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.
The mobile phone (not) the death of the crime novel (Part 2)
Using modern technology in your books
Last week I wrote about the ways in which mobile phones are a technology that should be seen as an opportunity for modern writers, rather than as a constraint to their story telling. This week, I want to explore that in a bit more depth.
Location data It is often said that we now carry a miniature tracking device around with us. That is true to an extent. Unlike radios, phones do not connect directly to one another. Rather they need to connect to a cell tower, which then relays the signal (often in multiple steps) to the receiving handset. Therefore to make a call, send a text or use the internet, they need to be able to contact a cell tower - the same goes when receiving a call or text - if your phone has no signal, when it finally reconnects you will get any unreceived text messages or missed call notifications.
As a phone moves around it constantly connects and reconnects to the nearest cell tower. In areas with multiple towers, the phone will often be connected to several, choosing the one with the strongest signal. The strength of a signal decreases with distance, which means that it is possible to work out roughly how far from a tower a phone is. In a remote area with very few towers, this will be a large circle around the tower. In an area with more than one tower, there will be a circle for each connection. The handset will be within the region where the circles overlap, a process called triangulation. The more towers the phone connects to, the more precisely the phone can be located, sometime to just a few metres. In an urban setting, this should be very precise. In practise, lots of tall building and thick walls will impede this - consider this if you don't want your character's handset to be located too precisely. Handily, phone networks keep a record of this data for at least 12 months, and again it can be obtained by a warrant. If you want to place a suspect at a location, at a specific time, then you can use this to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy.
However, this is only useful if your character is carrying their phone with them, or it is switched on. Might they leave it at home when they go out to commit their nefarious deeds, thus establishing an alibi? This could be disproven if a witness places them somewhere different to where their phone states they were. Perhaps they just turn it off? It's circumstantial, but if they never normally switch their phone off it seems a bit suspicious if the phone went off at the exact time the crime was committed...
GPS is a little different. The handset uses the distance from a series of orbiting satellites to triangulate its position. The satellites have no idea where the phone is and you can't "hack into" a GPS signal to work it out. However, the device may broadcast or record its location, and this could be picked up. Many online services like to know where your handset is, for legitimate or not so legitimate purposes. This can be turned off in your privacy settings (consider doing this - it's under location services on Google Android). Many apps make a log of where your handset has been. If police can unlock the handset, then they can access this log. Intelligent, professional criminals will likely switch this feature off - would your character be savvy enough to do this?
Unlocking phones Of course all of this stored data is useless, if you can't access it - and there in lie the challenges and opportunities for writers. Modern phones have screen locks that most people now use. With so much of our lives now conducted through our mobile devices, it's madness NOT to lock your device - if only so your 'friend' can't send rude text messages to your contacts when you leave your phone unattended. Many devices also encrypt the data held on them, making it theoretically impossible to read the data. As an anti-theft device, many smartphones now have the option to remotely lock and even wipe the data from a phone. For this reason police will often place phones in a 'Faraday bag' which blocks signals to the phone, so the owner can't remotely access it. In a pinch, the shielding on a microwave oven will also do this.
So how does your investigator unlock the device? PIN Codes The easiest to use. Perhaps they use the same PIN for multiple devices? Dirty fingerprints on the screen might give an indication of which digits were used, but the possible combinations will soon become unmanageable. Perhaps keep it simple and have somebody look over their shoulder and memorise the PIN as they type it.
Swipe Access The user swipes their finger across the screen in a pre-determined pattern. Again, grubby fingers may leave a trace on the screen.
Biometrics Fingerprints, facial recognition, voice recognition - all of these are potential ways to lock a device. The most poorly understood one is fingerprint. You cannot unlock a phone using the owner's severed finger. Nor can you use the finger of a corpse. All modern fingerprint readers use the miniscule electrical charges generated by living cells to generate an image. After death, these charges dissipate. Exactly how long after death this occurs is the subject of some debate - it's difficult to get ethical approval to perform the necessary experiments! Suffice to say that if you want to unlock the phone of a dead person in your book, they need to be really fresh!
That's all I am going to say about mobile phones for the time being, but there is much else consider. In a later post, I will return to the topic of Social Media, which these days is often linked to mobile devices.
Next week, I will move away from technology for a week and focus on character voice.
As always, if you want to comment on any of this, please do, either here or on social media.
The mobile phone (not) the death of the crime novel (Part 1)
Using modern technology in your books
In 1910 the notorious Dr Hawley Crippen fled Britain aboard the Montrose to start a new life in Canada, after murdering his second wife, Cora. The fugitive was recognised by the ship's captain, who used his ship-to-shore wireless set to inform the British authorities about his infamous passenger. Chief Inspector Walter Dew booked passage on a faster White Star Liner, SS Laurentic, and arrived ahead of Montrose, whereupon he boarded the ship and arrested Crippen. Crippen was tried, convicted of his wife's murder, and hanged in November of that year.
Crippen was the first suspect to be caught with the aid of wireless telegraphy. At the time, it is said that some felt this advance in technology sounded the death knell for the crime novel - how could a fugitive evade justice if this new-fangled communication technology allowed their whereabouts to be communicated instantly to the authorities?
110 years on and every new advance in crime-fighting technology has provoked similar reactions. In fact just a few years ago, I was chatting to a long-standing crime writer about the use of modern technology "I've stopped setting my books in modern times, I stick to the 80s as I understand the technology," he told me. And that got me thinking.
Modern technology is an opportunity, not a constraint. There, I've said it. I write contemporary British police procedurals. I try to be as realistic as possible, and so cannot ignore the ways in which the latest technology now shapes the way that investigations are performed. But it can be daunting. Over the next few months, I intend to publish some blog posts looking at some of the ways that writers can incorporate the latest advances in technology in their books, and hopefully show how rather than being a straitjacket that makes modern story-telling more difficult, it actually opens up new and exciting ways to tell that tale.
This and the next blog will focus on mobile phones, with later blogs on DNA evidence, social media and other modern technologies. Don't worry, there will still be plenty of posts focusing on the craft of writing also.
London Calling... The scourge/usefulness of mobile phones in crime novels.
In 2020, almost everybody carries a smartphone. Criminals have been using mobile phones to run their operations since the days of the house-brick-sized Motorola. But every advance in mobile technology has both benefits and drawbacks for criminals, and by extension, writers. So let's look at a few of them.
Tracing calls. Many people have mobile phone contracts, keeping the same number for years. For many of us, our mobile number is the only number we can remember and the only one that we ever give out. I've had a mobile for over 20 years, and that number has followed me across the better part of 10 handsets and a half-dozen providers. Should the police stumble across my number in connection with a crime, my mobile phone company can tell them who I am and where I live in seconds. An easy way to track down your master criminal! Who sent the threatening text message to the murder victim? Clickity-Click, Joe Blogs, suspect identified!
But it doesn't have to be that way. It is perfectly legitimate for anyone to buy a Pay-as-You-Go SIM card, with cash, no questions asked. No need to give any details, just pop it in the phone, activate it and away you go. They have prepaid credit that can be topped up online, or if you value your anonymity, with cash at the local newsagent. And many people do. Criminals, especially drug dealers, will often buy several of these SIM cards, alternating between them or discarding the number after just a few uses. This means that as soon as the police have a phone number that they can link to the criminal, it's already out-of-date. You can use this in your writing to make things more challenging for your investigators.
Burner phones. Criminals often go one step further than multiple SIM cards, they have multiple handsets that they throw away when they've served their purpose. The device will include records of calls and texts made and received and perhaps even an address book, so criminals don't want that electronic list of their historic offences in their pocket when they are collared. The common term for these is a 'burner phone'. Cheap, basic handsets are easy to buy, either legitimately or from a mugger. But there is a protection against this. All devices have a unique identifying code called an IMEI number - look at your phone instructions for this - you can register the number with your network provider, so if your phone is stolen, they can block it. This obviously reduces the attraction of phones being stolen purely for their resale value, which is why many head off overseas, and those stolen to be used as burners have to be used quickly before they stop working. The IMEI number will be logged every time the phone connects to the network - can you use this in your book? If your victim's expensive phone was stolen, perhaps it was sold on? Trace the current owner, and perhaps it will lead your investigators back to the person that originally stole it?
Call logs. Who did your victim call? Who else does your suspect keep in contact with? Assuming that you can put a name to a number (see above), this web of connections between mobile phone numbers can be an invaluable tool. On production of a warrant, the police can demand to see this web from the network providers, going back at least 12 months. But it can't do everything. First of all, this log merely lists the numbers called or texted, date, time and duration. IT DOES NOT have the content of those calls and texts. You can show association, but can't prove that two people chatted about the crime. The network doesn't save the content of the texts, so you would need access to one of the devices to read them. Similarly, calls are not recorded. To get that, you would need to have arranged for this to happen in advance - a wiretap if you like. That requires a warrant, granted by someone more senior than the local magistrate. Conspiracy theorists would have you believe that all calls are recorded by GCHQ or the NSA etc. True or not, unless it's national security related, PC Plod isn't going to have access to that.
In next weeks blog, I am going to take this a little further and look at the other ways you can use mobile phones to help tell your story, such as location data and the ways that phones store this data.
Do you have anything interesting to add? Feel free to comment here or on social media. Until next time, Paul.
Oh dear. We've all been there. Trying to figure out if the 'Steve' your boss has asked you to email is Steve in accounts, or Steve in sales. I once worked somewhere that had FOUR J. Smiths. All the email system listed them as was email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com etc. It didn't help that two of the women also had the same first name. The entire staff mailing list would get periodic reminders from these poor workers asking us to double-check who the intended recipient was when sending an email.
As writers of fiction we can usually avoid this situation by choosing different names for our characters - after all, I'm the one in charge here! Tip - keep a list of character names to avoid using the same name twice, and perhaps try and use different first letters as well as avoiding names that rhyme! Andy, Sandy and Mandy may all have different first letters, but it can make it more difficult for readers to follow them.
But sometimes, repetition is unavoidable. Take a family, who all share the same surname. There's a father and two sons, Mr Elton, Mr Elton and Mr Elton. Mrs Elton is Mr Elton's wife. Mrs Elton is Mr Elton's wife (and also the mother of Mr Elton and Mr Elton), and Mrs Elton is the ex-wife of Mr Elton, who is due to marry the second Mrs Elton next summer.
Unfortunately, that's how names work and you will need to deal with it.
Dealing with multiple instances of a surname The most obvious solution is to use their first names. That works fine in dialogue - outside of formal speech, people are far more likely to deal with a person by their first name these days. In a police investigation, officers will usually use a victim and suspect's first names when they are discussing the case, so it would feel natural for them to do so in your story. But what about in the prose? In an interview for example, the convention in crime fiction is usually to refer to the subject by surname. "I don't know what you mean," said Smith. "Yes you do," replied Harrison.
I was confronted by this problem (again!) when writing next summer's book. I have a father and three sons, plus a daughter and two wives. All have the surname Patel. All of these characters are interviewed, or discussed by the investigation team at some point. Fortunately, none of them are ever seen interacting with each other. But even so, one of my beta readers did admit that she lost track at one point of who was in that particular interview. I tried rewriting the scene by referring to them by their (clear and distinct) first names. It didn't work. Everywhere else in the book (and all my other books!) I stick with the surname-only convention for third-person narrated prose. So I had to use tricks to remind the reader who was in the room during that scene. If you are struggling, try some of the following: 1) Introduce the scene with their full name eg Manoj Patel was a man in his forties ... or "Please state your full name for the tape." "Manoj Patel."
2) Gender - occasionally use He said or She said. This immediately differentiates between a husband and wife or brother and sister, for example.
3) Use the character's first name in dialogue. This can be a little more tricky in a formal situation, but it will work well if used correctly eg "Tell us what happened, Manoj," said Sutton. Patel said nothing, and stared into space.
In this instance I have reminded the reader who is being interviewed, and also paired his first and last names again as a recap.
But be careful not to over use names, or the writing becomes clunky and amateurish. Just sprinkle them in periodically, for the benefit of those who may be distracted or interrupted whilst they read.
Dealing with the same first names Plenty of cultures follow the tradition of naming the sons after their father - sometimes for several generations. Take a fictional American family with three generations of Charles Jones. They will sometimes deal with the surnames in the following way (eldest to youngest). Charles Jones Senior, Charles Jones Junior, and Charles Jones III. But how do you ask the correct person to pass the spuds at Thanksgiving? Perhaps consider giving each of them a nickname. Dad is Charles, Son is Charlie, Grandson is Chuck. Again, you can insert subtle reminders of who is who into the text eg Charles looked at Charlie, barely hiding his contempt for his son. or Charles started the engine. "Where are we going, granddad? asked Chuck.
Do you have any tales to tell or advice to add? As always, feel free to comment here, or on social media.
Choosing character names from a different background to you
Last week, I discused how to choose appropriate character names. This week, I want to address choosing names outside of your own ethnic background.
Khaaaan!!!! One of the most popular Star Trek villains of all time is the genetic superman, Khan Noonien Singh. First appearing in the 1967 episode Space Seed, the character was also the eponymous bad guy in the second Star Trek movie, 1982's The Wrath of Khan. Khan remains an incredibly popular villain, even outside Trek fandom. But there are a couple of things about him that haven't stood the test of time so well. First, he was portrayed in both these instances by Ricardo Montalban - a respected Mexican actor chosen, in part, because they needed someone with dark-skin to portray a character of Middle-Eastern heritage. That's a casting decision that would likely be avoided today. The second issue is his name: Khan Noonien Singh. Khan is most closely associated with Muslims. Singh is a name traditionally given to Sikh males. Bi-racial or bi-heritage children do of course exist in significant numbers these days, but without an explanation being given, authors - especially those who are not from that background - run the risk of having their work dismissed as poorly researched. *It should be noted that this seemingly incongruous pairing is addressed in Greg Cox's 2001 novelStar Trek: The Eugenics Wars (Volume 1): The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, but it is considered non-canonical.
How do you name a character that is from a background different to yourself? I am a white male, of British ancestry, as are all of my closest relatives. But confining myself to only including characters from that ethnic background would lead to books that are not reflective of the modern society in which we live. I was forced to address this issue head-on in two of my novels: DCI Warren Jones 4: The Common Enemy, and next summer's release, which I recently submitted to my publisher. In both books, there are significant characters whose family heritage is the Indian subcontinent. Therefore, my suggestions apply directly to the subcontinent, but will likely apply to other situations that you may encounter.
How did I avoid the "Khan" problem? The Indian subcontinent is vast, and during its long history has been divided and sub-divided many times. The current configuration of countries and territories is largely a 20th Century construction. Furthermore, the continent is home to many different religions and caste traditions and languages. All of which have names - given and family - associated with them. Some names are traditionally female, some male and some both. There are also masculinised/feminised versions, rather like Paul, Paula or Pauline.
The website Behind the name has a random name generator. https://www.behindthename.com/random/ But it only has the option to choose "Indian". So you will need to do some further research. Most entries have a short sentence listing the name's provenance and variants on it - but don't take their word for it. I can't stress enough that this site should only be the first step in choosing a name.
Unless it's relevant to the story, keep it simple. Assume that both parents of your character (or their families) originally came from similar regions, religions and backgrounds and choose names accordingly. Give the character first and last names that are from the same traditions.
Then research the names further. Wikipedia often has short background articles for popular names.
Next, when you've chosen two names that you think will work, do some research on that pairing. First, does that person already exist? The fact that there are individuals in the world with the same name doesn't mean you can't use it, but if that name is associated with an (in)famous person already, it may be a distraction for your readers. There are a lot of Sam Smiths in the world, but if your character also happens to be a musician, perhaps reconsider.
Then do a final check that the pairing actually works in the real world. For this, I type the name into Facebook search. If I get a couple of dozen hits for people with that name (and their profile pictures suggest they are the correct gender and ethnicity), then I will assume that the name is not outlandish enough to raise eyebrows from readers from that background.
Fingers crossed, no complaints so far!
Next week I will conclude this particular topic by looking at how to deal with the problem of multiple characters with the same name.
Feel free to comment, either here or on social media. Paul