10 Tips on How to Write Believable Crime and Murder Scenes

We’re starting a fun series covering a number of weeks featuring guest posts from professionals who work in medical, police investigation, and legal arenas in order to help writers get “real” in their fiction. Take a peek inside their worlds and ask questions!

Today’s guest post is from Garry Rodgers, who spent years working as a homicide investigator and fornesics coroner and has a lot of great advice for writers who plan to write about crime scenes.

I’ve been around the criminal investigation world for three decades—first as a homicide detective, then as a forensic coroner. I was also the trigger-man on Emergency Response or SWAT Teams and now, in “retirement,” I’m reinventing myself as a crime fiction writer. So I’ve got hands-on experience in life, death, and writing.

I’m also a voracious reader. Not just technical, forensic, and legal stuff but lots of crime fiction. I’m fortunate for on-the-street and in-the-morgue background to draw from, though it’s a curse when I read stuff that I know is improbable or just plain baloney.

I’m not here to knock other writers. Quite the contrary, I want to help fellow crime-fiction writers through my real-life experiences. And I’d like to assure aspiring writers that you don’t need to be an old cop or forensics wizard to write electrifying crime stories. I’ll bet that 99% of the best-selling crime writers never saw a dead body, let alone smelled one. But that doesn’t matter. The best don’t necessarily write what they know . . . but they all check what they write.

So I’ve compiled my top ten tips on writing believable crime stories.

1. Understand the mechanism of death.

Every human dies because the central nervous system gets unplugged. This happens in many ways, but primarily either the cardiopulmonary system stops, which tells the brain to shut down, or the brain stops, which tells the heart and lungs to give up.

In reality, this is harder to accomplish than it sounds, and it’s human nature not to check out without a fight. So people are actually hard to kill. A bullet to the head is effective, but stabbings, for instance, are time-consuming, difficult, and messy. Poisons are slow, strangling is tough, and folks just don’t stand there while being axed. So when you write the “perfect murder scene,” think about how realistically you kill your victim.

2. Understand time of death.

I’ve read (and seen on the screen) moments in which the coroner/pathologist declares the victim dead at a specific time, such as 10:05 pm. Uh . . . no—not unless someone was there with a stopwatch. Many mortis factors are considered when estimating time of death. Temperature is the biggie, followed by body mass.

A dead body will naturally adjust temperature (algor) to achieve equilibrium with its surroundings and will display time-telling factors, such as muscle stiffening (rigor), blood settling (livor), color (palor), and tissue breakdown (decomp). The presence of toxins also effects body changes. Cocaine amplifies the mortis process, while carbon monoxide retards it. Be careful in getting your forensic guru to commit on specific time.

3. Understand scene access.

Crime scenes are tightly secured. Absolutely no one goes in unless they’re necessary, and then they’ll wear complete personal protective equipment (PPE) to avoid contaminating the scene or themselves. This business of a gumshoe detective in a trench coat, smoking a cigar and leaning over the body, doesn’t happen. Neither does a fifteen-year-old sleuth tagging along to help solve the case.

4. Get the terminology right.

I see writers get basic terms wrong, and it’s the little mistakes that seriously affect credibility. For example, calling a 9mm pistol a “revolver” or saying the body was “prone” on its back on the floor. So much is available through Internet searches or, better yet, having beta readers pick up on errors. Remember: check what you write.

5. Crime-lab results are not so quick.

Processing crime scene evidence is a cumbersome, frustrating, and time-consuming event. First of all, yours is not the only case the lab has, and it will sit in queue to get developed. You’ll probably get bumped to the back of the bus by more urgent files and it could be months before your DNA profile comes in. And, no, a phone call from the scene to your buddy in the lab is not going to speed things up. He’d probably get canned for playing favorites.

6. Don’t get creative with investigational aids.

Most writers fail to consider the multitude of resources used in criminal investigations. DNA is today’s darling, followed by AFIS (the Automated Fingerprint Identification System). Don’t just write in the usual things like forensic autopsies, toxicology, ballistic matching, and document examination. Expand your story by using informants, wiretaps, room bugs and wires, polygraphs, undercover operators, police agents, hypnosis memory enhancement, psychological profiling, computer analyzing, satellite surveillance, and one that’s a real bugger—entomology. Stay away from using psychics, though. I’ve never heard of a case in which psychic information was anything other than a wild goose chase. I think psychics are as toxic to a believable story as a “dream” ending.

7. Use the five senses.

The best page-turners happen when you connect with your reader’s senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. This seems to be the key to pulling off the show-over-tell thing. I keep a little sticky note on the bottom of my screen to remind me to make the most of the senses in each scene—it sure helps in editing.

Smell is the strongest link to emotional connection. It’s one thing to see gruesome photos of a gut-shot corpse, but once you’ve actually whiffed a maggot-crawling, gassing-off decomp, you’ll never forget it. Try writing out that sock-puking stench. Show the detective dumpstering his $500 leather jacket because the putrefaction permeated the calf-skin pores, and dry cleaning it just made it stink worse. True story—happened to me.

8. Craft believable dialog.

Be honest. Cops and crooks swear like sailors, and that’s the reality of the crime world. And some of the most foul-mouthed friends I have are females. One lady pathologist used to slip in some beauts while dictating and dissecting. Fortunately, her assistant was a good editor and covered her butt in reports.

There’s a balance, though. If every fourth word is four letters, it’ll get a little overpowering, but none at all is unrealistic. I read a prominent crime writer’s best seller on a recommendation. I picked up right away that something wasn’t quite right. Then I came to the part where a character had to use profanity—no way around it to be true to the character—and the author wrote it as ‘F@#*!’. I quit reading and I’m sure others did too.

9. Create compelling characters.

Something that’s as true as the fact that you’re going to flush the toilet before bedtime—the best cops and crooks have vibrant personalities. And they’re not entirely good or bad either. One of the Hell’s Angels I know should be a stand-up comedian, and a fellow coroner, who looks like frump-woman, is like travelling with Yoda. She has a terrible drinking problem, though, and sleeps with her incontinent ferret.

10. Understand the science of story.

I can’t stress this enough. There’s every much a science behind storytelling as there is in doing autopsies. Why readers stay up—and can’t put  novel down—is that writers work words that release endorphins in the reader’s brain. One book that all writers, not just crime-writers, MUST read is Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. I promise you’ll never look at storytelling the same.

11. Bonus tip:

This gem is from Joseph Wambaugh. He’s the ex-LAPD guy who wrote The Choir Boys, The New Centurions, and The Onion Field, and invented the character Roscoe Rules, whom every cop loves . Wambaugh said, “The best crime stories are not about how cops work on cases. They’re about how cases work on cops.”

I hope these tips help you to be authentic in your “crime scenes.”

What bits have you seen on TV shows or movies, or have read in novels, that seem inaccurate or unbelievable to you? Got any specific questions?

Garry Rodgers is a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police homicide detective and forensic coroner. He also served as a sniper on British SAS-trained Emergency Response or SWAT teams and is a recognized firearms expert. He’s now an Amazon top ten10 best-selling crime writer and blogger.

Garry Rogers headshotGarry welcomes your crime-writing questions, especially on forensics or firearms. He can be reached here via e-mail. Visit Garry at his website here.  And follow Garry on Twitter.

Feature Photo Credit: projectexploration via Compfight cc

72 Responses to “10 Tips on How to Write Believable Crime and Murder Scenes”

  1. Angie Dixon March 2, 2015 at 6:24 am #

    How fun! I don’t currently write mystery fiction, or any fiction at all. My primary skill set is in nonfiction. But I am moving quickly back toward fiction, and hopefully back toward mystery fiction in the future, with a much deeper understanding than I had the first time I wrote something in that field.

    Thank you.

    • Garry Rodgers March 2, 2015 at 10:21 am #

      Hi Angie & thanks for commenting. I’ve written mostly non-fiction over the years – investigation and forensic reports, legal documents, and research articles. It was a really big learning curve when I set out to write my first novel and I know I’ll never stop learning. Hopefully you and others get some good from these tips.

  2. Curtis Manges March 2, 2015 at 8:26 am #

    Top-rate advice, Garry; thanks. I’m familiar with most of your suggestions, especially about attention to research and getting the details right, but what really caught my attention was point #10. I take free online courses for entertainment, and psychology and brain science is my favorite topic. I’ll be ordering the book you named, just for my own endorphin rush. If it helps my writing, so much the better.

    • Garry Rodgers March 2, 2015 at 10:25 am #

      Compliment appreciated, Curtis. ‘Wired For Story’ will change the way you look at storytelling. I highly recommend all writers, fiction & non-fiction read this book by Lisa Cron. Here’s a link to her YouTube TED Talk:

  3. Brian Hoffman March 2, 2015 at 11:19 am #

    Excellent post. A couple of other things: Crime Scene Investigators don’t solve cases in the field. They are scientists and work in a lab on dozens of cases at time. Leave them in the lab. Second, be sure to get technical facts right. I was lost in the middle of a mystery novel when the main character ‘clicked the gun’s safety off’. Fine, but the gun was a Glock. No safety.

    I try to remember that readers are smarter than writers and one gaffe can ruin the reader’s experience and damage their trust in the author.

    By the way, I had to check to see how the word ‘gaffe’ was spelled. Do your research!

    • Garry Rodgers March 2, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

      Hi Brian!

      Good point about the CSI people. In my jurisdiction. British Columbia, Canada, we use a cooperative role between the police Forensic Identification Section (FIS) and the coroner service. The coroners have investigative field agents who visit the scenes along with the “Ident” members and examine the bodies. Depending on the seriousness, these same investigators maintain continuity of the body all the way through to the morgue & autopsy.

      Hey – you had me going with the ‘gaffe’ word. I thought I had used it & misspelled it so I went back through the post looking to see how I screwed up. Check what you write 🙂

      • Brian Hoffman March 3, 2015 at 8:04 am #

        I mean I had to check my own work. I used the word gaffe. Sorry for not being clear.

  4. Sue Coletta March 2, 2015 at 12:10 pm #

    So nice to see you here, Garry! Kate Becket on Castle recently said she was putting an APB out for a suspect. What is this the 1980’s? It’s a BOLO! Why the writers didn’t catch it is beyond me. Excellent post as usual, my friend. Sharing widely!

    • Garry Rodgers March 2, 2015 at 1:28 pm #

      Imagine seeing you here, Sue 🙂 OK, I admit it. I had to Google ‘Kate Becket Castle’ (I rarely watch the CSI / cop shows since Hill Street Blues finished up). We never used APP & BOLO is more of a US term. 10-40 is the radio code.

      And here’s another dose of reality for crime writers. Very, very few detectives look as good as Stana Katic 🙂

      • cslakin March 2, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

        Well, few women are as attractive as she is! I love watching Castle, but I wonder just how realistic the show is. However, I don’t watch for the realism but to see Nathan Fillion do his thang (loved Firefly!).

        • Garry Rodgers March 2, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

          I had to Google Nathan Fillion, too. Looks like I have to get out of my Canadian igloo more often.

        • Sue Coletta March 2, 2015 at 2:15 pm #

          Totally agree with you, CS. I love Castle being Castle. It’s the best part of the show. Garry, for no other reason, watch it for the laughs. I think, like most writers, you’ll get a kick out of it.

      • Sue Coletta March 2, 2015 at 2:16 pm #

        I know who to follow. *wink* This is one of my favorite blogs!

  5. Karen MacDougall March 2, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

    Hi, Garry,
    Thanks for the link to the Ted Talk by Lisa Cron. It was a very powerful message indeed. I also appreciated your top 10 tips on writing believable crime stories. For someone who knows that the devil is in the details and can spend far too much time trying to get her facts right, can I play devil’s advocate and suggest that while accurate details help to form a story, create atmosphere, transport us to a different place and time, that a writer has to know when to stop being a stickler for detail; that 90% of your readership will not know that a 9mm pistol should not be referred to as a revolver and that in terms of passing on the essence of your story, knowing that a gun was used to commit the crime is as much as most of us need to know to ‘get’ the message from the story. Rightly or wrongly, I do sometimes have to mentally stop myself from chasing down some minor details in the pathological need to ‘get it right’, reminding myself that it is ‘only’ a novel (don’t scream!) and ‘so what’ if I get it wrong, no one will get hurt in the process. I guess what I am talking about is knowing how to strike a balance, when to know which details are important to conveying the message and which are less so. To use Lisa’s example of the dangers of eating red berries, I’m sure that details such as size and color of berries, where they grow are more important than say the fact that the Neanderthal who ate the berries and died wore a wooly mammoth skin verses a generic ‘animal skin’. Would love to hear your feedback on when/if there is such a things as too much detail.

    And Brian, I do appreciate your comment, that ‘some’ readers will have the knowledge to know that a Glock does not have a safety, but the vast majority of us wont. Again, it comes back to how sloppy the writer is considered to be because, yes, gone are the days when a writer could ‘create’ their own history and facts deliver a story full of action and inaccuracies and expect the reader to accept them, as opposed to one where the author makes a slip here and there. I would hate to think that one gaffe would break a line of trust, for we are only human after all (isn’t that an interesting saying??). Is it better then to use the generic term ‘gun’ rather than Glock, to steer clear of muddy waters?

  6. Garry Rodgers March 2, 2015 at 1:39 pm #

    You make a great point, Karen. There is a limit to getting the minute details correct. At some point you have to do the best you can, ship it, and get on to the next work.

    I’m obviously anal about the correctness of evidence given my background and I agree that most readers wouldn’t have caught Brian’s remark about the Glock safety – I had to do a double take because I’ve never owned a Glock but he’s right about most readers being smarter than a lot of writers take them for. I’d say that they more detailed you write, the more time you have to spend checking the facts and that can be hugely time consuming.

    I guess it ‘comes down to letting small errors slide and watching for something as big as calling the red berries ‘blueberries’. That could be fatal.

  7. Angela Duffield-Warren March 2, 2015 at 1:41 pm #

    Hi Garry,
    Thank you for the article it has made me think about the crime novel I am busy writing. Being authentic is so important. Writing is hard work. It requires a lot of research and I appreciate the advice you have provided in your article. My uncle was a police reservist for the SAP and I am a biometrics officer I hope that this will help me to create authentic stories.

    Susanne has been very encouraging and I hope my novel will turn out to be a page turner!
    Thank you.

    • Garry Rodgers March 2, 2015 at 2:10 pm #

      I hope these tips help, Angela. Susanne is a wealth of knowledge and experience. I’m looking forward to reading her newest craft book “The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction”. It’s available on Amazon at

      http://www.amazon.com/Key-Pillars-Novel-Construction-Blueprint/dp/0991389476/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

      Best wishes for your work.

      • cslakin March 2, 2015 at 2:13 pm #

        Thanks for mentioning my book (and the workbook is out too!). Now, you really don’t know who Nathan Fillion is? You’ve never seen Firefly? I highly recommend it for some great plots, characters, and dialog!

        • Garry Rodgers March 2, 2015 at 2:22 pm #

          I feel like a cave-dweller being exposed. I had to Google Firefly, too. My TV time is limited to the news, NFL, American Idol, and Big Bang Theory. God, I love BBT – talk about great writing & characters.

          • cslakin March 2, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

            Well, there’s your problem right there: watching American Idol and the NFL. Sheesh!

          • cslakin March 2, 2015 at 2:28 pm #

            Thanks for the post, Garry. I learned so much in that short list. I’ve written one crime novel and had to interview quite a few people to get my facts straight but still wonder if I did a very realistic job of it. I think it’s challenging for a writer to tackle something that requires a lot of research to be accurate on so many levels. But it’s great to have help from pros like you, websites, and agencies willing to answer questions.

  8. Garry Rodgers March 2, 2015 at 3:06 pm #

    Love doing these posts, Susanne. Thanks for the opportunity & exposure. Looking forward to reading other in this series.

    I guess I write what I know… it’s my comfort zone. I can’t imagine me trying to write romance or God forbid, erotica. I’d probably turn out something like ’50 Shades Of Guts’ 😉

  9. Rebecca Vance March 2, 2015 at 3:43 pm #

    Thank you Garry, for such an inspiring post, and I loved the Lisa Cron video. I am working on my first novel and I am plotting a murder, but the body will not be discovered for thirty years. Yes, this is a very cold case! Since it is set in Nevada, the body will be found in an old mine shaft. My question is: Would it still be possible to test for DNA on remains that old? How could what is discovered link back to a suspect in the present? Thanks for your help. 🙂

    • Garry Rodgers March 2, 2015 at 4:02 pm #

      I’m thrilled that you found the information helpful, Rebecca. And I think Lisa Cron’s science is bang-on.

      Now you’ve got a interesting concept going on here. I’d think that a body left in a Nevada mine shaft for 30 years might be pretty well preserved. The temperature would be pretty cool & uniform which would seriously effect the rate and method of decomp. So much then would depend on the relative humidity. If it were high – say over 30% then the body would be intact but skeletolized. If the RH were very low, say 5-10%, then it would be mummified.

      Regardless of skeleton or mummy, there would be lots to work from in DNA. Teeth are the best source of historic DNA material – being extracted from the pulp. Also, the bone marrow would likely be present, so there’s going to be a whack of DNA available.

      30 years later it would be unlikely that the subject’s DNA standard would be kicking around to compare, but that’s where the relatives come in. Once the investigators have a name, then they’d look to the maternal upline for mitochondrial DNA from the mother or other female relations. Failing that, the subject’s children (if any) would be matched.

      Something to keep in mind in criminal investigations is that there are only 4 ways of getting caught.

      1. The suspect leaves something behind that incriminates them.
      2. The suspect takes something away.
      3. Someone is a witness and identifies the suspect.
      4. The suspect confesses.

      Here’s a link to a popular post I did called ‘How To Get Away With Murder’.

      http://dyingwords.net/murder/#sthash.DigQIsqH.dpbs

      I’ll leave it up to your imagination 🙂

  10. vivienne Havalant March 3, 2015 at 7:14 am #

    Hi I have bookmarked. One question cost of consultancy advice?

    • Garry Rodgers March 3, 2015 at 10:28 am #

      There’s no cost, vivienne. I do this to give back to the writing community. If you have any questions about crime scenes, autopsies, bodies, firearms, just send me an email at garry.rodgers@shaw.ca

      • cslakin March 3, 2015 at 10:59 am #

        I’m guessing you don’t want attached the bodies or firearms though…

        • Garry Rodgers March 3, 2015 at 11:04 am #

          Firearms are fine – lots of room left in my collection, but the backyard is full-up with bodies 🙂

  11. Elise Edmonds March 3, 2015 at 12:42 pm #

    This is a really interesting article. I was critiquing a novel someone had written about a gun crime that took place, and I realised then how little I knew about police procedure after an incident like that. You don’t realise what you don’t know until you try and write about it.

    • Garry Rodgers March 3, 2015 at 6:52 pm #

      Hi Elise. I’m with you on realizing what I don’t know so I’m not going to try writing vampires, wizards, erotica, or politics.

  12. Mark McGinn March 3, 2015 at 4:23 pm #

    I don’t often comment on blogs, partly because so many are alike and give the same or similar messages about writing. But this one? Totally different! A brilliant exposition of the things to look for and avoid. I’m a little bit fortunate having spent years in criminal jury trials but even then, techniques and scientific approaches change. Many thanks Garry, much appreciated.

    • Garry Rodgers March 3, 2015 at 7:36 pm #

      Mark, I’m really touched by your comment. Thank you so much!

      I took a look at your website and a bit of your work and I see that we’ve walked a common line. For reader’s info, Mark McGinn is a Christchurch, New Zealand crime-writer who comes from a legal background. Here’s a look at Mark’s work:

      http://www.mcginncrime.com/

      Your look at crime from a courtroom perspective enthrals me, Mark. I’ve focussed my writing from a blood & guts POV, but there’s a fascinating angle to the crime/legal genre from your expertise. Courtroom dramas are as riveting as crime scene stuff. They take it to a higher psychological level.

      As a cop on the stand, I watched jury member’s eyes and then watched them again as a coroner holding inquests. I’d die to be a fly on the wall in a jury room.

  13. Alejandro De La Garza March 3, 2015 at 7:38 pm #

    Det. Rodgers, you’ve justified why I find “The First 48” more compelling than “NCIS.” My parents are big fans of the latter, and yes, I’ve watched it, too. But I have to laugh at the rapid pace in which the “investigators” find information, sort through forensics and DNA, and then nab the perpetrator. I understand the reality of forensic testing and analysis, as well as the difficulty interviewing suspects and witnesses. Even though I don’t write crime fiction, every scribe of that genre should keep this list of tips within reach. They’ll prove invaluable.

    • Garry Rodgers March 3, 2015 at 7:54 pm #

      Thanks for the reality check, Alejandro. Crime scene investigation is a slow, methodical process that has only one chance to get it right – but has years after to rip it apart in courtroom second-guessing.

  14. Deborah March 4, 2015 at 12:33 am #

    I am a HUGE fan of crime fiction, and am hopelessly addicted to learning the technique. It is an EXTREMELY difficult genre to pull off. I agree with P D James, who said that a good crime novel should also be a good novel.” Thanks for the advice!

    • Garry Rodgers March 4, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

      Hi Deborah,

      PD James was one of the masters of storytelling, not just crime writing. I’ve never tried writing anything outside of the crime genre so I have no idea how difficult things like YA, Romance, or especially erotica would be. I’m sure they have their idiosyncrasies.

  15. Mike Worley March 4, 2015 at 9:56 am #

    Great post. It drives me crazy that many critiquers will tell me things like ‘you have the lead detective going into the crime scene. But they can’t do that until the CSIs process the scene and check for DNA and fingerprints. Then the CSI will give the detective permission to enter.’ (Not outside CSI-New York, my friend.)

    One thing I would point out is that the pointers are correct from a modern standpoint. I had had people say ‘you forgot to have your detective put on plastic booties before they entered.’ My books are set in the early 1980’s. AIDS was first identified in the US in 1981 and the concept of blood-borne pathogens wasn’t understood outside some in the medical community for a while after that. In the 1980’s, detectives often wore latex gloves, but more to keep from touching decomp or cooties. Blood wasn’t considered a danger. I think we started using booties about 1992.

    • Garry Rodgers March 4, 2015 at 2:35 pm #

      Thanks for the comment & compliment, Mike.

      You bang-on about the lead detective role. Any crime scene that I’ve been to, the lead investigator takes control and directs who’s doing what, who’s coming & going, and who collects evidence. That’s why they’re the lead. Somebody has to be in charge and it’s not Forensics anywhere I’ve been.

      You’re also right about PPE. I started in the business back in 1978, long before we heard about bb pathogens. I used to carry a couple pairs of rubber dishwashing gloves in my briefcase for the really messy stuff and once I had to crawl inside an airplane wreckage that had been down for eleven days in the summer before being found. There were six bodies inside in advancing state of decomp that had to be pulled out through disarticulation. My PPE was a pair of mechanics coveralls and an army gas mask with Vics Vapo-Rub in the filter. The smell of Vics still makes me want to puke. Today we’d wear a full biohazard suit with a power-vented E-Z Breathe hood.

      I’m definitely not saying the good ol’ days were better but when writers set their scenes they should do it with accuracy for the time and location. Good points, Mike!

      • Karen MacDougall March 4, 2015 at 5:17 pm #

        Eww!! TMI! Let’s keep this blog site clean shall we! Lol. All I know after reading all this technical info, is as you said, Garry, if you are going to write in detail, stick to what you know. Otherwise, keep to generals and hope you stay out of trouble. I do have an investigation as part of my second novel, but other than letting readers know that there is one going on, I am not delving into the details and I am now very glad I made that decision.

        • cslakin March 4, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

          You shouldn’t watch Fringe then, Karen! Great show but gory!

          • Karen MacDougall March 4, 2015 at 6:24 pm #

            Talking about gory, avoid watching the church scene in the movie Kingsman. They have redefined the word gratuitous violence! I have heard the the TV show The WIRE is very good for character development. Difficult to run down up here in Canada though unless you do the online streaming thing but we have something called Crave, a Netflix look alike, which I think does carry it. Will stay clear of Fringe though. Thanks for the tip. Lol

  16. Marilyn R. Matice March 5, 2015 at 11:13 am #

    Garry,
    It’s so nice to find someone in Canada who writes mystery or detective novels. I just started mine and it’s based in Saskatchewan and find that watching crime shows on TV is not necessarily a good thing when police forces work differently in different countries.
    Luckily I have a cousin in the RCMP whom I hope will help with procedure. This is very different from my usual writing, but I love to push the envelope!
    marilyn

    • Garry Rodgers March 5, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

      Hi Marilyn. Hopefully some of these tips will help you and don’t worry about the TV shows. They do get a fair amount right – it’s just that they’re pressed for time so they shorten things up.

      I’m curious about your setting in Sask. Which part?

  17. Peter Pollak March 6, 2015 at 9:34 am #

    Wonderful post followed by excellent discussion. I’d like to add that when I had questions about a gun fight, I querried the members of the crime writers group on Linked-In and got wonderfully helpful responses. Most writers are very generous with their knowledge. Second point. Novels should be careful not to imitate tv crime shows where the protagonist finds the telling piece of evidence right away. Garry can correct me if I’m wrong, but solving most crimes is like putting together a jig-saw puzzle. A lot of pieces need to fall in place before the picture becomes clear.

    • Garry Rodgers March 6, 2015 at 9:55 am #

      You’re 100% right about investigations being like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, Peter. It’s all about the collection of information and how they form the picture of what went down.

      Something that most civilians probably don’t know is that the first 24-48 hours after a crime is committed is the most valuable time in an investigation. As soon as the scene is secured and the basic details are correlated, the investigation team will hold a ‘Blitz’ where everyone assembles and throws out ideas. This is a no-rank affair where everyone’s ideas, no matter how far out, are valued. I remember one Blitz where I looked around the room and counted over 300 years of combined police service. One of the junior members came out with a suggestion that led to solving the case. So you never know unless you listen.

      One other thing – once a crime is solved and a person has been charged, it’s vitally important to anticipate and investigate all defences that an accused person may raise as well as eliminate all other outstanding suspects. Lawyers, like readers and writers, love red herrings.

      • Andy Farman March 13, 2015 at 10:37 pm #

        I was involved in a case, a quite famous murder, that was run completely the opposite to how you describe.
        There was no ideas blitz, the only opinion that received any consideration was that of the senior detective in charge of the case.
        On Day One, several of us on the specialist search team (all uniform branch officers) had previously been working on a case with distinct similarities in another area of London. This was pointed out but dismissed out of hand.
        The chief investigators favourite suspect was arrested, tried and acquitted, with a multi-million pound law suit following on.
        Ten years later the suspect for the previous murder we had highlighted on the first day of the murder enquiry was convicted of it on DNA evidence.

        It would be worth a book in itself but British officers are gagged for twenty years by the Official Secrets Act.

        • Curtis Manges March 14, 2015 at 7:56 am #

          I took a MOOC on Forensic Psych and they set up a hypothetical daylight robbery/kidnapping, fully enacted and filmed. Two investigators were assigned, and one of them was methodical and followed the best procedure while the other had a preconceived perp he wanted to bust. He cherry-picked information and led the witnesses in questioning. Lousy procedure.

          The course is coming up again:

          https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/forensic-psychology

          and they have another, that I haven’t taken:

          https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/forensic-crim-justice

          Interesting stuff; the one I took covered a lot of the problems with human perception and how it makes witnesses unreliable, and they have you experience it for yourself with perceptual tests.

          You can never know too much.

    • Mike Worley March 6, 2015 at 10:56 am #

      Peter, I would add one thing. Sometimes you DO find the telling piece of evidence right away, the thing that will make the entire case. But you don’t often KNOW that it’s the telling piece, or even significant. Sometimes, you have the key right in your hand (or in the evidence room) and you don’t realize it until some other pieces put it in perspective.

      • Peter Pollak March 6, 2015 at 11:17 am #

        Excellent observation Mike. That gives authors another path to portray how our protagonists discover what they need to know to solve cases.

        To what extent do the rest of you match your protagonist’s personality with the discovery process. In other words, if you character is a Sherlock Holmes type, does he always see it right away? If your character is a beginner and unsure of himself, does he find it fast, but not trust his instinct? Do you go with type or against? So many options!

  18. Norma Budden March 9, 2015 at 8:45 pm #

    There are definitely excellent points here but I will admit the hardest issue I have involves the use of foul language. The crime fiction books I’ve written in the past, though, are typically of a Christian-fiction nature. I suppose I can get away without using swear words in such a genre as to write the words would offend most of the audience. Thoughts?

    • Mike Worley March 10, 2015 at 8:57 am #

      Norma, it is an interesting dilemma because you really can’t predict reader reaction. I once had a woman email me on behalf of her book group. She said that, while the group liked my book generally, they couldn’t recommend it to their friends because the antagonist used the ‘F-word.’ I would have been a little more concerned had not the antagonist committed murder by laying his victim open from shoulder to hip. So apparently, a woman being eviscerated didn’t bother them, but the ‘F-word’ did.

      While there is no need to gratuitously pepper the language, you have to stay true to the character. You can probably get away without using swear words at all, but you may be cutting off one avenue that defines the character. But everyone uses explicatives on occasion and the fact is, murders, rapists and robbers don’t normally say things like “Shucky darns” and “Golly gee whillikers.”

  19. Garry Rodgers March 10, 2015 at 10:02 am #

    Mike is right about staying true to your character. If you’re going to write realistic crime-fiction, then your dialogue has to reflect an accurate portrayal of how that person would act. Every writer is in control of their own work but I think that by leaving out all swearing, the end-product would suffer. I also think that if a writer can’t handle the four letter language, then the crime genre isn’t suited for them.

    Here’s a quote from Stephen King “If you intend on writing as honestly as you can, then your days as a member of polite society are numbered.”

  20. Andy Farman March 13, 2015 at 9:53 pm #

    I have attended more crime scenes than I can remember and finger-tipped some horrific murder scenes over thirty years. It is not the description of the scene that is the problem it is the ever evolving protocols and procedures due to new technology or ‘stated cases’ in court. I retired in 2011 and I think my knowledge became time-expired within six months and even then it was limited to the way things are done in just one country.

    As for a member of the public/PI telephoning his favourite cop to ‘run some plates’ (He was a devil, that Rockford guy) Sgt Becker would be doing a two year stretch for data protection offences and corruption in office.

    TV has a lot to answer for.

    Thank you very much for taking the time to share your knowledge, sir.

  21. Greg (G.P.) Field March 17, 2015 at 6:55 pm #

    Great post Gary, I only wish you had written it this time last year when I was writing my first book! Not too late though, I’m sure it will be helpful as I squelch my way through the second one. I think I have got most of your points down, but I am going to make my current D a bit more cautious about contaminating the scene.
    The swearing thing is a bit of a bugger isn’t it 🙂 I only slipped the occasional swearword into my first story for character credibility. I have been avoiding foul language altogether in the second one — but maybe I shouldn’t be so tight about it. I know teens and grandparents read my books, but as you point out, shouldn’t they be more traumatised by the violence than the language? Seems a bit kooky.

    • Andy Farman March 17, 2015 at 7:56 pm #

      There is nothing stopping you producing an abridged edition Greg, however I would not do so again on Amazon. They are incapable of correctly linking titles despite ISBNs so it is a coin toss as to which version is delivered to your reader.
      I withdrew all of my abridged and the large print versions after many complaints.

    • Garry Rodgers March 18, 2015 at 10:43 am #

      Hi Greg, Thanks for your comment.

      My feeling about coarse language is that you have to write to suit the genre. The nature of cops & crooks is that they continually use foul language and that’s the reality of it. Of course you can go overboard but to leave all 4-Letter words out just for the chance that it might offend someone will, in my opinion, diminish the effectiveness of the story – certainly from the subconscious effect of realism.

      I know what you mean about teens & grandparents – I was once caught in a dilemma where my character had to use the C-Word. I struggled with ‘What would my mother think?’ but I made the decision to stick to my character and, in that situation, there was no other response that character would make.

      I have to say that my writing is peppered with 4-Letters because that’s what my true voice is like (I promised Susanne that I’d keep it clean here 🙂 and in all the critiques I’ve had of my writing – good, bad & otherwise, I’ve never had anyone comment that they thought the language was too foul. Also, the demographic of my readers is about 75% middle-aged women.

      So, I’d say that you have to go with what you’re comfortable with and stay true to your style. I don’t know if you read Stephen King but he can get really crude. He’s probably offended a lot of people but he’s made a @#$%-load of money off of others.

  22. Mike Worley March 17, 2015 at 7:16 pm #

    Greg
    Read my 3/10 post above about violence v. language.

  23. Marcia Weber Martins March 20, 2015 at 9:03 am #

    Greg,

    Thank you for this great article. I’m working on my second book, but first crime fiction. I have been doing research but still have doubts. Any help is welcome.

  24. Marcia Weber Martins March 20, 2015 at 9:18 am #

    Hi Garry,

    Thank you for the great article. I’m working on my second book, but first crime fiction. I did a lot of reached but still have doubts.

  25. Stephen Chandler March 23, 2015 at 10:12 am #

    Very interesting, but can not agree with all of it.
    Columbo leans over body, smoking etc but very popular,
    made writer a fortune. Patterson’s characters the same, and as for
    Lee Childs Jack Reacher does things that are impossible. They are all
    very, very popular. As long as the story is good you do not need
    to be correct. One comment said that a “Glock has no safety” but who cares 99.9% of readers have never seen a real gun so why worry.

    • Andy Farman March 23, 2015 at 12:39 pm #

      All good points and adequately made. Many readers require entertainment rather than up to date realism.

      In Columbo’s time the majority of serious crimes were solved by continually kicking in the doors of known villains every 4am until someone told you who you were looking for (no honour among thieves, etc).

      Realism:

      Crime Scene, cold, wet, no toilet available and certainly none of the coffee shops nearby that TV shows seems to have.

      Murder Enquiry, interesting but certainly not exciting and rarely complete in thirty minutes. The enquiry is based in an old and grubby Victorian era building with no heating in the winter and no A/C in the summer. No flashy IT, hot female detectives, or male ones either for that matter, no leads thrown up in the first 5 minutes by a hot/quirky/super intelligent Scene’s of Crime Officer either.

      No surprise that many prefer their novels to mirror the TV version BUT you can still provide a level of realism that both the CSI fan and the discerning thinker can enjoy.

      • Stephen Chandler March 23, 2015 at 3:14 pm #

        Yes, I agree, you can have realism and a good story. That is what I try for. I think that is best, but it does not alway’s produce good book sales.

    • Curtis Manges March 23, 2015 at 1:27 pm #

      Stephen, if you’re writing a crime novel, your target audience probably has a very high percentage of readers who are sticklers for correct detail. Fans of other genres may not know or care, but why risk being shredded when you can get things right?

      Besides, I get a great deal of enjoyment out of the research itself.

      • Stephen Chandler March 23, 2015 at 3:17 pm #

        Thank you, I take your point. I also enjoy the research, but I do not think it is always needed.

  26. Red December 8, 2015 at 7:46 pm #

    Is it OK if I write a crime novel with a fantastic character (EX: He/she has a special ability like Nicholas Cage in the movie “Next”, or has an imaginary friend that helps in the crimes.)

    If not, is it OK if I make ONE of the characters a bit fantastic, but not the detective/investigator?

  27. Liz Taylor-Kerr February 7, 2016 at 1:16 pm #

    Thanks so much for sharing Garry – very useful indeed.

  28. Tasha April 1, 2016 at 9:28 am #

    I am in the prepping stages of my first crime novel. I don’t have the years of experience in law enforcement. However, I do my research. TONS of it. I found this article and comments to be extremely helpful. This is going to be a long process. But, seems like it will be fun taking tiny pieces to create a bigger picture of what looked to be a harmless well-known guy to many. FUN FUN FUN! LOL

    • cslakin April 1, 2016 at 10:14 am #

      Sounds great! And if you need an expert to help you, you can hire Garry as a consultant!

  29. Stuart Gibbon May 1, 2016 at 11:47 am #

    Hi Garry – just discovered your website, great work. I guess there is a similarity between us as I used to be a Murder DCI in the UK and now advise writers on police actions and procedures. I think your site is really good and will be subscribing to receive your posts. If you ever get anyone who needs help from the UK police perspective I’m happy for you to point them in my direction. I have a website at http://www.gibconsultancy.co.uk Cheers Stuart

  30. Carol July 27, 2016 at 9:55 am #

    Great advice! After writing a children’s book which I didn’t get published, I thought I’d try a murder mystery novel. I’ve been totally put off the idea though as I don’t think I’m good enough to do all of that research!

  31. Ciara November 30, 2016 at 5:22 pm #

    Wow! This has been very enlightening and, not to mention, scary. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Honestly, I mean that I am afraid that my first and current novel will fail to capture the actuality of the investigative field. I do have a strong fear of failure. However, I am hopeful. I believe that it will all work out through the extensive use of coffee, Google, and blogs. Thank you for your tips! Perhaps, I could email you for further help? If you don’t mind, of course. 🙂

  32. Female Detective Serial December 23, 2016 at 3:20 am #

    How fun! I don’t currently write mystery fiction or any fiction at all. My primary skill set is in nonfiction. But I am moving quickly back toward fiction, and hopefully back toward mystery fiction in the future, with a much deeper understanding than I had the first time I wrote something in that field.

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