Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Research, Part 2

To finish my thought from yesterday—did you know that there are over forty ways to test for fingerprints? Or how about this general rule of thumb for shotgun spray: the spatter will be an inch wide for every yard away the shooter is from the target, after the first yard. Fascinating, huh.

Looking through my idea box, I find information on such topics as this: Effect on the lungs after drowning. Critical Curve Speed Formula, used to help determine how a car accident occurred. Matching dental records to an unknown victim. Three basic fingerprint types. Various (little known) places on a car where VIN numbers are stamped. Different colors of smoke based on type of explosion. Determination of age, gender and race from bones. And on and on. Never know when I might need these snippets of information.

My current series, “Hidden Faces,” features forensic artist Annie Kingston. There are four books in this series. Brink of Death and Stain of Guilt are already on shelves. Dead of Night comes out May ’05, and Web of Lies in Feb. ’06. I have learned some way cool stuff about the field of forensic art through writing this series. By the way, I should give kudos here where kudos are due. I’ve greatly relied on the textbook Forensic Art and Illustration, by nationally known forensic artist Karen T. Taylor. If you’re thinking of writing about this field, this book is a must.

Forensic art is a pretty big field. In each of the four Hidden Faces books, I’ve featured a different challenge for Annie. In Brink of Death, Annie interviews a highly traumatized twelve-year-old who has witnessed her mother’s murder. How do forensic artists pull memory from such a victim, and then translate that memory into an effective composite? In Stain of Guilt, Annie draws a fugitive update of a man wanted for double homicide who’s been on the lam for twenty years. How does an artist age someone? Fascinating, how the personality and basic habits of the person to be aged is as important as his actual facial features. In Dead of Night, Annie must draw the dead—unidentified victims of a serial killer. How does the artist recreate a face from a body that may not be in great shape? In Web of Lies (my "spider book"), Annie does a facial reconstruction based on a skull. The process for taking only a skull and ending up with a fully drawn picture or a sculpture of the living person is truly remarkable.

But research isn’t the main focus to readers of suspense. After all, I’m not writing a textbook. Readers want action; they want story. My books promise a rollercoaster of a story. Yikes. How do I keep that story moving, never letting down the tension, while injecting the technical aspects of what Annie must do? I have struggled with this issue in each of the four Hidden Faces books. I’ve managed to come up with a solution that works for me. I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

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