Welcome to a spotlight post featuring crime fiction author and forensic specialist Jennifer Graeser Dornbush. Jennifer is a forensic consultant on television shows (like Prison Break, Leverage, and Hawaii Five-0), frequently guest speaks and hosts webinars on topics like death investigation and crime fiction, and has recently had her debut mystery novel, The Coroner, published by Crooked Lane Books! Read on to learn more about the author, a fantastic guest post courtesy of Jennifer all about using forensic myths in storytelling, as well as my thoughts on The Coroner. Hope you enjoy!
Jennifer Dornbush is a screenwriter, author, speaker and forensic specialist.
She has several crime drama series in development and recently adapted a YA novel for film. She also penned the film and novel, God Bless the Broken Road.
As a forensic specialist she consults on TV shows and has authored Forensic Speak: How To Write Realistic Crime Dramas, and her first mystery novel, The Coroner, released in 2018.
Jennifer frequently speaks on writing crime fiction for screen, forensic fundamentals, and death investigation. Jennifer hosts webinars on writing through Writer’s Digest; and has collaborated with The Writers Store and Script Magazine to produce a video on crime writing for writers. She also hosts a YouTube channel: Forensic Fridays.
She loves to mentor aspiring writers and is a member of the Writers’ Guild of America, Sisters in Crime, and the Mystery Writers of America.
Author Website: http://www.jenniferdornbush.com
Facebook: Jennifer Graeser Dornbush
Instagram: Jennifer Dornbush
YouTube: Jennifer Dornbush
Playlists: Screen Life Mondays and Forensic Fridays
Newsletter sign up: http://www.jenniferdornbush.com
When Are You Allowed To Fake Forensics in Storytelling? by Jennifer Graeser Dornbush. Screenwriter. Crime author. Speaker. Forensic Specialist.
I often get asked, “I see a lot of forensic stuff in novels, TV and film that doesn’t seem accurate. And am I ever allowed to just fake it?”
Um… yes… sometimes.
Here’s the thing… I’m a strong advocate for authenticity of science in storytelling, but there are some good reasons for fudging forensics at times.
Here are five forensic fabrications I see used all the time; the forensic facts behind them; and how writers can respond to fake forensics.
1. The Tick Tock Effect
The Fabrication: In “reel” life, crime stories are super compressed. Stories, whether on screen or on the page, have to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time. As writers we have to reveal the crime, the characters, evidence, and investigation, and resolution in just 45 minutes or 300 pages! Our viewers and readers can’t wait 8 weeks for a DNA test to come back from the lab.
The Fact: Investigations in “real” life often take a very, very long time. It can be months to get the results back from a crime or toxicology lab. It can take years or even to decades to solve a case with the proper evidence. Sometimes, cases are never solved.
Writer’s Response: Fudge forensics by compressing the time frames. Select exactly which elements of the case and evidence you want to reveal and build your trails of evidence. Find creative character solutions to get those test results back sooner. For example: maybe your investigator has a friend at the crime lab she can bribe to rush the testing process?
2. Trigger Happy
The Fabrication: Watch your favorite crime show and chances are most of the investigators are carrying weapons. And have you noticed there seem to be a lot of gun fights at crime scenes… or somewhere in the story. I’ll admit to doing this myself! And isn’t it funny that gunfire doesn’t ever affect the characters’ hearing ability.
The Fact: Only sworn employees carry guns. CSIs, coroner’s, M.E.s, lab technicians… they do not. And honestly, gun fights on the field are the exception, not the rule. On top of that, gunfire is deafening without earplugs. Most people in a gun fight would have temporary deafness, ringing in ears, limited hearing right after a gun fight.
Writer’s Response: Here’s the story truth about guns… they are sexy plot devices. Characters who wear and handle gun depict a certain power and authority. Gun fights are a dramatic way to increase the stakes. It’s okay to use them, if you use them properly. Your sworn officers can and should have them. Other characters may have them since guns are legal to obtain in the U.S. Build in character motivations as to why a non-sworn character would carry a gun. For instance, do they feel threatened at the scene of a crime? Were they a victim of a violent crime and want the extra protection?
3. Happily Ever After
The Fabrication: In “reel” life the bad guys always get caught and are brought to justice. The victim vindicated and the case is resolved. Happy ending!
The Fact: In real life the bad guys don’t always get caught… or it takes years to catch them… or sometimes, the wrong bad guy is prosecuted. In real life legalities make prosecution difficult. Cases get thrown out on technicalities. Criminals go free. Victims may not get restitution.
Writer’s Response: In our crime stories we NEED to provide resolution and catharsis. This is why we read ‘em, watch ‘em, and love ‘em. Viewers and readers expect restitution and resolve. It’s part of the crime thriller paradigm. And it makes for a good storytelling. So, wrap it up by solving the crime, catching the killer, and providing justice for the hero and victim.
4. Easy Evidence
The Fabrication: You have to have evidence to solve the case. In “reel” life, investigative procedures to find evidence are always complete, thorough, pertinent, and – in the end– yield exactly the right information needed to follow a trail of evidence. Evidence and witness testimony is legitimate and court admissible in order to solve the case. Done!
The Fact: In real life, evidence may be missing, hard to find, deteriorated, contaminated, or just not there. Witness testimony may be lacking or unreliable. Some evidence may not be admissible for court. In reality, it’s often very hard to try many real life cases with the evidence that is available.
Writer’s Response: As the creator of your crime universe, we get to choose what evidence is found and used in our case. It’s okay to create a complete trail of evidence. Our readers expect it and look for it! When we write something it has to make sense and lead to the killer in order to have a complete, cathartic story. Have fun with evidence… it can often reveal something unique or interesting about the victim or killer’s character. For instance, in The Coroner, I use a charm bracelet as a key piece of evidence. It has significant ties to the victim and her sister. I won’t give too much away here, but it serves not only as a crumb along the trail of evidence, but also as an emotional touchstone for the victim’s family and the hero investigator.
5. Sex Appeal
The Fabrication: Watch any TV show or read any good thriller and you’ll notice crime fighters are always dressed to the nines. Suits, skirts, heels, well-manicured nails and hair. Perfectly applied makeup. Fresh faced.
The Fact: No real crime investigator would come to the scene looking like that. It’s unpractical, unsanitary, unsafe. You’re dealing with bio fluids, biohazards, outdoor elements, unknown substances in the air, on the ground, all around you. How should they dress? In bunny suits, hair tied back, no make up, crappy, old shoes, masks, goggles.
Writer’s Response: No actor wants to look frumpy on the screen. No hero or heroine wants to be described as dowdy and commonplace. Looks matter in fiction. And that’s okay. Go with it. Create a sexy investigator! Storytelling is supposed to be “better than real life.” Isn’t that what entertainment is all about?
Want to learn to speak forensics more fluently? Get my book Forensic Speak to learn more about Firearms, Ammo, 6 Types of Evidence, real life Crime Scene Investigation, Courtroom Procedures, DNA, toxicology and MORE! Forensic Speak is used by TV writers, criminology professors, and law enforcement officers. Find it here: https://mwp.com/product/forensic-speak-how-to-write-realistic-crime-dramas/.
Recently engaged and deeply ensconced in her third year of surgical residency in Chicago, Emily Hartford gets a shock when she’s called home to Freeport, MI, the small town she fled a decade ago after the death of her mother. Her estranged father, the local medical examiner, has had a massive heart attack and Emily is needed urgently to help with his recovery.
Not sure what to expect, Emily races home, blowing the only stoplight at the center of town and getting pulled over by her former high school love, now Sheriff, Nick Larson. At the hospital, she finds her father in near total denial of the seriousness of his condition. He insists that the best thing Emily can do to help him is to take on the autopsy of a Senator’s teen daughter whose sudden, unexplained death has just rocked the sleepy town.
Reluctantly agreeing to help her father and Nick, Emily gets down to work, only to discover that the girl was murdered. The autopsy reminds her of her many hours in the morgue with her father when she was a young teen—a time which inspired her love of medicine. Before she knows it, she’s pulled deeper into the case and closer to her father and to Nick—much to the dismay of her big city fiance. When a threat is made to Emily herself, she must race to catch the killer before he strikes again in The Coroner, expertly written and sharply plotted, perfect for fans of Patricia Cornwell and Julia Spencer Fleming.
In Jennifer Graeser Dornbush’s mystery debut The Coroner, a young woman returns to her hometown to care for her estranged and ailing father, only to find herself in the middle of a tragedy involving the death of a senator’s teenage daughter.
Told in the third-person narrative featuring medical resident Dr. Emily Hartford, The Coroner opens with our protagonist as she mentally prepares for important procedure in the operating room. In her third year surgical residency at the University of Chicago Medical School, Emily’s focus is on becoming “an employable surgeon” within the next few years, and work alongside her boyfriend Dr. Brandon Taylor, a newly minted surgeon. As Emily arrives at the hospital, however, her day turns upside down: her supervisor directs her to perform another emergency procedure; in the middle of a birthday dinner orchestrated by Brandon, he surprises her with a proposal; and last but not least, Emily listens to a voicemail from a family friend and learns that her estranged father has had a heart attack.
Traveling from Chicago back to her hometown of Freeport, Michigan to see her dad, Emily braces herself for her return. Readers learn about the now-fraught relationship between Emily and her dad (a respected medical examiner); how the sudden (and in Emily’s mind, suspicious) death of her mother years before rocked the closeness between Emily and her father; and how she now has to face her former love, Nick Larson, the current sheriff of Freeport. As Emily gets tied into investigating the shocking death of a local teen and equestrian star Julie Dobson while her father recovers, Emily finds herself slowly but steadily drifting and edging away from Brandon and the life she thought she had wanted in Chicago. Moreover, as Emily finds herself more entrenched in examining Julie’s death as post-mortem signs point towards murder rather than accidental death, Emily also relaunches her own private examination of the supposedly fatal car accident that claimed her mother’s life years before…a car accident that her father, acting as medical examiner at the time, vehemently denied further criminal investigation for.
Overall, The Coroner is a solidly written and well-plotted mystery, complete with a strong lead and highly intriguing backstory elements. The Coroner ends with quite a cliffhanger, and that- in tandem with how smoothly Dornbush lays out relationships, backstory and characters- leaves a great deal of room for potential series entries featuring Dr. Emily Hartford. Readers who have enjoyed the writing and mystery offerings of authors such as Dawn Eastman, Lucy Kerr, Sara Paretsky, Lisa Gardner or Tess Gerritsen might especially enjoy this gripping mystery debut.
I received a copy of this title courtesy of Crooked Lane Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own. Thank you to Crooked Lane Books and the author for organizing and providing the guest post feature and author information.