Wednesday, July 14, 2010

RomCon 2

Thanks to Elizabeth for some great advice on getting over those writing hurdles.

And I see I've passed the 200 follower mark. Thanks to everyone! I promised a party, and a party we shall have. I want to finish my RomCon recaps first, but we're definitely going to celebrate. Friday is the official release day for NOWHERE TO HIDE, so there's lots to be happy dancing about.

There are still lots of opportunities to enter the contest for a free book or short story download. Remember, there's no charge to download the free sample of Coping Mechanisms to find the answer to that part of the question. Details on the contest tab.

And I brought back LOTS of swag from RomCon. More than one person should have, so I'm going to start giving it away.

What do I have? Books. Lots of books. Bookmarks, cover flats, recipes, and who knows what else. So, when my Smashwords contest is over on Friday, I'll start a Swag contest. Stay tuned.

On Monday, I promised to go into the details of the CSI presentation. Forensic specialist Tom Adair spent much of his time debunking myths about what a CSI really does. As I mentioned, he's highly qualified, and even did some consulting work for the CSI Las Vegas show at one time.

Adair reminded us that, despite what we see on television, CSI folks are human just like the rest of us. He said we tend to think that the higher the level, the 'better and brighter' the personnel, so we naturally tend to think someone working for the FBI is inherently more competent than someone working for a small local agency. Wrong. There are all levels of competence in every agency.

One point Adair stressed was that all those fancy databases we see on television don't exist. And that they're nothing more than search engines. There are no 'intelligent' computers. Real, live humans take the data they spit out (which is going to be a list of the most likely matches—none of those pictures and life histories we see on TV) and determine which is the best match. From there, it's up to investigators to put enough evidence together to decide if they can connect the suspect to the crime. All the data can do is link an individual to a location or an item—not necessarily the crime.

Surveillance videos are never as good as TV forensics folks would have us believe. And forget about tapping into the traffic cameras and following suspects, or finding out where they've been.

Another point he made about databases is that there really aren't any 'universal' databases, and that local agencies are often reluctant to share. They're only as accurate as the data someone inputs, and they're expensive given the man-hours to keep them up to date.

One of Adair's specialties was footwear—he said that even if there was a master database, shoe manufacturers change the designs of their shoes about every six months, so they're almost impossible to keep current. And what's the return on investment to the shoe manufacturer? They'd be paying employees big bucks to input data that might never be needed.

The technology we have available to day can make the investigator's job harder—with things like touch DNA, and the ability to identify DNA from very small samples, investigators are faced with an overload of evidence which then has to be filtered.

Another point—the goal of forensic scientists is to apply science to solving a legal or medical question. Their data has to stand up in court, and that opens up an entirely set of challenges. Juries expect complex forensics. Juries are human (Adair spoke of a juror who said she refused to find a defendant guilty of murder because he looked just like her grandson, and she knew her grandson would never commit a crime.) And according to Adair, the CSI effect, where juries expect real life to be like television has turned a lot of forensic scientists into what he calls 'garbage collectors and dancing chickens.'

His example: if there's a murder discovered at the front of the auditorium where he was speaking, there's not much of a point in collecting evidence from the back of the room. He fears that with technology and expectations, there's less use of brainpower and more of simply providing fancy test results for juries.

Bottom line. The CSI television shows take liberties for the sake of a story. Just as we do when we write. Although we try (at least I do) to be accurate, there are times we have to stretch things for the sake of the story. Or, more correctly, we tend to compress things—the television show has 42 minutes (maybe less now) to resolve a story. As writers, we're dealing with word and page counts. If we told all our stories in real time, they'd be multi-volume tomes.

So, what 'liberties' with reality do you accept? Which ones bug you enough to throw the book against the wall?


Carol Kilgore said...

For me it's a bit like the straw that broke the camel's back. If they keep going, one after another, and it's things that are easy to check, I'm done. If it's something obscure that I happen to know and I see it's wrong, it doesn't bother me as much. But if the story and characters and writing are all strong, I may keep reading even with errors. It's more case by case.

Terry Odell said...

Carol - I tend to be of the, "If I know this, why don't you?" mindset (since I don't consider myself particularly brilliant). However, I'll confess I'm a perfect historical reader, since I know very little about history and any errors will slip right past me.

Jemi Fraser said...

I get annoyed with some of the TV shows because of this very thing. Although if the show and characters and done well enough it doesn't bug me enough to stop watching the series.

I agree with Carol though - too many does me in.

Michael Allan Mallory said...

There is also an excellent book by Connie Fletcher called CRIME SCENE: INSIDE THE WORLD OF THE REAL CSIs." She interviewed numerous specialists from the leading crime labs in America. This topic came up often.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Terry! I enjoyed your RomCon series, and I'm glad that you've shared your notes with us. In a perfect world, all the gadgetry and stuff from CSI would be real, but hey, that's what they said when Star Trek first came out. Remember how folks made fun of those automatic doors? Now they are an integral part of our culture. Fiction, and shows like CSI do integrate fiction into the mix, oftentimes leads the way toward what the future might look like.
Maggie, who finally at long last set up her own blog

Terry Odell said...

Jemi - so true. If it's a good story and it's well executed, we'll accept it. I think (although there's no logical reason for it) that I accept bigger stretches with television than with books.

Michael - Thanks for sharing. Also, Lee Lofland's Police Procedure & Investigation has a chapter called "CS...I don't think so."

Maggie - good to see you. Will have to check out your blog. And yes, I remember my daughter saying she wished they had doors like on Star Trek (although by that time, I pointed out that she went through them all the time at Publix.)

Anita Clenney said...

Hi Terry. Some liberties for the story's sake don't bother me if it's done well and if the other elements of the story are strong. Thanks for sharing. I wish I'd been at RomCon.

Terry Odell said...

Anita - maybe you'll get to RomCon next year. I know I plan to go back. And I think "done well" is the bottom line.

Terry Stonecrop said...

I think when they make mistakes about a profession you've worked in, it irritates. I know anytime I see journalists on TV, movies or books doing things I know they would never do in reality, I cringe.

Shelia Goss said...

This was one of my favorite sessions of the conference.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

If the story is really strong, it doesn't bother me TOO much...but it seems sloppy to me.

Terry Odell said...

TerryS - I totally agree. When you know something about a subject, errors jump out at you.

Shelia - mine too!

Elizabeth. Agreed. There's no good reason not to do at least SOME research.

Ray said...

I watch all the CSI shows. I have found that the one show that is the farthest from the truth with technology is NCIS Los Angeles. Until I got interested in the characters I nearly stopped watching.

Several authors have mentioned the differences in real life CSI's and those on TV, a couple of them have their characters mention almost all the faults you mention including expectations of the jury.


Terry Odell said...

Ray - I can sum up why I like NCIS in two words: Mark Harmon. I didn't like the LA version much--it's taken a while for the characters to work for me, although for that show, it's all Linda Hunt. She's a hoot.