Monthly Archives: April 2012

Handprints and Stature: What’s Old Is Now New

Hand prints are often left at crime scenes and, if a suspect is generated, the crime scene print can be compared with one obtained from the suspect. If a match is made the suspect indeed left the print at the scene. But what if there is no suspect? Nothing to compare the print with. Here a description of the perpetrator can be very helpful. But what can a single hand print tell us about what the person looks like?

A recent study by forensic anthropologist Professor Daniel Franklin and his team at the University of Western Australia suggests that the height and possibly the sex of the perpetrator can be estimated from the print.

This harkens to the days of anthropometry, or bertillonage as it was termed. By the end of the 19th century, fingerprinting had not yet been fully accepted and vied with Anthropometry and Bertillonage as the standard identification method in criminal investigations.
Anthropometry (anthrop means human; metry means to measure) is the study of human body measurements for anthropological classification and comparison. Simply put, it is the making of body measurements in order to compare individuals with each other.


French police officer Alphonse Bertillon believed that the human skeleton did not change in size from about age 20 and that each person’s measurements were unique. He also believed that people could be distinguished from one another by key measurements, such as height, seated height from head to seat, length and width of the head, right ear length, left little finger length, the width of the cheeks, and other measurements. He created a system of body measurements that became known as bertillonage. According to Bertillon, the odds of two people having the same bertillonage measurements were 286 million to one.


His greatest triumph came in February 1883, when he measured a thief named Dupont and compared his profile against his files of known criminals. He found that Dupont’s measurements matched a man named Martin. Dupont ultimately confessed that he was indeed Martin.

For years, this system was accepted by many jurisdictions, but early in the 20th century flaws became apparent. Measurements were inexact and subject to observer variation since measurements in two people who were of the same size, weight, and body type varied by only fractions of a centimeter. The measurement system wasn’t exact enough to make such distinctions. The final blow to the Bertillonage system occurred with the famous Will West case.

Though landmark in its importance, the Will West case was more a comical coincidence. On May 1, 1903, Will West entered Kansas’ Leavenworth Penitentiary, where the records clerk thought he looked familiar. West denied ever having been in the prison. As part of his intake examination, anthropometry was performed and officials were surprised to find that Will’s measurements matched those of another inmate at Leavenworth named William West. The two men did look eerily similar, but each stated that they did not know each other and that they were not brothers. Fingerprints were then used to distinguish between the two Wills after which Leavenworth immediately dumped anthropometry and switched to a fingerprint-based system for identifying prisoners. New York’s Sing Sing Prison followed a month later.

Was the similarity between Will and William West simply a bizarre coincidence? Not really. A report in The Journal of Police Science and Administration in 1980 revealed that the two were likely identical twins. They possessed many fingerprint similarities, nearly identical ear configurations (unusual in any circumstance except with identical twins), and each of the men wrote letters to the same brother, same five sisters, and same Uncle George. So, even though the brothers denied it, it seemed that they were related after all.


Posted by on April 29, 2012 in Uncategorized


Q and A: How Would My 1925 Detective Determine That a Stain Was Human Blood?

Q: The setting is rural 1925. There are dark stains on trees, shrubs and leaves which my hero believes is blood. My questions are, how would he identify it as blood and how would he discriminate it from animal blood? What tests or experiments that existed in that era could he perform?

Frank James, Ste-Marthe-sur-le-Lac, Canada

A: The two steps needed to distinguish animal blood from human blood are: Determining if the stain or sample is indeed blood and then is it human of animal.

Testing liquids and stains to determine if they are blood is not new. For centuries, the microscope has been used to visually identify blood cells, which would prove that the substance is blood. But this required liquid blood and not the typical crime scene clotted or dried blood, neither of which contain identifiable cells. Several other tests appeared in the 1800s, including the hematin test, developed by Polish scientist Ludwig Teichmann in 1853. This also required liquid blood since in this test the blood was mixed with acetic acid and salt crystals, heated, and then viewed under a microscope. The presence of the characteristic rhomboid crystals proved the sample was blood. This test is similar to the present day Teichmann and Takayama Tests.

The guaiacum test, developed in 1862 by Dutch scientist Izaak Van Deen, used the guaiac resin of a West Indian shrub and is the precursor of the present day phenolphthalein test (see below). In the guaiacum test, the blood sample was mixed with hydrogen peroxide and guaiacum and, if it was indeed blood, a blue color would appear. In 1887, a similar test was used by Sherlock Holmes to identify a bloodstain in the very first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet.


In 1900, Paul Uhlenhuth developed a serum that reacted only to human blood, and not animal blood. This is an antigen-antibody reaction and is similar to how this testing is done today. The sample would be dissolved in salt water and then the serum would be added. Human blood proteins would then react with the serum, producing complexes that would precipitate (fallout of solution) and darken the serum. Animal blood would cause no such reaction so if a reaction occurred the tester would know that the blood was indeed human and if not it must be animal blood or some other substance. Now we have serums that react with a just about any species of animal you can name and with these lab techs can determine the specific type of animal that shed the blood.

So your character could use guaiacum to determine that the sample was blood and then employ Uhlenhuth’s serum to determine if it was human or not.


Stroke From the Inside Out

Want to know what it’s like to suffer a stroke? Hopefully you will never experience this but imagine someone, whose life work is studying the brain, suffering a stroke and surviving to tell what it was like. Subjectively. As a scientist and as a person.


This is exactly what happened to Jill Bolte Taylor. Her stroke affected both her motor and speech areas. Her description of and insights into what happened and how she as a scientist reacted, as revealed in this movie on, are astonishing and candid. There is much here a writer can use.

Her comments reminded me of Dr. Tinsley Harrison. Every medical student devours Dr. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. Word by word. It is the Bible of all things medical. Dr. Harrison was a professor at the University of Alabama College of Medicine when I was a student and intern there. I learned a great deal from him, as did anyone who ever spent time with him. It must have similar to Socrates’ students learning at his side. The man was quite simply brilliant.


He was, like Jill Bolte Taylor, a true scientist. In his other classic book, Principles and Problems of Ischemic Heart disease, co-authored with my old Chief of Medicine, T. Joseph Reeves, he concludes with 21 case histories. The final case he titled: “Subjective Aspects of an Acute Myocardial Infarction (as related by the patient).”


Dr. Harrison teaching, always teaching

It was an account of his own myocardial Infarction (heart attack), which he suffered at the age of 65. He was at his Lake Martin house when the pain began and while waiting for the ambulance to drive out and pick him up, he performed several tests to see how they affected the pain in order to “test some of his own teachings about ischemia pain.” He smoked a cigarette, moved his arms around, stretched, changed position, and even observed, after departing for the hospital in the back of an ambulance, how the bumpy road altered the pain. He found that none of these made any difference, the pain neither increasing nor resolving. Of course, Dr, Harrison survived his ordeal and went on to teach for many more years.


Posted by on April 22, 2012 in Interesting Cases, Medical Issues


The Great American Manhunt: Interesting New NatGeo Show

Here is a blurb for an upcoming forensics show on the National Geographic Channel. The 8-part series begins this Friday. As they say, check your local listings. And watch the trailer–link below. Looks like it could be a fun show.


CSI fans – we know how much you love a dead body and the scientific hunt to track down a killer – well in a sensational new twist on the forensic game, an upcoming reality challenge show on National Geographic will be testing the skills and techniques of CSI in the real world.

The Great American Manhunt sets three real-world experts a weekly challenge: to chase down a living, breathing, mystery target at large, somewhere among the entire population of the country. With no shortcuts (no access to DNA, dental records or ID databases) a street-wise cop, a forensic scientist and a forensic psychologist access the very latest technology to help identify their quarry. The challenge is to work out just what marks them out from the crowd and – if they’re successful – their true identity.


Using just the clues on and inside the target’s body (including the clothes on their backs) they use super-cool science and their own remarkable skills to take on the ultimate forensic challenge. On the way they follow leads and chase down dead ends as a complex web of clues takes them across 50 States. The science is awesome, the chase every bit as challenging as the TV dramas we all love and, as the experts eventually discover, the mysterious targets turn out to be awesome and extraordinary individuals. If you like CSI you’ll love The Great American Manhunt – real world forensics like you’ve never seen before.


First show airs on April the 19th. For a sneak preview – click HERE


Posted by on April 17, 2012 in General Forensics


Guest Blogger: Katherine Ramsland: Crime Beat Becomes Crime Tweet

Crime Beat Becomes Crime Tweet
A Philadelphia cop taps social media for crime control

Using social media doesn’t just mean mundane status lines and community games. Joseph Murray, a Philadelphia-based detective, has devised a unique way to combine Twitter with his neighborhood watch. As a result, he’s made his area a safer place. Hopefully, his idea will go viral. Imagine all these Twitter-communities keeping watch.

Murray is a third-generation police officer and long-time Philadelphia resident. He joined the force when he was just 19. Six years later, he became a detective. He started his online networking efforts with community blogs when he became a member of the Southwest Division. He wanted potential victims to be aware of danger zones – especially those that were presently in progress. Twitter provided a great tool, for both brevity and speed.

Murray opened a Twitter account in 2009 and identified himself as a detective. He’s @TheFuzz9143 (his badge number). He signaled that he would be posting tweets about crime patterns, suspects, and public safety. He asked people to let him know if he could be of assistance. It was an invitation to be involved.

“Everyblock is reporting a stranger rape on the 200block of 47th Friday night,” one Tweeter writes. “Nothing in news. Is this true?”

“Not true,” TheFuzz9143 responds. “Can’t find anything in any computer system we have here.” Followers can see the response and retweet it. If he gets an update, he can send it out at once, and the update quickly spreads.

In another tweet, Murray related a “great job done by a few citizens who called police when they spotted a guy who committed a robbery a few nights ago. Arrest made. Phone returned.”

As of today, he has acquired around 1285 followers, many of whom live in his area. He’s known some followers as long as 5 years, from the earlier message boards.

“I started Twitter,” he says, “because the neighborhood message boards were becoming irrelevant. I wanted to use the popular medium. You have to adapt or you’ll be left behind.”

He’s aware of the limitations of a few cops driving around a neighborhood: they can be in only one place at any given time. Citizens who join the effort to keep their neighborhoods safe offer more eyes and ears. It’s also a way to build trust and cooperation. Even Philadelphia’s mayor has posted tweets on Murray’s feed.

On a daily basis, he tweets where and when crimes are occurring (“just had a gunpoint Robbery on 47th Street”), and responds to queries. For example, they arrested a guy in the process of a car-jacking who couldn’t figure out a stick shift. Murray even tweets to criminals not yet arrested, warning them they’ll be in custody soon.

Murray is a face to which people can relate, a protector who listens. He’ll even comment on mundane things like what he’s eating or the billboard ads he notices. When things are quiet, he offers safety tips or posts a photo he just took. If someone wants to send a tip confidentially, Murray provides his private email address.

To spread the word, reporters have written about Murray’s efforts to lift the veil that often blocks the police from the community they serve. One Philadelphia journalist contacted residents to get their reactions, finding individuals who keep Murray’s Twitter feed on their home pages or who feel like Murray is a friend. This is positive community policing in action. One neighborhood watch group routinely checks Murray’s tweets before they go out on patrol.

Recently, bureaucracy slowed things down, as officials realized that policies must be in place before officers reach out in this medium. “Per a new directive,” Murray tweeted in January, “all personnel wanting to use social media under their official title must get approval from the commissioner.”

The Philadelphia Police Department recognizes the service Murray provides and they’re currently training 12-15 officers to exploit social network opportunities for community relations. It’s important to have consistency. The department itself has a Twitter feed, @Phillypolice.

The concept is simple: train officers to use Twitter, publicize their “beat” locally, and invite followers to provide information about things they observe. Also, provide followers with safety tips and updates (where possible) about local crime. It’s a terrific way to tap the networking power of social media. It’s not a replacement for 911, but it does connect a lot of people. It also makes them feel safer and more involved.

Let’s hope more towns and cities pick up on it. As Murray states, “It’s win-win.”

Dr. Katherine Ramsland is an associate professor of forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University. She teaches undergraduate, graduate, and online courses there, specializing in forensic procedures and issues. She holds master’s degrees in clinical psychology from Duquesne University, criminal justice from DeSales University, and forensic psychology from the esteemed John Jay College of Criminal Justice, as well as a Ph.D. in philosophy.

In addition to four graduate degrees, she has a certification in Medical Investigation (CMI-V) from the American College of Forensic Examiners International, and she is on the board of the Cyril Wecht Institute and the International College of Behavioral Science. Her current teaching interests involve forensic science admissibility, psychological investigation procedures, serial killers, and the neuroscience of violence and psychopathy.

Dr. Ramsland has published forty books, including The CSI Effect, The Forensic Science of CSI, The Science of Cold Case Files, The Devil’s Dozen: How Cutting-edge Forensics Took Down Twelve Notorious Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Healthcare Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers, The Human Predator: A Historical Chronology of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation, The Criminal Mind: A Writers’ Guide to Forensic Psychology, and The Mind of a Murderer: Privileged Access to the Demons that Drive Extreme Violence.

She also wrote biographies of Anne Rice and Dean Koontz, and a trilogy of nonfiction books involving “immersion journalism,” Piercing the Darkness, Ghost, and Cemetery Stories. In this same genre, she penned The Science of Vampires and is at work on Paranormal Forensics.

With Dr. Henry C. Lee and his lab director, Elaine Pagliaro, Dr. Ramsland wrote the course text, The Real Life of a Forensic Scientist. With former FBI profiler Gregg McCrary, she co-authored a book on his cases, The Unknown Darkness: Profiling the Predators Among Us, and with Professor James E. Starrs, A Voice for the Dead, which is a collection of his cases of historical exhumations and forensic investigation. Dr. Ramsland’s work been translated into ten languages and she has published over 1,000 articles on serial killers, criminology, forensic science, and criminal investigation. She was also a research assistant to former FBI profiler, John Douglas, which became The Cases that Haunt Us. She currently writes a regular feature on forensic investigation for The Forensic Examiner (some of which is based on her history of forensic science, Beating the Devil’s Game). Her most recent book is Snap! Seizing Your Aha! Moments.

Dr. Ramsland presents workshops to law enforcement, psychologists, social workers, probation/parole organizations, judges, and attorneys. Her observations on criminality have drawn USA Today, the Daily News, the Newark Star Ledger, and other newspapers for commentary. She has consulted for episodes of CSI and Bones, and has participated on numerous documentaries for CBS, ABC, A&E, ID, the History Channel, E!, WE, and Court TV, as well as programs abroad. For the ID series, “American Occult,” she was the recurring expert.


Q and A: What Injuries Might Cause My Character’s Amnesia and How Would It Be Evaluated and Treated?

Q: I want my victim and her best friend to be in a car accident. One girl dies instantly, and it looks like the second girl will die too, but she survives. I need her to be in a coma then wake up and have temporary amnesia but then after several days (specifically around 10) she completely regains her memory of the events immediately before the accident, so that she can tell the police that the driver (the deceased) was trying to use her brakes, instead of simply running a red light. Is this realistic? Could the exact cause of the coma (blood clot, structural damage, etc) be diagnosed and if so how? What kind of head injury would cause these injuries? What treatments if any could be used to bring her out of the coma and amnesia? What about any long-term neurological effects?

A: The short answer is that all of this will work for your story. Comas and amnesia are funny things and virtually anything can happen.

A comatose person may remain so for days or months or years and then wake up gradually, in fits and spurts, or suddenly. The victim would likely be somewhat confused and disoriented for a period of time—this could be minutes, hours, days, or weeks—and might then return completely to normal or might be left with all sorts of mental deficits such as confusion and disorientation, and could have personality changes. They could be withdrawn, very talkative and outgoing, paranoid, angry and combative, quiet and passive, or any thing else. Or not. They could wake up and be normal is every respects. All is possible.

She would have no memory for the time she was comatose and may or may not remember what came before. This is called retrograde amnesia. Her loss of memory could go back any period of time before the accident—a few minutes, a few hours, days, months, years, or forever And her memory of previous events may be partial, spotty, or complete. It may return slowly over days, weeks, or months or may return quickly. Again, all is possible.

The bottom line is that coma and amnesia are both poorly understood and come in thousands of flavors. This is good for you since you can craft your story any way you wish and it will work.

When she came to the hospital she would go through a battery of tests designed to find out if she had any serious brain injury. These could include skull X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, EEGs (Electroencephalogram–a measure of brain wave activity), spinal taps, and other things. When the tests all came back normal, the diagnosis would be a cerebral contusion (basically a brain bruise). She would be given steroids (like Decadron 8 milligrams IV twice a day) to lessen any brain swelling. Other than that, time is the only treatment.

Once the victim woke up the MD would perform a complete neurological exam to assess brain function. This is complex and I doubt you really need it for your story anyway. He would then perform a mental status exam, which is designed to assess orientation, memory, and cognitive function. He does this with a series of questions. The victim may be able to answer them all, only some of them, or none of them depending upon her mental status. This is a huge subject but a few things he might do would be:

Orientation means does the person know who he and others are, the date, his location, and what situation he is in. The MD might ask: What’s your name? How old are you? Point to the victim’s sister, friend, etc. and ask Who is this? What is today’s date? Who is the president? What type of building are we in?

Memory would be tested by asking: What do you last remember? He might then tell her the name of everyone in the room and ask her to repeat them. Or say a sequence of numbers and get her the repeat them back.

Cognitive function means the ability to understand concepts and connections. He might ask her to subtract 7 from 100 and 7 from that number and so on. Answer: 100, 93, 86, 79, etc. He might ask her what does the phrase cry over spilt milk mean? Or a penny saved is a penny earned. Such questions test her ability to reason and use abstract thinking.

It’s more complex than this but this should help.

Your victim might not require anything and could go home a week after awakening—depending upon what other injuries she sustained of course. More likely she would need psychiatric counseling and physical therapy (PT). Again, you have great leeway here.


Posted by on April 11, 2012 in Medical Issues, Q&A, Trauma


Charlie, What the Hell Happened, Dude?

Prison hasn’t been kind to Charles Manson. Or maybe it’s his psychosis shining through. New pictures of the now 77 year old Charlie were released ahead of his upcoming parole hearing. Not sure he will show up for it as he has missed them in the past, but if he does I’m sure he will deliver another disjointed and convoluted rant about his views on life, death, and the world in general.


The Tate-LaBianca murders shook LA and indeed the entire nation and led to the wonderful book, Helter Skelter, by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. The book definitely changed me. Growing up in the South, we never locked up our house. Not when we went to the movie or out of town, never. No need to. There was essentially no crime and neighbors looked after each other. Manson changed all that for me. Not just the murders but also the creepy crawly missions Charlie sent out his minions to perform. They would break into houses in the LA area, creep around inside, maybe move some furniture or something like that, and then leave, completely undetected. I read somewhere that they did this over 100 times. Good training for the later murders.


My first trip to LA came during my cardiology fellowship in Houston in 1975. I visited a friend who lived in Marina del Rey. I got in late one night so the next morning he asked, “So this is your first day in LA. What do you want to see first?” I asked if he knew where Benedict Canyon was and he of course did. “That’s where I want to go.” He asked why and I simply said, “You’ll see.”

Driving up Cielo Drive was an experience. My heart raced and I kept wiping my hands on my jeans. This was it. The road Susan Atkins, Tex Watson, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel walked up to reach the Tate house. The road dead ended at a tall chain link gate and beyond the house where Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and innocent bystander Steven Parent died. I had read Bugliosi’s book and simply could not believe it. The story must be fiction. Of course, I knew it wasn’t. I knew these horrible murders had occurred. Everyone knew that. But I needed to see it. Needed to have something concrete. Standing there, fingers entwined in the chain links, looking at the Tate house, I knew the entire insane ordeal was absolutely true.


Susan Atkins recently died but Charlie and the others remain in prison. It’s too bad Charlie ducked his execution date when California suspended the death penalty and his death sentence was commuted to life, but at least he’s slowly wilting away. Couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.


Cool Job Opportunity for a Qualified Forensic Science Writer

My friend Dr. Michael Welner and his staff at The Forensic Panel are looking for a full-time writer and a few writing interns to expand their writing programs. If you are qualified and interested please contact them.

Also check out Dr. Welner’s ongoing Depravity Scale project.

Unique and challenging long term opportunity to join a small but truly pace-setting firm with preeminent track record for a highly competent, mission-oriented employee with a knack for getting things done, an interest in law, psychiatry, forensics, medicine, a desire to be part of making a difference, and creative and innate business development mindset. We are a Manhattan-based forensic psychiatry and medicine practice, involved in state-of-the-art expert consultation services for both complex criminal and civil litigation around the United States as well as groundbreaking research on the distinction of evil.


To build upon and complement our team we are seeking an energetic, mature, team-oriented Case Manager & Forensic Science Writer (focus on forensic behavioral sciences) who shares our unmatched quality control and interacts with our attorney clients, students, press contacts, and patients with composure, assertiveness, and sensitivity. This individual should have the potential to grow as we do, and to inhabit both the case management role and research/writing project leadership with energy and vigor. Candidates must have successful experience with case or project management and must have background in scientific writing and research.  Familiarity with or background in law is a bonus.


We are looking for the “best athlete available” who is the best fit. The successful applicant will be heavily trained by colleagues and the Chairman of the practice. As such, education is appreciated but character, skills and achievement are even more highly valued. We are seeking a positive self-starter and disciplined, enthusiastic doer with an exemplary work ethic, excellent judgment, problem solving and professional people and computer skills who takes initiative and who thrives in a company that takes on projects of great relevance, typically at the cutting-edge.




This position requires a meticulously detail-oriented and deadline-responsive individual with top-notch follow-up and communication skills. Candidates must be scrupulously honest and reliable, proactive, inborn sense of urgency and rigorous work ethic, and adaptable to new challenges, with the ability to prioritize, multi-task, work efficiently as part of a team, inspire enthusiasm in others, and learn from critical feedback and from previous experience. Person must have the kind, warm temperament to maintain and enhance a human and enjoyable work environment for others, and to protect the integrity of the practice. The position places an emphasis on skills, contribution to the success of the practice, and results.


The position requires excellent organizational, management, communication and leadership skills, strong computer skills, heavy research in both legal (PACER, WestLaw, LexisNexis) and scientific/academic purposes; excellent, demonstrated scientific writing and editing ability , fluency with available and relevant resources, and a thirst to learn and share. Other demonstrated skills (statistical analysis, teaching, publication history, multi-lingual, media relations) will significantly advantage a given applicant.


Must be convenient to Manhattan, cannot have other personal responsibilities that encroach upon your level of commitment. To get in the game, you have to be ready to get on the field and stay on the field. We are an Equal Opportunity Employer that recruits on the basis of achievement, talent and results alone.


Essential Duties and Responsibilities:


Case record and scientific literature research, development of research initiatives and leadership of article writing projects, telephone and written correspondence with attorneys, troubleshooting, administrative management of cases and practice, report editing and quality control, interface with the Chairman, supervision of students, interface with and management of different medical specialists in the practice, patient reception, maintaining organized network of digital and paper files/records, working with contact management, website platform and IT manager as needed, assisting with special projects, performing administrative and personal duties as requested.


SALARY: salary + bonus + 401K


If you are looking for a challenging, fascinating experience within a friendly, unique, principled, and nationally renowned American company where you will be rewarded and appreciated for hard work and achievement, our practice is the right fit. In order to be considered, you must submit cover letter, resume, 2 writing samples and complete previous salary history to Use cover letter to explain how you distinguish yourself from other qualified applicants and reflect the spirit of the specifications of this position.


We are an Equal Opportunity Employer

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Posted by on April 4, 2012 in Uncategorized


Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Check Your Facts, Ma’am!

You’re busy creating your story world with your right brain, rolling along with the great plot and developing your characters while your muse is buzzing. Great! But later, when you’ve got that first draft done, it’s important to switch to your left brain and go back and check for continuity, logic, and accurate information – or get someone else to do it for you.

As you’re busy writing along, you may assume everything makes sense and all your info is correct, but at some point, step back and reread for logistics. And while you’re at it, verify your facts, to avoid annoying or even alienating your readers – and eroding your credibility. “But,” you say, “I’m writing fiction, so who cares about facts?” You should, because you want to create a credible world for your readers to be drawn into, and if an erroneous fact jars them out of it, they’re going to be disappointed and annoyed. Think about watching a movie about Ancient Rome and suddenly you notice a watch on one of the gladiators! The illusion of being caught up in their world is shattered.

If you’re writing a western, make sure the gun makes and models they use were invented by that period. And in a contemporary novel, don’t have a character in the 70s or even 80s researching a topic on her home computer! A quick Google search with the question “When did home computers become popular?” reveals that Microsoft pioneered the home computer in 1992, and 1995 was the year computers really became mainstream.

Yet, I recently read a novel in which the (missing and assumed dead) mother of the protagonist had sent emails 20-25 years earlier! I think I personally started emailing around 1996 or ’97. How about you? Similarly, don’t have your everyday characters using cell phones in the ‘90s.

In a historical fiction I edited a few years ago, a murderer was running from the police in England, around 1855.  He headed to the port and spotted a lone man with a ticket for a passage across to New York. He lured him into a secluded area, stabbed him, and stole his ticket for the ship, which he boarded almost immediately. Arriving in America three or four weeks later, he was greeted by his uncle, whom he’d arranged to meet him at the pier. I immediately queried the author as to how the fugitive, who boarded the ship at the last minute, could have arranged for his uncle in America to be at the harbor to meet him? By cell phone? The author admitted he hadn’t thought of that, and was grateful that I’d pointed it out.

Also, be aware of whether expressions were in use in the time frame or geographical region of your story. If you use a modern expression in a historical fiction, it jolts the reader out of that time period, and they’ll probably feel you did a shoddy job of recreating that world for them. For example, in a historical fiction I was editing that took place about 150 years ago, the term “upscale” was used. This struck me as out of place for that time, so I looked it up. Merriam-Webster lists the year of the first appearance of many words, and “upscale” is listed as first being used in 1966, so to even use it in narration in a historical fiction takes the reader out of that world. Same with the even more recent expression, “high-end” (coined around1977). For historical fiction, better to use “upper-class” or “elegant” or “sophisticated” or “affluent” or “wealthy.”

And as a freelance editor, I constantly notice little errors like an amber necklace suddenly being called a sapphire necklace later in the evening; someone picking a daffodil from the garden in October, a wound in the forearm moving inexplicably to the hand; a character’s vehicle color, make or model changing; problems with dates and time sequence; sudden changes in a character’s name, age, or appearance; inconsistencies with the season, climate or geography; and so on. I was editing a murder mystery several years ago where the victim had been shot in the head while he sat in his car (a single gunshot). Several chapters later, the autopsy was investigating his only wound—in his chest! And another where an apple tree in blossom became, the next morning, a tree bearing ripe apples! If errors like these aren’t picked up before your story is published, you can be sure that a number of readers will notice them and may lose confidence in you as a writer – and put down your story.

So if in doubt about facts in your story, take the time to look them up, or run your story past trusted readers before publication. Better yet, employ the services of a freelance editor, who will be on the lookout for incorrect information, discrepancies, and logic problems, and may query you with a comment like “Was this invented back then?” or “Did she just buy a new car? The one she had yesterday was a blue Toyota. Now she’s driving a Ford,” or “Who’s Ralph?” (That character whose name you changed.) The last thing you want is for your readers to say, “Oh, come on! This doesn’t make sense!” then toss the book aside.

How about you? As a reader, have you ever been jolted out of a story by something that didn’t make sense? As a writer or editor, have you noticed incongruities that needed to be fixed? Do you have any interesting or funny or absurd examples to share?

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor, specializing in suspense/thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries and other crime fiction, as well as mainstream, YA, and historical fiction. For more information on Jodie’s editorial services, please visit her website at



Posted by on April 2, 2012 in Guest Blogger, Writing

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