READER FRIDAY: How Are You Supported as a Writer?

 

We’ve all experienced the naysayers who put up roadblocks for our writing passion, but what about those wonderful people who helped you nurture your gift? Please share some inspirational stories for those generous people in your life who have helped you write and sparked your passion.

Bonus points for sharing a story of how you paid the kindness forward to another writer. I know it’s hard to brag, but sometimes hearing a good story of support can inspire more of the same gestures.

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A Writer’s Imagination is a Nurtured Gift

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

One of our TKZ regulars reached out and sent me a photo of his Davy Crockett attire when he was a lad after he read my post – “Nostalgia time: What TV show from your childhood Influenced you?”Nice raccoon hat, Dave. Don’t shoot your eye out.

Remember when we were kids and a TV show could inspire adventure in your life where you imagined YOU were Davy Crockett. We didn’t need much to entertain ourselves. An empty cardboard box became a fortress or a robotic monster. Things that people discarded became whatever we imagined them to be. Entertainment was cheap.

Dave’s photo reminded me of all the things my family did as kids. I came from a big family of 5 siblings and 2 parents. We were all about the same age as kids, around a year or two apart, so we hung out together in “the hood.”

TKZs Dave Williams as Davy Crockett

Nice bike, Dave. You and I have clothes lines in common.

When I was Dave’s age in this photo, I loved my westerns and read every horse book I could find. As kids during our summers out of school, my sibs (2 brothers and 2 sisters) would leave our home after breakfast and we stayed out all day. We built forts from fallen tree limbs and old boards, searched for arrowheads, rescued wounded baby animals, or launched rotten fruit fights with our rivals. We lived in a rural setting outside San Antonio and didn’t have many neighbors, especially girls. We had to make due with boys as friends.

Photographer: Sarachit

When fireworks were in season, we changed our weapons of choice to include bottle rockets shot from empty Coke bottles and staged a major offensive with the neighbor kids. A turned over picnic table was our command bunker. My older brother (our General) thought he’d be invincible if he wore a heavily padded and hooded jacket so the bottle rockets would bounce off him. That worked…for awhile.

I stood at his side when he took aim at a neighbor boy standing in his yard two houses down. My big bro held his Coke bottle and I lit the fuse. When the rocket took off, it switched course and zeroed back on him – got caught in his hood – and his head turned into spiraling, scorching roman candle with the pungent stench of burning hair. Yes, he could’ve lost an eye, but a scorched head is funny to a kid and gave him bragging rights that he survived. My older brother later served a career in the US Air Force and even became a base commander. Needless to say, stories from our “hood,” stayed in the “hood.”

During long summers, we had time on our hands and plenty of imagination. Even then I had a passion for writing and I would write parody scripts based on some of our favorite TV shows, complete with mock commercials. The Tremenderosa was born, replete with sound effects and recorded on audio cassette. My siblings would act out the parts, we’d experiment with sound effects and had a blast making our own audio recorded productions. Later, when I had access to my high school video equipment, we would do class projects with better equipment and my sisters and I did our own production of JABBERWOCKY, a nonsensical poem of made up words by Lewis Carroll that inspired us. My sisters and I still know the words.

My dad wasn’t allowed to have pets as a kid. His mother didn’t approve, but he made up for what he didn’t have by seeing his kids had a menagerie of odd animals in our backyard. We charged admission to the kids in our neighborhood, just to see our ZOO. We nursed wild animals back to health for release into the wild and we raised goats, dogs, horses, fish, exotic birds (a Toucan and various parrots), an iguana and baby crocodile, rabbits, raccoons, lizards and snakes, and various breeds of exotic chickens and guinea fowl (nasty buggers).

Wikimedia Commons

We never wanted for anything. We didn’t have a lot of money, but my parents made sure we attended private Catholic schools, had food on the table and nice clothes. At Christmas, we had all the excesses – including a weird metal roller coaster set up in our front yard and a zip line from a tall tree that dropped us at the mailbox at the street. We had toys, but we still preferred roaming the acres around us with our neighborhood “gangs.”

When we got a Ouija Board, all of us got into it and conjured ghosts we thought would scare the others. Halloween was a great time to scare the neighbor kids and we set up our house with sounds and things that rustled through the brush as kids would make the long trek up our driveway for candy. They would rarely make it to the front door. My young bro would rig wires to make things move across the porch and zip out from nowhere to attack them by air. Once they started to run, the rest of us would chase them in the dark, screaming. We got to keep the candy they didn’t stick around for.

My dad fancied himself a gourmet cook, even though my mom always made better homemade food. But that meant dad was always trying new stuff, like pig roasting or goat over a fire pit. We were always trying weird foods. Again, it helped us become adventuresome and willing to try new things.

All of these memories inspired my imagination when I became a writer. I didn’t have to rely on scary movies to get the adrenaline pumping. I created my own horror show on the front lawn with neighbor kids as guinea pigs. We learned stealth and war time strategy from our firework assaults and as girls, my sisters and I learned about boys and how they thought and acted.

My childhood became a treasure trove of inspirations for me as a writer that I still draw upon. One of my greatest joys is to relive those years with my siblings since we are blessed to still have our parents with us. When we go on our annual family retreats, we still play jokes on each other and play games and tell stories around a campfire. I’ve been blessed with life experiences that fuel my passion to write. How about you?

For Discussion:

1.) Share some of the childhood stories that still inspire you as a writer.

2.) When you write a particularly scary or dramatic scene, what experiences do you draw from to make those scenes real?

 

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Does Your Story Have a Solid Foundation?

By SUE COLETTA

Most writers know this business can be soul-crushing at times, even if we don’t like to talk about it. As can life. This past week, my husband and I secured a mortgage and were over-the-moon excited to close on Friday. The house we’ve been living in for almost 7 years would finally be ours. On Wednesday, we received a call that told us the house had been deemed unsellable. Briefly, 30 years ago a mobile home stood on the land. Rather than remove the old mobile in its entirety, the then-owner stripped it down to the steel beam and built a beautiful 1 ¾ story country contemporary on top of it, rendering the property unsound. Unpredictable. Unsellable, except to a cash buyer who doesn’t glance at the deed.

Because the previous owner cut corners with the foundation, it throws off the entire house. Same holds true for our stories. Without a solid foundation — key milestones, properly placed — the story won’t work, no matter how well-written. The pacing will drag. The story may sag in the middle. The ending might not even be satisfying. It all comes down to the foundation on which the story stands.

After the mountain of paperwork involved to secure a loan, that day our mortgage disappeared. The closing got cancelled. It felt like someone tossed a Molotov cocktail through our living room window, and the fireball obliterated our hopes and dreams. We’d invested a lot of time, money, and effort into this property. We built a home. To receive a call like that two days before closing likened to a gut-punch.

Once we formed Plan B, a scary but exciting venture, I envisioned a parallel to writing. Specifically, the early days when harsh critiques and rejection letters cut deep. It’s never personal, even though sometimes it may feel like it. Writers, however, need to learn this lesson on their own, in their own time. More experienced writers can try to help those who aren’t as far along in their journey — like we do on the Kill Zone — but it’s all part of the process. Writers’ skin thickens over time. The trick is to allow yourself to fail, allow yourself to feel the pain of a harsh critique, poor review, or rejection letter, and then learn from it and move forward.

There is no rewind button for life, but we can press pause.

I applied this same logic to the house situation. For about 36 hours, we didn’t tell a soul. No one. My husband and I needed time to gather facts, talk through what happened, and then re-evaluate our options. The same holds true for writing. If you receive hard-to-handle news, step away from the keyboard and give yourself permission to absorb the blow. It may take ten minutes; it may take two weeks. We bounce back at different rates. When you’re ready, return to the source and re-evaluate with clear eyes. I guarantee you’ll see things differently.

We can’t change the past, but we can change the future.

After 36 hours, we informed “The Kid” who immediately jumped online to look for properties. Kids don’t like their parents’ lives in disarray, which is why we waited to tell him once we’d processed the initial shock. Then we told our closest friends. They sprinted across the dirt road to offer encouragement. My point is, we surrounded ourselves with positivity.

Positivity begets a renewed outlook on life (and writing). Negativity brings nothing but sorrow and unnecessary turmoil.

Trash-talking about how Agent X has no idea what she’s talking about won’t change the fact that she rejected the manuscript. Nor will lashing out at the writer who critiqued your first page. Instead, find writers who will tell it like it is, writers who’ve stood where you might be standing now, writers who will help you see the forest for the trees. I love that expression. It’s visceral. It’s raw. It’s truth.

In life as well as writing, sometimes the unapologetic truth isn’t an easy thing to hear. Yet it’s exactly what we need to move forward, to grow, to find acceptance in the unacceptable. Even if my husband and I had a spare $150K kickin’ around, buying an unsellable house would be a horrible investment.

When life hands you lemons …

I truly believe we’re meant to walk a certain path. When we misstep, life has a way of nudging us back on course. So, after I came to terms with the fact that moving was inevitable, the question then became: If we weren’t meant to buy this house, then why put us here in the first place? Admittedly, the anger may have lingered a bit longer.

Now I understand why.

A little over a year ago, “The Kid” bought 3.5 acres a few house lots down from us. It’s a gorgeous parcel of land nestled under a canopy of tall pines, maple, birch, and oak trees, with a stunning mountain view and a wildlife trail that runs through the back. My husband logged out truckloads of timber, clearing a secluded but serene house lot. At the same time, “The Kid” installed a driveway and had the land surveyed and perk-tested before he and his wife decided to put the land on the market. With three children under the age of 4, it ended up being a stressor they didn’t need.

The land never sold.

When one door slams shut, open a window.

Had we never moved into this house and stayed as long as we did, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to build our dream home now … a few house lots over on land we already love. We envision relaxing on the back deck, watching black bear, moose, and deer stroll through the yard. That’s the plan, anyway. If for some reason it doesn’t pan out, we’ll readjust again.

Give yourself permission to fail, in your writing as well as IRL. Then get back to the keyboard and move forward. Only you can make your dreams come true.

Ellle James’ new press ensured Fractured Lives released in paperback before she left for vacation, which added some well-needed excitement to the week.

Three couples, the perfect Maine vacation, and a fateful night that blows everyone’s mind.

Also available in ebook.

 

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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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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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How To Write a Press Release That Works

By Sue Coletta

Writing a press release is something we all need to learn sooner or later. I’ve written my share of boring press releases that I’m sure no well-respected journalist ever read. Recently, however, I hunkered down and studied the finer points of how to make a book signing or new release newsworthy — and that’s the magic bullet right there. Envision the press release as an article in the newspaper, or on the radio, or, dare I say, as local news on television.

Even if you don’t feel comfortable writing a press release to announce a new release, most bookstores will ask you to write one from their perspective to announce your upcoming signing at their store. When this first happened to me, I panicked. I’m hoping this post will help erase some of the frustration for you. So, let’s discuss how to write a press release for a book signing. The same principals apply for announcing a new release.

All press releases must follow a specific format …

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE should be in all caps, bold, and justified (left margin).

Underneath, write the date, space, slash mark, space, the location i.e. July 30, 2018 / Annie’s Book Stop

The heading comes next and it should also be in all caps and bold. This time, centered. The most important thing to remember is we want the journalist to click our email out of the hundreds they received that day. So, it’s important that we take our time with the heading and make it newsworthy. A savvy bookstore will use it as the subject line of their email.

This is the headline I used to announce an upcoming signing for my new release, SCATHED …

SERIAL KILLERS STALK GRAFTON COUNTY, NEW HAMPSHIRE

Can you imagine a journalist not clicking that email? That’s why it worked.

Next line, still in bold but not all caps …

Meet the Author Who Has Residents Locking Their Doors

Then our sub-heading, which tells the journalist exactly what we’re announcing. This line is in lower case, centered, and in italics.

Book singing on August 18, 2018 at Annie’s Book Stop

In the first paragraph we need to get straight to the point. Journalists don’t have a lot of time to wade through fluff. Also, this paragraph should include the 5 W’s (who, what, where, why, when).

As an example, this is what I wrote for Annie’s Book Stop. Perhaps it’ll spark ideas for you. Notice just the town and state are in all caps. Which is exactly how it’ll look in the newspaper.

LACONIA, NH, August 18, 2018 — Annie’s Book Stop, a book store dedicated to serving the Lakes Region since 1983, is hosting a book-signing event with Bestselling Crime Writer Sue Coletta, author of the much-beloved Grafton County Series and award-winning Mayhem Series, on Saturday, August 18th from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Annie’s Book Stop is located at 1330 Union Ave. in Laconia, NH.

Include interesting information in the next paragraph or two. Our goal is to make it easy for the journalist to use the same wording in the newspaper. Here’s mine again …

Just as Stephen King reimagined Bangor, Maine, Sue Coletta toys with Alexandria, Hebron, Bridgewater, Bristol, Groton, and local treasures such as Wellington State Park and Sculptured Rocks in SCATHED, the latest psychological thriller/mystery in the Grafton County Series, which released on July 25, 2018 by Tirgearr Publishing. Even WMUR’s ULocal plays a pivotal role in the story.

Come meet Sue Coletta at Annie’s Book Stop and pick up a signed copy of SCATHED. All books in the Grafton County Series and Mayhem Series will be available.

***

(Note: I’m only including the asterisks for clarity, don’t use them in the press release)

Do you have a blurb from a celebrity? If you do, include it next. If you don’t, use a review from an author your target audience will recognize. If you don’t have either, use a line or two from a reviewer. Choose wisely. The quote should align with the focus of the press release. Since I focused on serial killers, I used a quote from a NY Times bestselling author that included the words “serial killer.” I also was lucky enough to know someone my target audience would recognize, and I included a quote from him, as well. We can’t skip this part, because this is where we show “social proof.”

The last paragraph is reserved for our bio. Don’t use a regular bio, though. Mix it up, make it personal so people can connect with you. Most importantly, it should align with the rest of the press release. Here’s what I wrote …

Sue Coletta has always been fascinated by why people kill. What pushes someone to the edge of a dark abyss? Researching crime, forensics, psychology, and psychopathy is a passion she shares with fans on her award-winning crime blog, where she delves into the minds of serial killers, explains groundbreaking forensic techniques, and writes true crime stories. Sue prides herself on striking that magical balance between realism and fiction … so much so she even locked herself inside an oil drum in order to experience her character’s terror.

Last line is short and to the point …

For more details visit Annie’s Book Stop: www.anniesbookstop.com

At the end of our press release write the word ENDS, all caps, bold, and centered.

This press release worked for me. Not only did I make the local papers, but I now have journalists who’ve reached out to me for interviews. It’s only been a couple days since the bookstore released it, so I’m excited to find out what happens next. I should also point out, it took me about 8 hours to write this one page press release. We can’t rush it; it’s too important. A good press release can skyrocket our career if the right person reads it.

Over to you, TKZers! Have you had good luck with a press release? If so, please share any tips you’ve learned. If you’ve never written a press release, will you give it a go? You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. I recommend sending a press release for all new releases, even if they’re only available as ebooks.

This is my table at the Hebron Fair over the weekend. The police bling worked amazingly well to draw the attention of my target audience.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time for shipping to include SCATHED; it released in paperback last week. But I still sold out. Super fun day!

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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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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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