Guest Blogger: D.P. Lyle
Over the past decade I’ve answered literally thousands of medical and forensic questions for fiction writers. I think last count was somewhere north of 6000. One of the questions I’m often asked is: How much do I need to know about forensic science? The short answer is: Just the right amount. But what is that amount?
If you write cozies or literary fiction or softer crime fiction do you really need to include a lot of forensic techniques in the story? No. Do you need to know what exists out there in the real world? Yes. Even if your story does not include the use of DNA or toxicology or forensic anthropology or any of the other forensic specialties, you have to know what is available and what might be brought into the scenario that you created. Readers know and your failure to understand what is available could result in a breach of faith with the reader. If a killer comes in to a house and commits a murder and walks out and yet you never consider that fingerprints and shoe prints might enter the investigation, the reader will quickly lose confidence that you understand criminal investigation. Maybe your little old lady sleuth would not think of it but the police who were involved in the investigation would. So it can’t be completely ignored.
That said, you do not have to delve into these techniques in any detail. Just know they’re available and know what the results are and then let those results impact the characters in your stories as they naturally would or in any believable fashion that you want.
This brings up another issue. With the exception of the most high-concept movies, your story should never be built around a single cool scientific fact. That’s not a story. That’s an essay. The key is that the scientific fact is not the heart of the story but simply the background on which the story is told. It is the characters that drive the story and therefore it is the effect of the cool science on these characters that make the story rich. For example, rather than spending 10 pages on explaining how DNA analysis is done wouldn’t it be much better to spend those 10 pages on how the result of a DNA analysis affected a character? What if he had an innocent explanation for his DNA being at the crime scene but could not reveal it? What if his DNA had been planted and he knew he was innocent but the investigators felt otherwise? What if it wasn’t his DNA at all but the conspiracy to frame him reached all the way into the crime lab? I bet you can think of a dozen other ways the lab result could alter your story and your character.
It’s the effect of the science on the characters in the story that is important and not the science itself.
In my Dub Walker series, my protagonist is a forensic science and criminal behavior expert. He is the guy who best understands how the bits of evidence relate to one another and what the perpetrator was most likely thinking? Sure I have interesting forensic science techniques in my stories but they take up a very small portion of the verbiage. Since Dub is the type that takes every case personally, each bit of evidence affects him, or one of the other characters, on a personal level. Each piece of evidence either helps prove what Dub believes to be true or forces him to think differently. So the cool forensic stuff is only as good as it pushes the story forward and/or changes one or more characters’ words, thoughts, or actions.
The first book in this series, STRESS FRACTURE, is more a Whydunnit than a Whodunnit. The killer is revealed early to the reader, but of course not to Dub, but the driving force behind his deeds is unknown. Dub has to figure out the why before he can focus on the who. The second in a series, HOT LIGHTS, COLD STEEL, is different in that the unmasking of the murderer (or is it murderers?) does not come until late in the book. Here Dub must use forensic science as well as his understanding of criminal thinking in order to close in on the bad guys. Each bit of evidence changes his thinking and his actions.
I hope you will pick up a copy of both books and I hope you enjoy them. I think you will see that it is not the science that’s the most intriguing (though some of it is pretty cool) but rather how the science affects the characters and pushes each story to its climax.
D. P. Lyle, MD is the Macavity Award winning and Edgar Award nominated author of FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES, FORENSICS & FICTION, HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS, and STRESS FRACTURE, a Dub Walker thriller. His essay on Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND appears in THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS. His next Dub Walker novel, HOT LIGHTS, COLD STEEL, and the tie-in novel, ROYAL PAINS: FIRST, DO NO HARM, will be released June, 2011.
He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.