I Spy With My Little Eye… Using CCTV in your novel (Part 2)
Hello everyone, and welcome to this week's #TuesdayTip! This is the second in a three-part post looking at video surveillance and how it could be used in your books. Last week's post introduced some examples of CCTV and also dispelled some common myths. Today I will focus on complementary technologies such as night vision and ANPR. Pop back next week for a discussion about some more recent innovations that may give inspiration for your work.
Night Vision In recent years, the ability to see in the dark has moved from specialist, often military, applications to the mainstream. Peruse a catalogue of residential security systems and cameras with low-light or night vision are now the norm, even at the cheaper end of the market. So I thought it may be useful to explain what this is and how it works. But first of all, I need to clear up a misconception. Night Vision is NOT the same as Thermal Imaging. I am sure everybody is familiar with footage from TV of police helicopters chasing joyriders in the pitch black, late at night. The miscreants typically end up crashing or abandoning their vehicle, before leaving on foot and trying to hide in somebody's back garden. They can easily be seen as glowing heat spots against a cooler background. The police and dog teams chasing them are similarly visible. From above, the helicopter crew direct their colleagues on the ground towards their quarry. Thermal Imaging (or 'Heat Vision'), works because all objects emit infra-red radiation. The intensity of this radiation, which is invisible to human eyes, varies depending on the temperature of the object. Human beings are typically warmer than their surrounding environment, and so they standout against the background. Heat-sensitive cameras can detect this invisible radiation, and will produce an artificially-coloured image that can be seen by the operator. The infra-red radiation can be blocked by buildings etc, but hiding under a tree or in a bush won't work. This technology is also used by the military. Night Vision also relies on Infra-Red. Night vision, or low-light enhanced images also require infra-red, but work a little differently. Human beings can see a fairly narrow range of colours (referred to as wave-lengths, or frequencies). What we perceive as white light, or natural light, is a mixture of these colours. When we see an object, what we are actually seeing is the light reflected from a surface that enters our eyes. Light moves in a straight-line from a light source, and is then reflected or absorbed by an object, and it is these reflections that we see. The more light that our eyes receive, the better we are able to see. This is why we see more clearly when we turn up the brightness on a lamp, for example. However, because we can only see a relatively narrow range of wavelengths, the light that is invisible to us, such as infra-red, goes unnoticed. In low-light systems, the camera is able to pick up this extra infra-red and, after adjusting its colour to make it visible to human eyes, adds it to the image on the screen, so the picture is brighter with more detail. Your mobile phone camera uses this trick to make pictures taken in dim light brighter. This system is called 'passive infra-red'. It is simply collecting and using more of the light already available. Active infra-red uses the same principle as turning on a torch or a light to see in the dark. If I want to ensure that a security camera outside my house gets a clear image of somebody entering my back garden in the dead of night, then the obvious thing to do is flood my backyard with a high-powered light. That light will be reflected off any objects it hits and return to the camera, in exactly the same way that natural sunlight is reflected during the day. For obvious reasons, this is not desirable. Active infra-red systems work by shining invisible infra-red light, and then capturing the reflected infra-red light on a low-light camera. Because the infra-red light cannot be seen, the area remains pitch-black. As IR is not a colour that our eyes can perceive, the computer-generated images are grey-scale (black or white). The quality of the images generated can be variable. A close-up image of a person's face (such as a burglar!) can be good enough to allow them to be easily identified. Car license plates vary. Because the plates are coated in a reflective material, bright lights shining on them may make them unreadable, whilst paradoxically, those in shade may be more readable. I did a quick experiment and found that I was unable to read my own car's licence plate which is directly under the camera, but could see my neighbour's, which is parked at an angle to the camera. How could you use this in your book? Could the police be chasing a suspect at night with the aid of a helicopter (thermal imaging)? How useful is the night vision on a security camera? Is it good enough to identify a suspect or will you decide that it won't stand up in court?
Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR). The system works by automatically recording the licence plate of a vehicle, which a computer will then read and store or use immediately. As the computer systems get more sophisticated, the need for human assistance to read strangely formatted or dirty licence plates becomes less necessary. Examples of the system' use include: Law enforcement. The police have access to large numbers of 'traffic cameras'. These may be fixed surveillance cameras mounted on poles over roads or traffic lights, or mobile cameras attached to the dashboard of police vehicles. Local Councils. They can be used to help enforce civil penalties, for example monitoring the use of residential parking permits. Commercial operators. These might include councils, but would also include the owners of car parks - increasing numbers of car parks photograph the licence plate of cars entering and leaving and use this to calculate parking charges. Other uses of ANPR include filling-station forecourts, to deter and capture fuel thieves.
What happens next depends on the context in which it is used. For the police, the system might be tied in directly to the Police National Computer and systems such as the Motor Insurance Database. Cars that are associated with persons of interests or active investigations may then be identified, as would cars being driven illegally without insurance etc, or stolen vehicles. The camera network can also be used to track a vehicle's journey - either retrospectively, to work out where a vehicle has been eg when trying to solve a case - or in real-time, if the police are trying to find an suspect in an ongoing situation. For a car park, the system would usually be completely closed. The computer simply notes that a car entered, then notes the time that it left. If the police want access to that information, to either track down the whereabouts of a suspect or to determine if they were parked in that area at the time of an offence, they would have to ask the operators. Many car parks are operated by the same company, eg NCP, so a request for information can be applied to all of their properties.
For parking penalty enforcement, the operator would submit registrations for vehicles that they believe have infringed the rules to the DVLA (Driving and Vehicle Licencing Agency), who would then give them the details of the registered keeper which the operator will then chase down.
That's it for this week. Next week, I will conclude this mini-series with a look at the future and some other uses of video surveillance technology, such as body-worn cameras, dashcams and even Google Street View! As always, feel free to comment here or on social media. All the best, Paul
I Spy With My Little Eye… Using CCTV in your novel (Part 1)
Hello everyone, and welcome to the first #TuesdayTip of 2021! This is the first in a three-part post looking at video surveillance and how it could be used in your books. The articles will look at Closed Circuit TV (CCTV), Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) and dashcams, as well as more sophisticated applications such as night vision, body worn cameras and gait analysis. I will also highlight some of the myths perpetuated by TV and movies. For brevity, I will usually just refer to it as CCTV, unless detailing a specific application.
Scale and History The term Closed Circuit TV is simply a way of distinguishing between video that is broadcast widely and indiscriminately (eg television programmes) and video that is intended for 'private' viewing purposes and is not publicly available. CCTV of some description has been available from as early as the late 1920s, when it was used to monitor the comings and goings of visitors to the Kremlin. In the 1940s, the Nazis used CCTV to remotely monitor the launch of V2 rockets. From the 60s, it was used as a precursor to pay-per-view services - for example broadcasting sporting events to paying audiences in select theatres. Today it is widely used by governmental organisations, private companies and individuals for purposes ranging from security and law enforcement (criminal and terrorist activities), safety (monitoring motorways or public areas for accidents or potential accidents), efficiency (workforce monitoring, for example in factories and warehouses), evidence collection (police body-worn cameras or dashboard cameras) and deterrence (there is good evidence that burglars will favour properties that don't have CCTV). Schools may use CCTV to deter and monitor vandalism and poor behaviour and even the quality of teaching. Care homes also use CCTV to monitor the health and wellbeing of residents (and there have been upsetting incidences of staff abusing patients caught on camera). Video-enabled baby monitors (or 'NannyCams') are increasingly used by parents to keep an eye on their offspring (or even pets, when they are out at work!).
Estimates vary enormously, but it is believed that the UK has the highest number of cameras per citizen - state-run and privately-owned - of any country in the world, including totalitarian and police states. Residents of large cities going about their day-to-day business may be caught on upwards of 70 different surveillance cameras each day!
The first applications were live only; there had to be a person monitoring the camera feeds at all times. With the advent of video recording equipment, footage could be saved for later retrieval. Multiplexing allowed multiple camera feeds to be recorded at once, and the technology shifted from analogue recordings on cassette tape, to digital recordings on tape, to digital recordings on computer hard drives and more recently, cloud-based storage. Many modern systems allow the camera feeds to be watched remotely via the internet. Some systems have been criticised for poor security; for example broadcasting feeds over the internet with poor encryption, or easily-guessed passwords. This allows unauthorised access to what should be a private feed. How could you use this in your book? Could malign individuals use this to help them plan a crime or keep tracks on someone (for example a stalker or sexual voyeur), or could law enforcement exploit this to monitor a suspect?
Dispelling Myths The ubiquity of surveillance can make one wonder exactly how a crime writer can go about setting a crime in a large city, without their perpetrator being caught on camera, identified and arrested before the end of the prologue - but fear not, there is no need to move your novel to a remote island or set your books no later than the end of The Second World War.
The quality isn't always that good. We've all seen it; blurry, pixelated images or videos released by the police in the hope of identifying a suspect. How often have you looked at black and white images and found yourself just taking the police's word for it that the indistinct shape is even a person, let alone somebody you may recognise? The haunting images of the toddler Jamie Bulger being led away to his death by two young boys in 1993 were full colour, but other than identifying the colour of their clothes, probable ages of the two suspects and the time that they snatched him, the evidential use of that footage was more in establishing the events that happened than directly identifying his kidnappers.
For video footage, older systems in particular used lower frame-rates to squeeze more hours onto the recording media, therefore the video is jerky and the suspect may only appear in one or two frames.
Obviously, the specialist officers that spend their working days staring at such video are more practised than you or I, but sometimes you wonder how useful releasing such footage might be. However, the human brain is a funny thing, and whilst a stranger might not see anything of any use in such images, somebody familiar with the person on the screen may see something they think they recognise. Sometimes that's all that is needed; another name to throw into the mix. The police can then investigate that person and either eliminate from their inquiries or perhaps dig a bit deeper to find more compelling evidence.
Of course, modern cameras are light-years ahead of what was available even ten years ago. A couple of hundred quid can buy a high-resolution, full-colour system that can record easily-identifiable images, even in low-light. You can even buy smart doorbells that record footage of anyone ringing your bell, or can be triggered by anyone stepping within the camera's range.
Could your book feature a suspect caught near an area by a neighbour's CCTV? Although this is not evidence that they committed the crime, could it be used to prove or disprove an alibi, or show that they had the opportunity, as they were in the area at the time?
You can't zoom in. Contrary to what Hollywood would have us believe, you can't just 'zoom in' or magnify an image to gain more detail from previously-shot footage. Whilst specialist technicians may be able to 'clean up' images, removing static or adjusting the colour, ultimately, the laws of physics come into play. The recording can only display information from the photons of light energy that the camera picked up at the time. Take a car licence plate - if it is blurry or too small to read on the original image, then no amount of enhancement will magically make it readable. Images that are borderline might benefit from interpolation, where complex computer algorithms can 'guess' what some of the missing pixels may look like, maybe by comparing several different frames from a video, and perhaps using other sources of information to confirm those guesses (eg comparing the shape of the reconstructed image to a database to work out what the digits are most likely to be), but the options are limited.
Could blurred footage collected at the beginning of a story be used by your detectives later in the book to strengthen the case against a suspect? Could you use the need to send a tantalisingly blurred photo off for specialist enhancement as a way of controlling the pace of your story?
Video that has been recorded over is permanently destroyed/can be retrieved at will This subheading appears contradictory - and this is deliberate. Most video systems have a finite amount of storage. Typically, they are configured on a 'rolling basis'. When the recording media is full, the system copies over the existing footage, replacing the oldest footage first. So even if a CCTV unit has been running for twelve months, there may only be the most recent month stored on the system. And as it continues recording, the older footage disappears, so that only the most recent month is on there. Data Protection laws also dictate how long security footage can be kept for. For example, your local supermarket doubtless records customers throughout the store. Their data protection policy will determine how long they can retain that footage before they need to delete it. The exception of course is if they have reason to suspect that there is evidence of criminality etc on a particular piece of footage; then they are allowed to keep it until it has been used in court etc.
Whether this deleted/written-over material can be retrieved depends on the system used, how many times that tape, or that hard-disk sector has been over-written, the quality of the recording material etc. Forensic specialists might or might not be able to revive footage of sufficient quality to be any use. As a writer, this ambiguity is great! You can decide whether or not your story needs the footage to be retrieved and then write accordingly. 'Sorry, Sir, the footage has been recorded over too many times, we can't bring it back'. Or 'We managed to retrieve some of the deleted footage, you can clearly see the suspect's car.'
If you write it confidently, avoid naming specific systems or tripping yourself up with technical details, your readers will accept this. It helps if you foreshadow this when you hand it to your forensic specialists. 'Robertson looked at the CCTV unit dubiously. "No Promises, Sir, this system does a really good job of erasing older footage."' In this post I have only touched upon the basics. Next week's post will delve into the subject in more detail. I will cover night vision and Automatic Number Plate Recognition. The concluding article will discuss some more recent innovations that you might find useful when writing your novel.
Until then, thank you for reading this far. Feel free to comment here, or on social media. Best wishes, Paul
Christmas Special Including Festive Celebrations In Your Novel
It's Christmas!!!!! With the patron saint of December, Noddy Holder, screaming from radios across the UK for the past month, it's time to consider how to use festivals and holidays in your novel.
I will be taking a short break over the festive period, so this is an extra-long, bumper edition!
I've written a couple of books that feature Christmas and Easter. Note that these were not "Christmas Books", rather they were books where the action took place over the festive period. Writing books set over a public holiday opens narrative possibilities, but also imposes some restrictions that need to be considered.
You may also want to consider other holidays and festivals. Your characters may come from a background that routinely celebrate other traditions, both religious or secular. How do you to deal with these?
For the purposes of this article, I am going to assume that your novel is UK-based, with some references where appropriate to the US etc, where things may be different.
I'll look at other traditions later on, but given the date this is published, let's deal with the large, tinsel-covered elephant in the room first.
Christmas To celebrate or not to celebrate? The first question you should ask yourself is whether your character will be celebrating Christmas. Even if they are a Grinch, it's likely that most of the people around them will be celebrating. How does this affect your character? Is there a reason they don't celebrate? Do they resent others celebrating? Christmas may nominally be a Christian festival taking advantage of a pre-existing winter celebration, but in modern, multicultural Britain, it has long-since morphed into a mid-winter, family holiday, marked in some way by most people. Don't assume that just because a character is not a Christian that they ignore Christmas, the chances are they don't. After all, who doesn't enjoy a public holiday when the weather is miserable, where you and loved-ones are likely to be off work together, and there is an excuse to eat too much, party and watch TV all day? I've worked with Hindus, Muslims and non-Christians a lot over the years and everyone took part in the office Secret Santa and came to the Christmas meal. If your character has kids, then they are going to be just as keen to get free stuff off a jolly old fat bloke as anyone.
One thing you might consider is that police and other key workers will still need to provide the same service over the festive period, as they do on every other day of the year. In this case, non-Christians might sometimes be open to a bit of horse-trading regarding shift patterns. It's not uncommon for Muslim colleagues to work Christmas day in exchange for taking Eid off, for example.
How do your characters celebrate? The chances are that you have memories of childhood Christmases; traditions that developed over the years, making the festive period special. But the first time you celebrate Christmas with a partner's family you often realise that even if you are completely alike on every other level, their idea of Christmas may differ quite significantly from yours. Ask friends or co-workers about how they celebrate. Do they do something different? It was always a source of fascination to me that at our Anglo-Italian friends would turn-up to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve wearing their Christmas presents. Their tradition was to open presents on Christmas Eve. Some European countries have a large meal on Christmas Eve. Followers of the Eastern Orthodox tradition celebrate Christmas on January the 7th, rather than December 25th. How would your characters celebrate?
In the UK and many Commonwealth countries, December the 26th is called Boxing Day and is also a public holiday; it's quite common to visit family and friends. Canadians celebrate it but the US doesn't. Some European countries treat it as a second Christmas day. Don't forget to allow for this when planning how the story unfolds during this period - do your characters have the day off? Are they 'on call'?
Weather Despite the Hollywood and Victorian images of a white Christmas, most of the UK (especially down south) is typically grey, miserable and cold at Christmas, rather than blanketed in beautiful white snow. If you want to be historically accurate, you can find archived weather reports online. I once had a proof-reader comment that the summer I set a book in, rather than being hot and dry was actually rather wet. To avoid nit-picking by Amazon reviewers, if the weather is not crucial to the plot-line, why not look up the actual weather for the period in which your book is set, and write it into the story?
Joyous, domestic bliss and peace to all men? Contrary to what the supermarket Christmas adverts would have us believe, Christmas is not always a wondrous time spent with our loved ones. For many, it can be stressful and fraught with worry, not to mention expensive. The logistics of preparing a big, show-stopper meal for more people than usual, decisions on who to invite, who to visit and how to navigate separated or blended families are all sources of stress, but are potential goldmines for writers. What do you do when your niece neglects to mention that they are now vegan? Tragically, cases of domestic violence often spike over this period, especially where alcohol is involved. Does your character dread Christmas? Are they secretly relieved when their phone goes off in the middle of the Queen's speech, calling them out to a suspicious death? Or are they annoyed that they can't have a drink because they are on-call, and irritated when they have to miss Dr Who?
New Year's Eve In the UK, as with many other countries, Christmas celebrations often become merged with the upcoming public holiday on January 1st (and January 2nd in some countries). However, with Christmas and New Year's day falling on a different day of the week each year, you will need to check how that affects your story. What happens to the public holiday if Christmas day or New Year's Day fall over a weekend? Small details like that are easy to miss, especially if you move events in your story around to change the pace etc. As with Christmas, traditions also vary. The Scots famously celebrate Hogmanay, whilst in northern England 'first footing' as the new year is rung-in is common.
But what about other festivals or holidays? Hanukkah The eight day festival of lights takes place between late-November and late-December. Although a relatively minor festival (and NOT a Jewish Christmas), it's timing means that inevitably, some families take the opportunity to celebrate in a similar manner. Check the dates that Hanukkah is scheduled to fall in the year your book is set. Will your characters celebrate? Will they have a 'hybrid' Christmas/Hanukkah celebration?
There are also other Jewish Holidays, varying in significance. Is your character observant or secular? Again, check the dates that they are scheduled the year your book is set.
Easter and Passover The nature of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism is such that the two traditions often overlap. Unlike Christmas which occurs on a fixed date each year, the dates for Easter (and thus Lent and Holy Week) and Passover, are set by the lunar calendar, meaning they occur sometime within a period of roughly a month in the Northern Hemisphere's spring. Again, check your dates.
Ramadan and Eid If your characters are Muslim, they may observeRamadan, a month of fasting between the hours of sun-up and sun-down. Again, the date changes each year, as it is based on the Islamic calendar. When does Ramadan fall during your novel? What will the weather be like for those fasting? How long will the day be for them? To cope with a day without sustenance (including water, if it is safe to do so), Muslims have a pre-dawn meal, and then break their fast after sundown. This is often a social, family affair with rituals such as eating dates. How will this affect your character - might they be itching to get home to break the fast after a long shift?
At the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate the festival of Eid al-Fitr. There are many spiritual aspects to this festival, but it is also typically a day of celebration. It is a public holiday in many countries; in the UK it is not a holiday, but increasing numbers of organisations allow a day's leave. How a person celebrates will depend on their own cultural background, so in the UK, Muslims from different traditions or heritages will have their own way of marking the day. How would your Muslim character choose to celebrate? What is their heritage?
Muslims also celebrate a second festival, Eid al-Adha, roughly two months after Eid al-Fitr. This coincides with the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims hope to accomplish at least once in their lifetime. How will your character mark Eid al-Adha?
Diwali A festival of lights, it is celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. It takes place over five days and also moves each year, typically falling between mid-October and mid-November. The five days each have significance, with specific rituals, and it is usually seen as a major celebration. How it is celebrated will vary depending on your character's cultural and religious background, so it is worth doing your research. As it is a festival of light, fireworks are common, which in the UK is convenient as the festival typically falls close to bonfire night (see below).
Weekly Observances Does your character observe any regular religious practises? Muslims pray five times a day, but Friday is especially important, with visits to the Mosque. Christians traditionally regard Sunday as 'a day of rest'. Whilst the numbers attending church have fallen significantly, the remnants of the UK's nominally Christian heritage can be seen in reduced trading times on Sundays and restrictions on alcohol etc (these vary between the four nations, so do your research!). The Jewish sabbath falls between sun-down on Friday and sun-down on Saturday, and for the most observant they cannot work or travel in that time (with quite strict interpretations of what constitutes work). How observant is your character? Do they follow these rules in their daily lives?
Non-religious public holidays or popular celebrations Thanksgiving. I am including this after finding out that some Americans don't realise that this (and July the fourth) are not celebrated in the UK! In America, Thanksgiving is at least as important (if not more so) than Christmas in the UK, and in fact the traditional Turkey dinner is remarkably similar to that celebrated by many British people on Christmas day. In the United States, Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday in November. In Canada, it is celebrated on the second Monday in October.
And whilst we're on the subject, Mother's day is also celebrated on different days in the UK and the US.
Public Holidays or celebrations Check the calendar to see when public holidays (bank holidays) fall. Do closed businesses cause problems for your main character? Don't forget that bank holidays can vary between the home nations. What about other celebrations? Halloween is becoming increasingly popular in the UK. It isn't a public holiday, but traditions such as fancy dress parties and trick or treating are becoming more common. November the 5th (bonfire night) marks the foiling of Guy Fawke's plot to blow-up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Combined with Diwali, the setting off of fireworks can now last throughout much of October and November. Does this cause problems for your character? Are they sleep-deprived after being kept awake by late-night revellers or howling pets?
And finally, consider the dates of school holidays - this may have an impact on your character if they are a parent, or have a partner who is a teacher. DCI Warren Jones' wife, Susan, is a biology teacher. Depending on when the book is set, Susan may be off school.
Well thank you if you've read all of this! Hopefully it will tide you over until the new year, when I will start writing again.
As always, feel free to comment or share here or on social media.
Have a great Christmas, however you choose to celebrate it, and see you in 2021!
Getting Social The use of Social Media in your novel (Part 2)
Welcome to this week's #TuesdayTip. Last week's blog post discussed whether or not to use Social Media in your novel. It covered some of the issues to be considered and described some of the most common services and applications, focusing initially on the Facebook-owned services, including WhatsApp and Instagram.
This week, I am going to look at some of the darker issues raised by Social Media that may provide you with inspiration for your story.
After the read more cut, I will describe non-Facebook-owned services, such as Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat and some more niche services, such as Telegram and Signal. For accuracy, don't forget to check when these services became widely available (and where) and when they implemented different features. My earlier posts (34 and 35) on using mobile phone technology in your books can be read as a companion piece to this articles .
The Dark Side of Social Media. Social media, or social networking, can be a lot of fun. For many of us, these services provide an easy way to maintain contact with friends and loved ones, network with like-minded individuals, read and share media or news articles, and laugh at rude memes or pictures of cats. The enforced loneliness of lockdown has made these services all the more popular.
But it does have a dark-side.
Echo-Chambers and Rabbit holes The way that social media is designed to work, means that it can be an echo-chamber, as we tend to like and follow those we agree with. The network's algorithms will then serve up more content that it thinks we will enjoy. This amplifies views that we agree with and can distort our perception of what the majority of society think. Many people are shocked at the outcome of elections and referendums, because all the people that they interacted with prior to the ballot intended to vote the same way as they do, with those who disagreed hidden from view. YouTube is very good at predicting what videos you will most like, based on those you have already watched and others with apparently similar tastes have also seen. This can lead to bias and the amplification of conspiracy theories and disinformation. Search for videos on 5G conspiracies linked to Covid and after watching a couple of videos by conspiracy theorists, YouTube will soon start recommending other videos outlining outlandish theories, whilst steering you away from sources that debunk them. Anti-vaxxers have been especially good at harnessing this effect to spread myths and lies about vaccines. There is good evidence that hostile states and dangerous groups such as QAnon have used this tactic in an attempt to spread confusion and mis-information about everything from election results to vaccine side-effects; their motives aren't always clear, but destabilising public confidence in our democratic institutions seems to be one goal.
Could characters in your book be influenced by what they see or read on social media?
End-to-End Encryption and Self-destructing Messages. As mentioned last week, many messaging apps now use End-to-End Encryption. The encoding of messages to make them unreadable if intercepted goes back to ancient times; the Romans and Ninjas of ancient Japan routinely encrypted information before giving it to messengers to deliver. If the message was intercepted by their enemies, then they needed to work out how to decipher it before it was any use. The breaking of the Enigma Code by the Allies during the Second World War started the practise of using computers to break such codes. To counter this, the encoders made their ciphers ever more fiendish, requiring more and more computing power to break them. Despite the exponential increase in processing power over the past few decades, modern encryption is so strong that it would take computers an impractically long time to crack just a single code, especially given the billions of individual encrypted communications sent daily. Therefore the only way for governments etc to peek at an encrypted message is to demand (with a warrant) that the company that supplied the software or app used by the communicators hand over the digital key used to encrypt that message.
End-to-End Encryption has now stymied that. The message is encrypted by the device of the sender, the encoded stream of information transmitted over the internet through the messaging app provider's servers, and then decoded by the receiver's device. At no point does the provider of the messaging app have the keys to decrypt the message. Law enforcement can compel the company that runs the messaging network to hand over the message, but they have no way of decrypting it, and neither does the company. This technology has been a game-changer, for both good and ill. On the one hand, oppressed groups in police states can safely communicate with one another and we can use our mobile phones to pay for items securely or bank safely, but on the other hand, paedophiles, criminals and terrorists can plot and share information with no way for the police to track them.
How could your characters use secure communications? Are the police blocked from accessing valuable intelligence?
Self-destructing messages. Many apps now allow users to stipulate that a message 'self-destruct' after a set time, meaning they permanently disappear. For apps such as Snapchat, this is part of its core functionality. Sometimes it is possible to take a screenshot of the message before it vanishes for good, although the sender may be notified that the screenshot has been taken. Photographing the screen with a second device would circumvent this. Combined with encryption, this makes it extremely difficult for police to retrieve these messages as evidence.
Could your characters use this to plan their skulduggery? What challenges would this pose for your police or victims?
Cyberstalking The willingness of people to share lots of information about themselves publicly has played into the hands of people with dark motives. It is known that paedophiles use social media to harvest innocently-posted pictures of children, which they share with others to feed their fantasies. People who become obsessed with an individual can use social media to build a profile of that person and use it to work out where they live and work, stalking them online; inevitably, some will move off-line and try and make contact in the real world. Again, paedophiles are known to use the classic "standing in front of the fridge in the new school uniform" picture to identify which school a child goes to.
Geotagging is the way that mobile devices automatically add location data to posts. These days, it is a feature that you have to choose to turn on, and rightly so. You may as well just post a large sign outside your house saying "I'm on holiday in Greece, now would be a good time to burgle me." Plenty of fools do choose to turn it on however.
Similarly, many people use apps to track their running or walking. These use the phone's GPS and map features to plot your running routes, which you are then encouraged to share with other users. If you do this in real-time, they provide a helpful way for stalkers to follow you. But even if you don't, instead sharing them after you have completed your exercise, stalkers can learn your regular exercise routes and find a nice, quiet spot to wait for you...
Of even more concern is the use of social media by abusive partners to track down former victims. How many times have you seen a Facebook post imploring you to share the image of a missing person and let the poster know if you see them? These pictures can be spread far and wide, until eventually, a well-meaning person contacts the abuser and confirms where they now live. Unless the plea comes from the police or similar source, don't share. There are many legitimate reasons why a person may go missing, and this can place them in danger. Related to this, Face tagging is the use of Artificial Intelligence by a social media service to identify people appearing in photographs posted by others. In Europe it is turned off as a default. Again, this feature could potentially be used to track down former partners, perhaps by scanning posted images to identify new acquaintances.
Could you use this in your book? What sort of profile might an attacker build of their victim from publicly visible information? Might they use social media to track down a person?
Revenge Porn, recently made a criminal offence in the UK, is the dissemination of intimate images - gained either illicitly or with the subjects agreement - without the person's permission. It is often done to shame the victim and may be triggered by revenge after a break up, an attempt at blackmail, or for the sexual gratification of the poster. It can also be transactional, with the poster selling the images for money or payment in kind, such as using them as a de facto currency with others doing the same. Some closed groups for paedophiles or voyeurs only allow potential abusers to join them if they too share images.
Could this be a motive in your book?
Identity theft/Bank Fraud/Targeted Scams Social media is a gold mine for those wishing to impersonate a person, usually for financial gain. Dates of birth, addresses, full names, even online banking passwords can be gleaned from careless social media usage. Criminals will use a range of different tactics to gain snippets of information from millions of people. Taken in isolation, each of these pieces are of limited use, but the nature of social media is such that all of these pieces of information are indelibly tied to the person who originally posted them and can be pieced together like a jigsaw, until the criminal has everything they need to know about an individual. Even if you are careful not to fully complete your Facebook profile etc, you can still give away a lot of the clues necessary in quizzes etc. Remember this old favourite? Your stripper name is your mother's maiden name followed by the name of your first pet! Congratulations, you've just posted two of the most common questions used in a password reset for your online banking account!
Romance scams involve a criminal identifying somebody who is likely to respond to romantic (or more sordid!) overtures, then convincing them to meet up and, eventually, ripping them off financially. They can use social engineering to convince them that they are a like-minded individual by trawling information in their social media profiles and answers to quizzes. "Oh, you are a big Star Trek fan also, what a coincidence!" "That's my favourite album as well - what do you think of track 3?" "I can't believe were both in Alicante in June 2017, we could have been sitting next to each other in a bar and never even realised (although I'm sure I'd have remembered someone as handsome as you!)"
Could your victim be duped by their attacker using information that they posted online?
Cyber Bullying Bullying has always existed, and human nature is such that it won't be disappearing anytime soon. Years ago, it was possible to escape bullies by leaving the place where you normally interacted with them. Generations of school children have breathed a sigh of relief when they finally made it home from school, leaving their tormentors behind for the day. Unfortunately, the advent of mobile devices that make you always contactable have ended that. Even if you choose not to answer a phone call from a bully, social media applications will typically send you notifications whenever you are mentioned by someone - now you can hear people speaking behind your back. For the always-connected generation, a fear of missing out on legitimate interactions with friends, can make turning off the device difficult, and make turning it back on a source of dread. The practise of bullying a person by posting unkind content that they can see is an example of Trolling and when others join in, this is referred to as a pile-on.
Could cyber bullying be a motive for a crime? Or perhaps a way of identifying potential suspects?
Thank you for reading this far, I hope that you have found this useful. If you want to learn more about specific, non-Facebook-owned social media services, click below to read more.
As always, feel free to comment here or on social media. Come back next week for my Christmas special!
Getting Social - The use of Social Media in your novel (Part 1).
Welcome to this week's #TuesdayTip. For the next two blog posts, I am returning to the use of modern technology in your writing, focusing on Social Media. I previously looked at mobile phone technology (Tips 34 and 35) and these articles can be seen as a companion piece to those posts.
This week, I intend to discuss the pros and cons of using this technology in your book and then, below the cut, bring together a list of some of the more common social media platforms with key facts to help you avoid easy errors. I will be focusing on the Facebook-owned platforms this week.
Next week, I will look at other services such as Twitter etc, as well as more niche apps and darker issues such as End-to-End Encryption and cyber stalking, and the narrative opportunities these present.
Given the rapidly changing nature of this, topic, I may find myself returning to it in the future!
Should you use Social Media in your books? If you are writing modern crime novels, then the chances are you will have to address this issue. Criminals are like any other member of modern society; unless they are especially savvy professionals, they probably stumbled into committing the murder or other heinous act that your book investigates, and so up until then they will likely have been using mobile technology and social media the same way that you or I do.
Leaving aside the massive increase in workload from idiots using Twitter to commit hate crimes etc (which then have to be investigated), social media is becoming more and more useful as an investigative tool to police and intelligence services. Rightly or wrongly, both prosecution and defence lawyers have used interactions on social media in court, especially for cases such as rape that may rest on the believability of the parties involved.
If your story hinges around social media, then it is important to accept that it will date your story to some degree. A book written twenty-years ago with copious references to MySpace, can be somewhat inaccessible to modern readers. Try to avoid that and future-proof your books.
Don't assume that future readers will know what Facebook etc are. There is a fine line between over-explaining what Facebook is for the current reader, and reminding future readers of the inexplicable urge of people in the first three decades of this century to share everything - from what they had for dinner, to their online banking password hints - with total strangers and future world President Mark Zuckerburg. Perhaps slip a few subtle lines into the prose: "Check his Facebook to see if they know each other?" ordered DCI Jones. Hardwick opened the social media app on her computer, pulling up the victim's profile page. She navigated to his Friends List. "Yes, they were friends on Facebook. He liked some of the posts that he shared." There is still a need for the reader to be familiar with the concept behind social media, but even if Facebook suddenly disappears, its ubiquity today is such that hopefully this will be enough to jog memories.
Make sure that the platform existed when your book is set! You may be surprised just how recently they appeared; and often they started as niche applications, only available in the United States.
Make sure that the application had the features you are writing about at that time. The applications and services are constantly being updated and new features introduced. For example, WhatsApp didn't fully implement End-to-End Encryption on all devices until 2016, having started trialling it in late 2014/2015.
Be mindful of the workload on your detectives! Dedicated Social Media Units are becoming more common, but the sheer volume of data from these services is over-whelming, with an increasing backlog in its analysis. How will you match the narrative demands of your story with the need for realism? Could the time taken be used as a means to delay key reveals? If Suspect X and the victim were otherwise unconnected, then somebody stumbling across an online interaction between them halfway through the book could flip your investigation on its head!
Thank you for reading this far. I hope that the information was useful.
Given that you probably came here via a link on social media, I have decided to place the detailed look at different social media platforms below the cut, so feel free to skip if you are short of time.
Next week, I am going to explore End-to-End Encryption and the darker side of social media, such as cyber stalking. I am also going to look at non-Facebook services, such as Twitter and other more niche applications.
Then pop back on Tuesday 22nd for a special Christmas edition...
As always, feel free to comment here or on social media!
Take care, Paul
Click Read More for detailed information on different Social Media Platforms.
Should your characters age as a series progresses? For those of us writing a character over a number of years, this is a question that we eventually have to grapple with. Do you let your main character become older (and perhaps wiser!) as the years go by, or do you keep them in a state of perpetual agelessness, as the world changes around them? It may seem like a bit of an ambitious question early in your career, but it's one that plenty of authors have been forced to consider. Some of my favourite authors have now been writing their protagonists for over twenty years. Since their books are typically set roughly in the time-period that they are published, the forty-something detective they introduced in the series debut will now be in their sixties, potentially stretching the bounds of credibility.
Aging characters realistically can have its advantages though - for example, we see them evolve, hopefully pulling readers along with them as they buy the next book, in part to see how life is treating their literary friends. It can also open up story possibilities. How do they feel about milestone birthdays or retirement? Are they the same person they were ten years ago?
And don't forget your secondary characters - it would seem a bit strange if your main protagonist ages, but their partner or co-workers don't. That can also generate plot-points. Impending retirement of a colleague is a potential way to refresh your series' line-up without bumping people off. If they have kids at the start of the series, have those children flown the nest by book eight? How do they feel about that?
So how have others dealt with this conundrum? 1) Don't age them!Lee Child's behemoth, Jack Reacher, was born in on the 29th October 1960; the latest novel, The Sentinel, was published in 2020 and is clearly set roughly in that time-period. Child recently handed over writing duties to his younger brother, Andrew, with the aim that the character would be updated somewhat for more modern times and continue for a good few more years. Reacher is a remarkable physical specimen, but clearly even he will struggle to take on multiple opponents simultaneously as he enters his seventh or even eighth decade. So in recent years, his ageing appears to have all but stopped. He is more grizzled and experienced than the 36-year-old that left the US Army shortly prior to The Killing Floor, but he now appears to be an indeterminate forty-fifty years old in my mind.
Patricia Cornwell has followed a similar route with her Kay Scarpetta series. Comparing her apparent age with other characters in the series who appear to get older in real-time, it's clear that Scarpetta found the fountain of youth sometime around her mid-forties.
2) Let 'em get older!Michael Connelly started writing his Hieronymus 'Harry' Bosch novels in the nineties. Before joining the LAPD, Bosch served in Vietnam and we know from the books that he was born in about 1950. The recent TV series (worth the subscription to Amazon Prime on its own!), did a soft-reboot so that he fought in the Gulf War, making him late-forties. But in the books, he is now clearly well into his sixties. Typically, he would have aged-out by now, but Connelly decided to have him retire and later books see him working variously as a private investigator or a reserve officer working cases free-lance for the police. Doubtless this never crossed Connelly's mind when he first started writing Bosch thirty years ago, but it really works well.
3) Fudge it!Ian Rankin's DI John Rebus first appeared in 1987. His date of birth is given in the novels as 1947. At first, Rankin had Rebus ageing in real-time but by 2007's Exit Music, it became apparent that he had reached retirement age. Rankin originally intended Rebus' long-term colleague Siobhan Clarke to take over, perhaps with Rebus helping out. But it was suggested to him that there was no law that said he had to continue ageing him realistically, so he brought him back in 2012. On paper, Rebus is 73 now, but in Rankin's mind he is mid-sixties. The world around him, including his beloved Edinburgh, have continued to evolve, but Rebus has largely stopped ageing. Unlike Jack Reacher however, Rebus' years of neglecting his health has caught up with him. He is clearly much older than in the first books and his health has deteriorated recently, but Rankin has no plans to stop writing him, so this hybrid ageing/agelessness will likely continue.
4) Do the Time Warp Another possibility is to go back in time and revisit their early career. Lynda La Plante's Prime Suspect TV series was ground-breaking. Her character Jane Tennison retired at the end of the series run. Assuming that the character was roughly the same age as the actor that played her, Helen Mirren, she would be in her seventies now. La Plante recently went back in time to look at Tennison's early years in the 1970s. Mark Billingham, creator of the popular Tom Thorne, decided to go back to the early nineties in Cry Baby. Although this wasn't written as a way of addressing Thorne's advancing years, if readers enjoy the book it gives Mark a potential direction in years to come.
DCI Warren Jones. Loathe as I am to compare myself to any of the writers listed above, I have had to make decisions regarding Warren Jones and other regulars in my books. Next spring will be the tenth anniversary of when I first set fingers to keyboard on the Warren Jones series. That first novel, The Last Straw, was set in the summer of 2011. Next summer's book is in late 2016, book 8 is likely to be spring 2018. I decided from the start to age Warren in real-time. He is about three years older than me, born on January 3rd 1974 (which you can calculate from the information given in book 2, No Smoke Without Fire) and so he has passed forty since the books started. His wife, Susan, is about 4 1/2 years younger than him, so is looking forward with some trepidation to that milestone. The advantage to me was always clear. Warren in many ways is a thinly disguised version of his creator (wish fulfilment, some might suggest!), so by writing him a similar age, I can draw on my own experience. The disadvantage is that I have potentially built in an end-date for the series. Depending on what happens to public-sector pensions in the wake of the corona virus pandemic, Warren will hit sixty and be eligible to retire in 2034. Since I hope to have closed the gap between when the book is set and when it is published to two to three years, that's looking like a big party for Warren in Summer 2037's book! So what will I do? Let him retire and bring him back as a cold-case investigator? Have him retire and end the series? Kill him off after a massive overdose of caffeine and custard creams? Stop ageing him in real-time, so that he remains ever-youthful, just like his creator? Go back in time and write stories about his early career? Write a spin-off series with other characters, perhaps featuring Warren as a cameo?
I don't know. But if I am still writing Warren in the 2030s, and people are still reading about him, then it's a nice problem to have!
As always, feel free to comment either here or on social media.
Don't put your back out - knowing your characters' histories.
"The writer should know their characters better than the reader does."
I don't know who came up with that suggestion, but I couldn't agree more. As a series writer in particular, I find it essential to have the backstories for each of my characters written out and easily accessible.
Doing so helps you remain consistent to the character and means that you don't have to keep on leafing through old manuscripts to find facts that you mentioned in passing once and half-remember (but your Amazon reviewers will know in exacting detail and castigate you for if you get them wrong). Sometimes, it even provides story inspiration.
I would suggest that a basic biography is essential for your primary protagonists and antagonists, advisable for more minor characters and at least a one or two line sketch useful for those characters that just wander in for a scene or two.
If you write a series, then you should definitely jot down at least a couple of lines for recurring characters.
How you choose to record those biographies is up to you. It could be as simple as a Word document or paper notepad, with a page of notes for each character or something a little more technical like a spreadsheet with a template, or a character chart. Some specialist writing packages have tools that help you keep track of characters.
The document should be a dynamic affair that you add to as you write. It's easy to get carried away writing, mention that somebody has a cat called Gertrude, and then, six-months later write a scene where they come home and are greeted at the door by a hungry ... Dog? Cat? Maybe called Colin ...?
It sounds like a bit of a faff, but it can pay dividends. First of all, spending a little time planning a character - even if you are by nature a panster, not a plotter - can help you picture them in your mind's eye, making it easier to write them and find their voice.
Second, it can provide story inspiration. Let's imagine that your character is a large, well-built male with plenty of testosterone. The door to an apartment is locked, and there were reports of what sounded like a struggle... There's a good chance that he's going to put his shoulder to the door. Inside there's a dead body etc etc. Now let's imagine the same scenario, but your character is a petite female. She's never going to smash that door down, so she starts knocking on neighbouring apartments to see if anyone has a key. The older lady two doors down says somebody left the apartment moments before the police officer arrived.
Your female protagonist has just found out a key bit of information sooner than her male counterpart would have, since he might not have started door-knocking until after the body had been dealt with. Whereas the female officer has just alerted colleagues in the area to be on the look out for a suspect.
From a story-teller's perspective, either scenario gives you options to play with and could influence later choices that you make.
Third, as mentioned before, it helps keep you consistent throughout a book or series. There are some eagle-eyed readers out there, and whilst most are lovely and forgiving, human nature is such that others delight in loudly proclaiming on social media that the change in a character's eye colour between book one and book seven 'ruined the whole series for them' and they advise others to steer clear of such a sloppily written set of books (at which point they skulk back to Amazon and change their original gushing 5 star review to 1 star).
So what should you include?
Date of birth / age of character: You do not have to state this in your book! But knowing roughly will help you write a character. How do they speak? Are they young or old? Are their references to pop culture broadly appropriate? If they aren't, have you discreetly justified the apparent discrepancy? "Your knowledge of fifties swing music is pretty good for someone born in the twenty-first century". "Yeah, my Nan was a huge fan, we used to listen to it when she babysat me."
Knowing their age may also inspire sub-plots. A younger officer not getting the significance of a clue that an older officer would take for granted, and vice versa. In a series, characters may reach certain milestones over time - how do you reference this?
I'll write more about this in a later blog post.
Physical Description: As much as you need or want, really. Height, weight, build, fitness, disability (even something as minor as wearing glasses) All of these can influence your story choices, as demonstrated above.
Eye, hair, and skin colour, piercings, tattoos, clothing etc. Are they age or character appropriate? Could they be commented upon? Do they affect the way that others see them? Is there overt racism or implicit bias? Is an older woman with grey hair and a fondness for cardigans perceived as less dynamic than a thirty-something man in a sharp suit, with an even sharper haircut?
Perceived attractiveness: This is a tricky one that should be used with care, but can be important to a story. Try not to embarrass yourself or your readers by being overly descriptive (I'm thinking especially of male authors who think that female characters spend hours in the bathroom mentally assessing their boobs by way of a detailed inner monologue). Our society is such that perceived attractiveness can impact on the way that people are treated, women in particular. Are 'attractive' characters assumed to be less intelligent? Are less-attractive characters over-looked by colleagues? Remember, unless the story is told from first person perspective, the perception of attractiveness should be from the character doing the judging. Leave your own peccadillos out of it!
Background: How we are brought up can profoundly influence our choices and attitudes over the rest of our lives, but so can more recent life events. Take poverty for example. What affect would childhood poverty have on someone in later life? Would they be overly cautious with money once they earn a decent salary, or would they be a spendthrift, making up for everything they missed previously? What effect would poverty in later life have on a person who had a comfortable up-bringing? Knowing this can help you shape your character. What about bereavement? Childhood or adult? Everyone reacts differently, so there is no 'correct' way to write this. But by considering it beforehand, you can remain consistent and your character will feel more real.
Religion, culture, sexuality and beliefs: I've grouped an awful lot into this deliberately, as they tend to overlap. They can have a profound impact on the way that your character treats, or is treated by, others. How much you decide to work-out in advance will be determined by the needs of your story, and how much you feel it is relevant. But as always, knowing a bit more than you actually write down can help. And again, it can inspire plot points and avoid errors. Take a practising Muslim character for example. It's easy enough to avoid basic errors such as them consuming pork or alcohol. But if you explicitly mention the date that your book is set, will that character be observing Ramadan during that period? If so, they are unlikely to join in with the breaktime donuts. Or perhaps they are itching to leave work on time so they get home and break the fast with their family?
Favourites: Does your character have a favourite colour (that could influence their wardrobe), what about music, film and books? DCI Warren Jones loves cheesy 80s music - DI Tony Sutton teases him about it most books. Food? Warren is basically me, so he is a fussy eater. Again, I try to get something into most books. He and I also share a taste in biscuits.
Knowing your characters is so important to your writing. Not everything here will be relevant to every character or every book, and there are loads more things I could have suggested.
What are your thoughts? Is there anything else you think I should have included? Feel free to comment here, or on social media.
Last week, I looked at DNA evidence. I explained what it is and how it can be used in your story, as well as the ways in which DNA fingerprinting is not necessarily a Gold Standard with no wriggle-room for writers to inject doubt into their story. This week, I'm going to look at some other issues that you could perhaps use in your story.
Historic and Familial DNA matches The UK has one of the largest DNA databases in the world. Those arrested for a crime routinely have their DNA profile taken and added to the database, as do members of law enforcement. (Note: The rules over the retention of samples has changed over the years, and differ between the home nations. You may need to consider reading up on the rules to ensure accuracy.)
When a DNA fingerprint is taken, it will be compared across the database, and matches to unsolved cases can, and do, pop up. In recent years, some cold cases that pre-date DNA fingerprinting have been reopened and DNA samples taken from evidence kept in storage (Note: For murder, cases are never actually closed, even when 'solved'. The evidence gathered should not be destroyed, so you can revisit a supposedly solved case). A satisfying number of offenders who thought they got away a murder or a rape 30 or 40 years ago, have been convicted when they commit an unrelated offence (eg drink driving) and have their DNA taken.
Recently, familial DNA matches have proven successful in identifying new suspects. As explained last week, the closer two individuals are related, the more similar their DNA will be. Identical twins share 100% of their DNA (but not their fingerprints) and it is almost impossible using current technology to distinguish which twin a DNA sample has come from. Full siblings (including non-identical twins) share 50% similarity. An individual also shares 50% similarity with each of their parents. As the distance between two individuals on a family tree increases, the similarity between them decreases. It goes without saying that this only applies to biological relations.
In this scenario, DNA taken from a crime scene doesn't match an individual on the database, but instead partially matches a person already on the database for another reason. The police can determine that their unknown suspect was a full-sibling, or other close relation to the person already on the database, and start looking at those people as potential suspects. How long does it take to return a DNA match? The flippant answer is "as long as your story needs it to take". However, you need to have some realism, so consider these following points. Technical limits The actual process of matching DNA fingerprinting has become faster and faster. In principal, DNA matches can be done in a few hours these days. But when is your story set? The time taken 5, 10 or 20 years ago was much longer (side note: A workmate stopped watching the X-Files in protest, when they did a DNA match overnight. This was back in 1998. The lab we worked in had a DNA sequencer capable of doing DNA matching with the correct settings and reagents - it took us days to do something similar).
At the time of writing, DNA is sent to a laboratory to be processed, it can't be done at the scene,
If you are writing a techno-thriller, you can play a bit more fast and loose with this and pretend that there are machines that can test a sample on site and give a quick answer. When Osama Bin Laden was killed, it was claimed that his identity was verified by comparing his DNA to his family members, before his burial at sea within 24 hours of his death. Given the speed with which this was done, one can probably assume that they had access to some pretty sophisticated technology.
Is there a queue? Laboratories are typically overwhelmed with DNA samples, and so your sample may languish in a queue for weeks or months before it can be processed - the length of the backlog varies enormously, depending on jurisdiction, workload etc. Would your sample be seen as a priority, or is it just another serious crime - take a ticket and join the queue? This is an invaluable tool for story-tellers.My DNA results come back when the story needs them to - I simply justify it in the narration. If they return very quickly, it's because they authorised the cost of a fast-track service (since the UK government abolished the world-class Forensic Science Service in 2012, most DNA testing is done by commercial firms now). If it takes a bit longer, it's because it wasn't seen as a priority or the laboratory is over-worked. Just make it sound plausible and nobody will care :-)
How long can DNA last? This is a question without an easy answer. In ideal laboratory conditions (stored in a freezer, dissolved in a buffer etc) you can assume that previously extracted DNA will last forever. Samples on a properly stored dress, for example semen stains from a historic rape, can also last for decades. Improperly stored samples are more problematic (or potentially more useful for your story!). Blood-soaked clothes etc are now kept in paper evidence bags. Microbial contamination of clothing can lead to condensation being produced; in a plastic bag this potentially leads to droplets of moisture interfering with microscopic spots of blood etc. Imagine a scenario where the exact position of blood spatter on a suspect's clothing supports a sequence of events; then imagine what would happen to your case if droplets of moisture dampened and smeared those stains...
Outdoors, the elements can play a significant part. Contact DNA left behind by a person may be washed away, and strong sunlight may physically destroy the DNA. Dead bodies can remain useful for the purposes of identification for a long period of time, but if exposed to the elements, again decomposition can eventually destroy the evidence, or degrade it so that it is less easy to use. If a body is buried, then depending on how it was buried, and the soil it was buried in, DNA can be extracted for a very long-time indeed. Even if the body has been reduced to a skeleton, some genetic material may remain in the bone marrow etc. That's typically where the DNA is extracted from when scientists examine Neanderthals or other, ancient human remains. Otzi the iceman was preserved in ice for over 5,000 years, making extraction and analysis of his DNA relatively easy.
Mitochondrial DNA If a body is very badly degraded, and a full extraction of cellular DNA impossible, then scientists can sometimes extract something called mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are tiny structures inside our cells that help the cells release the energy needed to carry out their functions. They carry their own, small quantities of DNA. Just like the normal DNA within cells, this will mutate over time, so that people who are more distantly related will have slightly different mitochodrial DNA to those who are more closely related. This type of DNA can also be extracted from the shaft of a hair, when the follicle is no longer attached.
The problem is that mitochodrial DNA is only passed through the female line (it is carried in the egg, not the sperm). In other words, from mother to child. This means that siblings who share the same mother will have the same mitochondrial DNA as each other and their mother, and their grandmother etc. But they won't have the same mitochondrial DNA as their father or grandfather etc. Does this create new possibilities for your story?
I hope you have found this interesting and useful. Please feel free to share and comment, either here or on social media. Until next time,
Those of you of a certain age will remember the 1994 OJ Simpson trial. Mr Simpson was accused of killing his estranged wife Nicole Brown, and her friend Ron Goldman, at her home in Los Angeles. After a bizarre, slow-motion car chase, he was apprehended and tried for their murders.
The court case, filmed and shown on prime-time TV, had many memorable moments including Simpson struggling to put on a leather glove found at the crime scene.
But most notable for many was the way in which this case was one of the earliest, high-profile, uses of DNA fingerprinting. In fact much of the prosecution case rested on this evidence, and so was arguably fatally damaged when the defence placed enough reasonable doubt in jurors' minds about the reliability of the DNA evidence for them to acquit.
Much has been written about the rights and wrongs of this case, and I've no intention of rehashing it here. The aim instead is to help writers consider the importance of DNA evidence in their stories, the narrative possibilities it opens, and to debunk a few myths. Full disclosure - I am not a forensic scientist. However I am a former molecular biologist, who worked with DNA for many years in a research setting (non-crime related). In recent years, I have taught biology to secondary school pupils.
Quick introduction to DNA (feel free to skip if you are already confident) As tempting as it is for me to waffle on for pages about my favourite molecule, DNA, as a crime writer all you need to know are the following basic facts: All living organisms have a unique set of instructions that tell the cells making up their body how to build the proteins they require to build themselves and carry out the chemical reactions necessary to sustain life. These instructions are written as code using a chemical called DNA. It is often referred to as genetic material. In humans, these instructions are carried in almost all of the cells that make up our body. We inherit half of our instructions from each of our biological parents and will pass on half of our instructions to our own kids (our partner will contribute the missing half). Because the half of our instructions that we pass on is random each time, the precise combination of instructions that an individual receives is a unique mixture of both parents DNA, so siblings with the same parents are still genetically unique (the only exception to this rule is identical twins - non-identical twins are no more similar than regular brothers and sisters.) Individuals that are more closely related will have more similar DNA: full-siblings share more DNA than cousins or half-siblings etc (more about this next week).
What do we mean by DNA evidence? Back in 1984, Professor Sir Alec Jeffries, working at the University of Leicester, discovered a method of comparing DNA samples to see if they came from the same or different individuals. He called this technique DNA fingerprinting. Over the following decades, the technique has been improved so that it is quicker, more accurate and requires smaller samples of material.
Humans leave their DNA wherever they go. At a crime scene they may leave obvious samples behind - eg blood or semen stains. However as the sensitivity of the technique has increased, the amount of biological material required has decreased. Those samples can now be too small to see with the naked eye.
But a CSI doesn't need a person to leave something as obvious as body fluids behind. Here are some of the samples that they can extract DNA from.
Epithelial cells (skin cells). We all shed skin cells to a greater or lesser degree, wherever we go. There is sufficient DNA within those cells for analysis. If you touch a surface, you may not leave a clear enough fingerprint for matching - but you can still leave traces of your DNA behind. Hair. Head and body hairs do not have any genetic material, so cannot be tested - but sometimes the follicle, the tiny skin structure that the hair grows out of, remains attached to the hair and these cells can be tested. Saliva. The skin cells on the inside of your mouth are constantly being replaced. Some of these cells can be found in your saliva. If a suspect bites, kisses or licks a victim, they will leave some of these cells behind. If they bite into an apple, or smoke a cigarette, again they will leave something behind.
Former forensic technician Melissa Kreikemeier has written an excellent blog post about how good different body fluids are for extracting DNA from. Her blog is well worth a visit.
How trustworthy is a DNA match? To put it bluntly, two good quality DNA samples can be matched with a probability measured in millions or billions to one. What this means is that the likelihood that two samples (perhaps one from a crime scene and one from a suspect) came from two different people, and just appear to have both come from the same person, is a billion-to-one chance. Rarely these days would a barrister try to convince a jury otherwise. So, slam-dunk right? No scope for a crime writer to credibly twist and turn the story and introduce any doubt? DNA evidence has killed the crime novel!
Not at all!
It needs to be a good sample: If exposed to the elements or incorrectly stored by the police, DNA will degrade over time. As the quality of the sample declines, so does the probability that the match is real.
It needs to be a pure sample from one individual: Until recently, if two people's DNA was mixed together - eg a victim and a suspect both bled at the scene - then this was referred to as a mixed-profile. It was impossible to isolate one person's sample, so it couldn't be proven that the suspect was present. In recent years, advances have meant that this is no longer insurmountable, but it's still early days.
Contamination: As the volume of sample required for a DNA-profiling has decreased, so has the possibility of contamination. The white suits that CSIs wear, along with face masks, gloves, booties and hairnets don't just protect the technician from icky stuff, they also protect the crime scene from them. CSIs shed DNA like anyone else - as does your detective, so think about whether they would be bumbling about a scene with no protection. Perhaps more importantly, this means suspect and victim DNA can also be transferred from one scene to another. CSIs/Detectives shouldn't move between crime scenes or between the scene and interviewing a suspect without disposing of their protective equipment first. Without proper care, a victims DNA could easily end up on an innocent suspect or vice versa, establishing a forensic link where none actually exists. Cases have been thrown out when both the victim and the suspect were transported (separately) in the same vehicle.Could this be a plot point?
Chain of evidence: All evidence from a crime scene must be logged. Sample bags must be sealed and dated. If the bag is opened, it needs to be resealed, initialled and dated again after use. Failure to follow this procedure can and does result in evidence being deemed inadmissible, because it can't be trusted by the court.How could you use this? A way to get you out of a bind when a case is 'too easy' to solve to make a good story? Perhaps corrupt officers deliberately plant evidence at a crime scene?
The possibilities as a writer are endless, and if you think they seem implausible, OJ Simpson's defence team used three of these scenarios to cast doubt on the DNA evidence used at his trial.
Next week, I will look into some more ways that DNA evidence can be used in an investigation and ways in which you can incorporate it into your story.
As always, please feel free to chip in your own thoughts either here or on social media.
One of the wonderful things about reading is hearing the characters' voices in your head. The experience of every reader will be different, which can be a challenge for those adapting a popular novel for screen or radio, but aside from that, this unrivalled intimacy with a character is why readers are so passionate.
However, before a character lands on the page they belong to the writer, and it is up to them to steer the reader towards the way that the character sounds in the author's head.
Why is character voice important? Last year, I read a well-regarded debut novel that I was given at a book festival. The story was thought-provoking, the characters interesting and the plot nice and twisty. But one thing pulled me out of the novel - the characters all sounded the same! The characters in the book ranged from posh, cultured barristers, to inner-London teenagers all with different upbringings from a range of social classes and ethnic backgrounds. But they all spoke in the same way that the author does (I have heard them give a talk). I thought that was a real shame.
Giving each character their own voice is important. Before I start to write a person, I try to picture them in my head, and 'listen' to them speaking. After almost ten years of writing the DCI Warren Jones series, I can see most of the regular team in my mind's eye and so when they speak I have a feel for how they would sound. However, each book also has a new collection of characters, each with their own way of speaking. This doesn't have to be arduous. In my current work in progress, I have a character that is a hardened thief, with several spells of prison behind him and a history of violence. He's a skinny, rat-faced man, from eastern England, and frankly, he's an arrogant git who speaks with a sneer; he's seen it all before and (thinks) he knows what the consequences will be, and he's not that bothered. A different character is recently bereaved. He's never been in trouble with the police, he's scared, he's weary and he's upset. These two men are similar ages, from the same region of England, so their dialect is the same. But they sound different.
Giving your characters their voice. There are three broad ways that a writer can define their character's voice.
In the narrative First of all, you can tell the reader what they sound like! A bit of descriptive text when a character is introduced is absolutely fine.
The man's Merseyside accent had softened somewhat from his years living in the south, but Warren could still hear traces of it in the vowels.
The woman mumbled her assent, her voice thick with shame.
I came very close to messing this up a couple of years ago. All of my full-length novels have been recorded for audiobooks, narrated by the brilliant Malk Williams. He did the first four in the summer of 2018, and since then has read each summer's book a couple of months after it has been released as an ebook. When preparing for recording, he often contacts me to clarify things such as my preferred pronunciation for names etc. This is the message he sent me as he started preparing to record Forgive Me Father in the summer of 2019:
"You waited until page 169 of the 5th book in the series to mention that DS Hutchinson is a Geordie!!! ... In other news, Hutch has really lost his accent since moving to the home counties!"
That's 100% on me! DS Hutchinson has always been from Newcastle in my head, but I never actually communicated this to any of the readers until book 5. Since then, I have taken to mentioning that Hutch has lived in eastern England for so long he's lost his accent - until he's had a few pints, or he's watching Newcastle United play :-)
In their unspoken thoughts This of course depends on the point of view that the story is being told from. For first and second person, this comes naturally. You are literally living in the character's head, and so the same rules apply as for dialogue (below); it's more like a conversation. For third person, it depends on the context. And of course, you may also have to consider different voices for different characters. Some will be in the form of inner dialogue (I'm not being subtle here!):
Toby ran towards Hamish. "Is that a claymore?" he asked himself. "That wee man'll never take me," thought Hamish, preparing to remove Toby's head from his shoulders.
Some will be more external.
Claire looked down the menu. So many choices; she didn't even know what half the dishes were. She stole a glance towards Jenny. "I'll have the chicken dopiaza, with pilau rice and a garlic Naan," said Jenny, barely even looking at the laminated card. "Sounds great, I'll have the same," said Claire, forcing a note of confidence into her voice. She hoped it wouldn't be too hot, she didn't like spicy food.
Hopefully, it is clear in this example that Claire is nervous and unsure of herself, perhaps eager to please, whilst Jenny is more confident.
In their spoken dialogue This is perhaps the trickiest to get right, and the one which the novel that I mentioned at the beginning failed at. Dialect is the key to this. How would your characters speak? If you are unsure, listen to people from that region speaking on YouTube. The most important thing is to avoid really obvious errors. For example, 'Mum' is commonly used throughout most of southern England. However 'Mam' is used in the north. 'Mom' is usually seen as an Americanism, but is actually quite normal in Birmingham (central England), but not Coventry, just a few miles down the road. Without sliding into parody and stereotype (Scots do not say 'Och Aye' every sentence, and Scousers only tell you to 'calm down, calm down!' if you are really upset or auditioning for Harry Enfield), try and slip in the odd word or phrase to add a little texture to the person's spoken communication.
However, it is easy to over do it. Unless it's important for the narrative, try not to make the dialogue incomprehensible to most of your readers. A famous author recently came in for some criticism when the dialogue in their book was too heavy-handed. They chose to render entire tracts of conversation in a 'working class' dialogue, dropping Hs, shortening words, skipping consonants etc, until it was a mess of randomly-placed apostrophes and the reader found themselves going back over it repeatedly to try and parse what they were saying. Dare I say that should have been flagged by an editor?
Similarly, foreign words are an excellent way of bringing a character to life, but again it can be a bit of a tightrope. I have read most of Tom Clancy's works and he and the continuation authors have many foreign characters. By the end of the book, I tend to recognise the Russian words for please, thank you, hello and goodbye, plus a couple of curse words, but don't feel like I have just had an advanced language class!
An important caveat to this concerns the situation your character is in. Most of us consciously, or subconsciously, adjust the way we speak to match the audience we are talking to. I speak differently to a class of schoolkids than I do in the staffroom, or at home. I also speak differently when I am with my family and friends in the West Midlands than I do when with my partner's family in East London or Essex. This can be especially pronounced for people that work in a environment with colleagues and clients that are largely different to their own background. Perhaps consider this.
With all of that said, I hope you find this useful. Don't get too stressed, and if you are unsure, ask beta readers to focus on that as they read. They'll know if it sounds inauthentic or doesn't feel right.
As always, feel free to comment and share, either here or on social media.