Here’s a blog post by author/reporter Sam Quinones regarding the 60 minutes piece about heroin use in Ohio that aired last Sunday evening. As an author, what 60 Minutes did infuriates me and should do the same to anyone who values in-depth reporting. What happened to honesty and citing your sources? 60 Minutes used to be one of my favorite shows on television. Not any more.
Category Archives: research
The brainchild of former LEO Lee Lofland, the Writers’ Police Academy brings together crime writers and experts in the field of law enforcement, CSI, emergency services, etc., in order to help writers “write it right.” Now in its 7th year (and having outgrown its original home in North Carolina), the conference was held at the brand-new Fox Valley Technical College Public Safety Training Center. It’s three jam-packed days of information sessions, hands-on experiences, and a whole lotta fun. (pictured below: Lee Lofland)
The state-of-the-art facilities had an airliner on site, as well as a derailed tanker and a faux city with several buildings including a bank, a motel, and an apartment building. LEO training was ongoing at the time of the conference and attendees were welcome to watch traffic stops and various other law enforcement scenarios.
One of the most informative classes I took had to do with blood spatter and DNA with Jeff Miller (pictured below). Talk about fascinating. Did you know that fingerprints can actually transfer through latex gloves? Not so with nitrile (the blue gloves). Or that the reason DNA results take so long (other than a backlog) is that they have to go through a quality assurance/peer review process that takes an average of 15 days before a report can be issued? (Although if you have a suspect, a match can be determined within a day.) I also learned that DNA can still be detected through seven layers of paint, and that 90 minute results will be available to law enforcement once the FDA approves a machine/process called RapidHit DNA.
More interesting factoids: a) hermaphrodites can have two different sets of DNA (think of the fictional possibilities!); b) even though identical twins have identical DNA, there is a copy number variant that can help determine which twin committed the crime; and, my personal favorite, c) if a person kisses a suspect for 30 seconds or more, the suspect’s DNA can transfer to the other person–your PI/sleuth character will need to get a swab from them quickly, though. Also, Luminol is on its way out as a blood visualizing agent, and is being replaced by a product called Blue Star. If a criminal tries to clean the crime scene, both Luminol and Blue Star sparkle in the dark when introduced to cleansers.
There was a boatload of interesting lectures by world-class presenters (pictured below: Dr. Katherine Ramsland giving us an Overview of Forensic Psychology) Katherine has a way with words–especially when she’s describing– shall we say– unusual sexual proclivities in serial killers;
The CSI Effect: Real vs Reel (with Mike Black). A great class that blasted through several of the inaccuracies inherent in television programs regarding crime scene investigation. And no, CSI: Miami/New York/etc. should NOT be used for research purposes. But you already knew that, right?
Not surprisingly, some of my favorite sessions were of the hands on variety, like MILO: Shoot/Don’t Shoot Interactive Training. In this class, you’re given a laser pistol similar to a 9mm and told to stand in front of a screen while they run video scenarios involving suspects behaving badly. It’s up to you to determine whether you should shoot or not. I have a new appreciation for how scary it must be for an officer to face down someone who has (or most likely has) a weapon (sorry, no pics of this one–suffice it to say I didn’t have a problem shooting bad guys coming toward me on the screen…);
Then there was the shooting range (rifles with scopes! Need I say more?);
Bangs and Booms 101 (and all things incendiary with John Gilstrap — pictured below). You can certainly tell by the way he teaches that he LOVES his job 🙂 ) In this class we learned about shaped charges (e.g. RPGs), grenades, dynamite, and C4, and a host of other cool stuff;
Fighting Words: Martial Arts for Writers (with Howard Lewis). The mindset of a person who practices martial arts is very different from one who does not. Howard is extremely entertaining–if you get the chance, go to anything he teaches. And don’t forget to ask him about Bruce Lee…
Karin Slaughter was the Guest of Honor at the banquet (I forgot my camera that evening, so no pics), and she was hugely entertaining. If the whole crime novel writing gig doesn’t work out for her, she definitely has a shot at a career as a stand up comedian 🙂
In the end, I came away with a much better understanding of the challenges faced by law enforcement and emergency personnel, and gleaned all sorts of little details that I will certainly use in future books. If you write about crime or law enforcement, you’ll LOVE this conference. I wish I could have cloned myself so I could go to every one of the classes. Sigh.
I guess I’ll just have to go again next year.
*Note: I wrote this post about a week ago, before the huge outcry on Facebook regarding the dentist in Minneapolis who killed/slaughtered a tame lion in Africa named Cecil. This is for Cecil.
So I’m researching the latest Leine Basso thriller, Cargo, which has to do with human trafficking, ivory poaching, and various other dark things, when I come across something called canned hunting. For those who have never heard of this practice, canned hunting involves charging apparently crappy hunters upwards of $35-50k for a chance to shoot a real, live African lion.
A “real” lion hunt costs twice that. One where the hunter actually goes into the wilds of Tanzania, tracks the lion with a guide, and then attempts a kill. And no, the hunter is not guaranteed a trophy. (And yes, I know that some prefer to hunt from a helicopter, which I’m pretty sure takes away any advantage a wild creature might have over any hunter. This still makes me shudder, as I’m partial to big, LIVE felines. But I digress.) Besides using lions that have been raised from birth by humans, a canned hunt puts more than one customer with a gun inside a fenced enclosure with a lion.
The emphasis is not because hey, these guys are fenced in with a lion and are in danger, but because there are men with rifles who paid $35,000 each waiting for the lion to move in this contained area so they can kill it. 1 lion + 3-5 hunters with rifles = unbelievably shitty odds for the lion.
Being the inquisitive (okay, maybe the word’s stupid? Naive?) writer that I am, I click on an amateur video recording of one of these hunts in South Africa. It has to be a somewhat humane practice or it wouldn’t be legal, right?
As soon as the lion moved, giving up its location, five men armed with high-powered hunting rifles fired every last round in its general direction.
They didn’t hit it. Not once. It was a miracle they didn’t shoot each other in the process.
The big cat exploded out of the grass and headed straight for the closest hunter, lunged at the slow moving, out of shape idiot and wrapped itself around his torso. Even though I knew the end result I felt I owed it to the lion to watch the rest of the video, cheering on the fierce but ultimately doomed feline. In the end, a company employee fired on the cat, killing it instantly. The man it attacked was scratched up and shaken, but alive. You could hear the four other “hunters” guffawing nervously in the background, freaked out that they’d managed to live through such an “ordeal.”
Then they slapped each other on the back for a job well done.
I can’t tell you how furious I was after watching that video (matched only by the anger I felt after watching a documentary on child sex trafficking). The further I researched, the worse the story became. Not only do these companies use human-habituated animals, but the suppliers raise them in so-called petting zoos where tourists pay money to get inside a cage with the cubs in order to play with them.
Yeah. That’s fair.
After writing this, I find that the rage is still there, simmering just beneath the surface, coiled tight and seething. It’s a good thing I wasn’t anywhere near that “hunt,” because I don’t know that I would have been able to stop myself from doing something irrevocable to the assholes who paid $35k for the “privilege” of killing a human-habituated lion, and I’d prefer not to go to prison.
I write about the practice in Cargo, but I didn’t go into this kind of detail, as the book isn’t just about canned hunts. I figured I’d pointed out enough darkness in those pages and needed some balance. People will get the idea.
Like I’ve said before, I gotta write through this shit or it tears me apart.
I’ve been noticing that more things than usual are pissing me off lately. Most of the time when something pisses me off I write a book. Say, like when I watched a documentary on child sex trafficking and was so appalled I had to set the anger free by writing Bad Traffick. Or when I learned about the escalating violence of drug cartels and how they’re pretty much ruining life for a whole lotta folks in Mexico and beyond and all they really care about are how they look in a selfie on Facebook. And, of course when women perpetuate the whole “I need a man to become complete” myth, or, better yet, when one of us sets feminism back hundreds of years in one fell swoop (Fifty Shades of WTF anyone?).
But lately, there’s just been too much and really people, I can’t fucking write that fast.
Rant #1: Here in the US our politicians can’t figure out how to be politicians, or, you know, grow up and actually govern the country. And, they get paid a lot of money to act like schoolyard dickwads, not to mention enjoying paid-for-by-the-government health care (cue the irony theme). When I look at the leaders for both parties I can’t help but get a mental picture of two spoiled little white boys with snot running down their noses and sucking on their bottom lip in a pout because the other side won’t play by their rules. Waaah.
Rant #2: How celebrities like Miley and Kim and Paula Deen can suck the life out of the headlines when there are people in the Philippines who don’t have any clean drinking water or medical supplies and how hundreds are dying because we can’t get supplies to them fast enough.Or when people are selling their kidneys so they don’t have to live underneath someone else’s squalid shack.
Rant #3: And, the ever present fact that the only thing large corporations are concerned with is the bottom line, e.g. profits, screw being honest or neighborly or even giving a rat’s ass about their customers. Don’t get me started on how most corporations treat the environment, not to mention a whole lotta people who either just don’t get it, or don’t care. One earth–capiche????
And yes, I’ve been a daily meditator for several years now and should be able to relax and be all ohm and shit, but some days I. just. can’t.
The latest thing that set me off was an article about how a percentage of writers in the US avoid using the Internet to research certain subjects because of fears of the NSA spying on them. Seriously? What the hell happened to the proud tradition of writers bucking the system? Of being subversives? Of fighting back? When I read that article it pissed me off to the point that I had to do something, so I went to the pool and swam laps. Hard. I stopped (mostly) self-medicating years ago and swimming is now my go-to release. It took the edge off, but as I sit here at my computer I can still feel a flame of anger flickering in my gut when I wonder, if what these writers were doing was legal and for research, why anyone in the US would remain silent because they were afraid of a government agency watching them?
That’s so unbelievably scary, I can’t tell you. That tells me that Americans are becoming afraid of their government. My first response to the article, other than anger, was to assume these writers were wimps–scaredy pants, namby-pamby (insert wussy word here) milquetoasts who would jump if someone said boo.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized my knee-jerk reaction (love the ‘jerk’ part of that saying) of calling these folks whom I don’t know wimps was wrong. I’m a HUGE proponent of fighting back: if you’re being attacked, however that attack is being carried out I believe it’s your responsibility to fight back with all you’ve got. Yes, there are some times when you need to pick your battles, but in general, fight the asshats trying to keep you down.
But this is different. This avoidance of using the interwebz goes deeper than that. Now we all know the NSA has overstepped its bounds, and has done so probably since its inception. But it hasn’t really affected most law-abiding citizens in a quantifiable way. However, when I hear or read that writers in the US are modifying their behavior because of fear of retaliation from the government, that makes me sit up and take notice. Mainly because I consort with a lot of writers, and almost every one of them has a least a modicum of rebelliousness in their bones and will do whatever in hell they want to. Some are nice about it, some aren’t. Some go the passive-aggressive route and act nice but end up doing some seriously un-nice things. But I’ve never heard one of them say they were afraid of what the government would do to them, unless what they were doing was illegal. But here’s the results of a poll of 520 writers where 16% admitted to curtailing their online activities because of fear of the NSA.
My friends will tell you that yes, I’m opinionated, but am certainly not given over to hyperbole or conspiracy theories. I understand writers/journalists in China, or Iran, or Mexico being afraid–death or torture is a real possibility in those countries. But the US is supposed to be different. Americans are supposed to be different. It’s a slippery slope to censorship and clamping down on freedom of expression. I don’t want to sound like an alarmist, but it does give me pause.
I’m really interested in what people think about this. Is this some paranoid delusion rearing its ugly head in response to me killing all those little brain cells so many years ago, or do we need to be a little more vigilant, a little more aware of what’s happening in our world?As the article I mentioned above states, “It’s not the surveillance, treacherous as it is, but that some writers, at least, already appear willing to capitulate.”
In the immortal words of Winston Churchill: “…we shall fight in the fields and in the streets; we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Lately, I’ve gotten emails from readers asking how I came up with some of the scenes in Yucatan Dead and thought it would be fun to post the photographs that inspired them from my latest trip to Mexico. I’ve found actually traveling and researching a specific area and noting the sights, sounds, smells, and general feel of a place works wonders on my imagination and lends more credibility to the scenes.
Before I left on the trip I’d been writing what I thought was going to be a mystery with my character, Kate Jones. This trip was supposed to be for researching a future novel. But Mexico changed all that.
And, as I’ve learned, you don’t argue with Mexico.
So, my mystery turned into a full-on thriller about the ruthless drug cartels that have destabilized so much of that country. Since I’m a novelist and basically lie for a living, I made up a group of off the grid commandos working deep in the jungle, fighting the cartels. Little did I know at the time, but groups of locals had steadily begun taking up arms against the cartels. Some of these groups have been backed/trained by the CIA and/or the DEA, as well as the Mexican government. Some continue to operate clandestinely. Many are now being hunted by the cartels, and the number of people from several ‘hot’ areas in Mexico who are requesting asylum in the United States has skyrocketed. Although there are still several places deemed by the State Department as safe to travel in Mexico, obviously, there are some areas you should avoid. Driving through Sonora and Sinaloa in an old jeep in the middle of a scathing hot September would be one of them 🙂
Back to the trip: in the book, I gave one of the drug cartels Kate ends up fighting against the name of El Castillo, which is the name of one of the main structures at the archaeological site of Chichen Itza. Visitors are no longer allowed to climb the pyramid after someone fell to their death a few years back, but it’s still mighty impressive to look at.
There’s a scene where Kate stumbles upon an undiscovered Maya site (of which there are said to be hundreds in Mexico and Guatemala) which had a cenote, or fresh water spring hidden beneath decades of jungle growth.
If you look closely, you’ll see an ancient wall underneath all that vegetation…
While inland, I stayed at a historic hacienda built on top of an ancient Maya site by the Spaniards in 1523. These Spaniards went so far as to use the stones of a Maya temple for its walls (the hacienda is now run as an eco-tourism resort managed by Maya). In Yucatan Dead, Kate is kidnapped and taken to a hacienda deep in the jungle to meet her nemesis, Roberto Salazar. The description of the place grew from my experience while at the hacienda, and my jumping off point was the entrance (note the brick wall–these were ancient Maya building materials, most likely from the temple that had stood there centuries before).
Hands-down, my favorite places were the ancient Maya archaeological sites of Ek’ Balam and Coba (Chichen Itza and Tulum were pretty fantastic, too, but sooo crowded, it was hard to get a good feel for them). The showdown between Kate and Salazar takes place at a fictitious Maya site that I based on a combination of them all. Here’s a bird’s-eye view of Ek’ Balam, one of the most recently discovered sites on the peninsula (yes, those are my hiking shoes):
The next picture is where I got the idea for the entrance to the temple at the top of the pyramid. This is called the Temple of the Jaguar, and is located on the tallest pyramid at the site. You can still climb this structure as well as the rest of the buildings, although I’m not sure how long that will be true. More and more people are discovering the site and the impact of all those tourists on the ancient structures is growing.
Roughly translated, Ek’ Balam means black jaguar, or bright star jaguar, and the big cat figures prominently in Yucatan Dead. In the photo above, the teeth along the bottom form the lower jaw, depicting the open mouth of a jaguar.
There are carvings of winged beings, some sculpted with a distinctly smaller arm, allowing for the Maya belief that people born with physical differences had special powers.
This picture is of the pyramid at Coba, which you can still climb (as of 2013). It’s the tallest pyramid on the peninsula (138 feet) and when you’re at the top you can see dozens of mounds in the distance that are thought to be undiscovered ancient Maya sites. The view from the top is fantastic, to say the least, and was one of the high points of the trip.
A structure with a small room sits at the top of the pyramid, with a carving on the outside depicting the Descending God, an upside down dude with a helmet. He’s also referred to as the Honey God, since honey was one of Coba’s main trade products. No one really knows who or what he represents, but that’s their best guess.
An interesting tidbit: many of these sites are connected by what are called sacbes, or raised paved roads (usually white since they were/are covered in limestone and stucco). One of them runs from Coba all the way to the coast and many were used as trade routes between communities.
Another structure referred to in the showdown scene in Yucatan Dead resembles the Observatory at Chichen Itza, which is thought to have been used by the Maya for studying the cosmos.
And, of course what pictorial essay about Mexico would be complete without the obligatory Caribbean beach shot?
The Yucatan Peninsula was one of the most intriguing places I’ve been to and I plan to re-visit the area. It’s relatively safe, although you still need to be on the lookout for the ubiquitous gas station pumping scams and slow-moving farm machinery. Cartel violence has been reported just outside of Cancun, but is miniscule compared to other places in Mexico so don’t worry unnecessarily about going. Victims are generally related to the cartels in some way, either by being in the business or knowing someone in the business. Don’t take stupid chances like walking alone at night, or going into a dangerous area alone (just like when you go anywhere new). Otherwise, the Mexican people are warm and welcoming folks, and will treat you well if you treat them the same. Mexico is a fabulous country to visit and has many, many faces. I guarantee if you keep an open mind, you’ll enjoy what it has to offer.