This is especially true in crime fiction. Oh, there are books out there that s--t--r--e--t--c--h the boundaries of believability and most of the time it's obvious. From my presentation at the NJ SCBWI annual conference, here are the tips I offered:
1. Read crime novels; get a feel for how they set up the crime, discovery, evidence and resolution, the pacing, the twists.
2. Look at crime scene photos in no-fiction accounts of crimes like Helter Skelter, Fatal Vision, and The Stranger Beside Me, the Story of Ted Bundy. Watch true crime specials on Discovery, Investigation Discovery, Smithsonian and American History channels.
3. Plan the crime from the start- from the first thought of the evil deed to the resolution (arrest/jail/death). You may not use all the info, but it will help you stay on track. Plus, you as the author, can't be as surprised as the rest of us when the perpetrator is revealed.
4. Use specific and numerous details. The smallest clues can lead to discovery of solving the case. While some clues like fingerprints do help solve crimes (if the fingerprints are in the fingerprint database), it's not always the case. Son of Sam was caught because of a parking ticket. No clue is too minute.
5. Be imaginative! Create clues, i.e. the single pink-blonde hair on Bec's computer in Blonde OPS. (Sorry, you'll have to read the book to find out what the deal is.)
6. Learn what doesn't work. A well-known author had a 16-year-old posing as an insurance agent. Hmmmm, that's a stretch, but let's go with it- makeup, wig, etc. The owner of a 15 carat priceless emerald asks said 'insurance agent' if she wants to hold the gem. This is waaaay too convenient for the story and what the 'agent' plans to do. No one in their mind would ask a stranger if they wanted to hold something of theirs that was so valuable it had no price. Then, said 'agent' drops the emerald in order to kick it away to steal it. That's called cheating to make the story go the way you want it. A crime scene cannot be written around what you want other characters to do unless the character has a routine, habit or gets into a situation created to elicit a specific response. Disabling a car so they would have to call a cab is perfectly legit; the 'he suddenly decided to leave the Rolls Royce and take a cab that evening' is a total cheat.
7. Get the facts RIGHT! If you drop a 15 carat emerald on a bare or hard floor, it will shatter; they are soft stones. Someone didn't check their facts or learn about emeralds. (I've cracked an emerald, this is how I know.) Even in sci fi and fantasy, there are certain aspects that are always true, like the laws of physics. Cheating to help make it easy to write your story is not allowed.
8. You'll know you're doing the right research if you get a notification from the FBI, Homeland Security, etc. and they shut down your browser. Here's me showing the class my notification:
9. Don't be obvious! The butler can do it, but wouldn't you rather have a fresh suspect? Or at least a single, overlooked-by-others clue that points out the perp? And if we can guess too soon who the perp is, it means you've rushed the scene, cheated on red herrings and misdirection, or didn't give your readers credit for seeing through a thin plot. Unless you are writing a non-fic account that is straightforward and we already know who did it, keep it a mystery. Even then, it's a process filled with errors and presumptions until all the pieces are assemble. Ask any detective- until the end, you're not really sure. Here is my co-presenter, forensic crime scene detective Guy Olivieri demonstrating, based on a true case, how the clues didn't always seem to fit:
10. Learn basic police procedures and those specific to your city/state/country because laws vary. New Jersey is a state, Pennsylvania is a commonwealth; their justice systems/procedures might be very different.
11. Your crime scene doesn't have to have happened in reality, but it has to be possible. Think of Mission: Impossible weapons or the car stealing scene by computer in Blonde OPS. Experts can help you put in enough details to make it believable, but not make you an accomplice.
Finally, some resources to think about:
*The library. You can get a lot off the internet, but don't be lazy. There are numerous books that might have the details you need--like a book of poisons and famous murder cases, the details of CSI work, etc. Your reference librarian is a goldmine. And they love a challenge. Plus, looking at a book in the library won't get you flagged like online searches can...
*Google Earth. Walk down the street, swim in the lake, look across the way via Google Earth. It allows you to get minute details that make your novel believable because someone will say, "I've been there, it looks just like you described!" Unless, of course, your editor will fly you to where ever your crime scene is to personally note the details.
*Your local, state, and federal government agencies. Chances are any governmental agency will have a public liaison or a PR officer to handle information requests. The best: get friendly to an actual cop or agent.
*Writer's Digest. This professional organization has a library of How To books: writing crime, mysteries, all about weapons, etc. And they are a reliable, verifiable source.
*University and college professors. Chances are you're not too far from a college. Those professors, associate professors love to share their knowledge (that's why they're teachers....). Glean what ever info you need from them (and it's always nice to thank them in your dedication/acknowledgment and also with a thank you email/letter.).
*Professional organizations. Sometimes they'll answer, sometimes not, but you should always try. Some you might need to be a member, but it may be easier than doing all the digging yourself:
-Mystery Writers of America
-American Bar Association
-International Assoc of Crime Writers
-Sisters in Crime
Don't overlook other orgs that fit the situation; if your character was a member of a club or group, like the American Medical Association, the Lions Club, or whatever, they can help you out.
Finally, no one not associated with a case should have access to the crime scene- Guy says this is so TV/Hollywood, so no "Murder She Wrote" because that just ain't happening.
See you soon- but hopefully not in a lineup-