Christmas came early this year! Imagine my great delight when I was placed on a panel to talk about autopsies with Santa Claus! Bradley Harper-- a former army pathologist now turned novelist and part-time Santa with his wife- Mrs. Claus-- and I led a (best of the conference!) workshop on death investigation and autopsies to a rousing crowd at Killer Nashville. I spoke about the 10 steps in death investigation, while Bradley gave insight on how and when autopsies are performed and offered up a few case studies from his days as a medical examiner. In case you are as curious as our audience was, I'm laying out those 10 points here. 10 Steps in Death Investigation 1) A death happens (attended or unattended). 2) A death is reported (by whomever finds the victim). 3) First responders arrive. (Police, EMTs, Firepersons) They can't touch the victim unless they are trying to resuscitate. 4) Once death is determined, the Coroner/M.E. is called and arrives to investigate & pick up the body. 5) If an autopsy is warranted, the body is transported to the morgue. 6) Once at the morgue, the victim & any evidence found on body is processed (photos, measurements, video). From here any evidence is sent to the police for documentation, testing, and storage. 7) The police and/or coroner seek to identify the name of the victim and notify next of kin. 8) An autopsy is performed by a medical examiner/forensic pathologist. 9) Cause and manner of death are determined by medical examiner- natural, accidental, suicidal, homicidal, or undetermined. 10) The body is released to family/mortuary/crematorium for burial.
Last month I flew across the pond to talk crime in London with a this amazing group of writers in one of my day-long seminars on crafting binge-worthy crime dramas. Since you couldn't all be there, I thought I'd share a take away nugget with all of you on the concept of tropes in crime dramas. How to spot them? How to use them?
Tropes are used all the time in any good crime drama. What is a trope?
Trope means "a turn." Tropes are turning events in a story. They are conventions writers use to turn
the story in a way that satisfies audience expectations. Here are some common examples:
Something blows up.
Someone dies/body drop.
Someone you think is bad turns out to be good or vice versa.
Someone attempts to harm/kill the investigator
Someone shows up who shouldn’t be there.
Someone innocent dies.
Someone important to the case goes missing.
Evidence is tampered with or missing.
Evidence is a dead end.
Another crime is committed that leads to/connects to the main one.
Next time you watch a crime drama, play a trope game. While watching, make a list of all the tropes you see being used. Whoever has the largest and most accurate list wins!
And... to help you get started. Get a little cheeky with these summer UK Crime picks! (Most available on Netflix)
Broadchurch (traditional detective mystery)
Doc Martin (medical mystery)
Peaky Blinders (action/historic crime)
Marcella (noir detective)
Paranoid (traditional detective/noir)
We already took a look at DNA basics. Let’s go deeper into DNA fun facts and emerging trends in DNA science.
1. Chemical Tracing: a new forensic technique that goes beyond DNA and fingerprinting to identify persons based on the traces of molecules and microbes you leave behind. Chemical signatures can be found everywhere, including the surface of your cell phone!
2. Rapid DNA Testing is a new technique that allows investigators to test DNA on site and within minutes of collecting a sample. Great for use in terrorism, mass disasters, homeland security, and trafficking. The machine, which can be taken on location, is called ANDE.
3. Lab Backlog. There are 200 forensic labs in the U.S. and a backlog of 400,000 sexual assault kits awaiting DNA testing. It can take 6-24 months to get results and they are expensive and error-prone. We need more labs, more technicians, and better technology!
4. The DNA-Rape Myth. DNA tests help solve only .2% of rape cases. Sadly, one in five women (yes, 20%) are raped in the U.S. A rapist averages 12 assaults until convicted. - Dr. Richard Selden, lecture at the WGA, 2018. It's very, very difficult, but let's encourage all women to speak up and get tested after an assault.
5. DNA Detective. The new term for genealogy sleuths who use take-home DNA test kits to help police solve crimes and crack cold cases. Learn more here!
6. eDNA (aka Man-Made DNA) adds two new letters to the DNA genetic alphabet: X and Y to the already natural bases: A, T, G, C. With these two new letters, scientists can make 172 amino acids that can be applied to encode books, poems, music. They can also help create better medicines, vaccines, and new antibiotics. Check out Synthorx.
7. Sex Typing. Is there a DNA test to determine sex? Sort of... A Raman Spectroscopy method may soon be able to determine sex through saliva DNA tests. A laser vibrates molecules and then the scattered light particles are measured to determine chemical signatures that differentiate males from females. Scientists are also developing a way to test the amino acids of your fingerprint to determine sex. Females have a higher concentration of amino acids in their chemistry.
8. A 20 Loci Match! Up until 2016, the National DNA Index System (NDIS) was only required to make DNA matches based on 13 loci (or genetic markers along the DNA strand). After January 1, 2017, they raised it to 20 loci. This provides a 1 in 100 million likelihood for a true match. It also increases the ability for compatibility with international law enforcement who are testing at higher loci rates, and aids in missing persons cases.
9. The New Floppy Disc. By converting the four DNA bases - A,C,G,T into ones and zeros, a software company in Hinxton, England, and scientists at Harvard have encoded the sonnets of Shakespeare, the "I Have A Dream" speech of Martin Luther King Jr., and other books into DNA strands. One gram of DNA can hold 455 billion gigabytes. Four grams can hold every piece of data the world produces in one year. Talk about condensed storage! More here.
10. Getting Wet DNA. The M-Vac is a machine used to pull DNA from porous surfaces (like wood, drywall, carpet, clothing). According to Forensic Magazine, it works like a mini-hurricane of sterile solution that sprays the surface of the object being tested, then sucks the wet traces into a container. The solution and any DNA material is run through a microcentrifuge filter, collected and analyzed. More here.
As we honor Mothers this month and Fathers next month, I thought it would be fun to do a two part series on DNA... since these are the building blocks of how we are fearfully and wonderfully created!
In the beginning.... two distinct sets of gene pools merge and in those genes are all the DNA we will ever need to become who we are today. The term DNA gets thrown around a lot, so let's break down the concept of DNA and look at a couple different types and how they are used in crime solving.
DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid. It is found in the cells of all living things (plants and animals included). A complete set of DNA is unique to each individual and only identical twins share the same DNA.
DNA contains a set of gene codes arranged along 25,000 chromosomes that contains all the information about a person’s genetic make-up and well-being from birth to death. Your hair and eye color and what diseases you’re prone to are found in DNA.
DNA was first discovered in 1868, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that scientists figured out how DNA looked like. And only in the late 1980s that DNA started to be used forensically to link suspects and victims to crimes.
How doe DNA works? We’ll start with the building blocks of DNA science and then see how it applies to forensic science.
What is it?
The core DNA unit consists of a base attached to a sugar-phosphate strand. The four bases contain nitrogen and they are: Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine. Adenine always pairs with Thymine. And Guanine always pairs with Cytosin. This core unit of DNA repeats itself over and over and over in one lone double helix configuration.
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)
What is it?
Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from the mother only and is found outside the cell. It provides the cell with energy and there is lots of it. Hundreds or even thousands of mitochondria live on a single cell; compared with just one set of nuclear DNA in each cell. MtDNA is extracted from hair shafts, teeth, bone, organs and tissues.
How is it used to solve crimes?
Mitochondrial DNA is used in cases of trying to prove identity from nuclear DNA when the body has been destroyed or disintegrated (charred, dismembered, or highly decomposed). And in order to prove identity you need a sample from the deceased’s maternal line. The down side to mtDNA is that it’s expensive to process and only a few labs do it. Also, persons with the same maternal lineage who are tested by mtDNA will not be distinguishable in DNA code from each other.
Nuclear DNA (nDNA)
What is it?
Nuclear DNA is the form of DNA found within the cell in the nucleotides creates by the 23 chromosomes from mom and dad.
How is it used to solve crimes?
Nuclear DNA is sometimes called touch DNA. This is the kind you hope to find at the crime scene in the form of blood, urine, semen, saliva on a cigarette butt, or glass.
Artificial DNA (aDNA)
What is it?
Artificial DNA was first engineered in Tel Aviv in 2009. Amplified DNA cells was mixed with DNAless red blood cells to create fake blood. And it fooled the American labs. Looks like we’ve come a long way since the days of corn starch, food coloring, and syrup. All you need is a sample DNA from anyone or a DNA profile from a database. There are currently two processes for manufacturing fake DNA. One is called whole genome amplification and the other is a cloning process So far current forensic testing has failed to tell the difference between nDNA and aDNA.
How is it used to solve (or commit) crimes?
Now, your high tech criminals, or even those with just some college-level knowledge of genetics, can engineer a crime scene or sell aDNA on the black market to other criminals. Want justice to be served in this case? A prosecutor can now contest the reliability of biological versus artificial DNA and save the case if he thinks the perp was faking it. Or a defense attorney can try to get DNA evidence thrown out if he believes someone planted fake DNA evidence against his client.
Y Chromosome DNA
What is it?
A Y Chromosome refers to a sample that contains only a male DNA sample. A YSRT is a testing method that extracts only the Y chromosome in order to identify a male presence in the sample being tested.
How is it used to solve crimes?
YSRT is used in cases of gang rape to prove multiple Y chromosomes or when there isn't much male DNA present. YSRT testing is more rare and few labs do it. There is no organized Y chromosome database maintained in the U.S.
What is it?
Not every single arrested criminal has their DNA listed in the CODIS database (run by the FBI). Since that is the case, a familial DNA search allows DNA from the scene of a crime to be run through CODIS and if there is a partial match (15 loci points) that would indicate that a relative of that criminal left DNA at the crime scene. With this information, law enforcement can now pinpoint a more specifical branch of potential suspects through their family tree.
How is it used to solve crimes?
In extreme crime cases, law enforcement officials can seek requests to use familial DNA searches in order to match DNA from a scene of the crime (or victim) to suspect's family members. It has become more accepted practice in the U.S. after the 2010 Grim Sleeper case in California. It's still rare to use familial DNA and only 12 states allow it under these circumstances: the case must be a cold case, an extremely violent crime, and investigators must have exhausted all leads and means.
What is it?
Each person’s DNA contains a slightly different code. The code is found in the way the bases are arranged. Remember the bases? Adenine, Thynine, Cytosine, and Guanine? So, the way in which these pairs (A-T and C-G) are arranged along the double helix creates your unique DNA fingerprint. And this is fingerprint can be replicated and used to make matches. A DNA fingerprint is also called DNA typing, DNA blue print, or a genetic profile.
How is it used in crime solving?
In all humans 99.9% of our genomes or DNA looks exactly the same as everyone else’s. It’s that 0.1% that tells us apart. When trying to make DNA matches, technicians look for 21 different loci (or regions) on the human chromosome. And it’s not uncommon that a majority of these 21 loci look the same from one person to the next. According to a LA Times article from July 8, 2008, "Although a person's genetic makeup is unique, his genetic profile -- just a tiny sliver of the full genome -- may not be. Siblings often share genetic markers at several locations, and even unrelated people can share some by coincidence.” We’ve been trained by CSI to rely on the absolute validity of DNA evidence. But in reality DNA evidence can get stuck on boggy soil of doubt; thereby providing fertile ground for storytelling twists.
Now, we've covered the basics. In Part 2 we'll take a look at other aspects of DNA identification... like fire and DNA... water and DNA... DNA versus fingerprints... and the new DNA ancestry detectives! And we'll take a look at a new technology that traces smudges of microbes you leave on your phone... a world beyond DNA and fingerprint identification!
Seems like everyone is quick with an opinion these days. Thumbs up! Like! 4 Stars! Winking emoji! There is no shortage of ways to show our pleasure (or displeasure) with just about anything. Every product or service is fair game for the chopping block or golden pedestal!
When I was in Italy last month teaching crime writing at the university in Milan, I came across a sign painted on the wall of a quaint Italian osteria (but really, aren’t they all quaint?) It said (translation): If there are things you are not happy with, please tell us. We are not Tripadvisor!
I love that Il Capo (the boss) posted this message in permanent calligraphied paint on the dining room wall.
I love that Il Capo took a stand against the digital world where are quick to judge and often forget there are actual human beings who worked hard to make the pasta you are eating!
When we take out the human factor of face to face conversation (i.e. Facebook, Amazon, Yelp), it’s easy to lean into harsh and judgmental criticism.
Alert! This is no way to live successfully in community!
This is a symptom that we are separating ourselves from each other. This is the way we start to lose our humanity. This is evidence that we are moving away from one another. You see it in families, engrossed in their devices over a family meal. Or young people filling therapists’ offices with their anxieties and loneliness.
The problem seems so prevalent, that I am tempted to despair! Until I remember the power of one! One person. You. Me. We can be agents for change and for building meaningful community! And we can start in our backyard!
One of my favorite communities is my writing community. I have been a part of it for over 16 years has taught me a thing or two about creating a positive, very personal, face-to-face relationships where iron sharpens irons as we encourage each other to greater success!
Our group has been built with lots of practice and a few guidelines and tons of coffee and pie (we meet for pie). Here’s how we graciously and systematically take the advice of that Italian osteria: If there are things you are not happy with, please tell us!
1) Circle of Love – one of my first TV writing mentors insisted that we start our writer’s group with the circle of love. And we still do this. We spend the first couple minutes going around the table and expressing what we liked about the project or what is working. This isn’t for an ego-boost or touchy-feely exercise. It’s because it’s important for us to know what we’ve done well and know that we’re progressing. Praise lets us know we’re on the right track. We all need that.
2) Easter Egg Hunting - It can be tough, but important to talk about theme. I think about theme like an Easter Egg hunt. Theme likes to hide behind character motivations, symbols, tone, or place. Theme can be decorated differently based on each reader’s experiences and interpretations. In our group, we don’t even use the word theme. That’s too formal for us. We ask each other… what are you trying to say with this story? What do you want your readers/viewers to know? Then, instead of arguing about which theme is correct (or which Easter egg is prettiest), we try to look at all the eggs in their painted glory and find the one that best fits our taste.
3) The Big Picture – It can be challenging to know where to start when giving a constructive critique. I like to use The Big Picture principle. This means giving 2 to 3 overall thoughts about the project. Each person in the group contributes two to three things that stand out in a story and this keeps the notes sessions moving along (and doesn’t overwhelm the writer as much). This works great for a book club, too. Limit critique to a couple main things. Maybe tone of the piece? Maybe a particular character’s arc? Maybe how the piece was structured?
4) Heroes and Villains – What does the hero want? What does the villain want? Do they get it? How? When? What do they actually need to change (rule of thumb: heroes usually change/villains usually don’t). These few questions alone are all that is needed to spring board the rest of the discussion and reveal a lot about the story (holes, flaws, strengths, what if’s).
5) Don’t be a Nitpicker! Silence. It makes us uncomfortable. We’ll do anything to fill the silence. So, when we’re at a lack of things to say, we start to nitpick. Stop it! Limit the amount of time for a critique (book analysis). 30-45 minutes is usually enough time until people run out of things to stay and start to nitpick. That’s when things turn ugly and an otherwise helpful or productive critique session can go south. Set an alarm if you need to. I usually do.
Readers, this is for you, too! See how you might apply these 5 guidelines to your next book club!
Hey… maybe we should all just take these a step further and apply some of these to our next Amazon review… kid’s band performance… Or even that friend’s political comment on Facebook (ouch!).
Love is always a crime. Find out why every great crime drama starts with a great love story.Read More
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After returning back to Los Angeles from a long, restorative, holiday, hiatus in Michigan, I took one look at my 2018 vision board and ripped it down. Not one of the "goals and visions" I had set for last year came to fruition. Sounds desperate, right? Disappointing for sure.
But I'm not upset or disappointed that I didn't get to achieve everything on my vision board (okay getting a house would have been nice!) because 2018 was a great year with amazing adventures -- especially the ones that took me off my beaten path. One of those little beaten paths was the learning the importance of striving and pushing for goals with a proper plan in place. A plan that is grounded in routine is one that truly offers peace and satisfaction.
So as 2019 winds up, I find that I have a lot of the same goals and hopes from last year. And I'm going to lean into routines, not resolutions, to see them through!
There is comfort in implementing a doable, daily routine you can fall back on, even when you're not feeling it. Lean in to the routine! It will reward you!
We're all spinning many plates. But when you break it down, your professional lives and personal lives can be handled through project management. For the sake of this article, I'm going to focus on routines for your professional life. But you can do the same concept with goals in your personal life (i.e. running that marathon, planning that family trip, reading a book a month, finishing that ginormous puzzle!).
First, write down the work projects you have for the next 6-12 months.
Now, prioritize them. What has to be done first, second, third.... what can wait til next week? Next month? Later in the year?
Take the top ones you need to work on first and break them down into smaller time chunks and tasks.
Then, create a "to do" list for the following week. What do you need to do on each project in the next week.
When the week is over, take inventory. Did you finish? Are there things you need to carry over into the next week? Did new tasks pop up?
Start over and write down next weeks' "to do". And so on. And so on. Week after week. Soon, you've written a novel, planned a trip, launched a website, created a newsletter! You've eaten the whole elephant, one bite at a time.
Next, learn to harness your time. Use the time blocking technique. Spend 80 percent of your time on your strengths and income earning skills. Use 20 percent of your time on the other stuff you have to do keep your business running. For example, in a 40 hour work week, I should be spending 32 hours of that time on writing projects, writing meetings, and generating new projects and ideas. The remaining 8 hours of the week I use on marketing and outreach to keep my business running and generate more business.
I usually have no problem filling my 32 hours of writing and could (and do) usually put in more than 32 hours on my writing. Where I struggle-- as do most entrepreneurs-- is with the other 20 percent. That marketing beast that constantly needs to be fed!
So... let's break down that 20 percent even further with the 15 minute rule. I'm pretty useless if I don't spend a little quiet time each day before I get started. So I use 15 minutes a day for prayer/meditation/journaling. Then, I schedule 15 minutes a day on outreach/networking task. Another 15 minutes a day on marketing yourself (social media, newsletter, blog, etc). And finally, I take 15 minutes a day to track my bookkeeping. Of course, there are days when I go over the 15 minutes. That's fine, as long as I'm not spending more than 2 hours/day on these tasks. (Remember the 80/20 rule!)
Last and most importantly! Remember to schedule in "Me Blocks" of time every week. These are 2-4 hour blocks of time where you can recharge. I call them "Artist's Dates." Take yourself on a date to get a massage, a mani, see a movie, cook something new, go kayaking, take a long hike, bake a loaf of bread, read a book, or go to a museum.
I like to revisit my to do list at the beginning of each day to set my intentions and directions and make any adjustments. Life happens. Plans change. Meetings come up. Sickness befalls us. It won't run perfectly, and that's okay.
One last thing I must address is flexibility. Your goals and visions for the coming 12 months may shift, derail, or take a back seat. That's okay. Others will take their place. That's okay, too. Good news! You still have your system in place! Lean in to the routine. I think you'll also find that established routines allow you the flexibility you're going to need as your plans, goals, and visions morph during the course of a year.
I believe in living a purposeful, meaning-filled life. And I believe in having goals and visions. I have lots of them! And I believe strongly that the path to our goals and visions in set in the well-laid plans we make for them. And that those routines we set up help us implement those plans.
Have grace and patience with yourself as you get started in your new routines. Take inventory at the end of each week and each month to see how much you've accomplished of your goals. I think you'll find it inspiring!
Have a beautiful start to your 2019!
What could be merrier than taking a look at death investigation during the holidays? Here are some deadly facts sprinkled in with a few fun Christmas facts that will make you bellow, "Ho, ho, oh no!..."
1) Will you die on Christmas? Lots of people do. In fact, more people die on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day than any other days of the year. Find out why and if you or someone you love is a candidate for a holiday death.
2) Here Comes Santa Clause-- NOT! In 1932 in Mesa, AZ, Santa Claus jumped from a plane to parachute into the Christmas parade. His parachute failed to open traumatizing the town's children and parents.
3) Hey, Rudolph, aren't you cold driving Santa's sleigh? Apparently not. Reindeer from Lapland, Finland are uniquely adapted to survive the brutal winters. They have a thick winter coat made of hollow hairs. The air inside and between each hair super insulates the reindeer from the harsh cold. (Courtesy of Frederick Meijer Gardens, Grand Rapids, MI)
4) O Tannenbaum, O Tannebaum... your branches green... are on fire?! Between 2012-2016, U.S. fire departments responded to an average 170 home fires that started with Christmas trees per year. These fires caused an average of 4 deaths, 15 injuries, and $12 million in direct property damage annually. Keep your fire in the fireplace, please!
5) Seasonal stress, poor diet, increased alcohol are contributing factors to why more people die of heart problems during the holidays. If you want to eat, drink and be merry, beware: it may just kill you!
6) During the Middle Ages in the Middle East, rosemary was spread on the floor at midnight on Christmas Eve so as people walked on it, the fragrance would fill the air. The belief was that those who smelled the rosemary on Christmas Eve would have a healthy and happy new year. (Courtesy of Frederick Meijer Gardens, Grand Rapids, MI)
7) It is believed that the San Bernardino terror attack of 2016 was triggered by a company Christmas party that the shooter, a Muslim, was mandated to attend.
8) In Spain, children are taught that it's the Three Wise men who bring them gifts, not Santa Claus. These Wise Men fill their shoes with gifts on the Eve of Epiphany, January 5. So, does that mean, the bigger the feet the better the gift?
9) Pot for Christmas? Deputies in California confiscated 60 pounds of marijuana from an elderly couple, who told investigators the large stash was intended to be divided up and given away as Christmas presents. This sheds a whole new light on "being merry."
10) Yearning for simpler holiday traditions? In early Victorian times people trimmed their trees with walnuts, pine cones, little pouches for secret gifts, paper cornucopias filled with sugared almonds, fruits, and popcorn. Yummy, eatable ornaments!!
Thank you for being a part of this community. Wishing you a Christmas season of hope, joy, peace, and love. See you in 2019!