Law, Forensics & Muffins

by jkatejohnston

23 March 2014

Dear Max,

My picaresque serial-sex-offender mystery novel is a 110 5″x7″ pages long (Go Litel Book!) and I have three chapters going at once. One is the trial; the other is the DNA evidence, which I’m trying not to make too technical, but it has charts, surely a bad sign; the other is about forming a posse to search for a witness down along the river, with muffins instead of hardtack.

The parts that I know about—law, forensics and muffins—I’m writing realistically and providing a sort of running translation. The problem with writing what you know is you end up with things like: “The 18 allele at TPOX could have been plus-one stutter (an artifact of the technology), or contamination (by far the most reasonable explanation) or it could have been native to the sample, in other words, evidence, in other words, reasonable doubt.” Insert paragraph of boring explanation here, including charts and figures.

I’m also writing about homeless people, children of alcoholics and a radical Catholic nun. Since I know nothing about any of these things, I’m gaily making shit up, and as far as I can tell it works just as well. Now that I think about it though, my homeless guy is turning into a cross between St. Francis and Daniel Boone. Because don’t you know poor people are so honest. Oh dear. Well, I’ll make him a bit more of an asshole, though he has to remain an honest asshole for my story to work. He only has about five lines in the whole book, so maybe it doesn’t matter that much. But all the more reason to get those five lines right.

And then there’s the problem of violence. I have no problem with it in real life, as long as it’s not my life. Autopsy photos, crime scene photos—none of that has ever bothered me. But in something I write, I don’t approve of it. It’s too much. Also, I really don’t know anything about violence, and it’s not a subject that I can gaily make shit up about. So my crime is a break-in with an indecent exposure and (since I needed some DNA) the perp bites the vic on the the collarbone. So, scary as hell, but not too violent. My facts are adapted from a real case that was horrifically violent, and of course I’ve toned it down beyond recognition.

But back to autopsy photos. A lot of them are gory, but most are just a sort of catalog, including the victim’s clothing. And I remember in one murder case I worked on, the DA put a photo of the victim’s work boots up on the overhead during the trial. Maybe they had a drop of blood on them, but mostly they just looked like some well-worn old boots, and they gave you this terrible sense of life-being-lived—and then not. It was like, shit, that was a life. It was quick and awful.

Anyway, that’s probably the kind of thing you should include if you have to write about someone who died. But I don’t have to do that. Fuck dying. At the end of the day, I don’t really approve of murder.