Writing With a Naked Soul

There are some pretty standard writing cliches out there that I always thought I agreed with. On the surface, I do. Some are just so much more profound than others.

Example: Write what you know. Yes. and no. Write what interests you. Write what you’re willing to research. Write what makes you excited to get to the page. Write what you want to read.

Example: Stick to one genre. I was never a fan of this one. If you are establishing your career by traditional or indie publishing, by all means, it’s very sound advice. I can’t do it. Haven’t done it except when two characters kept feeding me words until I had enough for four or five books. I admire those who can stick to a genre. It’s smart if you want to publish. I do, and plan to, and have to accept that my publishing career will look very different from someone who builds their name in one place to find an audience.

Then there’s the advice to put yourself into your work. I used to think that mostly meant the emotions we lend our characters and the recycling of our own life experiences.

Now I know the best advice I could give a new writer is to write naked. Soul naked. Give your characters your insecurities, your failures, your personal flaws, and more.  I’ve been so filled with uncertainty, pain, loss, and overwhelm at various points of my life. Every artist–writer, actor, painter, song writer, and more–should find a way to channel those things into their work. It’s authentic. Raw. Real. Sometimes it’s cathartic or eye-opening. It resonates.

I think there’s a reason plenty of successful actors, writers, and song-writers were bullied or outcasts or something other than the popular kids who lived in one house in one town while growing up.  How can you give voice to an outcast character if you’ve never been there? How can you give words to deep loss if you’ve never lost something? Not just in general terms, but really specific, personal ways. How does my character explain to her ex, as they are trying to get back together, that she will never go to Paris with him because she had dreamed of them going together and discovering together, and he went without her, just ten days before she could have gone, too. How does she try to explain the pain of his calling her from the Eiffel Tower or sending her photos of sidewalk cafes and the Sacre Coeur, and her horrified frustration as he cheerfully offers to see these places again as soon as she arrives?

How does she explain to him the heart ache, the loss, and the destruction of a dream, to try to get him to understand she might one day go to Paris alone, but it would be far too painful to go with him, and that it had nothing to do with forgiveness? That’s personal. Not Paris, but the emotion behind her circumstances…it’s deeply personal, the way I still feel that loss decades later.

That’s one really cool aspect of being a writer, though. I can take a dream my mother, grandmother, and I shared, and translate the fallout to my character. Likewise,  I can take the experience of relationships that don’t last and “I’ll be here” as a meaningless phrase in the wake of the unexpected and tragic, and give that inner knowing to a character. Let it cause problems in his or her life.

We all have moments like that in our lives. Often painful and not something we want to revisit, those are powerful things to put into our writing. They absolutely do not need to be like for like. I have a relative who asked if it was easier to write about grief after my husband died. The answer is no, not really, because I’ve experienced grief before. It’s a nearly universal emotion. Loss of any kind, and the feelings it engenders, can be translated to loss of a specific kind in the lives of our characters. What did become easier, between his loss and the later fire, was writing about rebuilding and all the attendant losses that come with it as well as some of the good.

As creative people, we can leverage a broken toe into a broken leg, the uncertainty of career change into uncertainty of the fate of life as our characters know it, the pain of the smallest crisis in our own past into the dark night of a character’s soul.  Take the fear of a child’s very high fever, add other experiences, and give your character the terror of something national or global. While it can be like for like, it doesn’t, and often isn’t, have to be. The fear of a child’s fever might simply translate into the fear of illness in your character.

All we have to do is let ourselves feel it when the character needs it, and then be brave enough to write it while vulnerable and naked, bathing in it.

I know, it sounds dramatic. it’s been on my mind as I read passages from other writers that pull tears to my eyes because I recognize that, identify with that…the experience and emotion given to the character. It’s been on my mind when I feel tears or rage or utter frustration as my characters draw on my own emotional repertoire. I’m probably writing this for myself more than anything, to remind myself of the quote by Robert Frost: No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.

This kind of vulnerability is also polarizing to talk about, especially on line. You’ll understand, or you won’t. I’m too reflective/emotional, or I’m explaining a truth that can be damn hard to get across. Whatever you decide, if you are a writer or other type of creator, I hope you remember this post when you look up from your own work and realize just how naked you are within it…

…and decide that’s just the way it should be.

T – Truth

That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.
Tim O’Brien

Humans are born with this amazing ability to replay scenes in our minds, to edit them, recast them, and alter actual events on our mental stage. It’s psychological benefits an be enormous (or destructive depending on the person).

Fiction is a bit like that. We can tell deep truths in stories that we can barely verbalize in the real world. We put our characters through emotional trials that are universal to humanity, allowing the readers to identify and invest in those characters from the front cover to the back. We can rewrite our own experiences and give our characters different reactions and results. That is just one way writing can be cathartic.

There is so much we say, both knowingly and unintentionally, in our work that is truth. What do you think of the quote? What does it bring to mind for you?

B – Books

So many books, so little time.

Frank Zappa

I’ve spent the past twelve months buried in non-fiction . . . text books, books on drilled down topics, books that teach, share, question.  I miss the release and “escape” of fiction. The clock has become my enemy as it doesn’t allow for much personal reading.

I love non-fiction. I’m learning, stretching, and growing. But it’s a different growing and learning than what comes from fiction. If nothing else, I’ve discovered I need a balance between learning/research and losing myself in worlds between book covers.

I’m reaching a milestone birthday this year and Frank Zappa’s quote is really hitting home. There are so many books I have yet to read and the clock is less of a friend going forward.

Crime Scenes for Writers: DNA and Biologics

Here we are at the last post in the series. Time flies, right?

Most of us are familiar with DNA, the individual blueprint for each of us. DNA testing has come so incredibly far in the last twenty years, almost to the point that we expect DNA to answer most if not all of our questions. That makes CAN an interesting place for writers to stymie the investigator (and the reader).

DNA is a powerful tool, yes, but not without exception in the field of criminal investigation. Consider the following scenario:

The Case of Sally Simms

Sally lives alone in her apartment. In the last three days, she’s had new appliances installed, new cable run for the internet, her boyfriend has visited several times, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend were over for dinner, and she had a coworker over for coffee.

Sally is found dead on the floor of her hallway. The science teams go through her apartment collecting everything they can find and Sally goes off to the autopsy table. The police begin with the list of possible suspects: Sally’s boyfriend, sister, sister’s boyfriend, the appliance installer, the cable installer, and the coworker.

DNA is everywhere. Each person in the apartment left their DNA behind. If Sally’s cause of death was a blow to the head, DNA is not helpful unless the object is found and DNA is recovered from parts of the object only the killer would have touched. Your police detective must turn to other investigative means.

During autopsy, should DNA from seminal fluid be found to match both the boyfriend and the sister’s boyfriend, Sally’s sister is going to want an explanation, but it doesn’t make either of them the killer, especially as Sally was dressed and in the hallway. Scrapings from under Sally’s fingernails might yield DNA, but if the suspect shows a scratch healed beyond the time frame of her murder, it might just mean Sally didn’t scrub her hands or under her nails.

Plausible DNA

Now, in most cases, DNA is eliminated because it has a plausible reason for being where it is. If other lines of investigation develop a suspect, DNA might support it, but not be conclusive. I don’t know about you, but I get a perverse kick out of writing crime stories in which DNA is not a major part of evidence, just because I can and I like the unexpected.

DNA is absolutely helpful in the case of serial crimes such as rape and murder, since unknown DNA from crime scenes is entered into and checked against CODIS, the Combined DNA Index. Once a suspect’s DNA is available for match, he or she could be connected to a series of crimes.

DNA can be collected from almost any surface and from almost any body fluid. Hair won’t give DNA but the hair root (if torn out) can. Naturally shed skin won’t give you much, but scrape your arm across an abrasive surface and it’s possible.  And when stranger DNA is present from a person who has no explanation for being at the location, good chances are you have your criminal.


But there’s more. In recent years, we’ve made serious headway into biologics which, in addition to DNA and fingerprints, also includes palm prints, palm vein patterns, facial recognition, ear recognition (mostly in Europe still), Iris patterns, retina recognition, hand geometry, and odor or scent.

What was partially developed for security has become a database of biometric information. The Department of Homeland Security has IDENT, which includes biometric and associated biographic information. The Department of Defense has ABIS, the Automated Biometric Information System. CODIS, which also includes the National DNA Index, will, I suspect, branch into biometrics if it hasn’t already.

We already use biometrics to solve a crime such as Sally’s. Even if the killer wore gloves, should a lamp base or makeshift weapon turn up in good condition, it would be possible to match the size and shape of the hand to the person who wielded it. If her building has solid security camera coverage, facial recognition might identify or confirm a suspect entering and leaving the building near the time of the murder.

The Future is (Mostly) Now

The possibilities are as numerous as the writer’s imagined scenarios.  Consider shifting the story ten years into the future, and the writer could have a lot of fun with solving Sally’s murder.

I hope this series has been helpful. I’ve been working on a series titled Body of Evidence, but I’m not certain you would be interested in reading about the evidence a body can yield after death. Please comment below if you’d like me to post the Body of Evidence series. Though it’s not written in graphic language, some of the subject matter may prove uncomfortable for some readers.

Has anything in this series changed the way you look at criminal investigation from a storyteller’s point of view?

Other posts in this series:

Crime Scenes for Writers: Introduction

Crime Scenes for Writers: Reading the Scene

Crime Scenes for Writers: Fingerprints

Crime Scenes for Writers: Blood Evidence

Crime Scenes for Writers: Ballistics

Crime Scenes for Writers: Trace

Crime Scenes for Writers: DNA and  Biologics

Crime Scenes for Writers: Trace Evidence

Using trace evidence to solve the crime in your story is a great way to delay the payoff and finger the guilty party. I’ve given a list of the most common types of trace evidence and a brief description of each, though they could all be a post on their own.


Clothing, leather, car interiors, carpet, and rope can all provide fibers for the investigators to discover and trace. The Mass Spectrometer is one tool used to identify the chemical makeup of a fiber. For example, carpet manufacturers’ and some fabric manufacturers’ product chemical signatures are in a database or researchable. This could narrow down the year, make, and model in the case of a car, or distribution information in the case of carpet and other fibers.  The most common use of fibers, however, is to match them from the crime scene to the suspect or the suspect’s environment.


Plants have DNA just like we do, so seeds or pods can often be linked to a specific plant. This might tell investigators where the suspect or the victim spent time as plants are often geographically specific.  Another use would be, for example, the discovery of seed pods in the suspect’s vehicle and matching them to the seed pods under the victim.


Larvae and living insects aren’t considered trace evidence, but webs, egg casings, insect parts, and evidence of bites or stings can yield evidence as to location, length of time the victim was at the dump site or crime scene, and even season if the crime occurred well before discover.


Humans and animals shed hair all the time, making hair one of the most common types of trace evidence. Once a suspect is identified, strands of hair can be matched. If the hair is pulled from the root, it may contain enough biological material to get a DNA sample. Pet hair found on or near the victim and also in the suspect’s environment (matched to a specific animal) can also boost the prosecutor’s case.


Fluids include bodily secretions, of course, but other fluids include tree sap, cleaning products, chemicals, beverages, oil and gas, and water (pond water, ocean water, etc.). While these give information about the crime, I’ve always thought it would be interesting to use a fluid as the breakthrough piece of evidence. Something totally out of place would stump investigators and extend the tension of the story.


I like this sort of evidence, and I’m intrigued about how to use particulates to good effect in a murder mystery. Here are four:

  • Paint: In addition to binding chemicals, paint often includes a mineral or metal as a color ingredient. These can be matched to known paint products, vehicles, and other elements of locations. In the world of crime shows, I’ve seen it most often used to identify a vehicle, but wouldn’t it be fun to connect it to an artist’s studio or the statue in the town square?
  • Soil: The great thing about soil is that it’s fairly localized depending on the particulates. Sandy, clay-based, loam, fertilized, mineral-rich . . . all give the investigators information they might not otherwise discover.
  • Metals: Paint, vehicles, tools, clothing fasteners, soil, weapons, and much more, contain metals that can be traced and/or matched to the crime scene, dump site, or suspect’s environment. We see it used most often to identify, again, a vehicle, but flecks of gold might indicate a manufacturing process, and copper shavings might point to the plumbing or construction industry.

Trace evidence offers so many opportunities for the writer and suspense for the reader. It’s by far my favorite type of evidence to include in stories.

The last post in the series is DNA and Biologics. See you then!

How many ways can you think of to stump the reader and detective with trace evidence?


Other posts in this series:

Crime Scenes for Writers: Introduction

Crime Scenes for Writers: Reading the Scene

Crime Scenes for Writers: Fingerprints

Crime Scenes for Writers: Blood Evidence

Crime Scenes for Writers: Ballistics

Crime Scenes for Writers: Trace

Crime Scenes for Writers: DNA and  Biologics