Accurate details prove important when including crime scenes in our prose. Three basic questions we want to answer when writing these scenes are: What was my character doing before incident? What altered and/or interrupted her/him at the inciting moment? What took place afterward?
One or two details may be all that is necessary when trying to portray realism in our story. In the old TV series Dragnet, Jack Webb’s “Just the facts” statement identified the essential elements to solve the crime in question. Insert a fascinating fact in your scenario and capture your reader’s attention. Get it wrong and you risk losing them. We want to be certain every fact in our stories fits the scenario we are trying to portray.
For murder scenes, facts we choose may include things like type of weapon used, resulting harm to the character, and any potential evidence in our setting. One of the most important things to consider here is time of death.
What was your character doing in your scene? Lounging? Fighting? Running? Any one of these will affect the aftermath. A character engaged in a fight increases his/her heart rate as well as body temperature. This will have different effects on their body following death than the character that dies while asleep in bed.
Where were they? In an abandoned building in the middle of winter or outside in the blazing sun? Environment plays a major role.
Determining an accurate time frame within which death occurred may mean the difference between accepting the suspect’s alleged alibi as true or proving the killer had ample time to commit the murder. A body undergoes certain changes following death. These include rigor mortis (stiffening of the body), livor mortis or lividity (the pooling of blood in the dependent tissues), and decomposition. These begin at death, though they may not be evident for hours.
Rigor mortis is a chemical reaction in the body that results in the stiffening of muscle tissue following death. The process begins upon death and affects the entire body. Early evidence is distinguishable in small muscles such as the jaw and fingers. As time passes it becomes noticeable throughout the body.
The process normally takes between eight to twelve hours. Times may differ depending on physical and environmental factors. Physical factors include the person’s activity at onset of death, clothing and physical or medical condition. Heat generated from physical activity or fever accelerates the process whereas cold slows it. Once rigor mortis becomes fixed it will remain twenty-four to thirty-six hours after which it dissipates and the body will lose its stiffness.
This knowledge will help us pinpoint a reasonable time range of death. For example, if a person dies at noon and the body is subject to normal environmental and physical conditions (room temperature), expect the body to be in complete rigor mortis by between eight pm and midnight.
Lividity is the pooling of blood in the tissues. Upon death, the blood drains due to gravity. Soon, a distinct pattern becomes observable through the skin.
If the deceased is on their back, a pattern will form and if undisturbed for four to six hours, the pattern becomes fixed and will not change. The areas in contact with whatever surface it is lying on will exhibit lighter skin color. These areas are void of blood and are described as blanched. In many cases, the blanched tissue reflects the pattern of the surface on which it has been at rest. If someone moves the deceased after the lividity is in a fixated state, the observed pattern may be used to prove this movement. If it occurs before lividity reaches complete fixation, the pattern will adjust to some degree according to the body’s new at-rest position.
Example: A pedestrian struck by a pickup driven by an intoxicated driver tumbles over the cab and lands in the bed of the truck. Internal injuries rob the victim of life within minutes. The driver makes it home and stumbles inside. The next morning he discovers the body, drives to a remote area where he dumps the corpse. Two hours later, a railroad employee sees the body and calls the police. The pattern seen on the victim’s back resembles the ribbed floor of the truck bed, not the gravel surface of the railroad right-of-way. This, along with additional evidence, leads investigators to the person responsible for the victim’s demise.
Other specifics to consider depend on the scenario of your scene. These details become compelling evidence. Whether you have your character use a gun, knife, baseball bat, poison or other, you will strengthen the description of your scene with the one or more of the following: injury patterns, blood spatter, fibers, hair, fingerprints, etc.
Feel free to contact me with any forensic-related questions you may have at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please place “Killer fiction” on the subject line.
Steve Rush is chief forensic investigator for Burton & Associates, a national consulting firm in the field of Forensic and Environmental Pathology and Medicine. His specialties are blood spatter analysis and recovery of human skeletal remains. He has authored two novels published under pseudonym, Shane Kinsey, and was part of the development team for “Quincy,” a software program designed for coroners and medical examiners.
The Web site for my novels is: www.shanekinsey.com
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at email@example.com.)