Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Crime Scene Investigation for Writers

by Jill Williamson

*WARNINGThis post talks about investigating a murder. If that is not something you want to think about in detail, you might want to skip today's post.* 

I went to the IdaHope writers conference last weekend. It was small but powerful. And I had a fabulous time.

I went to this same conference several years ago, and Ray Ellis, a police detective, gave a workshop in which he wore his police belt and told us what everything on the belt was for and what it did. It was fascinating. So when I saw that Ray was teaching a crime scene class, I had to be there.

Ray Ellis has been writing for more than twenty years and has been a law enforcement officer and ordained pastor for just a little while longer. Ray is the author of the Nate Richards Police Mystery Series: a “Top 100″ for African-American Christian Fiction titles on Amazon. Check out Ray at his: websiteTwitter, or Facebook.

Here is Ray's classroom sketch of the crime scene. In this instance, a body was found, and we pretended that we were the detectives called to the scene. The first sketch is of the entire premises. The second, a close up of the room in which the victim was found. Rays says that he considers all deaths homicides until proven otherwise (in which the evidence might prove that the death was accidental or a suicide).

When Ray arrives at a scene, the sight is often horrible. And as a compassionate human being, he has to calm himself down right away. He slows down, relaxes, controls his breathing so that he doesn't get tunnel vision and miss evidence. He needs to remain objective and let the crime scene tell him what happened, not to tell the crime scene what he thinks happened.

Ray asked us to consider the five senses when your officer enters the crime scene. When writing this, use the senses in this order, and you can plant breadcrumb clues for your detective and your reader in what is observed.

1. Sight- This is the first sense used when an officer enters a crime scene. He's looking around, observing. Everything is evidence. He asks himself, "Do I see anything off the bat that stands out as foul play?" Some examples of things a detective might notice: Witnesses present? Position of the body. (In the drawing the body looked to have been dragged onto the floor.) Footprints, bloody or not, and which direction(s) they are going. What kind of shoe. If there is more than one show print. How many different ones. Which directions are they going? Is there furniture dislodged? Might that show a struggle? Bullet holes in the walls? Blood spatter. Directions of drops of blood to indicate movement. Things like that.

2. Smell- Smell can tell a detective a lot. And it's very important that the detective make note of these things right away because smell doesn't last. Does the body smell? This could give some hint to how long the body has been there. What else can your detective smell? Perfume? Gun smoke? Food cooking? Cigarette smoke? Sweat?

Then the detective would ask himself, "Is there a relationship between what I see and what I smell?"

3. Sound- What does the detective hear when he arrives at the scene? Does he hear anyone speaking excited utterances? What is the person saying? Note the reaction of the spouse, other witnesses, or animals. Does he hear footsteps? Breathing?

4. Touch- The detective is always wearing gloves, but that doesn't discount what he feels. What does he notice about the temperature at the scene? Is there a breeze? What does the scene feel like? And what does this tell him?

5. Taste- A detective will also note if there is a taste in the air. For example, maybe there was a cologne that was so strong he could taste it.

The next thing Ray talked about was the crime scene log that tells who came to the scene? at what time? and when did they leave? Then he taught us was how to take evidence and how very important it was not to make any errors. If mistakes are made, good defense attorneys can get the evidence thrown out. So this is a very important job and must be done correctly for every item numbered in the sketch.

He also explained that the body and the evidence belongs to the police department until it is released. And once it is released, the detectives can't have it back. So they must be sure to get everything they need during their investigation.

And then Ray passed out the rubber gloves, gave us all a CD to hold, and taught us how we'd fingerprint the CD if we were collecting it as evidence.

1. We logged in the CD as evidence on a Police Department Property Invoice. Since there was only the one piece of evidence, we put a slash across the form so nothing could be added to it. We filled in our officer name and badge number, which Ray said is usually 3-4 digits long. We put in the date and time, marked the CD as evidence, added the reporting district, and numbered the evidence by starting with the last two digits of the year and then using the next evidence number available. We also noted where we got the evidence. (We didn't have time to finish by signing the thing.)

2. Then we used black fingerprint powder and the cool feather brush to dust our CD for prints.

3. Then we used special tape that's extremely sticky to tape over the prints. You have to do this carefully because you can ruin the prints.

4. Then we peeled off the tape and stuck it to a card, circled which print or prints we wanted the crime lab to run, filled out the info on the back of the card, and placed it in the yellow envelope along with the CD and the pink layer of the Property Invoice. Then we used the special evidence tape to tape up the evidence envelope and put our initials badge number, and the date on the tape. If this is tampered with before it's opened, the evidence is ruined.

Me and my pal Angela Ruth Strong and our evidence.

Pretty interesting, huh? Any questions? I might not be able to answer, but I'll try.


  1. That's really cool. I never thought of doing senses in an order before...huh... I'll work on that.

  2. Interesting and informative as well. Thanks for sharing! :)

  3. This is really cool...definitely saving this post!

  4. That sounds like a really fun workshop to attend!

  5. This sounds so cool!!! I wanna go to a writers conference :(

  6. Oh, this looks so fun, Jill! What a great class!

  7. This looks like a really cool workshop! I bet it was lots of fun. :)

    Okay, so, this has absolutely nothing to do with the post, but I was wondering if anyone else is planning on doing the NaNoWriMo camp in April. It's a lot like NaNo, but it's and April, and you get to set your own word goal. Anyways, I just wanted to know if anyone else is doing it.

    -Abby :)

    1. I am. I'm setting a lower WC goal, though. Only 30,000, because I have sports and I'm in the middle of my WIP right now, so the first draft will be finished by the end of April.

    2. That's awesome! I'm setting a lower word count too, because I'm pretty tied up with school and stuff right now. Good luck!


  8. This is so cool. I'm not really a crime scene person... But my older sister wants to be a forensic anthropologist (a person who figures out how people died based primarily off of their almost-completely-destroyed/nonexistent remains, like in the TV show BONES, so I know a thing or two about this.

    Knowing how people solve murders is a great way to figure out a way to have a character killed and the killer not get caught for a while...

  9. *gasp*
    This was a FANTASTIC post! I love reading murder mysteries...terribly morbid, but I like them. I think this was a very interesting post showing the perspective of a real detective and their job. Quite helpful. Thanks!

    1. You're welcome. Ray amazes me. I could never do his job. I'd be bawling over in my squad car...

  10. This is really interesting. I never thought of that ... (Mom and Dad can rest easily. I promise I don't think of murder all day). I never new what it was really like. Thanks for the post!

  11. This was so awesome!! I do have a story or two involved in crime scenes and my characters aren't detectives but they get extremely close to the bodies a lot of the time and I wanted to know exactly how that would affect the over-all crime scene and what police or detectives could make out from that. So, thank you very much! :D


  12. Interesting! I've never had to write a crime scene like this before, but it was still cool to learn about what the police do in situations like this.

  13. You're welcome, everyone! It was a really fun class. Ray is a fascinating guy. :-)