On Fan Mail And Diving Down
Into The Research Rabbit Hole

By PJ Parrish

One of the best things about being a published writer is getting mail.  Your day can be going to hell in a hand basket, your work in progress making none. And then you get an email from a reader.  It’s like a tonic.  Or, sometimes, after you read it, you need a gin and tonic.

Back in my salad days as a romance writer, before we had the internet machine and even before computers, I used to get real paper letters, written in long-hand. I took a class in handwriting analysis and it came in handy in trying to figure out my letter writer’s personality or mood.  I never got anything written in red crayon or worse. Mostly, readers were kind, supportive and, when I screwed something up, pretty forgiving.

Now, all we get are emails. Something has been lost in this process. I can’t discern the personality behind the letter anymore. Alas. Not all technological advances are good. Still, even emails can brighten my day.  Here’s a sample of some I got this week:

Is there anything new coming out soon for Louis. I have read them all. I getting withdrawals. I have loved them all. Benny

Hi, hope you are both enjoying writing another story for Louis to work his way through.

Thank you for all of your wondrous stories, which I have read over and over, and probably will get to again one day. God bless you both and may you keep on bring him and Joe to life for those of us who love them. Most Sincerely, Sheryl

And then there was this one:

I enjoy Louis Kincaid immensely. However, in the interest of authenticity, I feel the need to share a couple of disagreements in dialectic choices…in several places in the book, you used the word “kin” to describe relatives. In my experience as a 64 year old woman who has been a Michigander most of her life, (third generation), I have to say that I have never heard relations referred to in that way, except by southern transplants who came up for the auto industry jobs, in the middle and eastern part of the state. We, and everyone we knew, said “family” as in, “I have family in Michigan.” I know these are small details that may seem inconsequential, but they felt jarring to me and definitely took me out of the rhythm of the story.

Well, okay. Technically, she’s right. Maybe. Sorta. Perhaps. I need a gin and tonic.

Today, I got a really strange email. First thing, he identified himself as a professor at Ohio University Athens. Rut-roh. What grammar rule did I violate now? What lousy syntax did I use this time? Did I screw up my geography again?

I read on and breathed a sigh of relief. I was off the hook. And this one was really interesting.

Dear Ms. Montee. Forgive me for writing you out of the blue, but I am hoping you will agree to help me with a project I am working on this summer. I am producing a podcast about the life and work of the Austrian polymath Robert Eisler. This podcast is based on a biographical afterword I wrote for an Italian translation Eisler’s Man into Wolf (which appears in your novel Island of Bones), published by Adelphi Edizioni earlier this month. Part of the podcast will consist of conversations about how Eisler’s ideas have affected the work and thought of others. Is there some story of how you discovered Man into Wolf?

The book he is referring to is one of my favorites, not just for its convoluted plot but for the strange rabbit holes our research took us deep into. Like many books, this one started out with a “what if?”

About 15 years ago, Kelly and I were manning the card table at a Fort Myers Barnes & Noble signing and we weren’t exactly busy with a long line snaking out the doors. We used the time to brainstorm about the next book, but all of our ideas stunk.  Then a nice lady came up and in talking, we learned she was a sociologist writing a non-fiction book about the pressures exerted on large extended families forced to live together.

“Sometimes, they just can’t take it. They flip out,” she said.

That was the germ for ISLAND OF BONES.  We knew it had to be set on Southwest Florida’s coast, and that place has a wonderful geography.  Off the coastline are dozens of little islands, squatting out there in the Gulf like green turtles.  Some are privately owned.  What if...there was a weird family living on an island out there that had a dark secret?

Then I remembered one of my favorite songs by the J. Geils Band called “Monkey Island.”  Here’s the first verse:

No one could explain it
What went on that night
How every living thing
Just dropped out of sight
We watched them take the bodies
And row them back to shore
Nothing like that ever
Happened here before.

Oh yeah. A strange landscape. An isolated island. A family maybe going a little insane. I had heard of a rustic restaurant out on a private island in the Gulf so Kelly and I took the ferry over one day to check it out.  Yes…now we were beginning to see it. Here’s the second verse of “Monkey Island.”

On the east side of the island
Not too far from the shore
There stood the old house
Of fifty years or more
All the doors and windows
Were locked inside and out
The fate of those trapped in there
Would never be found out.

Because of Florida’s unique history, we knew our family had to be of Spanish origin, so we came up with the island’s name — Isla de Huesos, Spanish for island of bones. But over the centuries, the original name was lost, corrupted by the locals  into Away So Far Island. And the weird old family out there was left to do whatever it was they did.

Now comes the last piece of serendipity.  While we were plotting this book, I was scheduled for a long-planned trip to Spain. So off I went to Madrid. My husband and I are seat-of-the-pants travelers, so we just rented a car and headed north. We ended up, by happenstance, in a coastal region called Asturias. It’s gorgeous and mysterious, isolated between the Picos de Europa Mountains and the sea.  I knew I had found my family’s mother home.

When I returned home, I dove into the research rabbit hole. Asturias was influenced by the Celts and Romans and remains stubbornly isolated and rich in old traditions. Some of their ancient customs still survive in the villages today.  One of them is called the Beleno Ride. The village men go up into the mountains, put on wolf skins then ride down into the villages, simulating the abduction and rape of women. The custom comes from Roman times and is related to the pagan Lupercalia festival.

Wolves…

Oh yeah.

But I didn’t want to go into woo-woo werewolf territory, and the psychology of criminals fascinated me. So I pulled a couple more loose research threads, trying to figure out why these Asturian men still do this. Deep in Google, I found Dr. Robert Eisler.

Eisler was a renaissance man. He lectured on economics, philosophy, religion, art history, and philology, spent fifteen months in Dachau and Buchenwald, was once arrested for art theft in Italy, testified at hearings on currency reform in front of the British Parliament and U.S. Senate, and never held any university position beyond temporary lectureships at Oxford and the Sorbonne.

And he wrote a book in 1951 called Man Into Wolf. The subtitle tells you everything any writer needed to know: “An Anthropological Interpretation of Sadism, Masochism and Lycanthropy.”  Basically, Eisler believed that human urge to violence stems from Ice Age food shortages that forced ape-men to imitate wolves and take up pack hunting. He claims this is the historical basis of the werewolf legends found in many cultures.

I ordered the book from Alibris and read it. Louis finds it on the shelf of his prime suspect and his pursuit of the “wolf man” leads him right to the Island of Bones.

My Ohio professor, Brian, and I have exchanged several emails. Turns out he’s a big fan of crime fiction and read our book. We did a phone interview a couple days ago for his podcast and ended up chatting far longer than we meant to. Interesting postscript Brian told me: In Man Into Wolf, Dr. Robert Eisler used the term “serial killer.”  Which is a good 55 years before it is credited to FBI profiler Robert Ressler.

Cue a little woo-woo music. Or maybe some Warren Zevon.

________________________________

Special credit to the first person who can tell why I used that photo of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

 

5+

How Can 1 Person Have 2 Different Sets of DNA?

Image by Elias Sch. from Pixabay

A human with two different sets of DNA is called a chimera, and it’s more common than you might think. Most chimeras don’t even know they have this strange phenomenon going on inside them.

You could be a chimera, and so could I.

As we go along, take note of the interesting tidbits you could twist into a plot to add conflict.

Without any help from the scientific community, the process of becoming a chimera occurs naturally. Numerous books and movies explore chimerism using a killer who’s had a bone marrow transplant or blood transfusion. But are these characters based in fact?

Let’s take a look and find out.

The tissue inside our bones is called bone marrow, and it’s responsible for making white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. When someone has a bone marrow transplant, doctors use chemotherapy or radiation to destroy all the recipient’s diseased bone marrow. The donor’s healthy marrow is then introduced and continues to produce blood cells with the donor’s DNA, thereby transforming the recipient into a chimera.

In some cases, all of the blood cells in a person who received a bone marrow transplant will match the DNA of their donor. But in other cases, the recipient may have a mix of both their own blood cells and donor cells. A blood transfusion will also temporarily give a person cells from someone else, but in a bone marrow transplant, the new blood cells are permanent, according to the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California.

What if we’ve never had a transplant?

Doesn’t matter. There are other ways to become a chimera.

Early on in pregnancy a mother can be carrying fraternal twins and one of the embryos might die in utero. The surviving embryo may absorb cells from the deceased twin. When the baby is born, s/he can have two sets of DNA. Since twin loss occurs in 21-30% of multiple-fetus pregnancies, think of how many chimeras could be walking around. Are the story wheels spinning yet?

It can also happen with a normal pregnancy.

In the 1990s, scientists discovered that a pregnant woman may retain some DNA from her baby, if fetal cells happen to migrate into her bloodstream and travel to different organs. The New York Times referred to this as a “pregnancy souvenir”— but it’s more scientifically known as “microchimerism.”

A 2015 study suggests this happens in almost ALL pregnancies (you read that right), at least temporarily. The researchers tested tissue samples from the kidneys, livers, spleens, lungs, hearts, and brains of 26 women who died while pregnant or within one month of giving birth. The study found fetal cells in all of the women’s tissues. The researchers were able to tell the fetus cells from the mothers by searching for Y chromosomes (only found in males). The deceased mothers were all carrying sons.

Writers: Don’t take the obvious road. Think victims instead of killers.

  • What if a human brain washed up on the beach?
  • What if the Medical Examiner wrongly assumed the victim was male due to the Y chromosomes?

This is one way to use research to our advantage.

  • What if the brain contained animal and human DNA?

Remember, we’re thinking victim, not killer, which puts a different spin on it.

According to Live Science, fetal cells may stay in a woman’s body for years. In a 2012 study, researchers analyzed the brains of 59 deceased women ages 32 to 101. A shocking 63 percent had traces of male DNA from fetal cells in their brains. The oldest woman died at 94 years old, suggesting that these cells can sometimes last a lifetime.

The blood-brain barrier is the body’s defense system to block many drugs and germs in the bloodstream from entering the brain, but doctors have found this barrier becomes more permeable during pregnancy, which may explain how these fetal cells migrated into the brains of their mothers.

  • What if a serial killer only targeted people with chimerism because s/he viewed them as freaks of nature?
  • How might the killer find potential victims?

If you said the medical field, you’re not thinking outside the box.

Interestingly enough, 26 of the 59 women had no signs of brain disorders while alive. The other 33 were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that women with Alzheimer’s were less likely to have male DNA in their brains than women without the disease.

Previous work on microchimerism suggested fetal cells might protect against breast cancer and aid tissue repair in the mothers, but could increase the risk of colon cancer. Microchimerism can also incite various autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases occur when a person’s body is mistakenly attacked by its own immune system.

Past research suggested Alzheimer’s is more common in women who had a high number of pregnancies than in childless women. One of the limitations of this research is that the number of brains studied was relatively small. Other researchers involved with microchimerism want to explore what effects a mother’s cells might have in her offspring’s development and health.

Imagine all the different scenarios? Parts of your writer brain must be on fire by now. No? Then check this out …  

Are you a chimera? 

You may never know. Unless you wind up in a similar situation to a woman named Karen Keegan. In 2002, her story became a report in the New England Journal of Medicine after doctors told her that she wasn’t the biological mother of her children.

Imagine? Think of all the ways this one conversation could implode an MC’s life.

  • Maybe the woman’s marriage broke up and the only reason her and her husband reunited was because she said she gave birth to his child while he was stationed overseas.

Turns out, the DNA in Karen Keegan’s bloodstream didn’t match the DNA in her ovaries. The doctors later determined she’d most likely absorbed a fraternal twin in utero.

How’s the ol’ writer brain feeling now?

 

15+

Why Waiting is Difficult

By SUE COLETTA

It’s no secret that the writing biz requires patience. Sometimes, though, waiting can be agonizing. Recently, an exciting opportunity came my way. In order to make this dream come true, I had two weeks (two weeks!) to produce something I’ve never done before. Sorry for being so cryptic, but I don’t want to jinx it.

Now that I made my deadline, all that’s left to do is wait. And wait. And wait. Even with a new release, my mind keeps wandering back to this secret project … and the wait.

via GIPHY

That got me thinking, I wonder how or if waiting affects the brain.

Turns out, researchers recently asked the same question. For the first time, a research team at McGill University clearly identified the specific parts of the brain involved in decisions that call for delayed gratification.

Here’s how it works …

The hippocampus (associated with memory) and the nucleus accumbens (associated with pleasure) work together to make critical decisions where time plays a role. For example, suppose you send a query to a literary agent or publisher. You’re making a decision that requires you to wait for the outcome, thereby triggering both the hippocampus and nucleus accumbens.

Still with me? Okay, cool. Let’s look at exactly what these researchers did to prove or disprove their theory …

The researchers used rats trained to make choices between stimuli that resulted in rewards. Some rewards were delivered instantly, some meant delayed gratification. The rats had a choice between two identical visual shapes on a touchscreen (similar to an iPad). In exchange for sugar pellets, the rats had the choice to press their noses against the shape that delivered one sugar pellet immediately or the shape that would deliver four sugar pellets if they waited to receive the reward.

Over time, the rats learned to negotiate a trade-off between the smaller, instant gratification and a windfall, even if it meant waiting for a short period. Researchers argue that most people will also wait for a decision to pay off, if the reward is worth it.

Do you agree? she asks a community of writers whose dreams stand at the intersection of hurry up and wait.

Now, what do you think happened when the researchers disrupted the circuit from the rats’ hippocampus and nucleus accumbens? You guessed it. The rats became impatient and irritable, unwilling to wait even for a few seconds.

Why?

Our brains weigh the pros and cons of thousands of situations every day without conscious thought. The nucleus accumbens is made up of a group of tiny cells deep within our brains, and those cells are responsible for the release of dopamine. The amount of dopamine released depends on the size of the reward.

Is it any wonder why we hate waiting? Our bodies crave dopamine! Hence, why exercise is so important for good mental health.

What can we do to help with waiting for news? You guessed it. Get your body to pump dopamine. Which is why today (Saturday) I jumped on my husband’s tractor and mowed the lawn before writing this post. 😉

Yeah, he couldn’t believe it either. I’m not what anyone would describe as a manual labor type of chick. I like my fingernails too much to break them. But I needed a way to switch off my brain before I drove myself crazy by checking and rechecking my email. When I saw my husband on the tractor, it looked like fun.

You know what? I had a blast! Who knew mowing the lawn could double as an exercise in creativity? As my husband cringed, I sailed around the yard creating animal shapes with the blades. Always keep ‘em guessing, ladies!

Men, you can stop groaning now. You’ll be pleased to know I fixed the grass afterward by riding back and forth in military straight lines, but it was nowhere near as fun.

In other study, researchers at the University of Texas measured what occurs inside the brain during a long wait vs. a short wait. For the experiment they used two different tones. The first tone meant a 15-20 second waiting period, the second equaled wait times of 65-75 seconds. Both tones signaled the same reward. The only difference was the length of delay. What they discovered was the nucleus accumbens released more dopamine when the short wait tone sounded. Which means, we’re willing to wait for a reward if the wait doesn’t take too long.

Makes sense, right?

So, if you’re waiting for something to happen as a result of a decision you made, do yourself a favor and get outside, or hit the gym … anything that might help to release dopamine. If you follow this advice, the wait won’t feel as long.

Are you in the wait zone? Care to share what you’re waiting for? What are some ways that have helped you to wait?

 

It starts with an innocent stuffed animal. It ends with mind-numbing terror. 

RACKED, Grafton County, Book 4, is now available for pre-order! Only 99c.

 

 

 

11+

ELVIS PRESLEY — WHAT REALLY KILLED THE KING OF ROCK ‘N ROLL

By SUE COLETTA

I invited my dear friend Garry Rodgers — retired homicide detective with a second career as a forensic coroner — to share a fascinating post about the real cause of Elvis Presley’s death. Prepare to be wowed. Welcome to TKZ, Garry!

Elvis Presley suddenly dropped in the bathroom of his Graceland mansion on the afternoon of August 16, 1977. Elvis was rushed to Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was pronounced dead, then shipped to the morgue and autopsied the same afternoon. Three days later, the Memphis County coroner issued Elvis Presley’s death certificate stating the cause as hypertensive cardiovascular disease with atherosclerotic heart disease — a heart attack subsequent to high blood pressure and blocked coronary arteries.

It was a rush to judgment. Toxicology results soon identified ten pharmaceutical drugs in Elvis’s system. Codeine was at ten times the therapeutic level and the combination of other prescription drugs suggested a poly-pharmacy overdose. This revelation started immediate accusations of a cover-up and conspiracy theories quickly hinted at sinister criminal acts.

Four decades later, modern medicine and forensic science looked at the Presley case facts. The review indicated something entirely different from a heart attack or drug overdose really killed the King of Rock ‘n Roll. It said Elvis Presley accidentally died after long-term complications from earlier traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). TBIs are known as silent, stalking, and patient killers.

Looking back, it’s likely old accidental head injuries triggered events leading to Elvis Presley’s death.

From my experience investigating unexpected and unexplained sudden deaths, the accidental conclusion makes sense when you consider the totality of evidence in Elvis’ death. Setting aside media reports of gross negligence, arm-chair speculation of cover-up and fan accusations the King was murdered, there’s a simple and straightforward conclusion based on facts. But before examining the facts and knowing hindsight is 20/20, let’s first look at how coroners conduct sudden and unexplained death investigations.

Coroners are the judges of death. Their responsibilities include establishing five main facts surrounding a death. Coroners do not assign blame or fault. In the Presley case, the five facts determined at the immediate time were:

  1. Identity of Deceased — Elvis Aaron Presley
  2. Time of Death — Approximately 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, August 16, 1977
  3. Place of Death — 3754 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee
  4. Cause of Death — Heart attack
  5. Means of Death — Chronic heart disease

There’s a distinct difference between Cause of Death and Means of Death. Cause is the actual event. Means is the method in which death happened. Example: cause being a ruptured aorta with means being a motor vehicle crash, or cause being massive cerebral interruption with means being a gunshot wound to the head.

Once the facts are known, it’s the coroner’s duty to classify the Manner of Death. There are five universal manner of death classifications:

  1. Natural
  2. Homicide
  3. Suicide
  4. Accidental
  5. Undetermined

Elvis Presley’s death was ruled a natural event, thought at the time being an acute cardiac event from existing cardiovascular disease. If the coroner determined Elvis died from a drug overdose, the ruling would have been accidental. No one ever claimed it was suicide or homicide.

One principle of death investigation is to look for antecedent evidence—preexisting conditions which contributed to the death mechanism or was responsible for causing or continuing a chain of events that led to the death.

Another principle of death investigation is examining the cornerstone triangle of Scene—Body—History. This compiles the totality of evidence or case facts. Given that, let’s look at the evidence and case facts in Elvis Presley’s death.

Scene

Elvis was found on his bathroom floor, face down in front of the toilet. It was apparent he’d instantly collapsed from a sitting position and there was no sign of a distress struggle or attempt to summon help. When the paramedics arrived, Elvis was cold, blue, and had no vital signs. Rigor mortis had not set in, so he’d probably expired within the hour. He was transported by ambulance to Baptist Memorial Hospital where a vain attempt at resuscitation occurred because “he was Elvis”.

ER doctors declared Elvis dead at 3:16 p.m. He was then moved to the morgue where an autopsy was promptly performed. There was no suggestion of suicide or foul play, so there wasn’t a police investigation. The scene wasn’t photographed, nor preserved, and there was no accounting for what medications or other drugs might have been present at Graceland. There’s no official record of the coroner attending the scene as this was considered an in-hospital death and a routine occurrence.

Body

Elvis was in terrible health. His weight estimated at 350 pounds—gaining 50 lbs. in the last few months of his life. He was virtually non-functional at the end, being mostly bed-ridden and requiring permanent nursing care. Elvis suffered from an enlarged heart which was twice the size of normal and showed advanced evidence of cardiovascular disease in his coronary vessels, aorta, and cerebral arteries—certainly more advanced than a normal 42-year-old would be. His lungs showed signs of emphysema, although he’d never smoked, and his bowel was twice the length of normal, with a partially-impacted stool estimated to be four months old.

Elvis also suffered from hypogammaglobinemia, which is an immune disorder, as well as showed evidence of an autoimmune inflammatory disorder.

Toxicology tested positive for ten separate prescription medications but showed negative for illicit drugs and alcohol. The only alarming pharmaceutical indicator, on its own, was codeine at ten times the prescribed manner but still not in lethal range.

This is a quote from Elvis’s toxicology report:

“Diazepam, methaqualone, phenobarbital, ethchlorvynol, and ethinamate are below or within their respective ranges. Codeine was present at a level approximately 10 times those concentrations found therapeutically. In view of the polypharmacy aspects, this case must be looked at in terms of the cumulative pharmacological effect of the drugs identified by the report.”

History

Elvis was born on January 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi and had a twin brother who died at birth. As a youth, Elvis was active and healthy which continued during his time in the U.S. military and all through his early performing stage when he was a bundle of energy. He began experimenting with amphetamines, probably to enhance his performances, but shied away from alcohol as it gave him violent tendencies.

In 1967, Elvis came under the primary care of Dr. George Nichopoulos who was well-known to celebrities. Then, Elvis was 32 years old and weighed 163 pounds. His only known medical ailment was slight high blood pressure, presumably due to his high-fat diet.

Also in 1967, Elvis’s health took a sudden turn with progressive pain, insomnia, hypertension, lethargy, irrational behavior and immense weigh gain. Over his remaining years, Elvis was seen by a number of different doctors and was hospitalized a number of times, all the while resorting to self-medication with a wide assortment of drugs from dozens of sources.

Doctor Nick, as Nichopoulos was called, stayed as Elvis’s personal physician till the end. He was present at the death scene as well as during the autopsy. Doctor Nick concurred with the coroner’s immediate conclusion that the cause of death was a natural cardiac event resulting from an arrhythmia, or sudden interruption of heartbeat, and agreed that Elvis’s death was not due to a drug overdose.

When the toxicology report was released, it came with a qualifier:

“The position of Elvis Presley’s body was such that he was about to sit down on the commode when the seizure occurred. He pitched forward onto the carpet, his rear in the air, and was dead by the time he hit the floor. If it had been a drug overdose, [Elvis Presley] would have slipped into an increasing state of slumber. He would have pulled up his pajama bottoms and crawled to the door to seek help. It takes hours to die from drugs.”

Because the tox report appeared to contradict the autopsy report’s stated cardiac cause of death, a prominent toxicologist was asked to review the findings. His opinion was:

Coupled with this toxicological data are the pathological findings and the reported history that the deceased had been mobile and functional within 8 hours prior to death. Together, all this information points to a conclusion that, whatever tolerance the deceased may have acquired to the many drugs found in his system, the strong probability is that these drugs were the major contribution to his demise.”

The Tennessee Board of Health then investigated Elvis’s death, which resulted in proceedings against Doctor Nick.

Evidence showed that during the seven and a half months preceding Elvis’s death—from January 1, 1977, to August 16, 1977—Doctor Nick wrote prescriptions for Elvis for at least 8,805 pills, tablets, vials, and injectables. Going back to January 1975, the count was 19,012.

These numbers might defy belief, but they came from an experienced team of investigators who visited 153 pharmacies and spent 1,090 hours going through 6,570,175 prescriptions and then, with the aid of two secretaries, spent another 1,120 hours organizing the evidence.

The drugs included uppers, downers, and powerful painkillers such as Dilaudid, Quaalude, Percodan, Demerol and Cocaine Hydrochloride in quantities more appropriate for those terminally ill with cancer.

Doctor Nick admitted to this. His defense was because Elvis was so wired on pain killers, he prescribed these medications to keep Elvis away from dangerous street drugs, thereby controlling Elvis’s addiction—addiction being a disease.

One of the defense witnesses, Dr. Forest Torrent, a prominent California physician and a pioneer in the use of opiates in pain treatment, explained how the effects of this level of codeine would have contributed to Elvis’s death.

Central to misconduct allegations was the issue of high codeine levels in Elvis at the time of death—codeine being the prime toxicological suspect as the pharmaceutical contributor. It was established that Elvis obtained codeine pills from a dentist the day before his death and Doctor Nick had no knowledge of it.

The jury bought it and absolved Doctor Nick of negligence in directly causing Elvis Presley’s fatal event.

Continuing Investigation

Dr. Torrent was convinced there were other contributing factors leading to Elvis’s death. In preparation for Doctor Nick’s trial, Dr. Torrent had access to all of Elvis Presley’s medical records, including the autopsy and toxicology reports. Incidentally, these two reports are now the property of the Presley estate and are sealed from public view until 2027, fifty years after Elvis’s death.

Dr. Torrent was intrigued by the sudden physiological and psychological changes in Elvis starting in 1967. He discovered that while in Los Angeles filming the movie Clambake, Elvis tripped over an electrical cord, fell, and cracked his head on the edge of a porcelain bathtub. Elvis was knocked unconscious and had to be hospitalized. Dr. Torrent found three other incidents where Elvis suffered head blows, and he suspected Elvis suffered from what’s now known as Traumatic Brain Injury—TBI—and that’s what caused progressive ailments leading to his death.

Dr. Torrent released a paper entitled Elvis Presley: Head Trauma, Autoimmunity, Pain, and Early Death. It’s a fascinating read—recently published in the credible medical journal Practical Pain Management.

Dr. Torrent builds a theory that Elvis’s bathtub head injury was so severe it jarred brain tissue loose, which leaked into his overall blood circulation. Later additional head injuries exacerbated the problem. This is now known to be a leading cause of autoimmune disorder, which causes a breakdown of other organs. This progression was unknown in 1967 and Elvis went untreated. Side effects of TBIs include chronic pain, irrational behavior, and severe bodily changes such as obesity and enlarged organs like hearts and bowels.

Today, TBI is a recognized health issue in professional contact sports as well as incidental to motor vehicle accidents and workplace falls or other head injury events.

Dr. Torrent’s hypothesis holds that with a change in mental state and suffering chronic pain, Elvis Presley entered a ten year spiral towards death. He became hopelessly addicted to pain killers, practiced a terribly unhealthy diet and lethargic lifestyle, and resorted to the typical addict’s habit of sneaking a fix wherever he could. This led to early coronary vascular disease and, combined with his escalating weight and pill consumption, Elvis was a heart attack ready to burst.

Note that I used the term “antecedent,” like all coroners do when assessing a cause of death. Given Dr. Torrent’s observations—and all the facts compiled from forty years—if I were the coroner completing Elvis Presley’s death certificate today, I’d write it like this:

  1. Identity of Deceased — Elvis Aaron Presley.
  2. Time of Death — Approximately 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, August 16th, 1977.
  3. Place of Death — 3754 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee.
  4. Cause of Death — Cardiac arrhythmia, antecedent to hypertensive cardiovascular disease with atherosclerotic heart disease, antecedent to poly-pharmacy, antecedent to autoimmune inflammatory disorder, antecedent to traumatic brain injury/injuries.
  5. Means of Death — Cumulative head trauma.

Therefore, I’d have to classify Elvis’s death as an accident.

There’s no one to blame—certainly not Elvis. He was a severely injured and sick man. There’s no specific negligence on anyone’s part and definitely no cover-up or conspiracy of a criminal act.

If Dr. Forrest Torrent is right, there simply wasn’t a proper understanding back then to clearly determine what really killed the King of Rock ‘n Roll.

*   *   *

 

Garry Rodgers now works as an investigative crime writer with a number of publications to his credit.

 

In The Attic is based on a true double homicide he investigated involving a psychopathic ax-murderer. Garry also hosts a popular blog at DyingWords.net.

 

Note from Sue: I read IN THE ATTIC in August of 2016, and I doubt the story will ever leave me. It’s just one of those books that I’ll never forget. Visceral, raw, emotional, and true!

16+

Know Your Genre and Do the Research – First Page Critique: The Nature of Things

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Wikimedia Commons – Author Cliff (GIANT PACIFIC OCTOPUS) https://www.flickr.com/people/28567825@N03

An intrepid anonymous author has submitted their first 400 words of “The Nature of Things” for critique. My feedback follows. Please help this author and provide your constructive comments, TKZers. Enjoy.

***

“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella,” said the reporter.

Anna perused the mutilated body. Damage to the head. Impressive gash in the temple and the empty eye sockets.

“Who or what do you think did this?” the reporter prompted. “You were invited out for an expert opinion. Do you think a man or animal killed him?”

The cuts to the head and upper torso were massive and random. It was hard to recognize the face with most of it eaten.

The salty Oregon coastal breeze wafted into the cave opening. It mingled with the stench of rotting flesh warming in the sun. The smell of death has many scents.

“Looks like our friend here met up with some pretty irate sea dweller,” she said. “I’m thinking giant Pacific octopus.”

“How so?”

“See the cuts? How they’re sometimes random, then more concentrated at the injury sites? Looks like damage from an octopus beak to me. Sliced open the soft spot near the temple to get to the soft stuff inside.”

A grisly sight to behold. More hideous than the one she saw one night long ago. Same result. Different circumstances.

“You recognize this guy at all?” the reporter said.

“Why would you say that? Not much left here to recognize.” said Anna.

“No particular reason. You being a marine biologist in this area, thought maybe you might have seen someone hanging about the coastline lately.”

“I’m mostly out in the big ocean. Deep sea. But a person can get lost very easily if they want to.”

Like Pa’s buddy, Ray, from the Viet Nam war. Ray wanted nothing to do with people after being discharged and returned to the states. The hatred and name calling were too much to take. One of the reasons Momma and Pa had moved so far out in the woods of Oregon. Homesteading far away from the prying eyes of local busybodies. Small towns are like that. Gettin’ in other peoples’ business was not just normal. It was a way of life.

She said, “My guess is he went diving in this cave and surprised a trapped and hungry animal. Tentacles most likely grabbed his head and the beak started gnawing away.”

“Detectives just left,” he said checking his notes. “They noted extra shoe prints in the sand. Must’ve had somebody with him.”

“It’s a public beach. Footprints could be from anyone. Anytime,” Anna said.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW – I enjoyed this author’s “stick to the action” writing. The author jumps into dialogue without over-explaining the action.

POLICE PROCEDURE ISSUES – Right off the bat, I’m left wondering how a reporter would be inside the crime scene tape, which is the way this appears. Anna (whoever she is to the investigation as an expert) is examining the body, up close. She’s carrying on a conversation with a reporter as they apparently stand over the body.

Standard police procedure is that medical examiners or coroners (there’s a difference) would make the call on the cause and manner of death. The ME or coroner would take charge of the body and would not leave the corpse behind or bring in anyone at the scene to give an opinion on how the person died. That would be done in the autopsy, if the examiner needed the assistance.

For avid crime fiction readers, this opener would read as implausible for these reasons. That’s a “throw the book against the wall” error, in my opinion. Despite what I may like about this author’s writing, I’m not as forgiving on poor research and lack of knowledge on police procedure.

OCTOPUS KILLS HUMAN? – This seemed odd to me. I had to query it online. Most octopus or squid can cause harm to a human, but not death. Many species are venomous, but they’re mainly harmful to their usual prey and not harmful enough to kill a person. The Humboldt Squid is known to attack a human being en masse and there are videos of these attacks. Very creepy. Is this story about a giant squid or octopus? There’s not much known about them, only if they are found dead and can be studied. If this story is about the JAWS equivalent to a giant octopus, introducing that possibility through Anna in the first scene seems too soon. It would be best to build on the suspense.

GENERAL QUESTIONS – Why would the reporter say, “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella” in the first line? There’s no follow up on why the reporter disparaged the dead man. Then the reporter asks Anna if she knew the dead guy, without offering an identity. It would appear that the reporter doesn’t know the dead man either, so why the first line insinuation?

Why keep Anna’s last name a secret? This excerpt reads like a first draft with details stripped out. Now is the time to layer in details that don’t overwhelm the reader and slow the pace, but will add a gripping setting with details of who is on that beach with the corpse.

There’s also an assumption that the corpse is dead because a man or animal killed him (the reporter asks). A body could’ve been dumped in the water with animals eating at the corpse or damage sustained from churning in the water over rocks. The reporter is asking questions and leading the reader by TELLING what they should know. I would suggest that if Anna is the expert, let her examine the body and give her opinion to a detective or medical examiner/coroner. A reporter would be the last person allowed onto a crime scene when the body is still exposed. Also, if I were the reporter who got beyond the police barrier, I would be taking photos with my phone. Asking questions is secondary to getting those gruesome pics.

Why would the eyes have been eaten out of the body? Would an Octopus be so selective? Seems like a delicate procedure to focus on the eyes like that.

SHOW – DON’T TELL – In the dialogue lines, the reporter tells Anna what the author wants the reader to know. A sneaky way to TELL and not SHOW. Here are some examples of TELLING lines:

Reporter: “You were invited out for an expert opinion…” (Anna would already know this. A reporter would not.)

Reporter: “You being a marine biologist in this area, thought maybe you might have seen someone hanging about the coastline lately.” (Again, Anna would already know her occupation, but why would the reporter know?)

Reporter: “Detectives just left,” he said checking his notes. “They noted extra shoe prints in the sand. Must’ve had somebody with him.” (Reporter is TELLING the reader what the author wants them to know. Why isn’t the detective the one talking to Anna? And why isn’t she the ME or coroner? The author must do the research to make this more plausible.)

Maybe make Anna be the person who spotted the body on the beach and called it in to the police. She’d be involved and have to be questioned on the spot. A reporter wouldn’t be allowed near the body, especially if the next-of-kin notifications have not been done. Major No No.

BACKSTORY DUMP OUT OF CONTEXT – Because of the spartan style of this author’s voice, not much is known about Anna. Not even her last name. The excerpt below feels out of context. I would prefer the author stick to the action and layer in more details of the setting and the feeling of standing over a gruesome body than to read the details below that could be pieced in later when they fit better.

Like Pa’s buddy, Ray, from the Viet Nam war. Ray wanted nothing to do with people after being discharged and returned to the states. The hatred and name calling were too much to take. One of the reasons Momma and Pa had moved so far out in the woods of Oregon. Homesteading far away from the prying eyes of local busybodies. Small towns are like that. Gettin’ in other peoples’ business was not just normal. It was a way of life.

SETTING CAN ENHANCE THE SCENE – Is the weather cold and windy? What are the waves doing? Are they a calm ebb and flow of water or do the waves dramatically crash onto a rocky shoreline? The Oregon coast is mostly rocky, but pick a spot and describe it so a reader from the area recognizes the setting.

How does the sea mist and air feel on her skin as she stares down at a grotesque corpse? Sand carried in the wind and salty sea air can feel gritty on the skin. The brackish water has a smell that can mingle with the stench off a putrid corpse. Is the body tangled with seaweeds? Have other creatures crawled onto the body as the ocean laps around it?

I would recommend focusing on selective details that ADD to the setting and the emotion the author wants the reader to feel when they read this intro. Don’t write volumes that slow the pace, but pick the most essential descriptors that will trigger memories in the reader, even if they’ve never visited the Oregon coast.

CHARACTER ESSENCE – I had mentioned that the backstory dump seemed out of context, but nothing is known about Anna up until that point. Let the reader in on who she is without TELLING the reader in that backstory dump. The same way it is important to stick to the action and not TELL the reader about the character, try sharing details about Anna that SHOWS who she is.

What is she wearing? Does her clothing and other details say anything about who she is? Proper footwear? Jewelry? How does she fix her hair? Are her nails short or long, polished or not? You don’t need to describe all of these points, but have an idea who she is and pick the most essential ways to show the kind of woman she is to the reader by subtly filtering the most essential details into the narrative.

Is she repulsed or clinical about examining the corpse?

Is she observant about the details of the body AS WELL AS the details of the whole crime scene and who is there?

If Anna is the star of this story, the author could set her up better than the way she comes across in this intro. The reporter seems to know more than she does, for example. I have some suggested changes listed below:

SUGGESTED CHANGES – SUMMARY:

Pair Anna up with a detective that might challenge her. Have there be friction between them because she is an outsider and not a detective. If she proves to be a necessary expert where the detective is forced into using her, the friction you start with will only enhance the story line. Have her mind work like a detective as she clinically examines the dead body and doesn’t act squeamish. Any dialogue in an introduction like this could be like reading a game of cat and mouse. The lines would SHOW who these two are and how they’re matched for each other. Have him obviously trying to get her insights then try to get rid of her, while she keeps adding things that make him wonder if she might help him more. Do they know each other from the past? That could be fun.

Layer in more setting that enhances the morbid scene. That would be delicious.

Tease the reader with what killed the man and not spill the beans right away. It’s very cool that we could be talking about a giant octopus – an 8-legged JAWS creature. Milk that. I can hear the dialogue between the detective and Anna now. He thinks he knows how the guy died. Body dump. The sea and its creatures did the damage, but what if at the end of the scene, Anna breaks the news that the man died from a rare octopus attack. Have her hint that it’s not the first as she walks away. That could be a chilling start.

OVERALL – I really liked the voice of this author. Like I said before, this reads like a first draft and stark, bare bones writing. But it’s a good place to begin to fill in details that can only enhance the writing. Many of the typical beginner mistakes are not raging in this intro. Yes, the lack of crime scene research would be a deal killer for me as a reader, but if the author has a good foundation on writing, the research can be learned and developed. There’s lots to tweak with this beginning, but there’s a great deal of promise here. Good luck with your project, anonymous.

DISCUSSION:

What do you think, TKZers? Provide your feedback in your comments.

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Citizen’s Police Academy

My local police department runs an annual citizen’s academy designed to provide insight into the operation of local law enforcement and (I suspect) as a way of counteracting some of the many misconceptions that abound about the police. This year, despite the fact that I don’t write contemporary mysteries or police procedurals, I decided to enroll – figuring, hey you just never know (research is research after all, and inspiration can strike anywhere, anytime!). This free program is 12 weeks long (yes, you read that correctly!) and for three hours each week we learn about the whole range of operations: from patrol procedures, evidence/crime lab and computer forensics, investigations, 911 center operations, to the K9 unit, traffic and the local jail. We also get CPR certification as well as a firearms training (which should be interesting given how gun-averse I am!) and a chance to do a ride-along as well as a 911 ‘sit-along’.

Last week we had our session with one of the current patrol team leaders and it was already an eye opener for me – both in terms of the the range of calls they handle and the amount of equipment they have on hand to deal with these. All the patrol officers in our local police department undertake their own (non-felony) investigations and have facial recognition software as well as fingerprinting and DNA kits in their patrol cars. They also all carry drug testing equipment as well as Narcan (which is a sad reflection of the opioid crisis in America today). Even in our relatively safe community they have to be prepared to respond to active shooter calls and SWAT team situations. It sounded to me like one of the greatest challenge for a patrol officer today is handling the stress/mental health challenges of dealing with such a wide range of calls – one minute you could be dealing with a teenage suicide, the next a coyote attack, then a routine traffic stop, followed by a stolen vehicle report, a drug overdose, and then a call like the Aurora theater shooting. Another key takeaway (for me) was that law enforcement is nothing like it’s depicted on TV or in the media. So if that’s the case, how do I make sure I don’t fall into the same trap (if I ever do decide to use this as research for a novel)??

I’ve already lined up a 3 hour Friday night ride-along with one of the female patrol officers which I’m pretty excited about – I specifically asked for a female patrol officer because I know I lean towards strong female protagonists in my books. However, I’m used to writing about women who lived 100 years ago…so where do I start getting into the mindset of a modern day female police officer?

This is where I want to get input from you, my knowledgable TKZers!  What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about the police in books/media today? What mistakes do you see often in mystery novels about local law enforcement? What questions would you ask a local female patrol officer if you were doing a ride-along?

 

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READER FRIDAY: Share How You’ve Used Family & Friends for a Book Plot

After Sue Coletta’s post “When Real Life Collides with Fiction,” I wondered how many other TKZ members have stories about the many ways an author can abuse family and friends for the sake of a book. I’ve heard of wild stories at writer conferences where authors talk about staging a crime scene using friends as attackers & victims or cornering a relative to brainstorm a murder over Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.

In what ways have you used the people in your life for research or to develop a book plot?

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When Real Life Collides with Fiction …

By SUE COLETTA

Lately, I’ve been consumed by my WIP. It happens with every book. You know the drill. At a certain point something inside takes over. No more struggling, no more hair-pulling, no more research trips down endless rabbit holes. Instead, we spend more time “in the zone” than out of it.

Keep that in mind while I share this conversation between me and my husband, Bob — with pics!

He’d just stretched out after a long day doing tile work as a favor for a friend, so exhausted he didn’t have the energy to take his boots off yet.

I’m sitting across from him. And within seconds, I’m enthralled by his boot treads. I can’t tear my gaze away, my mind whirling with endless scenarios of how I might use them in my WIP.

Bob: Why’re you staring at my boots?

Me: How long have you had those? Didn’t I buy ‘em, like, two Christmases ago?

Bob: Yeah. Why?

Me: Two years … gee, I woulda thought you’d have more of wear pattern by now. You must walk fairly even.

Bob: Thanks, I think.

It was more of an observation than a compliment, but he didn’t need to know that.

Eyes in a squint, I lean in to study the details of each tread, searching for any anomalies I could use.

Bob: What’s so fascinating about my boots?

I thumb the camera on my iPhone and aim at the treads. “Straighten your feet.”

Bob: In your mind, they’re bloody, huh?

Me: Why do you always assume the worse?

Okay, fine. Maybe I was envisioning blood in the grooves, but nobody likes a show off. 🙂 My main focus, however, was the type of impression these specific boots would leave in snow. At a crime scene, if footwear evidence is found and collected, examiners can compare these unknown impressions to known impressions, collected from other crime scenes and stored in databases.

To do this, examiners use three main characteristics for analysis …

  • Class
  • Individual
  • Wear

Class characters result from the manufacturing process and are divided as “general” —characteristics that are standard for every item of that make and model — or “limited” — any variations that are unique to a certain mold. Two boots may have identical tread patterns but may also hold slight differences due to imperfections in the molds during manufacturing.

Back to Bob’s boots for a moment. This time, let’s zoom in …

See that tiny dot on the “S” in Sorel? On his right boot it’s on the bottom. On his left, it’s at the top. The “O” is filled in on the left but not on the right. Also on the right, it almost looks like there’s an apostrophe after the O, as if the brand spells its name as So’Rel. These imperfections are the perfect example of class characteristics.

Individual characteristics are unique to a particular shoe that’s worn from use, not manufacturing. Suppose someone steps on a nail. That nail hole is there for the life of the shoe, and that mark will show in the impression. Same holds true for a cut or gouge from stepping on something sharp, like broken glass. Even a small stone or twig stuck in the grooves of the tread will transfer to the impression.

Wear characteristics result from the natural erosion of the shoe caused by use. Specific wear characteristics include the wear pattern, the basic position of tread wear, the wear condition, the amount of depth of the wear, and the damage to, or destruction of, the tread pattern. The location and amount of tread loss varies for each individual, wearing that particular brand and style of shoe, based on how and where they’ve walked and the length of time they’ve owned the shoe.

Footwear impressions provide valuable information for investigators …

  • Where the crime occurred
  • Number of people present at the scene
  • Direction the suspect traveled before, during, and after the crime
  • Link other crime scenes to the same suspect

Prints are divided into three types …

  • Visible
  • Plastic
  • Latent

A visible print is exactly like it sounds. These prints can be seen by the naked eye. Think: bloody shoe prints across a linoleum floor.

A plastic print is a three-dimensional impression left on a soft surface, like in sand, mud, or snow.

A latent print is one that’s not readily visible. It’s created through static charges between the sole of the shoe and the surface. Examiners use powders, chemicals, and/or alternative light sources to find latent prints. Think: a burglar’s shoeprint on a window sill.

The FBI compiles and maintains a footwear (and tire tread) database, which contains manufacturers’ information, as well as information from previously submitted evidence. But did you know the National Institute of Justice also maintains various forensic databases? They sure do. Which is perfect for an amateur sleuth character who doesn’t have access to the FBI’s database.

For print impressions, the NIJ maintains three databases called …

  1. SoleMate
  2. TreadMark
  3. TreadMate (for tire impressions)

For detailed information about how each database works, here’s the link to help with your research.

Knowing the basics of footwear impressions, I thought I was all set to write my scene. But if experience told me anything, it’s that a hands-on exercise trumps imagination. Hence why I’ve trapped myself in a steel drum to experience my character’s terror. And why, after spotting the boots, I dragged my poor husband outside to make prints in the snow.

Turns out, he had more of a wear pattern than I thought. After close inspection of several prints, worn spots in the grooves of the heel, toe, and instep revealed themselves. Guess someone doesn’t walk evenly after all. 🙂

If Bob hadn’t stretched out after work with his boots still on, and I wasn’t sitting across from him, consumed by my WIP, my story wouldn’t’ve taken a hard-right turn and led to several intense, gripping scenes. And I probably wouldn’t have written this post, either. Isn’t it amazing how that works?

We writers need to remain open to outside stimuli. If your short on ideas, you’re not paying attention to the world around you. Look through the writer’s lens at all times. That’s the biggest takeaway from this post (outside the helpful info. re: footwear impressions ;-)).

Our experiences bleed through every page we write. So, go ahead and drag your spouse/neighbor/friend into the snow to make prints, if that’s what you need for research. Or pause to listen to the throaty rattle of a raven, if you need a moment of clarity. Life is our greatest ally. Don’t squander the gift of perception by ignoring her.

Has real life ever collided with your fiction? Are you viewing the world through a writer’s lens? Please share a brief sliver of time. Like when a raindrop catches kaleidoscope colors as it rolls down a windshield or how the neighbor’s cat only limps when his owner’s watching.

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Let’s Talk About the Skeleton in the Room

By SUE COLETTA

I’ve seen way too many medical professionals in the last six months (living with rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis isn’t always easy). As Joe pointed out Saturday—beautifully, I might add—life as we know it can change in an instant. In short, remember to have fun. Laughter really is the best medicine.

One way I’ve amused myself while waiting in the exam room is by analyzing the skeleton suspended by a metal pole. You know the one … the staff usually names it Fred, or something equally common, as though the name will somehow lessen the impact of bad news.

What I find fascinating is the fact that the vast majority of doctors and nurses don’t know the sex of their skeleton, evident by the female skeletons tagged with a male name.

Determining the Sex of a Skeleton

Many differences exist between the two sexes, and the variations run as deep as our bones. This becomes especially important for corpses found in an advanced stage of decomposition. All that might remain is the skeleton, perhaps teeth, and possibly some hair. Even if the pathologist has teeth and hair to work with, that doesn’t mean enough DNA material remains to identify the victim.

This is where the skeleton offers more information. The only exception would be that of a pre-adolescent, where sexual dimorphism is slight, making the task much more difficult. Need to buy time in your story? Murder an adolescent. (Oh, no, she didn’t just say that.) Or have the killer shatter the key areas of the skeleton.

The most common way to determine a skeleton’s sex is by bone size. Not the most accurate, but it’s a starting point. Male bones are generally larger than female bones because of the additional muscle that increases on the male through adolescence and into adulthood.

Another good inclination of sex is the pelvic area.

The sub-pubic angle (or pubic angle) is the angle formed at pubic arch by the convergence of the inferior rami of the ischium (loop bone at the base) and pubis (top of loop) on either side. Generally, the sub-pubic angle of 50-60 degrees indicates a male. Whereas an angle of 70-90 degrees indicates a female. Women have wider hips to allow for childbirth.

Female

Male

There are also distinctive differences between the pubic arches in males and females. A woman’s pubic arch is wider than a male’s as is the pelvic inlet to allow a baby’s head to pass through.

The pubic arch is also referred to as the ischiopubic arch. Incidentally, this difference is noticed in all species, not just humans.

 

 

The area around the pelvic inlet (middle of the pelvic bone) is larger in females than in males. A female skeleton who has given birth naturally will be identifiable because this space widens during childbirth. Even though it contracts afterward, it never fully returns to its original size. In the picture above notice the heart-shaped space.

 

If you don’t want the pathologist to easily ID the victim, perhaps the neighborhood bear takes off with the pelvis bone. You could also have him return for the rest of the body as the coroner is examining the corpse. Talk about adding conflict to the scene! Just remember, most black bears don’t eat human flesh (in my area, anyway). So, do your homework. Grizzly bear, anyone? How about a Kodiak brown bear?

Other Body Clues

The acetabulum—the socket where the femur (thigh bone) meets the pelvis—is larger in males. Also, the head and skull have several characteristics that help the pathologist (or crime writer) determine male from female.

  • In males, the chin is squarer. Females tend to have a slightly more pointed chin.
  • The forehead of males slant backward, where females have a slightly more rounded forehead.
  • Males tend to have brow ridges; females do not.

These differences and more tell the pathologist the sex of the deceased.

So, the next time you’re sitting in an exam room, get friendly with the skeleton in the room. Who knows? You may even sell a book or two when you educate the staff. Do it nicely, though. Some medical professionals don’t like to be schooled by a crime writer, as weird as that sounds. 🙂

Wishing you all a joyous Thanksgiving!

 

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How To Use False Eyewitness Testimony in #Thrillers

By SUE COLETTA

Forensic Psychology is a fascinating field, especially as it relates to eyewitness testimony. Can we always trust our memory? Let’s test your observation skills. In this short video, count the number of times the ball is tossed from one white-shirt player to another. Sounds easy enough, right? Give it a try.

Well, how’d you do?

This phenomenon is called inattentional blindness. Your mind perceives what’s happening, but you do not attend to it. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with your eyes. But for some reason this information is more subconscious than conscious. The best known demonstration of inattentional blindness is a study performed by Simons and Chabris (1999) known as Gorilla in the Midst.  It’s highly copyrighted so I couldn’t embed it here, but if you’d like to check it out, click the title.

Imagine the implications inattentional blindness has on eyewitness testimony? Often times victims of violent crime are so focused on the gun they see little else.

Change blindness is another phenomenon that effects key elements of our surroundings, including the identity of the person right in front of us, even if that person has changed places with someone else. If you’d like to use change blindness in your WIP, check out The Door Study.

The implications of change blindness on eyewitness testimony could delay solving the crime. Always a good thing in thrillers. A detective could be led down numerous dead-ends, and so could the reader.

In a violent crime, “weapon focus” muddies the waters. Participants in another study watched a film of a kidnapping attempt. Would it surprise you to learn that actions were better remembered than details?Eyewitness testimony

Action Details

When we witness a crime, we absorb the information by the actions that happened during the commission of the crime. For example, a man pointed a gun at a woman, pushed her into his van, and sped away. The central information — what an eyewitness focuses on — and the peripheral information — what’s happening around said eyewitness — often becomes skewed with the surge of adrenaline.

Such findings suggest that when we witness a traumatic event, our attention is drawn to the central action at the expense of descriptive details. Yet, in other circumstances, such as non-violent events, our attention may be spread more evenly between the two.

Which brings us back to inattentional blindness. This phenomenon occurs when attention is drawn toward only one aspect of an eyewitness’ surroundings, resulting in lack of information. Which writers can use to our advantage.

Weapon Focus

The use of weapons complicate matters even more. When a gunman brandishes his firearm, an eyewitness tends to focus on the pistol rather than other details, such as the suspect’s hair and eye color, build and dress. Researchers have tested this theory, as well.

In the study, they showed participants videos of robberies — robbery involves a weapon and a victim; burglary does not— where one group witnessed the robber with a concealed pistol and other group witnessed the robber with the gun in plain sight. When researchers asked the concealed weapon group to identify the robber in a line-up, only 46% of participants could identify the suspect. From those who watched the video where the robber brandished the weapon, only 26% could identify him.

Schemas

In order for an eyewitness to be able to answer a question, they must be willing to respond. And it’s this willingness that can impair their memory of the events. Not everything we “see” or “experience” is stored in our minds. Our brains don’t work like computers where each bit is encoded. Rather, we make connections to other things in order to process information. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve written about Subliminal Messages on my blog.

Episodic memories — memories involving an event — are organized in our minds as “event schemas.” This allows us to store knowledge, events, and activities by connecting to what we classify as “normal.” In other words, rather than remembering every time we dined at our favorite seafood joint, we tend to build a general impression of seafood restaurants … the smell, the atmosphere, and so on.

However, the use of schemas can distort memories. The perfect example of this is when someone asks me about my childhood, then asks my brother. From our answers one might think we grew up in different households. Many factors contribute to how we remember times and events. Such as, influence. When gaps exist in our memory we tend to incorporate new information in an attempt to fill in the blanks. Although useful in everyday life, this poses real problems for investigators, because this new information is often constructed after the crime took place, and leads to false testimony.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into Forensic Psychology. We’ve barely scratched the surface. Next time, I’ll share how an investigator should pose questions to an eyewitness. Perhaps you could use the techniques in your WIP. Would that interest you?

So, TKZers, how many of you saw the gorilla? Are you tempted to use false eyewitness testimony in your WIP?

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