I don’t write police procedurals. I don’t write mystery novels. I don’t even write crime novels, in the strictest sense of the term. And yet, in just about every novel I’ve had published, law enforcement factors in, usually because my supernatural protagonists are trying to avoid becoming entangled with it. Whenever I have a chance to hear someone in law enforcement speak, I jump at it, and I love going to law enforcement panels/presentations at the RWA national conference at the RT BookLovers convention. I always learn something, and even if that knowledge isn’t of direct use the moment I learn it, I can salt it away in my memory banks for times I might need it. Which is why when I heard about the Crime Scene Technology for Writers course being taught at Sirchie, I jumped at the chance to attend even though I had no current and pressing need (that I knew of) for the kind of specialized knowledge that would be taught there.
As a research opportunity, the class was unparalleled. The class was the same one Sirchie offers to law enforcement officers. In fact, along with us writers, there was one crime scene technician with 12 years of experience in our class! (I must be southern here and say “bless her heart.” She was so very tolerant of all the wacky writer questions we bombarded her with.) Everything we learned, we learned by doing it hands-on. We lifted fingerprints from all kinds of surfaces, from paper, to wood, to the sticky side of duct tape, to wet glass. We used a wide array of chemicals to coax fingerprints out of difficult surfaces. We performed presumptive blood and drug tests (on real blood and drugs, no less), and we recovered filed-off serial numbers from completely blank-looking pieces of metal. We saw in first person what Luminol looks like when it’s sprayed on blood, and we saw what a false-positive looks like. (There is no describing that particular effect, except that it’s beautiful. We made our teacher show us again and again and again, oohing and aahing.)
Other things we did . . . We looked at blood spatter scenarios and got an overview of how blood spatter analysts process a scene. (Sirchie also does a blood spatter class, although that is strictly for law enforcement. We were all completely fascinated.) We learned about how to compare fingerprints in search of a match–OMG, do I have a lot of respect for people who can do that! We learned how to take impressions of footwear, how to unstick duct tape from itself, how to do a presumptive test for seminal fluid . . . There are probably things I’m forgetting in this laundry list, but the short version is that we learned a heck of a lot. We even taught our teacher a little something when he was attempting to prove how hard it is to lift fingerprints off of skin. (One of my fellow attendees, Patti Philips, did a wonderful guest blog yesterday about some of the stuff we learned, including what we discovered about getting fingerprints from skin. Her post is much more detailed, so if you want to learn more about the great stuff we did, definitely check it out.)
Will I ever need to write about the details about how to recover fingerprints from the inside of duct tape that has been stuck together? Maybe not. But knowing that it can be done, and having had the sensory experience of doing it myself, puts one more tool in my toolbox for future works. It may even turn out to be the way I foil a bad guy in the future, a way I never would have thought of if I hadn’t gone through this class and learned about it. And even if I never use it, I did learn it was possible, which saves me from making a mistake somewhere down the line because I didn’t know.
Most writers, when they talk about research, are talking about work they do specifically for a particular book. (Like when I tore my hair out trying to research everything about Tasers for the Morgan Kingsley series, unable to find answers to what I like to call “stupid writer questions.”) But that’s not the only kind of research that’s useful to a writer. Research doesn’t have to have a direct and immediate impact in order to be useful. Sometimes, you have to go out looking for information to solve a specific problem, and sometimes the fact that you have this body of knowledge in the first place is what allows you to think of a solution for the problem you’re facing.
So my advice to writers out there, whether you’re published or unpublished is: whenever you have a chance to learn, do it. You never know what will be useful in the future, and you can never go wrong by broadening your field of knowledge. And for anyone who writes novels set in the contemporary world with suspense elements, learning more about how law enforcement of any kind works will almost certainly end up being useful one way or another. (As an example, at Sirchie, I learned that an assumption I had made about fingerprints–that prints taken for the purpose of eliminating people from suspicion end up stored and searchable–was incorrect. A very important plot point in a book I’m thinking of self-publishing has my heroine being identified based on such prints, and it’s just not likely to happen that way. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Now, I can fix it.)
For those who thinks this all sounds very intriguing, you might want to check out the Writer’s Police Academy, which I signed up for as soon as I got home form Sirchie. It looks like a great opportunity for writers to learn more about a ton of law enforcement topics.
And lastly, I thought I’d share a few pictures from my Sirchie experience. (And since WordPress isn’t cooperating with me, the caption for the second photo should be: One of the blood spatter scenarios. Yes, it’s real blood. (Sheep.))