive should be the first priority.

The first officer on the scene will have a clipboard and everyone entering the scene will sign in and out. Name, department, rank, date, and time of entrance and exit are recorded. There should be a single way in and the same way out so as not to contaminate things. On TV you often see the detective drive up to the scene, get out of his car, then lift the crime scene tape to get under it and wander right up to the body. No way it’s done like this. That’s a trope.

The first detectives should get an update from the original officer. They will usually do a visual inspection of the scene and body and may take some pictures with their phones. They’ll generally request forensics and coroner/medical examiner. Additional uniformed officers will be arriving to do crowd and traffic control and help guard the scene. Supervising officers, lieutenants, sergeants, captains, maybe even the chief are likely to show up. They should not go into the scene. They are all supervisors, not investigators. Even the mayor and district attorney should be kept outside the crime scene tape.

The coroner or medical examiner (ME) will be in charge of the body. The homicide detective may request that forensics remove trace evidence from the body before the ME does his examination. Photos of the scene will be taken before any examination of the body. During this time, forensics may inspect the surrounding area.

After the ME has completed his preliminary investigation and taken the body, forensics will inspect the immediate area. Pictures are again taken so they have before and after photos. After this, homicide detectives will again take the single route in and inspect things. They may already know the identity of the victim if ID was found on or near the body.

Depending on the scene and evidence collection, the police may keep custody of the area anywhere from hours to days. I heard of a case where a body was found in a house and the ME was not available, so police turned on the A/C to keep the house cool and reduce decomposition. Two days later the ME arrived.

Now turning to specifics of Ben’s question. Because the crime scene is in a rural area, the first officer on the scene will probably be a deputy sheriff. It may be difficult to keep the scene clear of wildlife due to the location and size of the area. Thirty-nine bodies is a lot. The Sheriff would likely call for help from neighboring law enforcement, the state Bureau of Investigation, and possibly the FBI. However, the Sheriff will run the investigation as it is his jurisdiction. Several medical examiners would be needed to process the bodies before decomp sets in. The police would have control of the scene probably for several days.

As for your MC, if he could produce the correct ID, real or fake, he could get in with other officers needed to process the scene. Looky-loos, supervisors, DA, etc. would likely be kept far away, maybe several miles, from the fence in case there is any evidence outside of it.

One other thing you should research. There is a difference between a medical examiner and a coroner. The coroner is usually an elected office and pretty much anyone can be elected. In some counties in California, the sheriff is also the coroner. A medical examiner has a medical degree is is usually appointed. Check which one is used where your story take place.

Now, having said all this, it’s your story and you can write it how you want. Thanks for asking, Ben and I hope this answers your question.

It’s Conference Season!

I love going to conferences. The energy I bring back to keep writing is wonderful. But my favorite part is meeting old friends and making new ones. I’m hitting up lots of conferences this year. A complete list is here.

One in particular has me excited. It’s the Snake River Writers Conference in Idaho Falls, ID. Yes, it’s a small town and a small conference, but I will be speaking! I have a brand new presentation, Write Crime Right. Here’s what it’s about:

Movies and television are rarely accurate when depicting crime investigations. As authors, we owe it to our readers to get the facts straight. In this presentation, you’ll learn how to keep things accurate, but still allow for some literary creativity. Topics covered include: guns and other weapons, police department organization, medical examiner vs. coroner, forensics, SWAT, and more.

Snake River Writers Conference is September 25-26 and is only $99. Registration opens April 15. I hope to see you there.

More Advice for Podcasters

Back in October, 2018, I blogged Improve Your Podcast. I suggest you go back and read it. I’ll wait while you do. Now, here we are in January, 2020 and I have some additional recommendations to make your podcast better.

I’ve recently been sampling some crime/mystery fiction podcasts. Some (This was an issue with at least three I sampled) have great content but the sound is so bad, I can’t listen to them. The issue isn’t that the entire podcast is bad, it’s that the podcast has either two hosts or a host and a guest. The sound level on one person is fine, but on the other, it’s so low, I can’t hear what is being said.

Many centuries ago, I was a disk jockey at several commercial radio stations. I learned all about how different inputs have different sound levels. Setting the input volume the same on each of them isn’t enough. It’s the volume that is output from your control board that counts. This one here is very similar to one I used. I could set all the knobs at say, six, but that would not guarantee the sound that came from each input would be the same.

What you need to do is watch the VU meter. The VU stands for Volume Units. The VU meter shows you the sound level of the output. The louder the input, the further to the right the needle will go. You want the sound to be as close to the red line without going into the red line. To have the sound be consistent for all inputs, some will need to have the input volume set at say four while another will need it at eight.

It isn’t enough to have good content in your podcast, you also need good production values. So, if your podcast is one I sampled and you have volume issues, I’ll give you some time to fix them, then I’ll sample it again. If you still have problems, I won’t come back.

Review: The Dutch Shoe Mystery: An Ellery Queen Mystery

Ellery Queen mysteries are classics. The Dutch Shoe Mystery, first published in 1931 is a prime example. An elderly woman, the benefactor to a local hospital, is in a coma due to a fall. As she is readied for surgery, someone strangles her. The entire hospital staff and one of the patients, a local gangster, are suspects. The clues (or clews as the authors wrote it), lead no where. Ellery and his police inspector father are frustrated. When their houseboy says something, it breaks the case for Ellery. As in every Ellery Queen, there is a point where the authors stop the story to tell you that you have all the clues and it’s time for you to figure it out. I had two suspects at that point, one that was correct.

While not the first Ellery Queen mystery, The Dutch Shoe Mystery can still be a place to start enjoying the series.

Top 10 Books of 2019

According to Goodreads, I read 32 books in 2019. My goal in the Goodreads reading challenge was 30 books, so kudos to me for exceeding my goal (Note: I expect to finish one more by year’s end.) For 2020, my goal is 25 books. Why less? I want to read some Sherlock Holmes stories and plan to read one between each book I complete, so I will read fewer books.

Getting back to 2019, here are the 10 best books I read, presented in no particular order:

  • The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Education of a Coroner by John Bateson
  • The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
  • Thicker than Water by Johnny Worthen
  • Rock with Wings by Anne Hillerman
  • Talking Mysteries by Tony Hillerman
  • The Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian (I could add the other books in this series, but then I’d have more than ten on the list.)
  • Watcher in the Woods by Kelley Armstrong
  • Three in a Box by Edgar Box (Gore Vidal)

Yes, Anthony Horowitz is listed twice. He’s quickly become one of my favorite writers. Kelley Armstrong will always have a place on my top books lists.

Review: The Ninja Daughter

Lily Wong has secrets. The child of a Chinese woman and an American man with Scandinavian ancestry, she learned Japanese ninja skills as a child. She also hasn’t told them about her job protecting women and children for a shelter.

When her latest charge pulls her into a murder investigation, she ends up involved with the Ukranian and Korean mafias, witnesses the murder to two Korean mobsters, is captured and tortured, and almost gets killed herself.

The Ninja Daughter, the debut novel from Tori Eldridge, is a wild suspense and mystery ride, full of suspense and intrigue. You will wonder what’s next for Lily. My only issue is that Lily, whose sister was killed, assumes that all men are after one thing. This is brought out more than once in the story and in a way that left me feeling the author feels the same way. (Note: I’ve met Tori and did not get the sense that she feels this way.)

If you’re looking for a quick read, full of suspense and intrigue, I highly recommend The Ninja Daughter. I look forward to Lily’s next adventure. (4/5 stars)

Review: The Mysteries of Gore Vidal

There are many great mystery writers that we’ve all probably read. Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle come to mind. There are also authors from other genres who also wrote great mysteries. Among them are JK Rowling, Nora Roberts, and Gore Vidal. Wait…Gore Vidal?

Yes, Gore Vidal. Back in the early 1950s, he had been blacklisted and could not get anything published. Publisher Victor Weybright suggested he write a murder mystery and he’d publish it. (BTW, Gore Vidal was not his legal name either.) Over lunch, Weybright suggested he use Edgar after mystery writer Edgar Wallace. After lunch the pair went to a party that afternoon for a Mr. and Mrs. Box. It didn’t take long for Vidal to come up with the name Edgar Box.

From 1952-1954, Edgar Box wrote three mystery novels, all are led by amateur sleuth and public relations specialist Peter Sargeant. The novels are frequently combined into a single tome. I read them under the combined name “Boxed In”.

In “Death in the Fifth Position”, Sargeant is hired to publicize a ballet company. When the lead dancer is killed during a performance and lands in the fifth postion, he gets pulled into solving the murder.

My favorite of the three is “Death Like it Hot.” A terrific name for a mystery. In this story, Sargeant is hired to do a big PR splash for an ambitious Senator. But he ends up dead on the night before he’s to announce is run for President.

The last story is “Death Before Bedtime.” I like the love interest in this story the best. Here, Sargeant spends a week at the home of a Long Island socialite where he is hired to get the word out for a big party. But when one of the house guests, the wife of a famous painter, ends up dead, he again jumps into action to solve the murder.

All three stories are a delight. Just as you think you know who the killer is, Box twists things in a way that has you guessing again. You really don’t know until the very end. I was left wishing he’d written more mysteries. If you’re looking for light-hearted, well written stories, you can’t go wrong here. Open the Box and give them a read.

Monkeys, Retreat!

This past weekend, I attended the Infinite Weekend, a writing retreat for the Infinite Monkeys chapter of the League of Utah Writers. I’ve this before and will continue to do so…retreats are magical. This one was in this hills above the Salt Lake valley.

I completed the first draft of something that is foreign to me, a horror story. I don’t read horror. I don’t watch horror, but earlier this month I took a horror writing class from my good friend Johnny Worthen and had an assignment to write 500 words of a story. I had totally forgotten about it until Thursday night when my wife reminded me to do it. Well, Saturday morning arrived and I had nothing. Class was scheduled for 10. I quickly whipped out something that was pretty damn good. So, at the retreat, I got out a first draft. I plan to submit this for inclusion into the Utah Horror Writer’s anthology.

Great progress was made on “Compelled to Kill”, my debut novel. I’ve been pansting this story and my gut kept telling me “something’s wrong with it.” I revised several chapters, sent them off to my editor, then got to work figuring things out. I started by listing things that have to happen in the story, added suspects, clues, and red herrings. Then I listed out, chapter-by-chapter what needs to happen. The light-bulb came on over my head. I knew what was wrong and have a plan of attack.

There is also the rest and rejuvenation of a retreat too. You come away energized and ready to take on writing projects. Many attendees did pre-writing to get ready for NaNoWriMo. I won’t be starting a new novel, but will be working to finish up one that I started nearly five years ago.

Here’s to writing retreats. I can’t wait for the next one.

The Quills Conference 2019

Eghty-four years ago, The League of Utah Writers was born. Eighty-four years ago, the league starting having an annual conference. Over the years, the name, location, and dates have changed. Today, it is called The Quills Conference. And it is an amazing event. (See this story from Fox 13.)

Writers from across Utah, and in fact, the country, converged to meet other writers, editors, and agents. The goal is to learn from others and network. This year was a huge success. Several agents and editors, who attend dozens of conferences a year. declared Quills as one of the best conferences they’ve ever attended. I credit an amazing volunteer staff and other attendees, in making this a great event.

In the following recaps, you may feel slighted as I’ve left out lots of details. That’s because the content is property of the presenters. If I add it here, you can just read this and not go to a conference where they are presenting.

Day One

So, what did I do? I learned. A lot. The conference started on Thursday half-day epth classes. I chose “Expand and Contract – The Dance of the Well Paced Story” taught by Angie Hodapp and her husband Warren Hammond. If you make your story too slow, readers lose interest, too fast and readers get confused. You want it to be just right. (I call this the Goldilocks Syndrome.) Angie and Warren gave us tools to figure out where our stories have these problems and then more tools to fix them. Things like narrative, turning points, scene and chapter, plot structure, Great presentation full of information I will definitely make use of.

The afternoon feature Chantelle Aimee Ozman. She presented “What to do after THE END: Editing, Pitching, and Querying.” I first met Chantelle this past March at Sleuthfest in Florida. She’s awesome. I wanted to see this presentation again, She didn’t disappoint. Clear, down-to-earth advice on editing, pitching, and querying. Great stuff. I look forward to more from Chantelle later this month at Central Coast Writers Conference in California.

Thursday wrapped up with a Reception/Mixer where I met lots of local authors and many of the special guests including Ann Hillerman. Being a mystery writer, I had been looking forward to this since last years conference. Ann is one of the great, giving, caring authors out there.

Day Two

Friday morning found me back with Angie Hodapp for “Theme: What it is and Why You Need It.” I had been to presentations before on theme, but I never quite got it. Somehow, I knew it was important. Turns out I was right. (Mark the day on your calendar, “Craig was right”.) Theme is the underlying story. For example, your story may be a police procedural set 1960s Chicago where one cop is black, the other white. Your theme may be civil rights. If you deal with a particular theme, you must also deal with its opposite.

After that, back to Warren Hammond. (Do you see a pattern here?) His presentation was “The Wheels Keep Spinning and I Don’t Know What to Do”. As a writer gains experience, at some time, she’ll hit a point where she can’t achieve her writing goals or the current WiP is stuck and she can’t seem to move it forward. There are no shortcuts to learning the craft. Identify your weak spots and lay out a plan to conquer them. Learn what habits made other writers successful and adapt them for you.

I continued with Warren’s class “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Stellar Characters”. Luckily no towel was needed. Characters, great characters, are what readers are looking for. That’s what pulls them in and gets them to really like your book. Your characters need to be multi-dimensional, have goals, motivations, conflicts, and stakes. Lots of advice on how to do all this.

Anne Hillerman was up next. Her presentation “Setting: Where Fiction Lives” was all about location. In her books, the Navajo Reservation comes alive and now I know why. Setting is more than just the location on the map. She talked about fundamentals of setting: locale, time of year, time of day, weather, natural landscape, man-made features, eras of historical importance, social/political environment, population, and ancestral influences are all part of setting.

The day finished up with the late night presentation “After Dark: Let’s Talk About Sex Scenes.” Quills offered two versions of this. A tame version and one they billed as “18+”. That’s the one I picked because I’m not afraid of the topic and the presenter, Alex Harrow is amazing. They went into various areas and how to write them and not write them. While there were naughty words, such as different things to call a penis or a vagina, there were no graphic pictures. Great presentation and one where I learned stuff.

Day Three

My brain was nearly full by the time Saturday arrived, but I pushed forward. Roslyn Eames got things started with “Writing Emotion: The Objective Correlative.” You do this with objects, metaphor, situation, chain of events, and movement and gestures. One thing to keep in mind, the bigger an issue, the less you write about it.

Next up, “Content an Audience Can’t Ignore” from Linne Elizabeth. This was more about marketing and blogging than writing a novel, but the ideas were very important. The goal is to give the audience what they need and want. You do this by knowing your audience, setting SMART goals to get there, writing a good narrative, and keeping it simple.

Then it was Hammer time. Back to Warren Hammond for “Rated R for Violence.” As a crime fiction writer, I was very interested in hearing where the line is between too much and not enough. The answer turns out to be: the line is where you want it. Keep in mind your audience. How does the violence affect your character. Keep in consistent in your story. Use it to add emotional impact. Learn the mechanics of writing violence.

Anne Hillerman came next with “Organic Writing – Finding Your Own Perfect Process.” I didn’t take many notes here, but the big take-away is to structure your plans with room to add serendipity.

The final class of the day was Dave Butler’s “You’re Going to Need a Bigger Pie.” This was all about how to build your reader and writer community following. One suggestion that stuck with me was to put reading recommendations at the bottom of your newsletter or blog about them.

Quills always ends with a big banquet where we feast and winners of the league’s annual writer contests were announced. You can look for the list soon on the league web site. Congratulations to everyone that won, placed, showed, or even just entered.

Then, it was time for the unofficial end to the weekend, BarCon. This is where attendees move to the hotel bar to imbibe on a beverage of choice. It can be of the adult variety or just water. This is where much of the networking takes place. I have met wonderful writers at BarCons and we are still friends.

Quills 2020 is set for August 13-15 at the same location with special guest Jonathan Mayberry. I hope to see you there.

RMMWA

A year ago I joined Mystery Writers of America, one of the largest organizations for mystery writers in the US. The problem was, I was placed in the Rocky Mountain chapter that meets primarily in Denver. So, I never participated.

That’s all changing now. I have agreed to be the Utah Representative on the chapter board. I won’t be going to Denver every month to attend meetings but I will be bringing RMMWA to Utah. Stay tuned for more details as we work them out.