Amryn Cross: How to Research Your CSI or Detective

Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past few years, you’ve probably seen an episode of the dozens of forensic type shows on television—all the varieties of CSI, NCIS, SVU, etc. They make the job look gritty and glamorous but hardly ever real. It makes for great entertainment, but not a lot of truth. This can be troublesome when you try to base your latest crime novel off something you’ve seen on television. 
Any writer writing outside their field of expertise knows some research is going to be involved, but in a field like forensics, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. I’ve compiled a short list of questions to get you on track when researching your CSI or detective character.

1.       Where does your story take place?

This is big one. If you’re going for authenticity, it’s better to narrow down your search to the area you’re looking at. For instance, New York City isn’t going to have the same structure to their police force or crime lab that a small town in the Midwest might have. If you’ve got a fictional setting, the good news is you can take bits and pieces from several places and make your own rules. Especially larger cities will have a website for the law enforcement agencies that might post job opportunities or a list of departments with descriptions. Utilize those.

2.       When does your story take place?

This may go without saying, but if your story is set in the 1980’s or 1990’s, having your detective catch the bad guy with DNA is not very believable. Technology and tests are always changing in forensics.

3.       What’s your character’s job title?

As cool as it looks on CSI, I can’t think of a place where the same person collects the evidence at a crime scene, determines the cause of death, runs the test on the evidence, interrogates the suspect, goes on stakeouts/undercover ops, and make the arrest. There are different jobs for each of these, and overlap will vary from place to place. In a small town, a detective might collect the evidence, interrogate the suspect, and make the arrest, but he or she won’t be determining the cause of death (that’s the medical examiner or coroner) or running the tests on the evidence (if it’s a small town, the evidence will probably be sent to the nearest crime lab.) At the same time, your CSI may collect evidence and nothing else if they work in a large city. Other places, the same people collect the evidence and test it.

4.       What agency does your character work for?

Research that specific agency and know what they specialize in. Most law enforcement agencies will work a variety of crimes, but many people are surprised to know that the FBI doesn’t typically get involved in murder cases or witness protection even though they’re often depicted doing just that. Find out how people within that agency are titled. Are they detectives, agents, inspectors, officers? Who carries a gun within that agency? You might be surprised. In some states, even the lab personnel are considered commissioned officers and carry a weapon.

5.       Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

There are lots of experts out there who are willing to answer questions about their experiences (myself included.) Most law enforcement agencies have a public relations person or department that can answer some questions for your specific region. One of my favorite online sources is the Crime Scene Writer’s group. This is a pool of people from all sections of law enforcement who are willing to answer writer’s questions. Make sure you search the messages first because there’s a lot to be gleaned from past questions.

Researching your law enforcement character doesn’t have to be scary. When in doubt, ask.
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Amryn Cross is a full-time forensic scientist and author of romantic suspense novels. Her first novel, Learning to Die, will be released in September. In her spare time, she enjoys college football, reading, watching movies, and researching her next novel. You can connect with Amryn via her website, Twitter and Facebook.

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