Writer's Notes

Stir Things Up: Accuracy – The Writer’s Dilemma

By Serita Stevens

Nurse-209x300As 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.

poison coverAs 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.

coverworkbookCheck 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, my IMDB is Serita D Stevens, and my email for questions is


seritahalfAn award-winning writer of books, scripts, adaptations and teacher of writing, Serita also serves as a forensic/medical/poison consultant for numerous writers, producers, and several shows as well as being an expert witness for attorney’s cases.  Books can be bought from her site and/or from Amazon or any bookstore.





Ramblings by Hal

Tricks of the Trade, part two

By Hal Collier

fingerprint cardI’m amazed when I watch TV and see the CSI shows where they ID a suspect or dead body with a portable fingerprint machine. It’s tells them within minutes who the person is and what he’s been arrested for. I really marvel when they get DNA results on the same day and I don’t know if they even have face recognition systems. These are sure not available on the street cops’ level. I had to resort to different tactics to ID my suspects. Wanted people seldom carried any kind of ID and if they did, it was false.

As I said earlier, you arrest someone and then fill out a (FI) field Interview Card. You get as much information as possible so you can positively know who you’re dealing with. Nothing stings worse than booking a guy for a misdemeanor and watching him released the next day only to find out he was wanted in another state for killing a cop.

I thought I was pretty good but no one was better than Don Bleier. Don could find out the entire criminal history of anyone including politicians. By the way, never run a politician or movie star unless you have them in custody. It sends a red flag to government agencies. Run the President of the United States for warrants and you’ll be introduced to a whole new set of police officers who have lots of questions, maybe on a U.S. base in Cuba.

Anyway, Don could do wonders with the computer in identifying a crook. How many non-cop’s know that your Social Security Number shows what state you signed up for a SS # or now days where you were born. If a suspect gives you a SS# from a state he’s claims he’s never been in, it’s a clue he’s lying.

imagesSE4FARGHI resorted to tricks when I hit a dead end. I had a suspect who I knew was lying but I just couldn’t ID him. I’d go into the burn box (shredder box) in records and pull out five feet of old printouts. I’d open the holding tank door and let the five feet of connected print out fall and say, “Well.” I’d tell my suspect that he had one last chance to come clean or I’d add lying to a police officer to his charges. Believe it or not, two out of three suspects would give me their true name and DOB. Remember I wasn’t dealing with the top of the food chain. After a while, I became known as the “Well” officer at Hollywood.

Another time I tried ‘Well” and my suspect didn’t flinch. I told him that it didn’t matter that he was going to be extradited to Texas on a murder warrant. I mentioned that Texas not only has a death penalty but they actually use it. Surprise, he gave up his real name faster than I could write it down.

handcuffed manI once had a suspect who gave me his name, DOB, prison ID (CDC) number. Everything checked out and when I printed out his rap sheet, I read the last entry. It said, “Deceased in Prison!” He looked pretty good for a dead person. My suspect admitted that he had memorized his former cellmate’s information. He confessed and gave me his true name; he was wanted for a parole violation. Another trick was to run the home address of your suspect for warrants. That will show you all the warrants filed at that address. Hint: never run 226 S. Main St LA. That’s the Union Rescue Mission downtown and will kick out warrants for hours on your computer. Most homeless people use that address when arrested or given a ticket.

One last story, I had a suspect who I couldn’t ID. I was about to release him when another officer walked in the back door of the police station and said hi to my suspect by a name I wasn’t familiar with. That officer knew my suspect very well and gave me all his names and that he was wanted! Luck also pays off.

Matching wits with the criminal element was easy for the most part but every once on a while you lose. It was many of the games cops and robbers play to find the truth.


More Street Stories Tales from the Barking Muse

It’s The Little Things

It’s The Little Things

By Gerry Goldshine


I just ran across this in a recent Associated Press story on the tragic stabbing death of an eight year old girl in Calaveras County, California, “Sheriff’s officials say investigators collected fingerprints and what they believe is DNA from the home.” You’re now looking at the screen going, “Yeah, so?”

Well, first of all, crime scene investigators do NOT collect DNA. They collect hair, semen, blood and other type of physiological evidence from which a DNA profile may be extracted. The same applies to items such as cigarette butts, beer bottles, linen and the like. The DNA technician processes such evidence to extract a biologic sample from which a unique DNA profile is built. This profile can then be compared to a database to look for a matching suspect. DNA profiles can also be used to rule out possible suspect.

So this is about semantics, right? No, it’s about accuracy. One of the most valuable lessons I came away from the Army with was that “the little things” matter. Failure to pay attention to small details ultimately leads to larger systemic failures. As a traffic accident reconstructionist, I knew that major case, involving multiple vehicles and multiple victims, could hinge on a something as insubstantial as how the little coil of wire inside a single light bulb may have looked. Get that detail wrong and perhaps a vehicular manslaughter case collapses and a guilty person escapes justice.

The minutiae matter in establishing your veracity as a writer regardless of the genre. Give Captain Kirk a light saber instead of a phaser and regardless of how compelling your story happens to be, you’ve lost most of your readers. In the DNA situation, I start wondering what else the reporter doesn’t understand about police work, crime scenes and evidence collection. From that point it doesn’t become that much of a stretch to call into question the accuracy of the entire story.

With the wealth of information instantly available today because of the Internet, such lapses are inexcusable. As a writer, you have the same responsibility as I did as a traffic investigator to get the all the particulars correct, be they large or small.


Traffic Officer Gerry Goldshine aka T-36  Petaluma Police Department mid-1980's
Traffic Officer Gerry Goldshine
aka T-36
Petaluma Police Department mid-1980’s

Gerry was born in Providence, Rhode Island but raised in Southern California. 

Upon graduating from California State University, Los Angeles, Gerry enlisted in

the Army and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. After leaving active duty

in 1979, he worked for Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. From 1980 until his retirement

in 1996, he was a patrol officer, traffic officer, and a trainer at Petaluma Police Department.

Gerry is married, has a daughter and lives in Sonoma County, California.

Gerry is a regular contributor to Just the Facts, Ma’am. Check in weekly or so to see his newest posts.




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