Dear Writer’s Mate …

By Sue Coletta

The other day I jotted down a juicy detail from my research on the corner of yellow scrap paper. Hours later, after I’d used the tidbit in a scene, I spaced throwing away the note.

You know how we get when we’re obsessed focused on our WIP.

Anyway, later that night, while hanging with the hubby in the sunroom, I went to blow the steam off my tea and the note traveled with the mug. Somehow the note had adhered itself to the base. I slid my fingers down the ceramic, but my husband — always the helper — beat me to it.

When he peeled off the paper, he read my scribbling aloud. “It’s called raccooning. The head acts as a vacuum.” Visibly forcing down a grin, he said, “Well, someone’s had an interesting day.”

I laughed so hard I could barely speak through the tears. Once I managed to regain composure, I shared all the gory details of my research into decapitation, the guillotine, and a chicken who lived 10 months with no head. After 21 years together, this conversation didn’t even faze him. He gets me. But it made me wonder what a different spouse might think if they’d found a similar note.

Let’s face it, writers can be fascinating and entertaining at times, but there must be days where a writer’s mate must shake his/her head in disbelief. It’s in this spirit that I share helpful advice for the good-natured, supportive, and understanding folks who live with a writer.

Dear writer’s mate, you may find your writer staring at the ceiling, or out the window, or even at a blank wall. And you may be tempted to think it’s okay to barge in and chat about your day. Make no mistake, there’s a lot going on behind-the-scenes that isn’t visible to the naked eye. Your writer is hard at work, creating, visualizing the story, agonizing over that one missing piece that’ll bring it all together.

Please don’t interrupt. Instead, back away from the desk — nice and slow — with no sudden movements. Trust me on this. You don’t want any part of causing your writer to lose focus. It’s not a pretty sight.

At other times, your writer may have some “unusual” documentary requests. Dear writer’s mate, just go with it. Creative decisions are not easy to explain. Your writer may not even know what s/he’s searching for; it could be anything from plot details to a twist that hasn’t yet revealed itself. Being immersed in similar story elements, situations, locations, conflicts, unsolved mysteries, or even a killer’s modus operandi may help spark ideas.

Dear writer’s mate, your writer may experience a spontaneous yet overwhelming urge to drag you to desolate swamplands, woodlands, back alleyways, or back roads that lead to nowhere. Don’t panic. Your writer is simply looking for the perfect place to dump or pose a corpse, and 99.99% of the time it’s not your dead body s/he’s envisioning. I should warn you, though. Should you ignore the advice contained herein, the latter could change. You don’t want to be amongst the unfortunate .01%, do you?

Rest easy, dear writer’s mate. Nine times out of ten the victim is the rude waitress who served you and your darling writer on Friday night. Fun fact: while you were figuring out the tip, your dinner date was plotting the waitress’ excruciating demise. Did you not notice your writer’s unflinching stare? The eyes tell the story. When the lids narrow but your writer’s gaze doesn’t seem to focus on anything in particular, it’s a telltale sign that s/he’s thinking about murder. Oh, while we’re on this subject, it’s safer for the entire family if you never — I repeat, never — peek at your writer’s search history. If panic sets in, you might be tempted to phone a friend. The next thing you know, your writer’s face is plastered on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

Dear writer’s mate, your normal routine is subject to change without notice. You know those three-course meals you love so much? Yeah, well, at times they may be replaced with frozen dinners, crock pot dishes, and takeout menus. Leftovers will almost always make their way to the dinner table, especially if your writer is on deadline. Also, your writer could try to make it up to you by firing up the grill, but you may want to keep an eye on those steaks. They can, and will, turn to ash if your writer jumps back into the WIP.

Granted, at the time s/he slapped the meat on the grill s/he had every intention of fixing you a nice meal. But then, something within range diverted his/her attention — the disembodied call of a pileated woodpecker, an unusual tree stump with a silhouetted face embedded in the grain, a stick snapping in the yard for no apparent reason — and this propelled your writer into the office where s/he only planned to write one quick paragraph before the story enveloped him/her into its warm embrace. The time continuum is difficult to explain to a non-writer, but just think of it as your writer’s Bermuda triangle.

Dear writer’s mate, at some point you may need to save your writer by gently reminded him/her to step away from the keyboard. Please use caution. Only use this step in an emergency, like if your writer has stayed up all night, downing copious amounts of coffee or tea and resembles a strung-out raccoon. Or if your writer has skipped breakfast and lunch because the words are flowing faster than s/he can type. Or if your writer has spent a full week in his/her pajamas. Otherwise, please refer to my initial advice.

Dear writer’s mate, I realize I’m throwing a lot at you. What I haven’t mentioned is how fortunate you are to love a writer. Writers are fun, loving, dedicated, intelligent, witty, weird, nutty, unique, passionate, humble, and above all else, loyal. Consider yourself lucky to share in your writer’s imaginative world, where nothing has limits and anything is possible.

Over to TKZers. What advice would you give to a writer’s mate?

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Mail in Your Future

Photo courtesy Nate Bell on unsplash.com

I occasionally like to use this space to inform the wonderful folks who visit here on a frequent or occasional basis about new tools, grand and small, that come to my attention, whether they are writing aids or life hacks or whatever. What I have for you today is something brought to us by the United States Postal Service (USPS) called “informed delivery.”

There are times that ebooks don’t satisfy the craving for a weighty, paperbound novel that you can throw at a spider without risking seventy dollars worth of plastic and electronics. The same is true of email. While email (and texting, its illiterate cousin) is quick and convenient, there is something about receiving physical mail that remains appealing, if you are throwing ninety percent of it into the paper recycle bin. The feature which I recently discovered allows you a daily, somewhat imperfect peek into the future of what you will be getting.

I am referring to “informed delivery.” It is free (ah! Now I have your attention!). It is also easy to sign up for it. Go here, see if your zip code and address are with the program (more are added on a daily basis), and set up an account. Within a day or two, you will start receiving a daily email from the USPS which will include embedded images of the envelopes which you will (well, which you should) receive in the mail that day as well as notification of any packages which will be (um, are supposed to be) delivered. It isn’t perfect. You will only see letter-sized envelopes that are processed through automated equipment. Sometimes something slips through that isn’t pictured and other times something that is pictured doesn’t show up for a day or two. For the most part, however, it works as advertised. It is particularly convenient for those of us whose mail delivery occurs so late that we need a flashlight to navigate our way to the box. Sometimes it just isn’t worth it and informed delivery will let you give you at least a hint of a thumbs up or thumbs down.

For those of you who have never heard of this and decide to try it out, enjoy. If you have been using informed delivery, do you like it? And for everyone: have you encountered a technological life hack recently that hasn’t received a lot of notice but that has been helpful to you? If so, please share if you are so inclined.

And thank you for stopping by and letting me be a part of your day and for being a part of mine.

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Cover Art Angst

Of all the difficulties associated with producing a book one of the most vexatious (for me at least) is the issue of cover art. In traditional publishing, many authors typically don’t have a great deal of say in the cover of their book, and when going indie, the issue of cover art can be fraught with design as well as cost issues. Also, the impact of a book cover cannot be understated. It matters. It’s what draws a reader to pick up or click on your novel. For me, a great eye-catching cover is irresistible. I’ve picked up many a book solely because of the cover (mind you, I’ve put many of those books back down again  the first page or blurb was ho-hum).

My own experience with book covers, however, has been mixed – with less-than ideal cover art for my first novel in hardback:

Followed by three wonderful covers for my paperbacks (all involving the same artist and model).


 

I think what made all the difference was that the paperback covers truly reflected the tone, mood and genre of my novels – with the right  blend of historical details, female characterization and intrigue. Now, as I contemplate the possibility of getting my rights back and possibly repackaging/re-releasing these books, I’ve started to think more about the issue of cover art and what makes a book cover great…I hesitate, though – mainly out of fear that I might chose badly. As Bookbub points out, a bad cover can have a negative impact on book sales. Hence I sometimes get that ‘deer in headlights’ look when it comes to book covers.

There are some informative blog posts providing advice when it comes to designing cover art. Jane Friedman has had some interesting guest posts on her blog on this issue (see for example 5 steps to great cover art and getting the right fit).  At the end of the day, all the advice seems to boil down to making sure the cover fits your book and attracts your target readers (something that feels easier said than done!).

When I look at my own book shelves, a few (mainly YA) book covers stand out. There’s the original Twilight series covers which (at the time at least) stood out as unique.

Then there’s the Scythe series by Neal Shusterman – these covers are gorgeous.

When it comes to mysteries I love the covers for James R Benn’s Billy Boyle series:

But a beautiful cover is only on element of the equation – it must also appropriately reflect the type of novel you’ve written and appeal to readers of that genre. If there’s a disconnect between the cover and the content then beauty alone won’t work. When I look at some of the list of beautiful book covers (such as Buzzfeed’s compilation for 2017, which can be found here) many of them, while certainly aesthetically appealing, wouldn’t necessarily make me want to pick up and read the book.

So what are your favorite book covers? What do you look for when seeking cover art for your own novels? What’s your experience been with cover art (either as a traditionally published or indie author) and what advice would you offer to someone thinking about repackaging their books with new cover art??

 

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Nostalgia Time – What TV Show from your Childhood Influenced You?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

ABC Television

 

What show from your childhood or younger years would you bring back and why? Who would you have star in it?

Something that always influenced me–and ultimately teased me into becoming a writer–was my love for Westerns and HORSES. I read every Louis L’Amour I could get my hands on. When I was a young girl and in elementary school, I loved horses and read every book they had in my school library. Literally every book, no lie. As I became a teenager, I got a job and my parents allowed me to save toward buying a horse of my own. We ended up with five horses and it became a big thing for my family.

I shoveled a lot of horse poo and mucked stalls, but it was a great experience. As I grew older, I became enthralled with the men who rode those horses in the 1800s. They were mysterious loners, good guys who lived life on the edge of civilizations and made their own version of the law and justice. The ultimate anti-heroes for me. My first perceptions of manhood came from these TV shows and the many books I read. It definitely influenced how I write men in my books. The brooding loner type.

http://pixabay.com/en/horses-blm-wyoming-mustangs-61158/

 

I watched anything Western as I grew up and continued to read every book I could get my hands on. TV shows on Wild Bill Hickok, Alias Smith & Jones, Lancer, Big Valley, Bonanza, Branded, Maverick, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, High Chaparral, Laramie, Laredo, the Lone Ranger, Lonesome Dove, The Magnificent Seven, My Friend Flicka, Ponderosa, Rawhide, Rifleman, Shane, The Virginian, Wild Wild West, and even Zorro.

My sisters and I would sneak out of our bedrooms to watch TV in our pajamas if the shows came on after our bedtime. Mom told us that she caught us many times, but didn’t say anything. She knew how much it meant to us and appreciated the making of childhood memories. Girl first crushes.

Louis L’Amour hooked me into reading, but thriller authors like Robert Ludlum kept me going (Bourne Identity series). I got into crime fiction and espionage thrillers. Ludlum made me pay attention to how to pace a book and the structure of cliffhangers. He opened my eyes to writing and my desire to write never left me.

BONUS QUESTION – So help me cast a great Western. Who would star in the TV show or movie?

For Discussion:
1.) What show from your childhood or younger years would you bring back and why?
2.) Who would you have star in it?

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Significant Sites

When my last blog post was posted, I was on may way to Kraków in Poland – a place I didn’t know a great deal about but which I’ve always associated with the Second World War and the Holocaust (for obvious reasons). I didn’t know much about the old town or Wawel Castle (both of which I visited) but I knew my visit wouldn’t be complete without visiting the former Jewish quarter, the site of the Jewish ghetto, and Schindler’s enamel factory. As a writer of historical fiction, I find visiting significant historical places has a powerful, often visceral impact which informs not only my writing but my sense of self. On this visit, it was my trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau that left the greatest impression.

I can’t say it was an easy decision to even make the journey to Auschwitz but both my husband and I felt it was a necessary pilgrimage to make. I’ve never done extensive research on the 1930s but, as my twin boys were studying the Holocaust this last school year, I revisited Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally and read for the first time Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night (the book my boys were required to read as part of their Holocaust unit). This helped, but it in no way truly prepared me, for what I would experience visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. I was shocked by the immediate physical effect stepping into the camps had on me. I felt nauseated, upset, horrorified as well as, inexplicably, anxious. The initial, almost casual attitude of many of visitors angered me as did their desire to photograph everything – even the most horrific and terrifying aspects of what we saw (would you really show friends photographs of the ruins of the crematoria?) but I did notice that as the tour progressed a somber silence fell amongst even the most chatty groups of tourists. By the time we had completed our visit to Birkenau, you could sense that everyone had been profoundly affected by what they had experienced (and rightly so).

As a writer of a historical fiction, the act of visiting sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau also gives me a renewed sense of purpose to my work. In many ways, though, I felt that my humanity demanded that I make this visit. I left feeling a renewed sense of outrage, horror, and also – after our visit to Schindler’s factory – hope.

So TKZers, have you ever visited a site that left a similarly lasting impression – one that affected you not only as a writer but as a human being?

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What Character Age Do You Find Most Challenging to Write?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Yes, how did she get my book title backwards? MAGIC

I’ve written a few sub-genres, but the most different or diverse ones I’ve attempted were writing mainstream thrillers and young adult novels. I’ve always loved reading crime fiction (my big umbrella), so my comfort reads were always any sub-genre of adult crime fiction novels from espionage thrillers to police procedurals to romantic suspense. Although my YA books were suspense oriented, the YA voice was a real departure for me. It took quite a bit of reading it and researching the craft, but since I had grown to love these cross-genre books as a reader, the idea of writing them hit me hard and influenced me. More on that later.

When I first started writing in 2003, my main characters were in their thirties and maybe edged into their forties when I first wrote original mystery suspense novels. The first books I sold were in my comfort reads of crime fiction, yet with a cross-genre approach because that’s the kind of stories I liked to read. With as many books as I devoured as a reader, I figured I was the market. I wanted to write the books I would read.

In 2009-2010, as I sold my first YA novels and series, writing for teens influenced even my adult writing and my characters drifted downward into their mid to late twenties. Of course, my YA books covered teen protagonists, generally 16-18+. I’ve never written New Adult (characters in their early twenties or college age). I’m not sure why that is, except to say that I can relate more to my teen formative years (my rebellious teen self) and writing my other characters to be 25-35ish years old. (It’s like the lens of my creative world had focused on an age I had fun living.)

I had many ways to research my teen voice, including eavesdropping on teens in groups and using my nieces and nephews as lab rats. My aspiring author niece worked with me on my first YA novel – In the Arms of Stone Angels – and we had a blast. But that writing definitely influenced my other suspense books and I noticed the ages of my characters had dropped. On gut instinct, I was targeting the ages I thought my readers wanted to read about so I could bridge the gap between those reading my YAs and the ones who had transitioned into my adult books. From what my readers have said, that plan worked and my YA readers transitioned into my adult books and my adult readers seemed to enjoy my crime fiction YAs. Win-win.

I wrote one novella length story from the perspective of an older woman in her late 50s. I wrote her with an honest truth and I loved being in her head, but I wasn’t sure how readers might take her so I never wrote a repeat.

I’d like to hear from you, TKZers.

For Discussion:

1.) Have you ventured out of your writing comfort zone with trepidation only to learn something new where you grew as a writer? Please share and explain.

2.) What character ages do you find the most challenging as a writer? How did you get better at it? What resources or advice can you share?

3.) Is there a main character age that you DON’T like to read about? Do you find that your reading preferences gravitate toward a certain character age?

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Creative Destruction

By Elaine Viets

I’ve been hard at work on my fourth Angela Richman, death investigator mystery. Until last week I was up to schedule. Then I hit a snag at Chapter 11. An important character was being arrested for drug dealing. I thought – after writing 33 mysteries – that I knew the procedure. So I wrote the chapter. Then I got the little niggling doubt that all writers get, and decided I should check with my police procedure adviser, a former homicide detective.

Good thing I did: I not only had the procedure wrong – but the ex-detective suggested a better idea: Why not have the dealer discovered in the cop shop when a drug-sniffing canine “alerts” to the controlled substance?

Beautiful! Except I had to tear up the whole chapter and rewrite it. Now I’m a week behind.
I’m glad I did – the new scene is better.
It’s not the first time I’ve had to kill something, or even bury it. Like many novelists, I have parts of several novels, including an embarrassing serial killer mystery and a lackadaisical modern Sherlock Holmes pastiche, that I’ve buried deep in a file drawer, where I hope they’re never found.

We’re told (on the Internet) that Hindus worship Shiva as a god of contrasts who destroys as well as creates. “Shiva’s role as a destroyer is also constructive,” one source said. “This extends to all things in the world, meaning that Hindus regard Shiva as the source of all good and evil.”
“Shiva is full of passion which leads to extremes in his behaviors,” said another. “Sometimes he removes himself from the material world and abstains from pleasure, at other times he gives in to all desire. Shiva’s wife Pavarti tempers his passion and gives him balance.”
As good a description of writing – and married writers – as any.
Shiva is my new model, and I follow the art of creative destruction.
What about you?

Like forensic mysteries? My first two Angela Richman, Death Investigator mysteries are on sale for $1.99 each: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=node%3D13819722011&field-keywords=brain+storm+by+viets&rh=n%3A13819722011%2Ck%3Abrain+storm+by+viets

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First Page Critique: 12 Rules

Happy Monday! Today we have a first page critique entitled 12 Rules. My comments follow and I’m hoping that TKZers provide some great input and feedback for our brave submitter. I will be on a plane to Europe so may not be able to respond to comments – but I’m sure it will be a great discussion!

Title: 12 Rules

Chapter 1

Everything around them tended to die, including people. She always struggled with keeping pretty flowers in her room alive by forgetting to water them, and he never could sustain tiny house pets lifespan beyond a couple of weeks. Even inatime things like hopes and dreams had a tendency to writher over time between the two.

Though they both had to admit, this was the first human to die in their presence.

As heartless as Arlo hated to be, the person who had fallen quite literally at their feet was of no importance to either of them. It was Parks’ third cousins step sister. Technically, she wasn’t really family according to him.

Two weeks ago they were at his annual family gathering. Everyone was drinking, laughing, and having a good time as far as Arlo could tell. Her and Parks were huddled by a picnic table full of all the younger kids while sipping on red punch, discussing the boy Parks believed to be his nephew, but wasn’t all that sure. He was cute, Arlo had commented, and in the corner they were devising a plan to get him to talk to Arlo. She knew Parks was the wrong person to ask when his first suggestion came with, “accidently spill your drink on him.” Before she could even fathom saying a word to the gorgeous new stranger, Parks’ mom pulled them over for a picture. Lined up by height, Arlo of course was at the front along with a younger lady who was very pretty. She smiled at Arlo, flashing perfect whitened teeth over baby pink lipstick that popped. Then there was blinding flashes of more than one camera, and then the flashes were gone and she was seeing spots. Everyone stood up, including the nice lady next to her. Parks had already been back at her side with a new and improved plan, but never got the chance to tell her. The lady’s eyelids fluttered and her ocean blue eyes rolled like pool table balls backwards, and she tumbled to the ground like a tiny building- quick and short. The lady didn’t just fall to the side or backwards, she fell forward; right on Arlo’s sunshine yellow shoes she’d been so excited to wear. And just like that, the lady had smeared death all over her new converse. Following the fall and destroyed shoes had been earfuls of screaming.

Now they were bumper to bumper in early morning traffic yelling at each other over a blaring radio.

“You were supposed to take that exit we passed like ten minutes ago!” Arlo shouted. She felt the need to cup one of her hands around her mouth like a mega phone. But leaned back in the driver’s seat, he still refused to listen.

My Comments:

Somewhere in this first page there is a great story waiting to emerge – I can see glimmers of a cool, detached, wry POV and the beginnings of a story about two people who can’t keep anything alive suddenly being confronted with an actual death. Unfortunately, this story is stymied by some stylistic choices, a passive choice of sentence structure, and a lack of characterization that robs the page of much of its dramatic tension.

In brief, I think these are the main issues that need to be addressed:

  1. Pronoun confusion – The use of ‘them’, ‘she’ and ‘he’ before we know and understand the characters creates confusion as well as distance. At first I had no idea who was ‘he’ or ‘she’ as Arlo and Parks are gender neutral names (which is no issue – just needs clarification so we know who is who) and had initially assumed they were a couple who lived together. All through this first page, the use of pronouns creates an awkward sense of distance from the story which makes it hard for a reader to feel engaged.
  2. Passive sentence structure – Many of the sentences in this first page are written in passive voice creating further distance from the story. An good example of this is the phrase “Following the fall and destroyed shoes had been earfuls of screaming”…not only does this sound awkward and strange, it also robs the scene of the drama of having people screaming as someone literally dies in front of them. I would recommend the writer go through this first page and change passive sentences to active ones to create  sense of immediacy and action.
  3. Lack of dramatic tension – In the first few paragraphs, the reader starts to feel some anticipation about the death that is going to occur only for it to be handled in a prosaic, indifferent way that drains away all the dramatic tension. I wanted to be intrigued and invested in the characters and how they responded to this initial death and also to get some sense of the story to follow. Once the scene switched from the death to Arlo shouting about how they’d missed the exit, I was no longer engaged in the story.
  4. Lack of detailed characterization – Apart from my uncertainty over the relationship between Arlo and Parks – at first I thought they were a couple whose hopes and dreams withered as much as their house plants – there is also the issue of providing characters with real meaningful scenes and dialogue so that we, as readers, become invested in them as three-dimensional characters. In this first page, none of the characters introduced are given any real substance. We are told  that that Parks is trying to set Arlo up with someone at the party, but there’s no real action or dialogue to make us care about this occurring (also the suggestion to ‘accidentally spill your drink on him’ is so bland that it doesn’t give us a true sense of character’). Likewise all the minor character’s are merely described in detached terms like ‘Parks’ third cousin’s step sister’, ‘gorgeous new stranger’, ‘a younger lady who was very pretty’, ‘ the nice lady next to her’, and someone who Parks ‘believed to be his nephew, but wasn’t all that sure’ (which I didn’t really understand…). This meant it was very hard to visualize any of the minor characters or care about what happens to them in this scene.
  5. Telling not showing – This first page is almost entirely told to us rather than shown, with only the death itself containing much in the way of visual details. I would have preferred we were immersed in the scene and given sensory details so we could visualize all the characters and become invested in the story.
  6. Spelling and grammar issues – We always emphasize here at TKZ that a first page is the all-important first impression and, as such, it must be as perfect as possible. Grammar errors such as missing apostrophes and spelling errors (‘inatime’ not inanimate and ‘writher’ rather than ‘wither’) will immediately put off any agent, editor or reader from continuing to read the story.

Overall, I think there’s a good story lurking beneath the surface of this first page, but the writer could benefit from cleaning up the sentence structure, grammar, and pronoun use, adopting a more active voice, and immersing us in the scene with action, dialogue and more detailed characterization for this first page.

So TKZers what other advice or feedback would you provide our brave submitter?

 

 

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6 Unusual Forensic Techniques

By Sue Coletta

The forensic community works tirelessly to improve techniques to aid law enforcement, and much of this work is done at body farms across the country. The Texas body farm has conducted some amazing work. I’ve complied my top six forensic advancements, which I think you’ll find fascinating.

Teeth Show Time of Death

When no clues exist to identify a corpse, investigators have a serious problem. The determination of age and sex of the body can be crucial to limit the search for individuals that could possibly match missing persons records. Today, gender can be determined through DNA, as well as the skeleton itself, but believe it or not, it’s not as accurate as testing done on teeth. Age estimation in children and adolescents often depends on radiological examination of skeletal and dental development. In adults, however, age estimation is much less accurate.

Enter: aspartic acid racemization and radiocarbon dating.

At the sprawling 26-acre Freeman Ranch in Texas, over 50 human corpses reside at the body farm. Many of which are checked via drone. Scientists examined 44 teeth from 41 individuals using aspartic acid racemization analysis of tooth crown dentin and radiocarbon dating of enamel. Of those, ten were split and subjected to both radiocarbon and racemization analysis. Combined analysis showed that the two methods combined worked better than relying on one or the other.

Radiocarbon Dating, a forensic tool also done on eyes, is an accurate way to determine environment, date of birth, age of deceased, nutrition, diet, and even date of death. I’ve written about Radiocarbon Dating before (see link above). Briefly, similar to counting rings on a tree to determine its age, same applies to the eyes and teeth. Only with teeth researchers aren’t looking for crystallins.

Twice a year each permanent tooth is anchored to the gums by tiny, distinct fibers. A bright line is laid in the spring or summer, depending on where you live, and a dark line in the fall or winter. The number of bands, as well as the color and width of the outermost ring, help scientists estimate the deceased’s age at death and also narrows the TOD (time of death) window.

Plants and Trees Love Dead Bodies

Human remains act like any other type of fertilizer, producing nitrogen that leeches into the soil. and provides nutrients to plant-life. Trees and plants thrive on this added nutrient, growing taller, fuller, and greener than those not living near the dead. By studying their size compared to other plant-life in the area, experts can determine where and when bodies were buried.

Insects, Rats, and Squirrels Help Determine Date of Death

I’ve written about entomology before, but did you know scavengers — like rats and squirrels, for example — prefer different types of human bones? It’s true. Rats like their bones greasy, and tend to chew on the ends in order to gain access to the marrow. Scientists can then look for these signs to determine how long the body has been in its earthly grave.

Conversely, squirrels prefer drier, more brittle bones that have been fully exposed to the elements. They use the calcium in bone to aid in the breeding of strong litters. By examining the different bite marks and narrowing when the bites occurred and by whom, forensic anthropologists are then able to determine if the body was skeletonized while fully exposed to the elements = squirrel activity. Or if buried in a shallow grave with nibbles on the ends of the bones = rats. Also, they can estimate how long the body has been dead and if the body has remained undisturbed.

Quick fun fact: it takes vultures only a few hours to strip a body down to bare bones — a time frame previously estimated to be weeks.

Mosquitos Can Aid Investigators

In bodies that are badly degraded obtaining DNA becomes a chore, and sometimes isn’t possible at all. Researchers at the body farm, however, have a solution. Mosquitos and other biting insects, believe it or not, preserve portions of the DNA in the bodies they feed on. By trapping and dissecting these insects, DNA could be recovered.

How cool is that? It’s also a bit disturbing to think of mosquitos flying around with our DNA inside them. Or worse, when you smack a mosquito and it leaves a trail of blood, someone else’s DNA could be splattered on your palm. Yuck! I swear, the more I learn, the more paranoid I become. I don’t know about you but these things haunt me. LOL #writerslife

Decomposition Follows a Set Process

The body farm discovered a set pattern to decomposition. One week exposed to open air equals two weeks in the water and eight weeks buried underground. The latter refers to murdered victims, not people who’ve been embalmed or mummified. Environment, temperature, clothing, and weather all have to be taken into account as well, but as a baseline this formula aids investigators a great deal.

Drones Help Find Buried Remains

In bodies not visible to the naked eye, drone flights are part of an ongoing study using near infrared imaging to detect bodies above and below the ground. This technology can also spot locations, where a corpse was previously buried for up to two years after its removal.

“The search for clandestine bodies is a very time-consuming ordeal,” Wescott told the Texas Tribune. “Even then, a lot of times you can walk right by them and not realize that they’re there.”

As corpses decay, they release carbon and nitrogen into the soil, which decreases the amount of light the soil reflects. The influx of chemicals first kills plants, but as it disperses into the soil around the body it morphs into a fertilizer that reflects a ton of light. By using near infrared imaging the drones can detect these reflections. Two extremes show up as black and white on the mostly gray near infrared imagining. Anyone searching for a body doubles their chances of finding it.

Cool, right?

Have you found a fascinating forensic technique in your research? Did you use it in a story?

Wishing all of you a safe and happy 4th of July! Stay cool.
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Can they crack the riddles in time to save the next victim?

I’m excited to announce my new release, SCATHED, is now available for pre-order. Only 99c. Yay!!!

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