How does forensic science help us in the aftermath of disasters such as plane crashes, floods, hurricanes and other events that result in mass fatalities? We find some answers in this episode, when D.P. Lyle and Jan Burke interview Paul Sledzik.
In this episode, he tells us about historical responses to mass disasters, such as the General Slocum disaster of 1904, which caused the loss of over one thousand lives. He’ll also talk to us about today’s processes for dealing with mass fatality events, the role of forensic scientists in processing mass fatality incidents, and the work done on these sites by forensic anthropologists and other specialists.
Near the end of the interview, we were also able to talk to him a little bit about his work on historical remains belonging to “New England Vampires.”
Bio: Trained as a forensic anthropologist, Paul Sledzik began his career at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC, as a museum technician. By the time he departed the museum in 2004, he had become a curator with responsibilities over the museum’s unique and historic anatomical and pathological collections. From 1998 to 2004, he served as the team commander for the Region 3 Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services. In the response to the events of September 11, 2001, he led the DMORT team in the identification of the victims from the crash of United flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Paul joined the National Transportation Safety Board’s Transportation Disaster Assistance Division in 2004 as a medicolegal specialist and in 2010 became the division director. The division coordinates access to information and services to support victim and family members impacted by aviation accidents and accidents in other transportation modes.
He has served as a consultant and advisor to federal and non-governmental agencies on issues of human identification and disaster response. A Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, his scientific articles have appeared in professional journals and textbooks. He has participated in the response to over 30 mass fatality events and transportation accidents.
My second Dub Walker thriller HOT LIGHTS, COLD STEEL dealt with the future of robotic surgery. Future as in way down the road. But now it seems it’s not all that far away. Virtual Incision in Lincoln, Nebraska is working on a very clever device that could make space missions safer. Very cool stuff.
For years now the concept of a “genetic chimera” has sparked the imagination of writers: from Stephen King to Michael Crichton, from CSI to The Office. The idea that an individual could harbor his/her own twin is creepy and intriguing at the same time, not to mention it offers the perfect escape from DNA testing in a police procedural plot.
But if you think that “chimeras have been done already,” think again. All fictional works written so far have exploited the concept of tetragametic chimeras, which results from combining two or more genetically distinct organisms. In humans, this happens when two fertilized eggs fuse together during the first hours of life in the womb.
Yet Mother Nature has invented many other forms of chimerism.
Some genetic defects/mutations can lead to individuals with genetically distinct cells in their body. Usually these defects involve anomalies in the number of chromosomes, but there are also asymptomatic cases, like for example animals whose coat is a patchwork of different colors, as in tortoiseshell cats. This type of chimerism is called mosaicism. Contrary to tetragametic chimeras, which originate from two or more individuals fused together, mosaics originate from a single individual. People whose eyes have different colors are also an example of genetic mosaicism.
Tortoiseshell cat (Source: Wikipedia)
Scientists claim that chimeras are much more common than we think. Chances are, you could be your own twin. But how surprised would you be if I told you that you are actually far more likely to be your mother’s chimera than your unborn sibling’s?
“Microchimerism refers to a small number of cells (or DNA) harbored by one individual that originated in a genetically different individual” (Gammill and Nelson, 2010).
An individual receiving a donor transplant or a blood transfusion is an example of microchimerism. Yet the most common form of microchimerism happens during pregnancy. There’s an ongoing two-way cell trafficking across the placenta, and these exchange cells can actually proliferate long term in the host’s body: fetal cells can be found in the mother years after she gave birth. In fact, because even spontaneous abortions cause fetal cells to be released into the mother’s body, women who became pregnant but never gave birth can also harbor this form of microchimerism.
Mystery writers are familiar with the “Jane Doe scenario”: an unidentified woman that lands on the medical examiner’s table. One of the many things the ME can learn about this woman with today’s technology is whether or not she was ever pregnant—even if the pregnancy ended with a spontaneous abortion. With a single test the ME can find male DNA in Jane Doe and deduce that at some point she was pregnant with a baby boy. A baby girl can also be detected, but it requires more than one test.
Just like fetal cells can be found in the mother years after she has given birth, the inverse is also true: maternal cells have been found in fetal liver, lung, heart, thymus, spleen, adrenal, kidney, pancreas, brain, and gonads. What’s surprising is that in either case (mother-to-fetus transfer, or, vice versa, fetus-to-mother transfer), the extraneous cells migrate to a certain tissue and, once there, they are able to differentiate and proliferate, acting at all effects as if they were engrafted. One paper found circulating maternal cells in 39% of the study subjects (Loubiere et al. 2006).
But even if you are not your own twin, even if you don’t harbor cells from your mother or your child, even then chimeras are closer than you think. Because we all originated from a chimera: roughly 10% of our DNA is made from viral genes, and how this came to happen is a fascinating story.
A long time ago a virus infected a sperm cell or oocyte of one of our ancestors. Once there, the genetic material from the virus fused with the genetic material of the cell —- that’s an old trick viruses play so they can replicate. Except this particular virus never replicated. The sperm or oocyte was fertilized and became a fetus, and that fetus now carried the bit of viral DNA. The viral genes were “stuck”, no longer able to replicate, and thus effectively silenced.
Finally, the last form of chimerism I would like to discuss is far less known because it belongs to a fairly new field: epigenetics.
Genes are packaged inside the nucleus, some deeply hidden inside, and some exposed so that they can be easily “translated” into proteins. This configuration can change in time, as genes can move from the inside of the nucleus and become exposed, while others previously exposed can become hidden. Life events, changes in the environment or in diet, stress, and traumas can potentially affect these mechanisms, causing some genes to turn on while turning off others.
Epigenetics is the study of all mechanisms that can affect gene silencing (turning the genes “off”) and gene expression (turning the genes “on”). In other words, it addresses the question: what causes some genes to shift from being hidden (silenced) to becoming suddenly exposed (expressed) and other genes instead to suddenly become hidden (silenced)?
The amazing thing is that these epigenetic mechanisms are not encoded in the DNA, yet there have been studies that have shown that epigenetic changes caused by stress or diet can indeed be carried over for the next two-three generations.
You’ve probably guessed it by now: an individual whose cells express distinct genes within the same tissue is called an epigenetic chimera.
From a writer’s point of view, this kind of chimerism lends itself to many more scenarios than the genetic one. For one thing, it is much more complicated to detect as the defects no longer lie in the genes themselves, but rather in which genes are expressed and which aren’t. At the same time, epigenetic disorders can give rise to any sort of dysfunctional phenotypes. And you have a wide range of “life events” that could potentially trigger the “sudden change” in your character(s): viruses can certainly mess up with the cells’ signaling and turn on forgotten genes; an accident or physical trauma can spike new sensations/symptoms (have you ever heard of someone’s sense of smell suddenly spiking after a car accident?); a change in diet/environment; etc.
Vampires and zombies may have been done already. But there’s still a lot of room for chimeras of all kinds.
E.E. Giorgi is a scientist, a writer and a photographer. She loves to blog about science for the curious mind, especially the kind that sparks fantastic premises and engaging stories. She has done scientific consultations for writers such as Autumn Kalquist (Legacy Code) and bestselling author Carol Cassella (Oxygen). E.E.’s detective thriller CHIMERAS, a hard-boiled police procedural with a genetic twist, is now available on Amazon.
Tinker doesn’t look like a snitch. But then again, neither did Snowball. Snowball is a very famous cat. It was Snowball’s DNA that led to the solution of a 1994 murder and it represented the first time cat DNA had been used to solve a crime.
In 1994, Shirley Duguay of Prince Edward Island disappeared. A few days later her corpse was discovered in a shallow grave along with a leather jacket, which was soaked with her blood and dotted with white cat hairs. Her estranged husband, Douglas Beamish, owned a white cat named Snowball. DNA in blood taken from Snowball matched that of the cat hairs found at the burial site, proving that those hairs came from Snowball and no other white cat. Beamish was convicted, marking this case the first time that animal DNA was used to gain a conviction.
Tinker has now followed suit in a very interesting case from Britain.
Join Jan Burke and I as we discuss sex crimes with best-selling author Linda Fairstein.
Linda Fairstein is an honors graduate of Vassar College and the University of Virginia School of Law, a former prosecutor, and one of America’s foremost legal experts on crimes of violence against women and children. For three decades, she served in the office of the New York County District Attorney, where she was Chief of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit for twenty-five years. She was the lead attorney in the famous the Robert Chambers “Preppy Murder” case. She is an internationally bestselling author of a series of crime novels, which feature Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper. Linda is also the author of a non-fiction work. Sexual Violence: Our War Against Rape, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She is a sought-after media consultant on the issue of the criminal justice system and crimes of violence against women for major networks such as CNN, MSNBC, and cable affiliates. She continues to practice law as a pro bono representative of victims of violence. She and her husband Justin Feldman live in Manhattan and on Martha’s Vineyard.
Want to write a better thriller? Want to crack into publishing? Or maybe the bestseller list? Here’s your chance.
Thriller School begins April 7th.
Fiction writing isn’t easy. Not for anyone. Whether you’re writing your first manuscript or your fiftieth, it’s difficult and time-consuming work. And a life-long pursuit. Professional writers never cease improving their craft. I think every writer understands this simple truth.
Virtually any writer will tell you that regardless of how many times you’ve done it or how far up the best-seller list you’ve climbed, that first blank page is a scary proposition. Fears and self-doubts always rise up.
But experienced writers will quickly add that the more you know, the more you write, and the more tools you have at hand, the less intimidating the process.
This is where Thriller School comes in.
For years ITW has presented CraftFest at ThrillerFest each July in New York. The success of CraftFest is primarily due to the outstanding cadre of teachers, many of whom are New York Times bestselling and award-winning authors, that come each year and share their knowledge and experience with both aspiring and published writers.
Now ITW has developed a new program to help writers continue their growth: Thriller School. In this seven-week program, the craft of thriller writing will be front and center. Each instructor will teach an aspect of craft though a podcast, written materials that include further reading and study suggestions, and an entire week of on-line Q&A with the registered students. The goal is simple: To make each student a better writer.
We are very excited about this new endeavor. I think you will be also. Here is the schedule for the inaugural program along with a few words from our instructors:
4-7-14: Storytelling: What Makes A Good Story?—Steven James
From Steven James:
I became a novelist because I read a novel that sucked.
Years ago when I was toying with some ideas for my first novel, I read a thriller that everyone was talking about. Well, the further I got into the book, the more problems I found. Honestly, I was astonished how bad the story was, and I remember actually pelting the book against the wall when I reached the end—I was so angry at having wasted my time on it. I thought, “If that’s the best that’s out there, I know I can write a better one.” So, I set out to do just that.
As it turned out, reading that novel was the best thing that ever happened to my writing career because it motivated me to write and taught me several lessons about what makes a story work.
For example: How do you keep a story escalating and believable while also providing twists and surprises that delight and satisfy readers? How do you shape a scene so that everything follows logically from the things that preceded it? These questions are vital to the storytelling process.
Back in the 1990s when I was studying for my master’s degree in storytelling, I learned principles that helped lay the foundation for my life as a novelist. The keys to great storytelling aren’t complex. Once you know what you’re looking for you’ll be able to improve the stories that you write by providing a stronger orientation to the world of the story, a more impactful crisis or calling event, and better, more believable escalation that leads to a transformative moment at the story’s climax.
Taking the principles that I learned in an academic setting and have fleshed out and applied over the last ten novels, I’ve sought to share these storytelling tips that will help all novelists—both those who are accomplished and those who are aspiring—to become more successful.
So, get angry at mediocrity, get informed on how to write well, and then get busy producing stories that will impact and change the world.
What is voice? Where does it come from? Why is it important?
Voice is your distinctive writing style. Your way to tell the tale. It’s phrasing and word choice. It’s sentence and paragraph structure. It’s the single thing that is distinctly you. It’s the sound and feel and emotion of your writing. It’s what you “hear” in your head when you read a story. The thing that identifies the writer.
Think about your favorite writers. If you opened a coverless book to any page, could you identify the author from the words on the page? With many authors that’s exactly the case. James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard, Hemingway, each had such distinctive voices that there heart and soul is there on each page.
Make no mistake, voice is not east to come by. It takes time. It requires reading widely, writing extensively, and the confidence that comes from these two activities that you can tell your story your way.
And it is critically important. Ask any agent or editor what they re looking for and the will say things like:
I want something fresh.
I want something that speaks to me.
I want something that stirs my emotions.
I want something personal and unique.
What they mean is that they are searching for the next great voice.
In this class we will look at voice. What it is and what it isn’t as well as some practical tips that will help you find your own unique voice. Examples will be provided in both the lecture and the handout and the further-study assignments will lead you down the path to discovering your own special way of “spinning your yarn.”
4-21-14: Plot: Not Just One Damn Thing After Another—Gayle Lynds
From Gayle Lynds:
For me, plotting is the most difficult part of writing. It’s like banging my head against a concrete wall. It’s like having to take a dose of castor oil. Worse, it’s like being stuck in a traffic jam on the George Washington bridge trying to get into Ft. Lee, New Jersey. We know how well that worked.
Still, I had to learn to plot so I could create the kinds of books I loved to read.
So my class is full of information, anecdotes, and examples of what I wish someone had told me back in the Dark Ages when I began writing. First up, fyi, “plot” is not a dirty four-letter word. It’s a beautiful word because it describes the muscle of storytelling. Ever since cave folks sat around fires chewing leather and telling stories, plot has been critical. Beowulf, one of the Western world’s earliest thrillers, is a fine example. Without plot, we’d know only that Beowulf killed a monster called Grendel. But with plot, we get to see the whole exciting drama.
Unfortunately, plot has a bad rap these days. Some people believe being able to plot well means you’re a hack, that you’re a commercial writer who writes only for money, and/or (take your pick) you don’t have the talent to do any better.
With those prejudices in the literary air, it’s no wonder many authors want to be known as character-driven writers. That’s nonsense for a lot of different reasons, primarily that without plot your story would be dead on the page. At the same time, of course, one doesn’t want the plot to be the only dominant force.
The truth is, great plots illuminate stories and give characters the opportunity to reveal themselves not only to the reader but to themselves. In fact, the best plots are invisible. That’s how good they can be. In other words, when characters and story are so interwoven that one can’t imagine the events with any other characters … the writer has succeeded. The plot is so very good no one’s paying attention to it.
You, the writer, may not get any credit for it, but your story will soar, and the irony of it is, you’ll be known as a character-driven writer.
There’s an old saying in writing – no one can be taught to write, but you can learn to write. In the same vein, you really can learn to plot.
4-28-14: Character: Who Are These People and Where Did They Come From?—Robert Dugoni
From Robert Dugoni:
What is it about certain books that when we finish the final page the memory of the characters stays with us for days? We wonder what will happen to them next and will their lives turn out well? What is it about those characters that has made them so memorable? Why do characters in a novel need to evolve and how do authors show those characters developing along with the plot? How can we create characters that are real, yet larger than life, show our characters strengths and limitations, and get the reader not just thinking about, but caring about what is about to happen next? Using examples from his own work, as well as other well known novels and movies, Bob teaches time-tested techniques to help writers make their characters well-rounded heroes and villains readers will root for and against and, most importantly, stay up long after bedtime to finish the adventure.
Excerpt From Podcast:
5-5-14: Point Of View: Who’s Driving The Scene?—Andrew Gross
From Andrew Gross:
Discussing Point of View may be as dry as a subject can be… Especially when we’re talking about Thrillers. Yet we’ve all faced it at some point: Whose perspective to set it in. Which works best? A limited, but familiar voice or more of a universal, all-seeing narrator? Do I bring the lens close-in, so you’re right inside the hero’s mind, or go for a more distant, more authorial viewpoint? Each comes with both advantages and costs. And it’s important you know them. I can’t tell you how many times in the Q and A after some talk I’ve done, people have come up to me with that befuddled look in their eyes and the question has something to do with point of view.
So I’ll do my best to show you why, in my view, there are no unbreakable rules—only how deftly and artfully you carry it off. And I’ll give you some specific take-home value to determine what’s best for you. I’ll show you how a scene changes, grows, simply by shifting point of view. And, how changing it can also ramp up the pace. So despite its inherent dryness, point of view may be the most important stylistic decision you’ll make, because it’s handprint is on every page. You want to make the right call, and I’m pretty sure, this little talk will help you.
Excerpt From Podcast:
5-12-14: Dialog: What Are Your Characters Really Saying?—Linwood Barclay
From Linwood Barclay:
I love dialogue. I like writing it more than any other part of a novel, aside from the last line. I’d rather write ten pages of dialogue than a single page of description.
Why do I love writing dialogue so much? Let me count the ways:
A line of dialogue can tell us more about a character than a page of description.
2. Dialogue can move the plot elements forward.
3. Dialogue is as much fun to read as it is to write. It makes the story move more swiftly.
4. You can break all the rules in dialogue. When someone says “who” when they should have said “whom” and a know-it-all reader sends an email to tell you about this, you can say it wasn’t your fault, the character just didn’t know any better.
5. Ditto for swearing.
Long passages of description certainly have their place in a novel, but I kind of come down with Elmore Leonard on this one when he said that these are the parts people skip over.
I believe a reader’s eye often jumps to the passages of dialogue because that’s where they get the real information. People are saying what they’ve done, and what they’re going to do.
In my Thriller School class, I’ll get into why dialogue works for me, and offers some suggestions on how to make what the characters say in your own thriller more believable, more entertaining, and more productive.
Excerpt From Podcast:
5-19-14: Setting, Mood, Atmosphere: What’s the “Feel” of Your Story?—Heather Graham
From Heather Graham:
I remember reading from the time I was a child—and how time and place and atmosphere became such characters within themselves that I couldn’t wait to see, feel, and experience different places and environments.
Naturally, children and young adults pick up the reading material in their houses. My dad had been a US Navy man in World War II and through some of his books, I could feel the swampy heat of certain Pacific islands, I could hear the sirens that warned of bombs and imagine the natural beauty of a pristine beach—before the guns and the bombs destroyed them. A Scotsman brought to the new world, he came with tales of Wallace long before Mel Gibson wore a kilt—and I couldn’t wait to go home to Stirling with him, see the rise of great castles and feel the dampness of the moors.
My Mom was born in Dublin. This created a bit of controversy in the family—understandable only if you come from such a background where history—more than the reality of people—created bloodshed throughout the centuries that, to an American born child, made no sense. So I read books on “the Troubles” and Bloody Sunday and how the first president of the Republic of Ireland had been born an American—and had only lived to serve in such a capacity because he had been American. I wanted to see Dublin and Temple Bar and relive the Viking founding and . . . .
Well, a good book does that to you.
At the same time, my parents were both Poe fanatics and I would read tales in which the atmosphere was so intense, I actually felt as if my blood was running cold. All this with words.
One of the first books my father ever gave me was a Reader’s Digest Treasury for Young People. From its pages I learned about Pompeii and the incredible power of a volcano. I leaned about the Titanic, and while I didn’t learn everything, I could imagine the horror and had to learn more. As a child growing up in Florida, I didn’t understand at first why the people didn’t just swim. And so my next book explained to me the absolutely frigid temperatures that could exist and how one didn’t have much time before dying of hypothermia.
Perhaps it’s not really so important that every reader want to go to a place. I mean, let’s face it—there is no way any of us can really go back to the Civil War or the Revolution or other great and momentous era in history. But our history shapes us—and remnants stay with us.
Perhaps we don’t need to go back in history. But, take New Orleans. (Please do; if you haven’t been come down and visit—it’s an extraordinary city.) The decaying elegance of above ground cemeteries, the balconies, the heat, the French and Spanish architecture . . . all this forged through time, and yet, we now have a city where mystery and mystique are in the air. In the best books, you’ll see and feel it; you’ll want to walk the grounds and breathe in the air (even when it’s a little rank on Bourbon Street before the street cleaners sweep through!)
I love time and place. And I love the concept of making someone long to gallop across the moors, touch the grave of Marie Laveau, or tread the streets where Wall Street meant a wall and where financial deals still govern the fate of nation. See it, feel it . . . know it. Think about it—your favorite books put you there, right in with the action, and right in with the people experiencing it all.
Excerpt From Podcast: Coming soon
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