How to Make Fake Blood

Not the usual Law & Fiction post, but in honor of the approach of Halloween, I’m delighted to share this recipe for fake blood from Al O’Brien, an adjunct professor of Criminal Justice at Seattle University, one of the more surprising articles in the Fall Alumni magazine!

1-1/3 cups water

2 cups powdered milk

1-1/2 ounces red food coloring

25 drops green food coloring

5 drops blue food coloring

Slowly add the water to the powdered milk, stirring constantly to get a blood-like consistency. Adjust the amount of water as necessary. Add food coloring and stir well to blend. The mixture will keep about a week, but the consistency may change over time. Makes about 3 cups.

O’Brien says there are a dozen or more recipes online, using maple syrup, congealed BBQ sauce, peanut butter, soy sauce, chocolate syrup, coffee, and tomato. He credits this recipe to Elizabeth Murray, a forensic anthropologist and professor at the College of Mount St. Joseph, in Cincinnati.

Enjoy — and as always, bleed responsibly.

References for Writers

The Saturday Writing Quote — measuring success

“[Remember t]hat the sale of a book, or an Amazon review is not the measure of success. That the value of your work is not measured in stars. But instead, value is measured in moments you will never know about; moments in the lives of your readers that are so private, they could never consider sharing it with anyone.”

Dan Blank, writing and publishing consultant, on Writer Unboxed

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CSI for Real: Lisa Black on Fingerprint Facts & Fictions

Today we welcome Lisa Black back to the blog. A latent print examiner and crime scene investigator in Florida, she’s also a suspense writer extraordinaire. I still remember that sleepless night, home alone, when I stayed up too late finishing one of her books and the smoke alarm kept going off…

Lisa - computersWe see Abby or Nick or someone in the background on Bones do it every week: scan a fingerprint picked up at a crime scene into some omnipresent Batcomputer and search it against everyone who has ever been printed in the entire United States, including job applicants and military.

This is a myth. It has always been a myth.

Databases are local. My database includes everyone arrested in the city of Cape Coral, Florida, since about 1998 and people arrested by the surrounding county agency since about 2008. No job applicants, certainly no military. Not even our own personnel. (Kind of embarrassing if the prints you collect at scenes come back to your own clumsy cops…it’s better to not even go there.)

Latent means hidden, referring to a print that can’t really be seen until it’s processed with something—powder, superglue, fluorescent light. But we use the term to mean unidentified prints, prints lifted at crime scenes and off pieces of evidence. These unknowns are compared to knowns—prints rolled (these days, usually with a scanner instead of ink) when a person is arrested. These are called 10-prints, though they also include the palms. My database has over two hundred thousand sets of 10-prints. A separate database is full of the unknowns, and I’m constantly searching items from one category against the other. I spend about 85% of an average day doing this, which is exactly as glamorous and thrilling as it sounds.

Lisa and powderI identify about 11% of all the latent prints I get that are suitable for comparison, which is about 40-50% of all latent prints received. This is a pretty good rate as I believe the national average is more like 6%. Of course not every identification means that the case is closed—sometimes prints belong to the victim, other family members, house guests, or customers. [Note from Leslie: That's Lisa, covered with black print powder. At least I got that part write -- er, right -- in the WIP!] 

Side note: We do not do ‘elimination prints’, except on homicides. We enter the prints, and if they match someone who has no good excuse to be in the home, great. We don’t fingerprint every family member to eliminate them as having left the print—it is not an efficient use of resources to put in that kind of time and effort just to find out that the print on the window was made by the daughter.    [Note from Leslie: "except on homicides," she says. Whew. I just wrote this scene....]

Another side note—just because I don’t have access to local job applicants and our own personnel doesn’t mean other examiners at other agencies don’t. Apparently it depends on the personal preferences of the higher-ups.

Any prints I can’t identify eventually go to the state, but it isn’t a digital process and it certainly isn’t instantaneous. Because the state software is slightly different from mine, I have to make a copy of the print cards for our files, repackage the originals, seal, submit to our Property Department, wait for them to assign a number and then fill out a (mercifully online) form to submit them to the state lab. Then some poor sucker at the state lab, who probably feels that they have enough of their own work to do, has to scan them, evaluate them and search them—all the work that I have already done, they do over. This is one of those ‘get to it when I have time’ projects, and the state lab limits me to five submissions per week, so right now I’m sending prints from 14 months ago. Okay, it’s clunky—but it works. We’ve made a number of ‘hits’ this way. Some we had already made by the time we get the state paperwork back, because the person had been arrested by us in the meantime, but some are a happy little surprise.

If this sounds dismally haphazard, remember that despite our best efforts to reach the shining ideals of TV shows with its spotless rooms, obedient children, and omnipotent computer databases, most of life is still haphazard. The perpetrator may not have been arrested. He may have been arrested but in a different state or a different county. He may work as a roofer or bricklayer and have worn-down ridges. He may have left a palm print at the scene and the person who rolled his palms cut off the interdigital section (something the county used to have a bad habit of doing). The latent print might be smeared right where his 10-print is clear, and his 10-print is smeared right where the latent is clear. He may have come up in the search results, but an examiner, clicking through search after search, got a little too cavalier and said ‘nah’ a little too quickly. (We have all done this, which is why a second examiner double checks everything.) And he may have had half a brain cell and actually pulled on a pair of freakin’ gloves.

However—all that said, the myth is becoming reality. Slowly and haphazardly, but becoming. As I’ve said I’ve been receiving prints from the county, a different software system, for the past 5 or so years. (I can’t search their database, which goes back decades, but their recent arrests are in mine.) The software I’m on now has the ability to remotely search the same software-based databases at other police departments, some in neighboring counties, some in other states, and vice versa (with their permission, of course). Unfortunately that caused such bugs in the system that we shut it down completely for over a year and only recently opened it back up again. Then, after an update, I noticed a checkbox in my search engine that said ‘federal databases.’ You mean I could actually search the FBI?  I filled out the paperwork, got the signatures of the higher-ups, sent it in. Eventually it came back but in the meantime our chief had retired so new paperwork had to be completed. Almost a year later (another of those ‘when I have time’ projects) I picked up the ball and tried again. Nothing. I have to go through the state, a very nice man from the state eventually tells me. The prints have to be sent there first. Our software doesn’t mesh with this, but if the software company can figure out a patch then the state has no problem with it. I call the software company. They are stunned to find out that the state will allow this. No one had actually asked them before.

So since the beginning of summer, the software company is working on a patch or conversion system or whatever it is, which they assure me is not difficult, and then they will work on interfacing with the state, and eventually, perhaps even by Christmas, after twenty years of seeing it on TV every day, I may actually be able to do a little bit of that omnipresent Batcomputer stuff.


close to the bone 1About Lisa’s newest, Close to the Bone:

Close to the Bone hits forensic scientist Theresa MacLean where it hurts, bringing death and destruction to the one place where she should feel the most safe—the medical examiner’s office in Cleveland, Ohio, where she has worked for the past fifteen years of her life. Theresa returns in the wee hours after working a routine crime scene, only to find the body of one of her deskmen slowly cooling with the word “Confess” written in his blood. His partner is missing and presumed guilty, but Theresa isn’t so sure. The body count begins to rise but for once these victims aren’t strangers—they are Theresa’s friends and colleagues, and everyone in the building, herself included, has a place on the hit list.

L Black author photoAbout Lisa: Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department in Florida. Her books have been translated into six languages and one reached the NYT mass market bestseller’s list.

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The Saturday Writing Quote — on naming

“Names generate meaning in a short amount of space – they provoke thoughts, questions. That’s something I like doing. Of course, you have to be careful. Sometimes it can alienate the reader, it can be another level of mediation, to make a character carry the great burden of a metaphoric name. The character can be a device before he or she becomes a person, and that can be a bad thing for a writer who wants to offer up a kind of emotional proximity in the work. It’s a constant struggle, the desire to be playful and the desire to communicate on some very stark emotional level.”

– Joshua Ferris, American novelist (b. 1974) in The Paris Review, quoted on National Public Radio

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The Saturday Writing Quote — the right word

“The right word is as important to the writer as the right note to the composer or the right line to the painter. . . . A writer needs an ‘ear’ as much as a musician does. And without this ear, he is lost and groping in a forest of words, where all the trees look much alike.”

– Sydney J. Harris, Last Things First 266 (1961). (Quote via Bryan Garner’s daily blog on Modern American Usage) Harris’s weekly column in the newspaper was required reading in my household in the 1960s!

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Dorothy Cannell Guppy Scholarship

From In SinC, the Sisters in Crime Quarterly:

“To honor one of the most enduring author/agent partnerships in mystery publishing, Sisters in Crime is administering the Dorothy Cannell Guppy Scholarship, offered by agent Meg Ruley to honor her long-time client.

The $1,000 scholarship will be offered each year to an aspiring or published mystery author who is a member of the Guppies (a member of the Sisters in Crime GUPpy or “Great Unpublished” chapter), and is designed to subsidize attendance at the Malice Domestic conference, held annually in Bethesda, Maryland.

Malice Domestic honors the traditional mystery and awards the prestigious “Agatha,” named for Agatha Christie. According to Rule, “Attending Malice was, for Dorothy as for many other crime writers, a wonderful introduction to the community of mystery readers and writers. This scholarship will allow another new writer (published yet or not) the opportunity.”

To apply, a Guppy member should send a statement, no more than 200 words, about how attending Malice will support her writing goals, to Sisters in Crime at, RE: Dorothy Cannell Scholarship.

All entries should be received by December 1, 2015. The winner will be selected from the entrants and announced early in 2015. The award will be for attendance at Malice Domestic May 1-3, 2015.”

Wow. As an original Guppy—one of two—I’m stunned and grateful. Thank you, Meg and Dorothy. Gups, get your entry in soon! 


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Fact vs. Fiction in police work — a sergeant speaks

Today, we welcome Adam Plantinga to the blog to share a few tips about the reality of police work. A sergeant with the San Francisco Police Department, Adam is the author of 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman, published today by Quill Driver Books. He’ll make you laugh, but he’ll also make you smarter. Read on.

400 Things Cops Know CoverPlaywright Arthur Miller once said drama is a compressing of time. You need to make a lot of things happen in a short span. That’s why you skip the slow stuff to keep the audience engaged. So if cop shows, books, and movies aren’t very realistic, it’s okay, because that’s just how narrative best functions. But you still want to craft a work that rings true when it counts. It’s a bit of a balancing act. To aid in this endeavor, I have listed examples below to keep in mind if you are writing a police-related novel or screenplay and wish to sound reasonably authentic.

1.  Fiction: Even the most willowy of cops kicks down the suspect’s door in a single blow.

Reality: Doors, especially exterior ones, can be onerous to take down. Once it took me twenty-seven tries. I know this because there was a sergeant next to me counting out loud encouragingly. And the most effective means of entry isn’t the manly snap kick where you face the door with your shoulders squared, but rather the ungainly mule kick, where your back is to the door and you lash out with your foot like Eeyore.

2.  Fiction: The male cops are ruggedly handsome and frequently shirtless, with toned, tan physiques. The female officers have shimmering hair with a lot of bounce to it and commendable skin.

Reality: We are not as gorgeous or dynamic as our fictional counterparts. Some cops look like they’ve been hit in the face with a crowbar. (Some, have, in fact, been hit in the face with a crowbar. It’s that kind of job.) If cops looked like models, believe me, we’d be models. That gig would beat sprinting down some dirty alley after a knife-wielding meth addict any day.

3.  Fiction: Local law enforcement has just started investigating the big case when the feds swoop in with their trench coats and sunglasses. One of the feds says, “We’re taking over.” A bitter argument about jurisdiction ensues.

Reality: If the feds show, you probably have a massive migraine of a crime scene on your hands that involves something you don’t deal with much (a train derailment, a nasty hazardous materials situation, a multi-state crime spree). So if some three letter agency offers to be on point, your reaction is likely going to be Thank the Lord. The FBI really wants this mess? It’s all theirs. Maybe you can still make your daughter’s piano recital after all.

4.  Fiction: The hero cop shoots a few bank robbers in the afternoon, and returns to work the next morning full duty as some police colleague comments, “Nice work yesterday.”

Reality: If you are in an officer-involved shooting, you are immediately placed on administrative duty pending the completion of the investigation. There’s also mandatory counseling involved. Police shootings are relatively rare and a very big deal. They are treated as such.

5. Fiction: Plainclothes cops or detectives in suits walk around in public with their guns out but no visible form of police identification.

Reality: You are required to have your badge/ID out if your firearm is showing. How are civilians supposed to know you’re a cop as opposed to just some nutjob walking around with a firearm? Even other police officers may not know who you are, especially on larger departments. Is everyone just supposed to intuit you’re the police because you have that shimmering hair with a lot of bounce to it?

6.  Fiction: The two detectives interrogate the suspect and cut right to the chase. After a few minutes, the suspect breaks down and gives a full confession.

Reality: Interrogations start with rapport-building. You want to find out something about the suspect first. Where he grew up, which school he went to, if he has siblings. You usually don’t even touch on the crime at hand until you’ve gotten him comfortable talking to you. Then there’s bathroom breaks.  Maybe even a proffered fast food meal. The whole process can take hours. Usually the only people who confess within a few minutes are juveniles.

7.  Fiction: The police protagonist knowingly enters an incredibly dangerous situation alone, often muttering, “There’s no time for backup.” He also is equipped with a flashlight that only seems capable of illuminating the first three feet in front of him.

Reality: There’s almost always time for backup. If there’s one suspect, at least two to three cops will respond. Two suspects? No fewer than four. Three or more bad guys? The whole shift is showing up. Police aren’t superheroes. You succeed because you use training, tactics, and superior numbers.

Also, our flashlights work just fine.

Adam PlantingaAdam Plantinga is a sergeant on the San Francisco Police Department and the author of the just-released book 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, local booksellers, and from the publisher, Quill Driver Books

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The Saturday Writing Quote — Anne LaMott

In writing, “[y]ou have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward. There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver. … [T]hink of the writers who have given a book to [you], and then write a book back to them.”

– Anne LaMott, Amercian novelist and nonfiction writer, b. 1954, in Bird by Bird

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Miranda: A Refresher

Like so much in life, legal errors in fiction seem to run in streaks. Errors in several recent reads prompt this refresher on Miranda rights and warnings.

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you at government expense.”

US Supreme CourtIn Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the U.S. Supreme Court decided several cases from around the country that raised a critical issue: Must a suspect be warned of his rights before being interrogated? Which rights? Under what circumstances? And what are the consequences if he isn’t warned? The Court said the Constitution requires that suspects in custody be informed of their right to silence–grounded in the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, that anything they do say could be used against them, and that they have the right to counsel. Only if the suspect understood those rights and voluntarily waived them can statements made during custodial interrogation be used against the suspect in court.

A noteworthy exception to the warning mandate is the “public safety exception” of New York v. Quarles (1984), where officer or public safety is at risk.

The Supreme Court decided two Miranda cases in 2010. In Maryland v. Shatzer, the suspect requested a lawyer and questioning stopped; fourteen days later, he was taken into custody, waived his right to counsel, and voluntarily confessed. His initial request for counsel did not bar the later interrogation or prevent an effective waiver.

In Berghuis v. Thompkins, the Court held 5-4 that once a suspect has been warned, he must specifically invoke his right to silence—an explicit waiver is not required—and that a brief response amounting to a confession will be taken as a waiver and will be admissible. The Michigan detectives asked Thompkins if he prayed to God, and when he said yes, they asked him if he prayed for forgiveness for “shooting that boy down;” yes, again. That, the majority held, was a choice to respond, and thus to waive the right to silence. The result of the decision may be that police will continue to question suspects who remain silent after being warned, hoping to increase the likelihood of an eventual response. Keep in mind, though, that some states may hold otherwise under their constitutions, and individual police departments may require explicit waivers.

Keys for writers to remember about Miranda warnings:
• only suspects in custody are entitled to warnings;
• warnings are required only before interrogation—that is, questioning;
• voluntary statements not made under questioning are admissible;
• a suspect who’s been warned can waive his rights and agree to be questioned;
• it’s the substance of the warning—not the exact language—that matters. But most law enforcement departments require officers to use standard language to prevent later disputes over what was said.

Consider this scenario, looking first at custody: Police ask a man to come to headquarters to talk about the disappearance of a child in his neighborhood. He agrees, drives his own car, and is interviewed in an unlocked office; everyone is cordial and it’s clear that he’s free to leave any time. He’s not in custody.

Contrast this with the same man ordered to get in the back of a police car, which then takes off; he hasn’t been told he can’t leave, but under the circumstances, he’s not reasonably likely to believe that he can.

Now let’s look at interrogation. In the interview room, two officers tell him they’re waiting for a photograph to be printed. They don’t warn him. Meanwhile, they discuss the scene they’ve just left, the blood, the horror, and wonder out loud what kind of person would do such a thing. What kind of warped mind, what kind of terrible childhood, and so on. Squirming, the man finally blurts out, “You leave my mother out of this. She had nothing to do with me killing that girl.” He then breaks down in tears and tells the whole story. No interrogation, just a conversation between two officers—maybe with the goal of provoking a response, or maybe not. After analyzing all the facts, the judge may conclude that the suspect was not in custody, and never consider whether he was interrogated. If the facts establish custody, the judge will consider whether the statement was a voluntary, spontaneous response to the officers’ conversation, or whether it amounted to an interrogation. That decision determines whether his statements are admissible or must be suppressed.

US Supreme Court - Lady JusticeUS Supreme CourtWhat if the suspect was warned first? Analysis will focus on whether his statements were coerced, and therefore inadmissible, or made voluntarily with full knowledge of his rights. The facts make all the difference.

Assume the suspect requests a lawyer, either before or after his confession, but keeps talking. The lawyer will move to suppress, to determine whether the additional statements are admissible, under the analysis just described.

Remember that arrest alone does not create an obligation to warn a suspect. Failure to warn does not require dismissal of charges, although it may result in a suppression of evidence obtained through improper interrogation.

By changing the setting, the age, sex, race and even the size of the suspect and officers, the time of day, how long the suspect remains in custody, and of course, what’s said, you can add more tension and complexity to your plot. Is the conversation on a street corner at mid-day, or in a small gray room in the basement of the police station? Is the suspect sixteen or forty-five? Is the door open or shut? Do the officers come and go, take bathroom breaks, eat and drink—but offer the suspect nothing? Is his agreement to waive his rights threatened or coerced, or has he been treated with basic human decency? If the suspect is likely to talk, nothing will shut him up faster than being warned; suspects watch TV, too, and of course, many have been through the drill before. Is your story better served by a silent suspect or a talkative one, by wrangling over admissibility of a confession, or by going to trial quickly?

The Miranda decision, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, isn’t easy reading, but it is fascinating. A former prosecutor himself, Warren rightly believed that prosecutors have a responsibility to protect individual rights and ensure fair trials as well as to prosecute crime. Your fictional prosecutor and detectives might agree, or shade the line.
Writers of historicals, remember that attitudes about the rights of the accused changed significantly in the 1960s. Miranda was a 5-4 decision, and controversial, even though the FBI and some states already used similar warnings.

Miranda*** Who was Miranda? Ernesto Miranda was convicted of rape and kidnaping, based on his confession and the victim’s identification. He was not advised of his right to counsel or to silence, although the written confession form included a preprinted statement that he knew his rights and that his statements could be used against him. After the Supreme Court decision, he was retried, without the confession, and again convicted, based on eyewitness testimony and the testimony of his common law wife, with whom he was in a custody battle over their daughter, that he had admitted the rape to her. Miranda was released in 1972 and returned to prison for a time in 1974. While out, he sold signed Miranda cards for $1.50 each. He was stabbed to death in 1976 at age at 34 in a bar fight; no one was charged.  ***



Adapted from Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books), by Leslie Budewitz, winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction.

Books Crooks and Counselors, Law & Fiction, writing about legal issues

The Saturday Writing Quote — Lorrie Moore

“Better to think of writing, of what one does, as an activity, rather than an identity … to keep the calling a verb rather than a noun.”

– Lorrie Moore, American short story writer, b. 1957, in an essay in The Agony and the Ego 

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