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TMI in CSI: How to Avoid Info Dumps in Fiction by Kate Bendelow

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | The Art of Description
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Kate Bendelow

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I consider myself incredibly lucky to be doing two of my dream jobs. I’ve been a Crime Scene Investigator since 2002. In 2014, my writing hobby became a second career the year I attended Swanwick Writers’ Summer School in Derbyshire. This inspired me to combine my two passions, the love of my job with writing. I returned to Swanwick in 2015 and delivered a course on CSI Techniques for Writers.

I was overwhelmed with positive feedback from delegates, who suggested I write a book on the subject and in August 2017, The Real CSI: A Forensic Handbook for Crime Writers was published. Still the urge to write fiction remained strong, but where to start and what to write? My writing career started with poetry, and because I had two young children, I dallied with the idea of becoming a children’s author. Unfortunately, my narrative is too gruesome and far too sweary to be suited to an audience of minors, so that idea was very short-lived.

I was extremely fortunate to meet the hugely talented, Lynda La-Plante. She suggested I write about a protagonist who was a CSI. My husband had suggested similar on countless occasions, but I dismissed the idea. However, when Lynda suggested it, it seemed like a great idea (much to his chagrin). We also discussed how few BAME authors, and indeed characters, there are in the writing industry. Therefore, it was important to me to represent Maya as a mixed-race female and to include diversity in my writing. On the train home from London that day, Scene of Crime Officer (SOCO) Maya Barton was born.

The first problem I encountered when I started writing Definitely Dead is the common misconception that the role of a CSI is glamourous. The public are fascinated by the idea of forensics. The CSI effect has had a huge impact on society’s expectations of how a crime can be investigated and subsequently detected. The bottom line is, that as much as I love my job, it can be long-winded and backbreaking. Working in all weather and cramped, unpleasant conditions is incredibly challenging and I’ve smelt and swabbed things I wouldn’t have thought humanly possible.

Would sharing this in too much detail turn readers off? I can recall many occasions when I’ve been oversharing with friends who are not in the job, only to realise that I’m the only person raucously laughing while others have either grown white, green or are looking at me like I’ve just defecated on the table. I learnt early on that the only way I could get past that first chapter, was to not think about who was going to read it. I liken it to if you’re going to write a sex scene. If you picture your Mother-In-Law reading it, you wouldn’t get further than a kiss with no tongues.

Next problem was describing how a murder scene is examined. A lot of the recoveries made can be tedious, for example tape lifting, which enables the recovery of trace evidence such as cellular DNA, fibres or hair. The process involves applying a piece of low tack adhesive tape, with pressure, to a surface that the offender may have been in contact with. This can include exposed areas of a victim’s skin, doorframes or seats. The tape is applied to a piece of plastic acetate. This is then marked up with an exhibit number, description, case number and date etc. and placed in a tamper-evident bag, which is then scribed with the same information. The same details are recorded on a job sheet along with the unique reference number of the bag. It’s incredibly time consuming and can take a couple of hours to complete, and is only one stage of the recovery process.

If you’re still awake after reading that last paragraph, then you’ll appreciate how dull that is. Dull but essential at a crime scene, but not pacey material for a crime novel. Yet, because this is the procedure I would follow at a murder, I started to write it into the early draft of my book. It was great for my word-count as I began to top War & Peace proportions and was only on Chapter Ten, but naturally it was stopping the flow of the plot. Rather than kill my darlings, I had to kill nearly two decades of ingrained forensic procedure.

Even describing the stages of death, such as lividity, first sounded like an information-dump wordier and more clinical than what I’d written in The Real CSI. It took a while to turn off my CSI mind and think like a reader / writer. I thought of books I’d read that I liked because the procedure was written in a way that flows, doesn’t stall the plot, but rather intrigues and informs. I particularly admire the way Lynda La Plante and Peter James do this (not that I’m comparing myself to them at all – I wish). Instead, nine hundred words of mind-numbing procedure turned into a handful of dialogue exchanged between Maya and her colleague Chris. Goodbye word-count.

They say fact is stranger than fiction and there are so many bizarre things I have experienced over the years that, if I wrote about them, any self-respecting editor would consider it too fantasist to print. I am also conscious of the fact that there shouldn’t be even the vaguest similarity to any of the scenes I have worked on, with the scenes I write. That would be wholly inappropriate and has limited some of the ideas I’ve had, to the point I’ve discarded a number of plot lines.

Finally, the gallows humour. I’ll address that by sharing the acknowledgement I wrote for my workmates and colleagues, “…whose hilarious banter and anecdotes provides me with an endless source of inspiration, none of which, unfortunately, is suitable for publication.”

If you want to find out more about that, you’ll have to read the books and meet Maya. She’s less discrete than I am.

(c) Kate Bendelow

About Definitely Dead:

Can you always trust the evidence?

Maya Barton has just embarked on her dream job as a scene of crime officer. When she attends her first death the post-mortem deems it to be non-suspicious and the case is closed. But despite the lack of evidence, she suspects a crime has been committed.

Meanwhile, the police force focus on a mission to bring a criminal gang to justice.

When Maya is called to another apparent sudden death her reservations resurface. She is convinced a killer is on the loose; a killer who has evaded suspicion until now, but Maya’s series of mistakes alienate those around her.

As she and her colleagues are drawn further into their investigations, they end up putting themselves in grave danger.

Can Maya catch a killer and escape from her troubled past, or will the skeletons from her closet come back to haunt her? Who can Maya really trust? And who will make it out alive…

“Bendelow proves her experience as a SOCO makes for a brilliant novel Definitely Dead is a stunning five star read.” International bestselling author Lynda La Plante

Definitely Dead is a thrilling crime novel from real CSI Kate Bendelow. It’s the perfect read for fans of authors like Kathy Reichs and Tess Gerritsen.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Kate Bendelow is a serving crime scene examiner with over 18 years of experience. She has combined the passion for her job with her love of writing. Kate is the author of The Real CSI: A Forensic Handbook for Crime Writers and has now turned her hand to writing crime fiction.

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