State Police Crime Lab Tour: Ballistics

In this final installment of my tour of the Springfield Massachusetts State Police crime lab, we’re going to cover ballistics. Lieutenant John Crane was our guide through the world of ballistics, which was an eye opener for me and my daughters who are all gun control-loving Canadians. In fact, when we told Lieutenant Crane that we’d barely ever seen guns and had certainly never held one, he immediately handed us several different ones. Maybe not a big deal for the Americans in the crowd, some of whom consider guns a daily part of life, but it definitely was a surreal experience for us!


  • The ballistics division has three primary roles:

1) Respond to shootings, reconstruct the scene, and collect all firearms’ evidence.

2) Test evidentiary firearms.

3) Compare fired items.

  • A ballistics officer will go to a victim’s autopsy to retrieve the evidence as it’s removed from the body. This maintains chain of custody.
  • The unit responds to all suicides by firearms simply for practice and to learn new ways for bullets to behave inside the human body.
  • Springfield has a population of 150,000. There is approximately 1 gun crime/week, and 15 - 20 murders/year are gun related. This number would be higher, but Springfield is home to one of the country’s top trauma hospitals (Bay State) and they save many victims who would likely die in other locations.
  • The National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN) is the AFIS equivalent for cartridge cases. It helps identify the cartridge, but it doesn’t actually put the gun in any one individual’s hands, so it has limited use.
  • There is only a 3% chance of successfully identifying a fingerprint from a gun. It is not possible to pick up a print from the textured grip, only from the barrel or the magazine. But the hot gases produced during firing can destroy the fingerprint and will absolutely destroy any DNA that might be on the firearm.
  • The ballistics division has three different ways to test-fire a gun for comparison of either the bullet or casing to the recovered evidence:

1) The snail—a very large metal box with an inner, snail-like curl. The bullet is fired into the box and circles through the curl to fall out, spent, at the end. The bullet gets flattened and is of no use for comparison, but the cartridge pops clear, so this is an excellent method for cartridge matching.

2) The water tank—a ten-foot long metal box filled with water with a firing tube at one end. Bullets up to .50 caliber can be fired into the tank, but hollow points bullets can’t be tested since they break apart only a foot or so into the tank. Otherwise, it’s an excellent firing tool for most handguns. Most bullets only go a few feet into the tank before falling to the bottom. Advice from the ballistics officer, Lieutenant Crane—if you’re being shot at, jump into the nearest body of water because it’s like firing into cement. (Jen’s aside—Mythbusters has confirmed this).

3) The cotton box—an eight-foot long metal box filled with rolled cotton, separated in one-foot dividers of cardboard, and with a firing tube at one end. When a bullet is fired into the box, it spins through the cotton, picking up strands until it becomes enmeshed in a ball of cotton and stops. When the bullet is retrieved, it’s in absolutely pristine condition for direct comparison. This is the only way to test fire hollow point bullets.

  • The ballistics officers use a two-headed Olympus microscope with an attached digital readout for performing evidentiary comparisons (see above photo). Lieutenant Crane was kind enough to go through a comparison for us and even showed us the evidence from a fatal shooting just the week before. When comparing evidence, officers like to have two different areas of agreement, but one extremely strong area of agreement will be sufficient if that’s all they can get. A minimum of two people have to check the evidence to agree with the match.

All in all it was a fascinating tour and I definitely got some new ideas for upcoming novels. Thank you once again to Detective Lieutenant Holleran, Sergeant Heffernan and Lieutenant Crane for taking the time to introduce us to their real world forensics!

Photo credit: Jack of Spades

The Seymour Agency’s 1st Literacy Fundraiser:

We at the Seymour Agency are raising money throughout September for #LiteracyMatters. Stop by the agency blog for our auction of great prizes such as signed books, swag, professional editor calls, and manuscript critiques:; all money raised will go to support the Southwest Florida Literacy Council Gulf Coast. Bidding goes from September 1 – 30, 2014, so don’t miss out on these great prizes. I’m donating signed hardcover copies of DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT and A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH. And, as an extra bonus, the lucky winner will also get a hot-off-the-presses advanced reading copy of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, which won’t be available to the general public until February of 2015. Want to find out what happens next with Matt and Leigh? Sto by and bid for your chance to find out long before everyone else. So I hope to see you all bidding in September!

State Police Crime Lab Tour: Evidence and Criminalistics

It’s part two of our series based around my tour of Springfield’s Massachusetts State Police crime lab. Today, we’re talking about evidence handling in the lab as well as criminalistics. And stay tuned at the end of the post for some important information on how you can get your hands on an advanced reading copy of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, book five in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, months before it becomes commercially available.


  • Most evidence is dropped off by the investigating officer, but some municipal police departments have evidence officers whose job it is to deliver evidence. This can be problematic since the investigating officer is not present if the technician has any questions about the information on the forms accompanying the evidence.
  • Once there, new evidence labels are added and detailed to maintain the chain of custody.
  • Any drugs that come in are immediately heat-sealed before being stored.
  • All evidence is temporarily stored in the evidence room before being sent out to the appropriate lab or testing facility. Case numbers on the box or envelope are in the format of: xx(year)-xxxxxx(case number). Some cases I saw were from ‘80s or ‘90s (cold cases) but most are from 2013 or 2014.


  • For me, criminalistics was a typical wet lab, and very similar to my own.
  • They process clothing, sex assault kits, weapons, all biological samples (i.e. blood, saliva or semen), and gunshot residue. They also carry out blood stain pattern analysis on scene or on evidence brought into the lab.
  • The lab contains a separate room with several alternative light sources. These light sources can be used to visualize human biological fluids like saliva, sweat, semen which all fluoresce. Contrary to most TV crime shows, blood does not fluoresce under alternative light sources. In fact, it tends to darken and be less visible.
  • The lab has special test cards to indicate the likely sample type of biological fluids. However this can’t be used for confirmation as there are several well known false indicators. For example, the test for semen gives false positives for mold and feces; while saliva can also be found normally in breast milk and feces.
  • Blood is tested in situ in the field by swabbing the substance and transferring it to filter paper. Several chemicals are added; if blood is present, the filter paper will immediately turn blue. If there is no immediate reaction, then the substance is not blood.
  • All DNA samples are processed only at the Maynard lab location.

Next week will be the final post in this series as we delve into the science of ballistics. See you then!

Photo credit: JustGrimes and University of Michigan

The Seymour Agency’s 1st Literacy Fundraiser:

We at the Seymour Agency are raising money throughout September for #LiteracyMatters. Stop by the agency blog for our auction of great prizes such as signed books, swag, professional editor calls, and manuscript critiques:; all money raised will go to support the Southwest Florida Literacy Council Gulf Coast. Bidding goes from September 1 – 30, 2014, so don’t miss out on these great prizes. I’m donating signed hardcover copies of DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT and A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH. And, as an extra bonus, the lucky winner will also get a hot-off-the-presses advanced reading copy of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, which won’t be available to the general public until February of 2015. Want to find out what happens next with Matt and Leigh? This is your chance. So I hope to see you all bidding in September!

State Police Crime Lab Tour: Fingerprinting and Tread Analysis

Climbing a mountain was pretty neat, but another highlight of my recent trip to Massachusetts was a tour of one of the regional Massachusetts State Police Crime labs. Many, many thanks to Detective Lieutenant Michael Holleran for making this tour of the Springfield lab happen. Detective Lieutenant Holleran was kind enough to be my technical advisor on fingerprinting past and present when we were writing TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, and he went to the trouble of setting up the tour, and then drove all the way across the state to meet and stay with us the entire time. Once again, we couldn’t write what we do without the generous help of the officers and staff of the Massachusetts State Police!

I was going to include all the information about the tour in a single blog post. But when the ever-stalwart Ann came back to me this ‘this blog post is toooooooo long’, I decided it needed to be cut into manageable chunks because this is very dense information. So, today, we’re going to cover crime scene services in the lab, primarily fingerprinting and casting. Next week will cover evidence handling and criminalistics. And then in our final week, we’ll cover ballistics, the largest section and truly deserving of a post of its own.

Detective Lieutenant Holleran (Crime Scene Services), Sergeant Ken Heffernan (Crime Scene Services), and Lieutenant John Crane (ballistics) took us through the Springfield crime lab that serves not only the Massachusetts State Police, but also many of the surrounding municipal forces. All three men are troopers who do everything in their area of the lab—they go out to the crime scene, gather evidence, and then return to the lab to analyze it. There are currently eight officers in the Springfield crime lab that are part of fingerprinting and crime scene services, and three officers in ballistics. All biological work in the criminalistics and biologics units, and much of the other testing (drug chemistry, arson, DNA, alcohol testing, and trace evidence) is performed by civilian forensic scientists.

Fingerprinting (part of Crime Scene Services): 

  • All fingerprint evidence is handled in a designated fingerprint lab.
  • Officers use a defined flowchart of test protocols to run on each print, starting at the top and working their way down, stopping after the first successful print development. Multiple tests can be run on the same print as long as the designated order is followed.
  • UV light sources can be used to visualize prints on non-porous surfaces. Some prints can only be visualized and photographed this way; when they are chemically developed, no print appears.
  • AFIS databases are accessed using MorphoTrak software. Massachusetts is the first state to link directly to the FBI database via third party software. Sergeant Heffernan ran one of his current cases for us—a break and enter with a fingerprint picked up through the mesh of a window screen. It took nine minutes for the resulting multi-point comparison match.
  • Even after a positive AFIS result, the print must be confirmed by the human eye. In total, 3 officers must agree on the comparison for it to be considered a positive match.
  • In the past, inked fingerprints have been standard, but over the last 10 years, live fingerprint scanning has gradually spread throughout the state. Troopers have live fingerprint scanners out in the field to be able to scan prints in situ instead of having to transfer evidence back to the lab. This kind of mobile fingerprinting also allows for faster identification of any deceased persons on scene.
  • Live fingerprint scanners reject bad prints, but a good inked print will always have better resolution than a live scan, so troopers are still taught how to do classic inked prints by the Crime Scene Services officers since most troopers take their own perp prints out in the field.

Tread Analysis (part of Crime Scene Services):

  • Casts are used to identify both shoe treads and tire tracks.
  • Casts are taken using Denstone®, a dental stone used for impressions because it has only 0.1% shrinkage with drying. Due to its ability to maintain its shape and size, it can be used for direct comparisons between the cast and the actual shoe or tire.
  • Sergeant Heffernan feels that shoeprints are the most overlooked evidence and could be used much more effectively. For instance, the unique wear on shoes as well as any individual markings can be used to conclusively identify footwear present at the scene.
  • There is an extensive tire tread database available for comparison. There is also a database for shoes, but it’s expensive because there are so many different types of shoes, and it must be constantly updated.

We’ll be back next week with a trip through the evidence room and the criminalistics lab. See you then!

Photo credit: Jessica Newton Photography

The Seymour Agency’s 1st Literacy Fundraiser:

Naples, Florida (July 2014) - The Seymour Agency has announced it will be hosting a fundraiser to support the Literacy Council Gulf Coast through a national online auction taking place during the month of September. Industry editors, agents, and authors have donated critiques, phone chats, and goody packages as prizes.

Everyone deserves the time and means for the luxury of reading. Literacy Council Gulf Coast works with underprivileged youth and adults to provide quality literary education needed to function in today’s society.

The online auction will go live in phases on September 1, 2014 and bidding will end on September 30, 2014 at 11:59 p.m. with the largest bid received winning.

If you are not interested in the items up for auction, please consider a cash donation through CrowdRise. CrowdRise is a convenient way to donate money to charities.

Setting the Scene for the Climax of Abbott and Lowell Book Five

I’m back from vacation, and we’re back from a blogging hiatus and some time away to write, plan, and figure out some potential future projects (more on that when there is more to tell…).

My daughters and I travelled to Massachusetts at the end of June with two specific book-related research projects in mind—taking a tour of one of the Massachusetts State Police crime labs, and climbing the mountain that will be featured in the climax of our work-in-progress, Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, Book 5. While the end scene will take place in December—in the middle of a blizzard—I wanted to get the experience of the actual location, even if we were out of season.

Holyoke Range State Park was our destination, just outside of Amherst, Massachusetts. But what we were specifically heading for was Mount Norwottuck, and its 1100 foot peak.

At the lower levels, the terrain mostly looks like every Ontario forest I’ve ever hiked through. I bet this area would be stunning in autumn.

But it fairly quickly got rocky and the incline started.

This picture was taken from about 300 feet up, looking northeast towards Amherst, Massachusetts. The buildings on the left are part of University of Massachusetts Amherst, better known to the locals as UMass. Mt. Orient can be seen in the distance.

This is the kind of terrain we were managing for a lot of the climb—well established hiking trails, but quite rocky and often very steep.

These are the Horse Caves, a geological formation of ledges below the peak of Mount Norwottuck. Local lore tells the story of American soldiers from Shay's Rebellion in 1786 hiding out at this spot from the Massachusetts militia.

My eldest, currently midway through her Bachelor of Arts in Photography, taking advantage of the outing for some great shots of the ledges at the Horse Caves.

Getting close to the top, the tree line suddenly changed to almost all pine trees and the footing looked like this:

Near the peak, a Golden Eagle soared overhead.

The prize at the top of the climb. This is my youngest, standing 1100 feet up, taking in the view. It was pretty incredible, even if it was a lot of work to get there!

Thanks to both of my girls for another great trip to Massachusetts. So far I’ve dragged them through a salt marsh (the body dump site for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT), through Witches’ shops and a tour of the Salem Fire Department (both for A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH), and now up a mountain and through a real life crime lab for the as-yet-unnamed Book #5.

Coming up in one of our next blog posts, I’m going to talk about my trip to one of the Massachusetts State Police crime labs. I wasn’t allowed to take many pictures (totally understandable when real cases with real evidence are involved) but I did get a few photos and a ton of really great info. So I’ll be back soon with that fascinating information.

Happy Canada Day and a Summer Hiatus

Hello and a happy Canada Day from beautiful Massachusetts!

I hear you cry—you’re in the the U.S. on Canada Day? Yes, my daughters and I are currently in Massachusetts on a research trip for the fifth book in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries. And thus begins my summer hiatus from blogging as we take some time off to travel and research, and then as I launch back into the current manuscript because my end-of-summer deadline is starting to tick rather loudly. So I’ll be taking the month of July off from blogging as I concentrate on my writing. But I’ll be back come the first week of August.

Have a great month and I’ll see you then!

Photo Credit: Jamie McCaffrey

Creative License ― How Much Is Too Much?

The writing that Ann and I do together is known for its realistic edge ― from the forensic science to professional roles to locations, it’s all highly researched and portrayed as it exists in real life. So it was a shock to find out during my recent trip to Boston that the professional duties of one of the characters we portrayed in our series was, in reality, quite different from what we had written. More than that, this new information impacted the core case of the novel from a forensic standpoint. This left Ann and I with quite a dilemma ― do we rewrite our manuscript around this new information, or do we use creative license to ignore it?

The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines creative license as a “deviation from fact, form, or rule by an artist or writer for the sake of the effect gained”. Those writers who write fantasy have the advantage of never needing to use creative license because they can alter reality as it suits them during the worldbuilding stage of their process. But for those of us who try to portray reality as accurately as possible, creative license is almost a four-letter word. Because of our intention to write about local forensic and law enforcement processes as they actually occur, this was a huge stumbling block for us.

What we had written was actually correct… for any other state except Massachusetts, it seems. We had done our research and knew the facts, but this was a matter of local budgets butting up against the scientific process. In this case, the budgets won. From the standpoint of someone standing on the outside looking in, I can only wonder how many convictions are lost because budgetary restrictions allow reasonable doubt to form in the mind of the jurors. I’m betting it’s quite a few.

In the end, it was my agent Nicole who suggested the best work-around for this issue, one that used only a minimum of creative license. Her solution not only brought to light the reality of the situation but also put a twist on it, so we can still use what we had already written. It also allows us the latitude to continue as we had planned concerning this character in our continuing series. Let's hear it for teamwork!

How do you use creative license in your writing? Do you consider it a godsend or a necessary evil only to be used when you have no other choice? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it…

Photo credit: Bright Meadow

A Return Trip to Salem and Boston

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post entitled The Kindness of Strangers When Researching Your Novel that I’d like to expand on. In that post, I talked about the how the contacts I made while researching my first novel (prior to actually writing it) made all the difference in how that manuscript turned out.

I learned my lesson well from that trip and planned this summer’s family vacation around a second trip to Massachusetts, this time with my daughters in tow (my poor husband got stuck at home...). It was a real pleasure to be able to show them an area that I’ve loved since I was their age, but, more than that, it was great to be able to involve them in my novel planning. Writing takes a huge amount of my time, so if they can be involved in the process, it makes it a more enjoyable experience for all of us. There’s nothing better than being boots-on-the-ground in the places I’m writing about to achieve that.

But this trip ended up being about more than just my work-in-progress. Through the kindness of my contact at Boston University, Dr. Tara Moore, I was able to get into their forensic anthropology labs to talk to the researchers and instructors there about their current research, their body farm program that is just getting off the ground, and the trials and tribulations of being involved with law enforcement.


In a marathon four-hour session, we met with the retired FBI agent who teaches their crime scene courses at Boston University, the neurobiologist who now works as a forensic anthropologist/osteologist, the Massachusetts State Police Crime Scene Services lab in Boston, and the State Police liaison with the Massachusetts Medical Examiner’s Office. The information I learned applies to the entire series and was pure gold in terms of writing their world correctly. To top it off, my youngest daughter (those are her hands, above, holding the skull) was offered a position next summer sorting bones for a week, which she would love to do. Lucky kid... what an offer for a grade nine student!

We met with the Salem Fire Department, laying the ground work for much of the fire investigation in our work-in-progress. Ann and I are already working with our California fire contact, Captain Lisa Giblin, however, we wanted to make sure that our protocols were firmly east coast vs. west coast ― getting into the fire department ensured that. We met with many members of the department; everyone was very friendly and willing to share their own personal knowledge.



We toured the sites in Salem that will be used for scenes in the book as well. As a visual writer, getting pictures of places I want to write about is absolutely crucial. Google Earth is great, but this is the kind of detail that I really need.

Our biggest adventure was when we attempted to cross the salt marsh on the Essex coast. This site plays a major role in DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, but when I visited two years ago, I didn’t actually enter the marsh as I was on my own and was worried I might get into trouble. Well, this was an eye opener. The marsh looks so pretty, but try to cross it and you can get into some major trouble very quickly. Both myself and my older daughter had to be pulled free from the very deep, sucking mud in the Essex River channels, and when we finally admitted defeat after over a half hour later, it was to emerge bloody from marsh saw grasses, covered with greenhead fly bites and literally covered up to our knees in mud. It's a beautiful and tranquil area... and is incredibly treacherous!



It was a great trip and I made some fantastic new contacts that will really go a long way in writing this new manuscript. There are a few things I’d like to tweak with the currently submitted manuscript, but it’s all good and just adds richness to the detail already there. A big thanks to both of my daughters for being the best traveling companions a gal could ask for, and as well to my oldest daughter, Jess, who was my official photographer on the trip.

Next week, I’d like to talk about Salem, specifically about the new memorial they’ve built there in memory of the 20 innocent victims killed in the 1692 witch trials. They did a really wonderful job, so much so that I think it deserves its own blog post. So, more to come next week...

Photo credit Jess Newton

The Kindness of Strangers When Researching Your Novel

About six weeks ago, Katie Ganshert had an excellent post about when it’s time to stop using the Internet for research and use real resources instead. You can read that post here. Katie’s post was very much the inspiration for this one.

I’m a firm believer in going to the source for information, be it a peer-reviewed scientific journal for primary data or interviewing someone about their real-life experience. For instance, our current work-in-progress involves arson and the science of fire investigation. To write this manuscript properly, Ann and I will be working with a close friend who is a Captain and a 20-year veteran of a California Fire Department. There’s nothing like real life experience to give your manuscript an edge, especially if you’re aiming for gritty realism.

This was something I already knew when Ann and I started brainstorming DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT in the summer of 2009. We’re both researchers at heart and by training, and we both believe in going the extra mile to make sure the details are correct. This is all very doable when we’re looking at details surrounding the science, but when it came to learning about real and realistic police protocol, we hit a wall. Our female protagonist is a Trooper in the Massachusetts State Police, but when it comes to Internet information about law enforcement, we found details to be alarmingly scarce.

I had already decided that the only way to do this manuscript properly was to be physically standing in the locations where we were going to set the story. I’m a very visual writer; for years, Ann has assisted in the process by finding every photo she could of whatever it was we were writing at the time. It’s always paid off beautifully, but this time photos weren’t going to cut it. I needed to see those locations with my own eyes.

I also knew that I had to take that extra step and actually contact the Massachusetts State Police for information. After writing five novels together, we knew that this was going to be the one that we’d take to literary agents; we finally felt ready. But I still wasn’t confident about my role as a writer for anything other than actual writing. I’m just a scientist and an unpublished author; what right did I have calling busy people with important jobs to take up their time to discuss my project? And, truthfully, it seemed trivial to me, compared to what they do. Nevertheless, I put on my ‘author’s hat’, screwed up my courage, and cold-called the Massachusetts State Police. I was passed to the Director of Communications who requested more information via e-mail. I provided additional details of the project and told him that I’d be happy to discuss the information with him over the phone, or that I would be traveling to Boston in a few weeks and could meet with him then.

To my shock, he arranged a meeting with the District Attorney for Essex County, Jonathan Blodgett, and Detective Lieutenant Norman Zuk, head of the Essex Detective Division, Essex County’s homicide unit. *gulp* Suddenly my little meeting with the Communications Director turned into a meeting with both the D.A. and top cop of Essex County.

To say that I had an attack of nerves would be putting it lightly. I was already feeling out of my league and now I was supposed to meet with these important men? Me? And really, why did they want to meet with me anyway? Were they going to try to stop me from using their department for our novel?

I flew down to Boston to start my research trip. I rented a car and drove to Salem to meet with them. But what is it about cops? Why is it that even when you’ve done nothing wrong, you’re still scared to death of them? Add to that major nerves and feeling way out of my depth, and I was terrified. Literally shaking. Nevertheless, I walked in there and tried to brazen my way through it.

And guess what happened? When Steve O’Connell, the Communications Director, showed me into the D.A.’s conference room, D.A. Blodgett and Det. Lt. Zuk both walked in carrying gifts for me. Then they asked what they could do for me.

I was stunned. Here I was imposing on these gentlemen and taking up their valuable time, and they wanted to know what they could do for me.

They gave me an hour of their time in the conference room, answering every question on the list Ann and I had prepped from homicide protocols to Crime Scene Services to interagency cooperation. Then D.A. Blodgett had to leave as he was already late for his next meeting, but Det. Lt. Zuk took me on a personally guided tour of the Essex Detective Division, including their conference room (that held their murder board for all open and in-trial cases) and the detectives’ bullpen. When I asked him about their detailed protocols, he handed me the binder of protocols from his own office and told me I could take them with me as long as I returned them to him later.

Once again I was floored. What I originally thought would be a short phone conversation had become a crucial meeting yielding priceless information, including their official protocols that I was allowed to copy and keep.

When it comes to research, there’s nothing like talking to those men and women who do the job you want to portray in your writing, or who have knowledge that you lack. These strangers were immensely kind and forthcoming, and they genuinely enjoyed my interest in their work and their department. And their generosity has continued. When I had a few details I wanted to confirm during our final edit two months ago, I contacted Det. Lt. Zuk, asking if I could have a few minutes with one of his officers. He sent me his cell phone number and told me to call him personally. Another very generous gift of his time and knowledge.

What about you? Have you found that people are willing to go above and beyond to help you in your writing? That rather than being annoyed by your questions, that they have instead been flattered and willing to assist you?

Photo credit: 1photos