By Serita Stevens
As a forensic nurse, I often work with attorneys as an expert witness. I instruct the jury to listen to what the evidence tells you not what the people involved say. Everything must be accurate, and the smallest of details matter in solving a crime or proving a case. One of the problems we often have is that because of the fictional depiction of investigations where DNA is always present and can be processed in 45 minutes juries now expect DNA to be presented. Not only is that difficult at times but if not processed properly and kept from contamination it can be useless and confuse the issue. This issue called “the CSI effect” can destroy a case and cause the jury to vote innocent when they believe DNA should have proved the case.
An argument I had a few years ago with my friend who wrote the movie Déjà vu. He had the detective put the evidence in plastic bags but as I pointed out plastic bags usually deteriorate evidence. In forensic investigations we use paper bags with each item carefully separated to keep it from contamination. His director had chosen to keep it in plastic, so the viewers could see the clues and didn’t care how inaccurate it was.
Now most viewers and readers, especially those who are untrained in investigations, wouldn’t notice this problem nor would they care. But there are a few for whom these inaccuracies not only destroy the moment but the enjoyment of the whole story (not to mention the influence they have on those few people who take everything they see or read as fact). In fact, my doctor husband used to forbid me to watch medical based shows because so many of them were wrong. For those of us who do care, inaccuracies destroy the total enjoyment of the story and many of us dedicated readers vow not to read that author again because their research is so shoddy.
As a nurse, my friends in MWA (Mystery Writers of America) often asked me what this or that meant, how this procedure worked in medicine, and what symptoms they would find if someone did this. I realized that all the available literature – often difficult for the nonprofessional to access – was written in medicalese. There was nothing written for the ordinary, well-educated reader. It was for this reason that I wrote the Book of Poisons (formerly called Deadly Doses) for Writer’s Digest and with that they started their “How To” series.
The book has not only been used by numerous writers, producers and directors, but also been featured on shows as Law & Order and Discovery Channel episodes. In fact, I have consulted with them on several programs. I am always happy to explain the medical procedures, the symptoms or the forensic facts so that scenes can be correctly written.
It’s true that at times, for the sake of fiction, we have to fudge some facts. Often, however, we can explore alternatives to our scenes or if we ask around to the experts we can find the few exceptions where the answers we want can be used. But as I stated above people are influenced by what they read or see and believe the fiction. This causes problems for law enforcement in proving their cases.
Check your facts and, if you can, use the correct ones – or at least in your epilogue explain what you did and what the real situation might have been. And if you are doing research, don’t take another fictional author’s scene as fact be it in medical, historical or even location information.
Verify things with at least two sources or more if you can. Almost always there is a way to get the scene you want and still make it accurate. It helps your credibility in the end and once you lose the credibility of your reader or viewer, once they close that book, they will hesitate to pick up anything else you have created. Trust once lost is not easily regained. Besides, most people enjoy learning something new when they are reading.
For more information, check out my site www.seritastevens.com, my IMDB is Serita D Stevens, and my email for questions is firstname.lastname@example.org.