Colleen Collins is a professional private investigator and multi-published author. Her
current novel, The Zen Man, is a murder mystery featuring a private eye man-and-woman
team, which she calls a “21st-century Nick and Nora”
story. When Colleen isn’t writing or investigating, she enjoys cooking,
gardening, and trying to train a willful Rottweiler named Jack Nicholson.
Next to confessions, crime scenes contain the most
first-hand evidence explaining the who, what and whys of a crime.
Unfortunately, sometimes writers get aspects of a crime scene wrong,
which puts a dent in the credibility of a story.
David Swinson, a retired Washington, DC, detective
and author of A Detailed Man (available in most bookstores and Amazon), calls
these dents “Aw c’mon, man” moments. “I have been to countless crime scenes,” says David. “When
you respond to a scene that is related to a violent crime, especially
homicide, even the smallest mistake can ruin the outcome of the case.
I’m especially tough on some authors who write crime fiction — it’s
what we in law enforcement call an ‘Aw c’mon, man’ moment.’”
Let’s look at the top five mistakes, or “Aw c’mon,
man” blunders, in no particular order, that writers make at crime
terminology. One popular misconception is that the words cartridges
are synonymous. A bullet, the projectile that fires from a rifle, revolver
or other small firearm, is one part of a cartridge. Two other words
that writers sometimes use interchangeably: spent bullets and spent casings. A spent bullet, sometimes called a slug, is
one that has stopped moving after being fired. Spent bullets are often
pretty distorted after hitting objects on their way to a resting place.
A spent casing is one from which a bullet has been fired. Although spent
bullets and casings might be found at a crime scene, casings are more
likely to be lying in plain sight.
Mishandling evidence. “First rule of any crime
scene investigation,” says Swinson, “is when you observe what is
obviously evidence, leave it where it is. Don’t move it!”
An “Aw c’mon, man” crime scene scenario for Swinson: “Spent
casings are visible on the floor beside the body, a semi auto is a few
feet away, and a little baggy that contains what appears to be a white
powdery substance is near the weapon. The detective picks up the gun
and inspects it and then picks up the baggy, opens it and smells or
takes a taste using his finger. This makes me crazy! A detective would
never pick up crucial evidence before it is photographed or, if necessary,
dusted for prints. This contaminates evidence and can jeopardize the
prosecutor’s case. And a detective would never, ever pick up what
might be illegal narcotics and taste it!”
Mishandling evidence includes placing it in plastic bags. According
L. Giacalone, a retired detective sergeant, former commanding
officer of the Bronx Cold Case Squad and author of Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators
(Looseleaf Law Publications, Inc.), “The biggest mistake I still see on TV and in movies is that evidence
which may contain biological evidence is put in plastic evidence bags.
I guess they want the viewer to see the item, but it is the worst thing
you can do with that type of evidence. Plastic builds up moisture and
degrades your evidence, even completely destroying it in most cases.”
Types of paper containers for collecting evidence include packets, envelopes
Contaminating the crime scene: Detectives and others ambling about
and speculating. Too often in stories, writers depict scenes
where detectives and others meander onto a crime scene, then stand around
the body and speculate what might have occurred. While they’re speculating,
know what else they’re doing? Contaminating the crime scene. Or as one detective phrased
it, “They’re creating a defense attorney’s wet dream.”
Shaun Kaufman, a Denver, Colorado, criminal defense
attorney, agrees. “Cross examining a detective or patrol officer about
a crime scene is fun when it has been trampled on by officers, detectives,
ambulance personnel and possibly fire personnel. I can ask about hairs
and other biological evidence on their clothes as they sit there on
the stand. I can ask where each hair, thread, crumb came from. After
about five minutes it is pretty clear that the officers, detectives,
paramedics and firemen can pick stuff up anywhere and leave it at a
crime scene. This is why real-life crime scene investigators don paper
booties and coveralls when they work a scene to minimize contamination
with their own hair, fluids and whatever else they were wearing when
they got to work.”
Contaminating the crime scene: Too many people. Giacalone says
one of his pet peeves in stories is when a writer depicts too many people
at a crime scene. “Wow, talk about contamination,” he says, “it
looks like the policeman’s ball in the crime scene. Very few people
should be allowed in the actual crime scene: the case investigator,
[his/her] partner, their boss, crime scene tech, the medical examiner
and if necessary the assistant district attorney.”
In addition, Giacalone offers these tips to writers about crime scenes:
A private eye touching a dead body. Being a private investigator
in real life, this is one of my pet peeves in stories. Can’t count
the number of times I’ve read a scene (or seen in a film) where the
private eye stumbles upon a body and rummages through its clothes or
touches the body itself. Uh, tampering with evidence charges? Also,
unless the private eye has snapped on a pair of latex gloves, he/she’s
also leaving their DNA all over the crime scene.
Just as washed-up criminal defense attorney, life-long Deadhead and
current PI Rick Levine decides to get relicensed as a lawyer, he’s
charged with killing one and ends up in the slammer with a half-mil
bail. Released on bond, Rick and his girlfriend Laura have 30 days to
find the real killer. Dodging bullets, a kidnapping and the FBI, they
eventually learn that true redemption begins at home.
“Move over Sam Spade, Nick and Nora; make room
for a Denver who-dun-it, Colleen Collins’s The Zen Man. Brilliant and fast-paced writing. I couldn’t
put it down.” ~ Donnell Ann Bell, Award-Winning Author of The Past Came Hunting
Mark Capell is a writer, director and animator residing in London.
perseverance, preparation, and prayer…
Gayle Roper is the award winning author of more than forty books. She has been a Christy finalist three times for her novels Spring Rain, Summer Shadows, and Winter Winds.
Gayle enjoys speaking at women’s events across the nation and loves sharing the powerful truths of Scripture with humor and practicality.
Gayle is married to to Chuck Roper and has been “for more years than seems possible!”. Gayle and Chuck live in southeastern Pennsylvania where they enjoy their family of two great sons, two lovely daughters-in-law, and the world’s five most wonderful grandchildren.
When she’s not writing, or teaching at conferences, Gayle enjoys reading, gardening, and eating out every time she can talk Chuck into it.
I know you’ll credit God with your long career in Christian publishing…but….what do you believe are key characteristics to develop to stick around for the long haul?
The three P’s – perseverance, preparation, and prayer.
Perseverance is necessary because it is the long haul, and it isn’t a straight path. In the more than forty years I’ve been involved in Christian publishing, I’ve had thirteen different publishers depending on the topic, genre and what was selling at the time. Before Christian fiction became such a powerhouse, I wrote nonfiction and children’s fiction. All that time I considered mysel f a novelist, but novels were still a hard sell. So I persevered.
And I became involved in Christian writers conferences. First I just attended. Then I became a volunteer. Then staff. Then a teacher. It was through conferences that I both prepared and persevered. After I sold seven books, I had a five year fallow period where I couldn’t place anything. It was writers conferences that kept me going. And I couldn’t think of anything else I’d like to do.
Of course I’ve prayed hard through the years. And I’ll tell you, my main prayer has been, “Lord, do whatever you want to do with this manuscript. I’d love it to be a best seller, but that’s Your choice. Do as You will.” For me, an achiever, this prayer is gut-wrenching, but as a Christian, I didn’t know how else I could pray.
Do you still struggle in an area of writing? You teach, you publish, but is there one area that really is challenging for you?
The biggest area of challenge to me is sales–or lack of numbers I’m happy with. I’ve won numerous awards for my stuff including a RITA, two Carol Awards, and I’ve finaled for a Christy three times. But my sales numbers have never been what I want. I think this is the story of most writers, but that doesn’t make it hurt less. It’s my dismal numbers that make that “Do what You want” prayer so hard to pray. But somehow, is spite of this disappointment, I’ve been able to continue publishing. It’s truly a God-thing.
Do you have an area that used to trip you up that you have finally conquered? What is it and how did you wrestle it into submission?
I hate self-promotion. As the industry has changed through the years, authors are expected to do more and more of their own promotion. The thought of it makes me shudder. I’m sure I drive my publishers nuts. I’ve a new title just releasing, SHADOWS ON THE SAND, and I’ve tried a couple of new avenues of promoting the book. We’ll see if they make a difference. Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew what it was that made a book catch on? Then we’d have a plan that, while painful to writers like me, would at least work.
If you didn’t put the effort and heart and soul into your writing, where would you invest it?
Do you know, I don’t know the answer to this question. Back when our sons were getting ready to go to college, my husband and I had several discussions about my going back to teaching school. Regular income and all that, you know. The thought of going back into the classroom made my stomach hurt. I knew I wouldn’t have the emotional energy to teach every day and still write anything much. Not that I don’t like teaching; I love it. I’d just gotten used to teaching at writers conferences where people came on purpose and actually listened to you. He and I both decided I was a writer and teacher of writing through and through, and we needed to honor that calling in spite of the financial cost.
What are the top three things you think newcomers need to know about publishing today? Why?
1. It’s a highly competitive field, so be prepared for the emotional cost of competing.
2. Learn the craft. Study how-to books. Sit under established writers. Read like crazy in the genre you want to write, both general market and Christian. Listen to audio books of good writers to hear things like rhythms and tone. Never stop learning how to write better.
3. Take the time to do it right. Anyone can slap up something as an ebook, but is it worthy of your name? How embarrassing to have to send out corrected versions because you jumped the gun. How sad to blow your chance by showing an editor or agent a book that’s not ready.