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Article on Writing Crime by Jane Risdon

 

Reading stories about crime in all its dastardly forms has always been a passion and when I decided to write, crime was my genre of choice – no argument. From the writings of Micky Spillane right up to date with Peter James, Kathy Reichs, and even venturing into the world of espionage with John Le Carre, I have read voraciously; enjoying and learning.

Upon commencing my own crime writing I soon realised that there were great gaps in my knowledge, especially when it came to the Forensic side of murder investigations, so I decided I should garner as much knowledge as I could – without going to University to study Forensic Science full time, I set about undertaking several courses offered on-line to those not wanting to attend formal education.

It’s been a revelation. I think that given another life I wouldn’t have gone into the Music Business, I’d have become a Forensic Pathologist or Anthropologist. When I was young I’d no idea such professions existed, let alone that women would come to dominate these fields.

I found out about several suitable courses and for the last 2 years I’ve been taking various courses with a number of universities, not just based in the UK, which offer on-line study. It has been the most wonderful experience. I’ve studied with tutors, well known professors and experts in the fields of Forensic Science in all its manifestations.

I’ve learned about identifying the dead from skeletal remains – Forensic Science and Human Identification: the investigation determined sex, age, ethnic group and more about bones which had lain undiscovered for many years, and which eventually led to the identification of the victim and the cause of death and, by examining the bones for injuries discovering which weapons might have been used and how, as well as the investigation of the crime leading to the conviction of the murderer.

Later I studied Forensic Science and Criminal Justice: covering many cases of Miscarriages of Justice, and how the various Police agencies in the UK and around the world work together. I’ve studied Forensic Science: Witness Investigations, where Police obtain witness statements and interview using the latest techniques, and how to ensure a witness has actually seen what they believe they’ve seen. It demonstrated that we cannot always believe our own eyes.

I went on to study Forensic Science: an introduction to the basics which covers DNA, Fingerprints, Ballistic, Dental Records, and Blood Splatter analysis for example. All fascinating and so complex. Not at all like the CSI programmes on television which make crime scene investigations looks so simple. We even studied a murder case right through from the discovery of a body to the actual investigations which led to an arrest and conviction.

In addition to these courses I have studied basic Archaeology which has been so helpful in understanding the differences in ethnic groups – skull shapes for example – which help identify a person’s ethnicity, as well as excavating a burial site and recording it and maintaining the integrity of the site and the human remains. All very helpful to me as a crime writer who wants to ensure that what I write is as accurate and real as possible.

Of course I don’t write all this into my stories, turning them into boring technical tomes. Rather I use the information when I am plotting and I need to know what happens if and when this or that happens, which methods the investigators use to discover how long someone has been dead, how long a clandestine burial has been in situ, and when a grave was dug and if it can reveal any clues to the victim or the perpetrator. What happens when someone is injured prior to or just as death occurs – how do wounds heal and how fast – this all helps determine time of death, or how old an injury might be.

When I come to write a scene my background knowledge can prove invaluable in determining how I go about it. I can thank Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell for turning me on to Forensic Science. They’ve opened up a whole new world to me, one that is fascinating and totally addictive.

I don’t write Police Procedurals but some of the knowledge I’ve garnered by reading Peter James and many other crime writers, in addition to what I’ve learned on the courses I mentioned, have all helped me not just to write more accurately – I hope – but to understand how things work and why, when Police investigate there seem to be so many people at a crime scene; who does what and why.

TV series like CSI have whetted the public appetite for all things forensic, but do keep in mind these shows don’t depict reality forensically.

 

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