Before I wrote my first financial thriller, Money Grab, my primary knowledge of crime had come from books, movies and television. I didn’t know what was real versus what had been “fictionalized” to make a better story. Wanting some hands-on experience, but without embracing the criminal life myself, I signed up for a 10-week Citizens Police Academy. It’s a significant investment of time, but well worth it if you want your writing to be realistic. Many counties and cities offer these programs. Check with your local law enforcement group to determine what’s available in your area.
I learned so much from this program. It was not just classroom time, but also hours in the field for hands-on demonstrations of various aspects of a deputy’s job. Among many other things, I got to do a ride-along with a deputy on his shift, see a demonstration of fingerprint analysis, learn investigative techniques, fire a service weapon at the gun range, and tour the local jail. My classroom binder is full of notes that I can use when I want to describe a crime scene.
Some interesting facts:
You should never save your home address in your car’s GPS system. If someone steals your car, he can access your GPS and immediately head for your house. Instead, put in the address of a public place several miles from your house, such as a fire station, a shopping mall, or a fast food restaurant. You will still be able to use your GPS to direct you back to your familiar neighborhood, but the thief cannot use it to pinpoint where you live.
The part of a gun that holds bullets is called a magazine, not a clip, despite what we commonly hear on television. My instructor said, "Magazines hold bullets. Clips hold potato chips."
DNA testing cannot be completed within an hour, even though it happens that way on TV shows. Labs are typically backed up with numerous cases already ahead of yours. It can take months to get results. So, what do you do if you’re writing about a crime and you need quick DNA results to catch the perpetrator? Either offer a reasonable explanation for why your case got pushed to the front of the line (maybe your victim was the sister of the governor?) or use some other technique to solve the crime (fingerprints can be analyzed much more quickly than DNA).
About 30% of the time, someone who commits suicide will leave behind an explanatory note. The absence of a note does not mean it wasn’t suicide.
It is almost impossible to totally eradicate blood residue. Even after washing an area with bleach, for example, a murderer may leave behind trace evidence in the cracks of a concrete garage or the seams of a wood floor. These can be detected by using chemicals such as Luminol and through special lighting.