Archive for July, 2012

When writing is a crime – tips from a real CSI

I was very chuffed to be contacted by a real CSI recently who pointed out a ‘minor error’ in my literary thriller, The Peace Garden. Apparently I said a detective took some fingerprints, whereas it’s supposed to be a Crime Scene Investigator. He said it was a small error and that it didn’t impact on his enjoyment of the story as a whole which he describes as ‘a wonderfully well-crafted book’. But I’m glad he told me and I will be sure to correct it in the next edition. However, it got me thinking: what other common errors do writers commit when writing crime for book or screen? CSI Trembling has been kind enough to put together this guide:

I have been involved in criminal activity for over ten years now. No, that’s not a confession – I work as a Crime Scene Investigator (or Scenes of Crime Officer in old money!). I also read crime fiction, watch crime dramas on TV, and have written a crime novel. And, as a CSI, many of the things I see or read make me cringe! Sometimes good writing is let down by a poor appreciation of what real crime scene investigation is about. So, for the benefit of any aspiring crime writers, here are a few pointers.


Not all detectives have alcohol or relationship problems! Certainly show your character as flawed and human – but avoid the clichés.


Fictional detectives often work in teams of two. From a writer’s point of view, that’s an excellent device. It gives you a ready-made vehicle for developing characters and revealing information. The problem is that (in Britain at least) police forces don’t work that way! A major crime such as murder will have a number of detectives allocated to it. Typically there’ll be a Detective Chief Inspector as SIO (Senior Investigating Officer), with a variable number of Detective Inspector(s), Detective Sergeants and Detective Constables working on the case. There’ll also be specialists coming in at various times to add their input. It’s a team effort. The Prime Suspect TV dramas are quite good examples of how a murder investigation is managed – though bear in mind that the DCI in charge will probably be overseeing several operations at once.


Police forces all do much the same thing – but sometimes in very different ways. Not so much of a problem if your story’s about a fictional force, but if you’re writing about a real one, make sure you check the details.

The Crime Scene

How many times have you seen this on TV? The detective wanders into the crime scene, pulls on a pair of gloves and recovers the crucial piece of evidence. The problem with this is that, in real life, the detective has just rendered that evidence worthless! Entering a major crime scene without proper forensic clothing means potential cross-contamination, which means that all evidence recovered is open to challenge in court. Of course, it does happen – most CSI’s could tell you some horror stories about that – but if that’s how you write it, beware of the implications!


This is probably one of the most common areas for making mistakes. To put it simply, you can’t find fingerprints on just any surface – no matter how badly the plot needs it! Smooth, shiny surfaces such as glass and metal are good for fingerprints. Paper, cardboard and plastic bags will respond well to chemical treatment in the lab. But bear in mind that weather conditions have a considerable affect, and some surfaces (unpainted wood, rusty metal or most fabrics) will be unlikely to retain any marks at all.


The effectiveness of DNA recovery has increased dramatically over the years. If your suspect has drunk from a bottle or left behind a tool then there will probably be a much better chance of identification from DNA than fingerprints. In one murder / arson case I read about recently, DNA was recovered from a petrol can. But there are still limits. Recovering an offender’s DNA from a body, for example, would be unlikely unless there’s actual blood or tissue present (such as under the nails, from scratches).


Or, to be more accurate, footwear marks – since in the UK people don’t often go around barefoot! A lot can be learned from a good footwear mark, but (surprisingly, perhaps) not the size of the shoe. The reason being that in normal walking our feet don’t make complete and even contact with the ground. So it’s rare to find an exact and perfect mark. However, there are thousands of different tread patterns, so there’s a good chance of matching a mark to a specific type of shoe, boot or trainer. Moreover, since we all walk slightly differently, the wear pattern on the tread is distinctive. An expert can often say quite definitely that this shoe made this mark. But keep in mind that analysis to that level can’t be done by the CSI or detective at the scene – and you do need the suspect’s footwear for comparison.

These are just a few indications of the most common problems. As with any other writing – do your research!

Paul’s novel ‘Can of Worms’, is a crime thriller based on his own experience as a Scenes of Crime Officer. It’s available in Kindle format, or as a paperback. He has also written a number of short stories, mostly in the fantasy genre.
Paul Trembling’s blog.
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How to start a publishing co-operative

Starfish logoI’ve recently come across a new phenomenon in publishing: the independent publishing co-operative. One of the best examples I’ve found is Starfish – a group of authors who have pooled resources to publish their own books. As many authors struggle to get that elusive publishing deal but don’t feel confident going it alone, this could be the way forward. I asked Starfish founder Martin Willoughby to tell us a little bit more about it. So without further ado, it’s over to Martin … Continue reading ‘How to start a publishing co-operative’

Creative Writing bursary

If you’re 25 or under, you may qualify for a bursary to study masters’ level creative writing at the University of East Anglia. I did a MA at Northumbria University in 2005/6 and have never regretted it. Here is some more information on the creative writing bursary. If you’re wondering whether or not a MA is for you (and you don’t have to be under 25 to do one!) there is an oldish but still enlightening article on it in the Guardian – are creative writing courses worth it? And if you can’t afford a course in terms of time or money, some of the things you will learn in an MA course can be found in my free online creative writing course.