Crime Scenes for Writers: Blood Evidence

This type of evidence is often misrepresented on television. How many times have you seen a murder victim lying in a pool of blood on a TV show? These victims are usually in a thick, glossy, bright red liquid pool, right?

Not so much.

Pools of any depth begin to separate. Thin layers of blood tend to dry quickly and become dark brown. These TV victims would realistically be lying in dried, sticky brown stuff or in a sticky mess of separated plasma and browning goo. It may be one of the forensic elements on TV shows that irritates me most, but I’ll get off my soap box now.

Blood is a fascinating substance. It’s three to four times thicker than water. It has a metallic scent and taste. And it’s something we’ve all seen at some point. This “liquid life” also carries with it evidence of poison in many cases, our DNA, information about our health, our blood type, and sometimes our state of mind (adrenaline and cortisol). We’ve used the ABO blood group typing system since about 1930. It was, before DNA, what we used to eliminate possible suspects from crime scenes.

Beyond type and content, how blood is left at the crime scene gives great details about what occurred. For example, blood may be dripped, transferred, or splattered.

Dripped blood is passive, dropped in a round or elliptical pattern depending on whether the bleeding person is standing still, moving slowly, or moving fast. Read by a knowledgeable investigator, direction and rate of movement become clear.

Transfer happens when, say, a hand or sleeve comes in contact with blood and then touches another surface such as a wall or towel. If both parties have been injured (not uncommon in stabbings), their blood may mix before transfer.

Spatter is the sexy part of blood evidence for most people interested in forensics. Spatter comes in three types: low, medium, and high velocity.

Low velocity spatter is often “cast off,” or flung from an object used to strike or stab the victim. Imagine shaking water from your hands to get the idea.

Medium velocity spatter leaves larger patterns, such as arterial spray or blood erupting from the wound when struck.

High velocity spatter is a fine mist and generally caused by bullets.

The pattern of blood spatter, including voids in spatter that may mark the location of the perpetrator, reveals such things as the attacker’s height, left or right handedness, where they were positioned, and possibly how hard the victim was struck. It may also reveal the type of weapon (independent of the wounds), height, strength, and angle of the blows.

Blood is corrosive and really soaks into things. Even with a good scrubbing, traces will remain on most surfaces. It can be painted over, smeared with cleaners, even removed from the naked eye, but it cannot be eradicated completely unless you care to replace every element of the room including those floor joists.

To assist crime scene technicians in uncovering evidence of blood, the traditional method of luminal is used in conjunction with a black light.  These days, lasers are used in some cases and a new forensic camera will eventually replace luminal all together.

Beyond walls, carpet, and furniture, blood can end up in the smallest of nooks and crannies: behind unsealed baseboards, the undersides of lamp shades, on the ceiling across the room. In one case blood,  absorbed through carpet and subfloor(both of which were replaced), only to be discovered along the floor joist. It’s been found in sink drains and plumbing pipes, in soil and on plants, under furniture, in the tiny screws of eyeglasses, between a cleaned knife’s hilt and blade, and even inside the tiniest cracks of a cell phone.

There’s one more thing blood can accomplish. It can, in court, “prove” murder or death if enough blood is present to show that life could not be sustained.

Blood evidence, to my mind, is fantastic for writers. We can hold the tension of lack of evidence and then reveal a whole crime scene with luminal. We can provide what appear to be inconsistencies for our characters to resolve. If set in history, a brilliant detective might use the budding technique of studying blood evidence to solve a crime that is otherwise unsolvable. And the finding of the tiniest speck of blood in the oddest of places can make a case the reader thought was lost.

How often have you seen blood evidence used to great effect in a novel? What was your reaction?

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

Write Until You Die

We are born as writers.

We will die as writers.

We are wholly dedicated to the life of writing.

(Warning: this video contains blood. Should I mention the people munching too?)

(Now that’s a life dedicated to writing…)

Writers write until the day they die. Nothing can contain or stop the wild words in their hearts. Writing makes up the core of a writer’s existence — its in their blood, in the very breath of their life.

We have ink in our veins and pens for fingers. Words flow effortlessly through our brains and onto paper. A habit that is uncontrollable, unbreakable, untamable.

Imaginations illuminate our worlds, a never ending cinema in our minds. Stories eternally unfurl from a reel and we must share the script with the Universe. Through the written form, we bring new realities to life.

Yes, there are days when we are in a slump. There are days when the words are in a traffic jam and we can’t even spell them out. There are even days when we think that the words have completely disappeared, but in reality, they never abandoned us.  They are always there, just sometimes hiding in the dark recesses of our minds… watching, waiting, building up for the pivotal moment of release.

When blocked, we must find that spark and light the fuse to burst the dam. Force the flood of words back into our lives. Read poetry, take a hike, sing a tune, drink a coffee, do cartwheels, or go bungee jumping. Do something exhilarating to invite the muse and turn on the flow of words.

Writers always persevere. Keep positive and keep productive because writers can’t ever stop writing. Our brains won’t allow us. The words won’t allow us.

When the day comes that we finally do stop writing, that’s the day we die.

Write until you die… or are eaten by Titans.


Crime Scenes for Writers: Fingerprints

I’ve been aware that my finger prints are in a federal database for twenty-five years. My husband often jokes that I couldn’t get away with theft or murder because of it. If you were ever employed by an SEC controlled business such as I was, or have worked in a daycare in the last fifteen years, your prints are on file as well.

As far back as 1684, academics lectured on the subject of finger prints. In 1788, Johan Mayer declared our finger prints to be individually unique, but it wasn’t until 1892 that finger prints were used successfully in a criminal prosecution. The man who testified, Juan Vusetech, created a classification of loops, whorls, and arches still used today.

I should interject here that ears, a long-used identifier in Europe, are just as unique as finger prints. However, technology is advanced enough for the matching of foot, toe, and elbow prints as well. Scientists can also match whole or partial palm and heel prints as well, as long as there’s a print with which to compare.

There are two types of finger prints that can be recovered from a crime scene. The first, patent prints, are visible to the naked eye. The second type, called latent prints, must be developed to become visible.

The technique of dusting (using a fine brush of powder above the print, not actually on it) and then lifting a print with tape has been in use since the early 1900s. We’ve come a long way from the black powder and tape method, though. These days there are light powders for dark surfaces, fluorescent powders for textured or multi-colored surfaces (used in conjunction with a black light), and more recently, a laser technique that illuminates the salt and other compounds on the skin’s surface to reveal a clear, photographable print.

For surfaces suspected of holding prints that can’t be raised by more conventional methods, there are two more weapons in the lab’s arsenal. The first involves exposing the surface to vaporized superglue to reveal the print. The second, which is often used only when nothing else works, involves fine gold particles in a metal vacuum to “paint” the prints for visibility. Inroads and successes have also been achieved in lifting prints from skin and porous surfaces.

There are a few limitations to using fingerprints to identify a subject. Since most murders are committed by someone known to the victim, prints are useless unless it can be proven that the suspect has never been at the crime scene or come into contact with the items found there. If the suspect has, for example, often visited his now deceased neighbor, his prints are meaningless to prosecution as they could have been left at any time (unless of course they are left in the victim’s blood). This is a great opportunity for the writer to implicate or draw attention away from a suspect character. If, for example, the reader knows the suspect has been in the house, or has not, but evidence is either to the contrary OR excluded, you ratchet up your reader’s tension.

The other problem with prints is that, while they are unique, they can be quite similar. Print experts use a point system for comparison. Computers are able to match more, but the eight-point match is the baseline. Further points must be matched to eliminate similar prints. It is a time-consuming process and often completed by hand, not computer.

Society is quite aware that finger prints are easily left and easily found, leading more criminals to use gloves. While an actual print can’t be recovered from a gloved hand, size and grip are often evident as the gloves leave something behind as well. And, should the criminal foolishly leave his gloves behind, the prints can be recovered from inside the gloves or on their surface (as part of the process of putting the gloves on).

Prints have been recovered from places people don’t normally think about such as the inside of a belt buckle, a shell casing, the sticky side of duct tape (even after soaking in river water), larger jewelry pieces, paper, faucets, and the undersides of tables, chairs, and countertops. Basically, anywhere someone might rest a finger, a print might be recovered, and the technology will only improve with time.

Because prints are so commonplace and well known to most of us, I think they are often overlooked by both writers and readers, which is a shame. It’s an old method jazzed up by new technology, but still not as sexy as DNA or sensational trace evidence. Still, in the right circumstances, all a jury needs is one single print to convict.

Where is the most unlikely or unusual place you can think of that might yield a finger print?

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

Do You Write What You Know?

What do you think about the old adage of writing what you know?Hosseini Quote

I asked that a couple years ago in a post, and I’ll ask it again. That question still conflicts me.

Back when I was reading Margaret Atwood’s biography, I remember pausing over her process, pondering the way she frequently pulled from the familiarity of her own life to write intricately woven stories. She used Canada as a setting, places she’d been, streets she’d walked, people (or at least an outline of them) that she once knew. Her experiences influenced her fiction—and still do to this day.

However, Margaret Atwood is also known for her speculative works, which are based in the future, just a few of many possible alternative conclusions (scary as her worlds would be) of our current trajectory. She doesn’t know the future or which elements of the future in her novels will eventually (if ever) come to pass, and yet, the fearsome thing about her work is that it is easy to believe it could happen.

So, going back to the first question I wonder: Which is better? A mix of “Write what we know” and “Write what we’d like to know”? Or should we change our approach entirely to “What can we imagine?”

According to BRET ANTHONY JOHNSTON over at the Atlantic, we should go with the latter. When he started writing away from the familiarity of his own life, he found that “the shift was seismic.”

Delving into the deeper unknown and pursuing the more difficult, untreaded path is never easy.  I am a notorious perfectionist. The problem I have with writing what I don’t know is that I run into the feeling that I should know it. Then I start researching. Then I expand that research. Then I have this tendency of trying to know everything about everything and nothing gets written.

But I also have frequently submersed myself into the speculative world, envisioned a future that is not my own, of which I know absolutely nothing, and it has been a freeing lesson in creativity. In this world, my characters and the environment have rules, but they are not necessarily the same rules by which I live. Instead of pushing my own agenda upon them, the well-lit paths of my own past, for instance, I get to witness a new kind of life: one that is not my own to live, yet one that I will live anyway, through them. One that I will come to know, time and again, through my characters.

In that sense, maybe our characters do know best.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pull from the aspects of your life that you do know. It’s entirely possible to bridge the gap between both worlds, writing authentically about the strange, abstract unknown while still drawing from familiar outlines: the sprawling sunset you witnessed on a mountainside, learning a language in a foreign country, meeting a person that all but confounds you. These are real experiences, but they don’t have to meet the same fates as your own.

Abstract elements are combined and reinforced within the tangible nature of fiction. It’s not so much about what we know—it’s about what we could possibly know, and what we continue to learn, with each and every day the we experience the mundane, the novel, the risks.

So my conclusion? Write about the possibilities.

Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things.
Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.

-Brett Anthony Johnston

I’d Like the Big Box Please

MacLeod TSM

Remaining open to creativity might be the hardest thing to do in traditional education today, but most of us, at some point in our lives, feel that tapping on our shoulder. Honoring our creative nature is, in my mind, the best form of self care we can do.

How has your view of creative pursuits changed since you left high school? Did you remain creative or was it something you returned to as an adult?