Snapshots from SoonerCon 26

I always plan to do better with my social media at sf conventions than I do. I get involved, and forget to tweet or upload Facebook photo albums. So I thought, “Why not make a blog post from a collection of things I should have posted from SoonerCon 26?”

Wait. What’s SoonerCon 26, you ask? It’s a science fiction convention held in Midwest City, Oklahoma (metro Oklahoma City), that brings together some of the best aspects of literary, media, gaming, comic, and costuming conventions. 

This year’s edition began Thursday, June 22 with a Writers’ Workshop, headed by Workshop Clinician Jody Lynn Nye, and ran through Sunday, June 25, 2017.

Since it is such a multi-focus convention, their theme this year was a nod to a three-ring circus, “Welcome to the Show!” Toastmaster–er, Ringmaster Selina Rosen did full justice to this theme in her Opening Ceremonies performance.

L-R: Jody Lynn NyeLarry NemecekSelina Rosen in Ringmaster garb, Matt Frank, and Todd Haberkorn, at Opening Ceremonies.

As ever, my first stop upon arrival (well, after checking into the hotel and Convention Registration) was the Art Show. It had a larger area this year than in recent past years, but still seemed cramped to me, and the straight-down-from-above lighting was not terribly illuminating for fantasy paper sculptures in shadowboxes or deep mats (too much shadow, not enough art visible). There was a lot of wonderful art on display, however, and despite the crowding it was well worth the look.

Art Guest of Honor Peri Charlifu brought a large and imaginative collection of gorgeous ceramics and prints. Featured Guest Mitchell Bentley also brought a wonderful, colorful display of his astronomical and illustration work, and other attending artists brought a nice variety of interesting work.

My art display at SoonerCon 26

Other highlights of the Art Show for me included a large, new painting in Angela Lowry’s display, two new paintings by Dell Harris, and a lovely display by Hazel Conley. Perennial favorites Sarah ClemensJim Humble, and many others also mailed in artwork to the show, to expand the selection brought by attending artists.

Some of the most magnificent artwork this weekend was wearable, however–remember, one of SoonerCon’s strong areas is costuming. Here’s just a small sampling of the wearable art walking around the Reed Center this weekend.

SoonerCon 26 offered up a nice collection of interesting and thought-provoking panels for attendees of varied interests. These touched on podcasting, comics, film, writing, art, and media (specific discussions geared to fans of individual shows or franchises, including Star TrekStar WarsDr. WhoHarry Potter, and a wide range of others).

The witty committee behind the “Worst Novel Ever,” L-R, seated: Phillip Drayer DuncanVickey Malone Kennedy, Craig WolfTyrell Gephardt, and KC-area fan James Murray. Behind them, standing: Larry Nemecek, facilitator (with microphone) and the unflaggingly-gracious Leonard Bishop.

A pair of wildly funny “SoonerCon @ Midnight” panels assembled a committee of quick-thinking wits and writers (including my son Tyrell Gephardt) to develop the “Worst Novel Ever” (held in the bar, where else?). The next day, a group of equally talented quick-draw artists conspired to create the “Worst Cover Ever” for it. In between gasps of laughter, I could only conclude that convention chairman Leonard Bishop is the “Best Sport Ever.”

Probably my most gratifying moment this weekend was when the couple came up to me after my reading and asked, “Where can we buy your book?” I urged them to watch this blog for further updates, and I’ve been smiling ever since. I hope to have actual news about that very soon!

Literary Guest of Honor Timothy Zahn shared thoughts about his SoonerCon experience at Closing Ceremonies. To his right (our left) Artist Guest of Honor Peri Charlifu, and on the other side Writers Workshop Clinician Jody Lynn Nye attend to his comments.

Most of my panels dealt, not surprisingly, with writing, art, or some combination of the two. Using your creativity for Fun and Profit (focusing on best practices for creative small entrepreneurial businesses) and Imaginary Creatures: Essential to Fantasy? (with panelists from both art and writing backgrounds) definitely touched on both of my art forms.


Ethics and Art focused pretty exclusively on visual-art intellectual property, and the protection of both the creator’s and others’ rights.


Failing Better shone a spotlight on the rejection-fraught lives of writers, and how to deal with setbacks in a way that leaves one (a) not suicidal and (b) better equipped, going forward.

By far the best-attended of my panels, however, was the one titled A Girl is . . . about persistent gender issues, both outside of fandom and within. It quickly became apparent that not all “within fandom” groups are the same, when it comes to views on gender equality. Experiences of younger women–particularly some of those in the online gaming community–reveal we’ve come less far than we’d like to think.

All of these panel discussions struck me as worthy of possible future exploration in blog posts. If you’d like to see one or more, please leave a comment about it.

All too quickly, SoonerCon 26 came to an end. Time to strike the photo-background sets, fold up the tabletop games, and pack the costumes or new T-shirts into suitcases. But I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I’m looking forward to coming back next year, if all goes as planned.

IMAGES: The green header-banner is from SoonerCon’s website. The other photos are my own snapshots, taken by me at SoonerCon 26 (they may be reposted online with an attribution of Jan S. Gephardt as the photographer, and a link back to this post). 

Tales of ConQuesT (48)–The Writing Part

I love  participating in panel discussions at science fiction conventions–and I was part of several at ConQuesT 48 held this and every year in Kansas City on Memorial Day by my home science fiction group, the Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society


I participated in several panel discussions at ConQuesT. In addition to sharing an hour of reading with Sean Demory of Pine Float Press, my other scheduled panels all could be potential subjects for future blog posts. Please comment below, if you’d like to see more on any of these topics!

What Gives Characters Depth?

This panel focused on writing techniques, plus a review of “3-D characters we love” and why we chose them. It was ably moderated by Rob Howell. I was joined on the panel by P. R. AdamsLynette M. Burrows, and Marguerite Reed.

L-R: P. R. Adams, Lynette M. Burrows, Marguerite Reed, and moderator Rob Howell

Our discussion ranged through such questions as what makes a character come to life, our assorted techniques for “getting to know” our characters, and what happens when the scene you thought you were going to write takes a right-angle turn because “the character had something else in mind”/you realized it wouldn’t be in character for the person to do/say/think what you’d originally intended. It was a fun and lively discussion.

Intellectual Property and Literary Estates

I got to moderate this panel (former teacher: I like to make sure the discussions are fueled by lots of good, well-researched, leading questions, that everyone gets a chance to talk, and that the audience is actively engaged in shaping the conversation). I’d signed up to be on the panel because of my connection with the administration of my late brother-in-law’s literary estate.

My fellow panelists were Dora Furlong, who’d been involved in establishing a foundation to administer the literary estate of a writer and game-creator; Susan R. Matthews, who’d gone through the process of writing a will and discovered that there were all sorts of decisions to be made about who would administer her literary estate; and Craig R. Smith, whose focus was more on contracts and protecting intellectual property.

L-R: Susan R. Matthews‘ icon; Dora Furlong; Craig R. Smith‘s book cover.

We discussed the nature of intellectual property, the relative importance of registering ISBNs and copyrights, what is included in a literary estate, the kinds of decisions the executor or trustees of such an estate may have to make, leaving specific instructions (for instance, about what to do with emails and unfinished manuscripts), and many other issues that most writers, artists, or other creative people rarely consider–but which have everything to do with their legacy.

Writing Fight and Combat Scenes

I moderated this panel, too–but I did little talking about my own work on this one. Both of my fellow panelists, Rob Howell and Selina Rosen, are well-spoken, engaging, and knowledgeable, with a depth of background I could admire, but not match (SCA battle-experience, military history studies, martial arts training, and many more varied writing projects than I’ve racked up so far).

L-R: Rob Howell, a photo of an SCA battle by Ron Lutz; and Selina Rosen. Yes, it was a lively panel discussion.

It was a privilege to manage time and audience input, while offering them questions about varieties of research, frequent plot objectives of most fight or combat scenes, tips for keeping the action vivid and interesting, and pet peeves about other authors’ bad practices. Rob, Selina, and the knowledgeable audience kept the panel fast-paced, interesting, and wide-ranging.

Horror Fiction and Xenophobia

Yes, I did moderate this panel also–but as with the “Fight and Combat” panel, I ended up mainly facilitating the experts, namely Sean Demory, Karen Bovenmeyer, and Donna Wagenblast Munro.

Not much of a horror writer or reader myself, I approached this panel from the viewpoint of a multiculturalist who generally looks upon xenophobia (fear of foreigners or, more basically, fear of “the other”) as a negative thing.

L-R: Sean Demory, Karen Bovenmyer, and the Facebook Profile Picture of Donna Wagenblast Munro.

Not to worry. While earlier traditions of horror have embraced the “fear of otherness” via unfamiliar cultural practices, deformity, and/or disease to create the objects of fear, my three fellow panelists are contemporary horror writers who have embraced the “feared other” as their protagonists.

This brought new poignancy to their responses to my questions about “who are the monsters of today?” and which is the most potent bogeyman of today, the terrorist (domestic or foreign), the corporate overlord, the hacker, or the community dedicated to conformity? Reactions were mixed, but ultimately conformity won as the most stifling on the individual level.

I See No Way That Could Possibly Go Wrong

This panel focused on new technologies just beginning to emerge today, and our thoughts about their ramifications in the future. The panelists were, L-R in the photo below, Christine Taylor-Butler, Bryn Donovan, me, and Robin Wayne Bailey. The photographer (and knowledgeable contributor from the audience) is the writer J.R. Boles.

I was not originally scheduled to be on this one, but the designated moderator (who shall go nameless) did not show up for the panel. Bryn and Robin invited me to join them and moderate. Since I actually knew a bit about the topic (thanks largely to researching and writing this blog), I was delighted to leap in.

We had a great discussion, with a lot of intelligent input from the panelists and our knowledgeable audience. We spent most of our time on the question, “What technology that’s now in its infancy would you most like to see developed, and how do you think it would change things as we know them?”

Answers touched on flying cars, 3-D printed kidneys, earpieces or brain implants to transmit data, lunar colonies, asteroid mining, and much more.

IMAGES: I’m the one who put together the ConQuesT 48 banner. It features a logo design by Keri O’Brien and a photo of the lobby of our convention hotel, the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center, which provided the photo. 

The photos of assorted authors with whom I did panels come from the following, gratefully acknowledged sources:

The photo of Rob Howell is from his Amazon Author Page. That of P. R. Adams is from his Amazon author page. That of Lynette M. Burrows is from her Twitter Profile @LynetteMBurrows, and that of Marguerite Reed is from her Twitter Profile, @MargueriteReed9

Dora Furlong’s photo is from her Amazon Author Page. Susan R. Matthews’ image-icon is from her website; I was unable to find a photo of Craig R. Smith, so I finally settled for a cover image of his book, Into the Dark Realm

I’d like to offer special thanks to the Society for Creative Anachronism, and photographer Ron Lutz, for use of the photo Clash of Battle.

The photo of Selina Rosen is a detail from a photo by the indispensable Keith Stokes, taken at Room Con 10 in 2014 (a party hosted by James Holloman at ConQuesT each year) and posted in the MidAmericon Fan Photo Archive

Many thanks to the Johnson County (KS) Library for the photo of Sean Demory (there’s also a great interview with him on that page). The photo of Karen Bovenmyer is from her Twitter profile @karenbovenmyer; unfortunately, I couldn’t find a photo of Donna Wagenblast Munro or a book cover for her anywhere, so finally I substituted an image from her Facebook page.

Last but far from least, many, many thanks to J. R. Boles for the photo of the “I See No Way” panel, from her Twitter account, @writingjen

Political correctness

Let’s talk about “Political Correctness,” since it’s been thrown in my face recently. It came up at my writers’ group Saturday, when a fellow group member whom I normally respect brought a story that was riddled with ugly, offensive racial stereotypes directed toward a particular minority group. During the critique session I called him on this (I wasn’t the only one), and his defense was that he didn’t want to have his story “limited” by political correctness.

This quote cuts both ways in the “political correctness” debate.

I asked him what he meant by “political correctness” in this context, and he said he didn’t want to limit his range of expression. As if “artificial” rules of “correctness” constituted an intellectually narrow approach that fettered his freedom of expression. A story-critique session wasn’t the forum for a full-blown debate. The group’s leader very firmly changed the subject.

I probably wouldn’t ever convince that particular fellow through direct confrontation, in any case. In my experience, when someone who already feels his privilege is under attack and whose area of greatest pride is his intellectual ability, is accused of intellectual malfeasance, his invariable reaction is to dig in his heels and prepare to die rather than yield to a different point of view.

I do, however, continue to challenge the validity of any “expressive freedom” that depends on not restraining oneself from employing demeaning stereotypes. My associate seemed to think that what he called “political correctness” was a kind of intellectual laziness, an unwillingness to “push the envelope” in certain directions, or to challenge social norms. Perhaps ironically, I see it as just the opposite. In my opinion, folks who decry too much “political correctness” generally don’t seem willing to exert themselves intellectually to stretch beyond their own comfort zones or seriously engage a different experience.

Which of those two approaches should one more accurately call an “intellectually lazy” attitude?

It’s a hallmark of privilege when a person sees the need to adapt to others’ viewpoints as an unwarranted inhibition. That’s a “take” on life and social discourse that  ignores or dismisses the fact that anyone from a non-dominant cultural group has to accommodate and adapt near-continually, just to survive and get along in the world. Yet the most blindly privileged folk are the ones who seem to complain the most aggrievedly about political correctness.

This is not to say that all members of minorities or persons of color are perfect. It isn’t even to say that sometimes the “sensitivity line” can’t be too narrowly drawn—although I’d say the most vulnerable among us probably have a better gauge of where to draw that line, and what’s offensive, than the most privileged among us. But it is to say that our art shouldn’t rely on the cruel crutch of cheap shocks at the expense of innocent bystanders. 

It is to say that vicious racial stereotyping is both a morally and intellectually bankrupt way to approach storytelling . . . or to anything else. For God’s sake, can’t we writers dig deeper? If we can’t be merciful, then at least let’s be original.

There’s a truism that if a phrase or expression comes too easily to mind, it’s almost certainly a cliché. Using clichés is an obvious hallmark of weak writing, precisely because it betrays the author’s unwillingness to push past the easy or obvious, and explore new ideas.

What the apologists for ignoring so-called “political correctness” seem to overlook is that every offensive stereotype ever created is both mean-spirited and a cliché of the worst order. The only valid and original thing to do with any cliché is turn it on its head or expose its vacuity it in a fresh new way. That’s not easy, but then—isn’t that a given, if you’re trying to produce real, lasting, meaningful art?

IMAGES: Many (ironic) thanks to The Federalist Papers, for the Voltaire quote, and to Sizzle for the “Freedom to offend” meme. I am indebted to A-Z Quotes for both the Ian Banks quote, and the one from Toni Morrison. Many thanks to all!

Authors, reading

I attended DemiCon 28 last weekend. It’s a science fiction convention in the DesMoines, IA area (technically, Urbandale), where they had an art show, masquerade, panel discussions, parties–the full gamut of things I have learned to anticipate at sf conventions in my decades-long career of attending them.

Mark Van Name does a reading from his novel No Going Back at Balticon in 2012.

And they had author readings.

In my experience, author readings at large conventions by “big name” authors can be standing-room-only events. Author readings by mid-list or relatively unknown authors tend to be the orphan stepchildren of convention programming. If anyone shows up for one, that counts as “wildly successful.”

Some promoting, arm-twisting, and recruitment of friends and family to fill the audience may be required, for newbie writers. We may have loved listening to people read us stories in grade school, or be passionately attached to our audio books and podcasts as adults, but somehow getting people to attend readings at sf conventions continues to be kind of a heavy lift.

As some of my more persistent blog-readers may have noticed, I’m a writer who’s poised on the brink of having a novel to release into the wild. It’s gone through multiple drafts, been professionally edited, and I’ve done all I can to make it the best novel it can be. The time has come to start making people aware it’s coming.

I asked for a reading at DemiCon. Better yet, I got one–although I wasn’t scheduled for many other programming events where I could promote it. I made fliers (with advice from my son about copy writing), and invited everyone I could.

P. C. Haring read several interesting excerpts from his novel Slipspace: Harbinger.

I also was able to connect with a couple of other authors, who also had readings. One of them was P.C. Haring, who’d been scheduled for a reading that morning at 9:00 a.m.

Now, in the normal world, 9:00 a.m., even on a Saturday, is a fairly reasonable hour. At a science fiction convention–especially one with as many lively room parties as DemiCon 28 has, a 9:00 a.m. panel on Saturday might count as cruel and unusual punishment.

I’d noticed this scheduling earlier, and commiserated with him. Then, on an impulse, I offered him the second half of my scheduled hour from 4-5:00 p.m. This was not entirely altruistic on my part: my voice tends to give out after half an hour or so of reading. In any case, he accepted the opportunity. We had a nice attendance–the room was about half-full. I read my first chapter, then he read excerpts from his book. Before we knew it, the hour was over and we’d all had a pleasant listen.

Then we gathered up as many of the audience up as possible, and trooped across the hall to listen to Lettie Prell read from two of her short works. The first, “Emergency Protocol,” is a flash fiction (very short) piece that will be published by Analog Science Fiction and Fact at a future date. It is wonderful: watch for it.

Prell then read excerpts from The Three Lives of Sonata James, a thought-provoking story that’s been reprinted in Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2016, and The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Two, edited by Neil Clarke. Good stuff.

Did I gain anything by encouraging my audience to also listen to P.C. and Lettie?

Could/should I have filled my entire hour, all by myself? Well, certainly I had enough material to read (assuming my voice held up). And from comments I got later, the audience would have been game for listening to me. So maybe I made the wrong call. If you look at it from the point of view that all authors are in competition with each other, then I definitely did. Nice guys finish last, and all that.

But I don’t see the world as a zero-sum game, and I especially don’t look at writing that way.  I cannot possibly write fast enough to be the only author someone reads (unless they read ver-r-r-r-r-ry slo-o-o-o-o-o-owly, indeed!). Even much more prolific authors ultimately can’t. Everyone’s readers are also going to read other authors’ work.

Therefore, I’d rather be a resource, a connector, a person who introduces people to others they may also like, in any given network. I fundamentally do not believe that any given group of writers (or artists) are competing, so much as conducting parallel enterprises. If we conduct our careers in friendly, cooperative ways, as far as I’m concerned, we all gain, and actually might expand our own networks a bit in the process.

IMAGES: Many thanks to the Balticon Podcast, for the photo of author Mark Van Name giving a reading from his novel No Going Back. There aren’t very many photos of that particular activity (author readings at sf cons), so I was relieved to find a good one! The promo card for my novel, Going to the XK9s, is a combination of my copywriting and design, much improved by comments from my son Tyrell Gephardt, and an illustration I commissioned for promotional purposes, by Jeff Porter. The cover art for P. C. Haring’s novel Slipspace: Harbinger is from his website. The illustration for The Three Lives of Sonata James is by Kevin Hong. It is posted here courtesy of Goodreads. Many thanks to all!

To automate, or not to automate? Writers, attorneys, and financial advisors on the line

A Glimpse of the Future?

My recent mid-week posts have focused on the phenomenon of automation in the contemporary workplace–that is, “machines taking over our jobs,” and looking at trends for the future.

Last week, I tackled robotics and automation in the health care industry. Today I’m focused on the symbolic logic crowd, that is, people who mostly traffic in numbers and letters. Thus, I’m looking at writers, attorneys, and financial advisors.

They’re all white-collar jobs, and aspects of each require judgement, creativity, and empathy–but other aspects “turn out to be routine and process-based.” That’s just the kind of thing computers do best.

But writing? Law? Higher-level financial analysis? Well, yeah. With caveats.

Writing 

This one kinda hurts, but certain types of data-heavy information can pretty readily be transformed into prose using a process Klint Finley of Wired describes as “a more complex version of Mad Libs meets mail merge.” Two companies, Automated Insights and Narrative Science are the main contenders in the field at the moment.

The primary uses for this software so far have been in the areas of financial news, sportswriting, and industrial communications. Organizations such as the Associated Press and Fox News have discovered it is (big surprise, here) “considerably less expensive for us to go this route than for us to try to have our own beat reporters at each one of these games,” (That’s Michael Calderon, Big Ten’s director of new media, speaking with Bloomberg Businessweek).

But of course it’s expanding. As a science fiction novelist, I’m under no illusions. Some genres are more friendly toward “formulaic” plots than others (I’ll leave you to judge which ones those might be), but I’m sure the day is coming soon when you’ll be able to plug in certain character and plot elements and the software will crank out a complete “novel” or “short story.”

On the other hand, we’re still very far from a computer that can go into a war zone and make sense of the chaos, write a meaningful human-interest article, or build an exposé, piece by exacting piece. And so far we’re still unable to distill that special “something” that transforms a novel into a mega-bestseller that strikes a chord in millions (if we could, they all would be). We still need human hearts and minds (and a lot of luck!) for that.

Legal Practice

Turns out there’s a lot of mundane drudgery in the practice of law, and untold numbers of documents to review. Firms used to have no choice but to hire a fleet of lawyers and paralegals to review them, but now there’s software to cover that angle. As attorney Bill Herr pointed out to the New York Times, “People get bored, people get headaches. Computers don’t.”

As in the case of doctors, however, you needn’t look for robots to start donning barristers’ wigs or delivering closing arguments in court for a while to come, though I fear the pioneering efforts on that front may come in the form of legal-aid robots for the defense of low-income criminal defendants. Would that be found to be constitutional? (And what would the originalists think of it?)

But behind the scenes, computers are already hard at work. For now, they’re probably cutting down the entry level jobs for lawyers, but their best potential is to save the efforts of the humans for the things that matter most.

Financial Industry Professionals 

Stock trading has forever been transformed by computer-based algorithmic trading, in which high volumes of stocks are traded “using automated pre-programmed trading instructions accounting for variables such as time, price, and volume.” 

However, as you’ve probably extrapolated from the section above that discussed financial writing and business communications, automation has gone much farther since the first automated trading systems went online in the 1970s and ’80s. With all the things they can plug into algorithms these days, have humans become superfluous?

Well, maybe not yet.

Assuming one is fortunate enough to need guidance for investment strategies, we’re still short of a technological singularity, which would place a computer in possession of all the critical thinking, synthesis, and empathy needed to serve human laypersons who have other things to do with their time besides manage their stock portfolios.

Till then, I’d still advise checking with a well-trained, credentialed human.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before It’s News for the “future vision” graphic, to ResearchPedia.Info, for the “difference between stock market and stock exchange” photo montage, and to Sports Management Degrees for the graphic of the football with data behind it. I am grateful to the Criminal Lawyers and Attorneys organization for the courtroom photo, and to The Balance for the photo of the financial advisor with her clients.

Blogging a panel

Writing About Forensics

A would-have-been panel for Capricon 37

Capricon 37 was a science fiction convention held February 16-19, 2017 in Wheeling, IL, just north of Chicago. Authors Jen Haeger and Jan S. Gephardt were scheduled to present a panel at the convention called Writing About Forensics.  Unfortunately, circumstances prevented both of us from attending, so all of a sudden the panel had no panelists!

To make up to Capricon for our inability to present the panel at the convention, Jen and Jan have created a co-written blog post, to offer a glimpse of what we would like to have been able to say at the convention. We agreed to post it on our blogs, and send the finished “virtual panel discussion” to Capricon, too, for their use. We hope you enjoy it.

The Panelists:

Jen Haeger

Jen Haeger (Moderator) is a writer geek with a DVM in Veterinary Medicine and a Masters in Forensic Science, though she presently writes part time and works part time at Barnes and Noble. Her published works include a veterinarian meets werewolf paranormal romance trilogy with some forensics in the first book, Moonlight Medicine: Onset. She currently resides in Ann Arbor, MI with her husband.

Jan S. Gephardt

Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and longtime science fiction fan. Her new science fiction novel, Going to the XK9s, is scheduled to be released this year by Durendal Productions. It is the first in a series about a pack of super-smart bio-engineered police dogs who struggle to establish themselves as full citizens, while solving crimes and sniffing out bad guys. To prepare for this novel series, she has devoted much of the last four years to researching, among other book-related topics, police investigational procedures and forensics.

The Questions, and our answers:

1. What is your definition of “forensics”? How does the definition expand or change, when you apply it to science fiction?


JH: My explanation of forensics is the opposite of the scientific method. When you use the scientific method, you start with a hypothesis, then design experiments or make observations to test that hypothesis, and end up with a result. With forensics you already have a result: a murder victim, a contaminated stream, a collapsed building. You then come up with a hypothesis of how that result came to be and do experiments or look at the evidence to try to determine how likely your hypothesis is.

I don’t feel like the definition should change when applied to science fiction. If in your story there are people who can just use a device to say, replay what happened at a crime scene without needing evidence, I wouldn’t call that forensics.

JSG: In the post-CSI era, I think most laypersons would define “forensics” as established techniques for evaluating the physical evidence of crimes. This would include analysis of images, fingerprints, chemical substances, DNA, blood spatter, ballistic evidence, etc., retrieved from a crime scene and documented according to the protocols of the agency doing the investigation. In each category of physical evidence, standards have evolved, based on systematic observations and more general scientific knowledge.

Unfortunately, in recent years we’ve occasionally discovered that standards of analysis have not been developed with enough scientific rigor to withstand the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. The reliance upon hair-sample analysis before the availability of DNA testing is an example of a formerly-trusted forensic technique that more recently was found to fall well short of that standard.

I think the only way the definition might be changed in science fiction would be a matter of specific techniques for the “list of types of analysis.” An author might extrapolate a new way of analyzing evidence, or speculate that a current technique might be abandoned in the future for some reason.

2. What are some of the problems you see with writing about crime and forensic evidence-analysis “in the future tense”? That is, what are some of the pitfalls science fiction mystery writers might need to consider and try to avoid?


JH: I think that science fiction writers must do research on what is currently available as far as forensic techniques are concerned and build/extrapolate from there if they want to stick to “hard” science fiction. Soft science fiction writers have a lot more leeway. They can just make stuff up and not worry about any pitfalls, but they may lose readers who know what is impossible, like determining the age of a latent fingerprint or time of death down to the minute.

JSG: I agree that any writer should do thorough homework, and I’d include the “soft sf” folks in that caveat. Due diligence helps avoid silly mistakes that can ruin the story for readers who know better. The main pitfalls beyond that are in the area of prognostication: what will be the “DNA-type” revolutionary discovery in the mid-21st Century? We can’t know, any more than people writing sf in the 1970s could have easily predicted using a cell-phone to photograph evidence or analyzing touch-DNA. But it’s fun to guess!

3. How big a role should forensics play in a science fictional crime story, as opposed to other aspects? What other investigation techniques or practices do you think might evolve, and how might they compliment or augment what we now think of as investigational best practices?

JH: Wow, okay, so any other investigation technique could evolve, but if your story is science fiction, I feel that the author should stick to science, i.e. forensic science. That is what the reader will be expecting from a science fiction novel. If the author wants to do character-centered speculative fiction, then they can concentrate on other investigational practices like mind reading during interviews or using super emotionally sensitive people to assess a suspect. There are so many different types of forensics that I’m not sure too many other techniques really come into play in a crime story except maybe interviewing people and profiling, though that may fall under forensic psychology. There is also deduction, but that can’t really be used in court.

JSG: I feel I ought to point out that while analysis of the physical evidence has an increasingly important role to play in helping to alleviate that “reasonable doubt,” there will always be a place for “good old-fashioned police work” in an investigation—that is, canvassing for witnesses, getting statements, building timelines, getting eyewitness identifications, etc.

Although eyewitness IDs have been found to be far less reliable in some cases (especially identifications of strangers in crowds or with distractions) than originally thought, it’s pretty hard to beat the certainty of a statement such as, “I’ve known that guy for 20 years, and I saw him shoot so-and-so in the head that night!” A science fiction crime story that ignores the human element (or the “non-terrestrial person element,” if applicable) ignores a huge part of the normal investigational process, and needlessly limits the story-possibilities.

A Belleville, IL officer talks to a member of the neighborhood after a call regarding a gun. Few investigations turn on forensic evidence alone.

4. Forty years ago, DNA wasn’t a consideration in evidence-gathering. Now it has become important in an amazing range of ways, applicable to a variety of crimes. Gaze into your crystal ball and speculate about ONE other potential kind of evidence that might become radically more important, given just the right breakthrough.

JH: Forensic science is constantly making radical breakthroughs. Imaging has made enormous strides recently in areas like crime scene reconstruction (being able to take a 3-D image of a crime scene for later analysis), spectroscopy (developing a sensor to detect date rape drugs), and adding audio to video (by analyzing vibration images).

But I’m going to go with precise time of death which has so far proved elusive.

Artist Jeff Porter visualized Jan’s Going to the XK9s protagonist Rex, a “forensic olfaction specialist,” and his human partner Charlie.

JSG: Probably the biggest breakthrough I’ve extrapolated in my novels is the ability to tap into the sensory capabilities of dogs in much more detail. We know that dogs can be trained to detect everything from bedbugs to cancer to hidden cocaine, but our ability to communicate with them is severely limited. What could they tell us if they could communicate in more detail? How would things change if we could swear one in on the witness stand?

5. In your own work, what have you found to be the most challenging or intriguing aspect, when extrapolating future crime-solving techniques?


JH: I haven’t yet done this in my writing. All my fictional forensics is doable at present.

Moonlight Medicine: Onset includes some forensics that are currently possible. It is the first in Jen’s fantasy romance trilogy about a werewolf and a veterinarian.

JSG: As I just explained, I’ve been having wonderful fun looking at the recent research on dog cognition and sensory capabilities, then extrapolating ways that we might expand our ability to communicate in more detail with them to learn in more detail what they are sensing. But there are many other areas where we can look at current practice and say, “Wow! If only we could find a way to say for sure if . . . !” My main fear is looking back ten or twenty years from now and groaning, “How could I possibly have missed that we’d be able to do THAT?”

6. Something that a writer might want to consider is whether or not to include any forensics in a crime novel/story. What are some reasons that there might not be any forensic evidence?


JSG: There are lots of reasons why no forensic evidence might exist—even apart from the careful machinations of a criminal mastermind. The investigator might not have access to a crime scene (either can’t locate it, or it has been moved or destroyed) or other crucial evidence (it’s extremely hard to prove there’s been a murder if you can’t find the body, for example). Or perhaps you have the crime scene but it’s been wiped clean (by whatever standards your sfnal setting requires). I bet the other panelists can come up with more.


JH: When writing about forensics it’s important to consider why there may or may not be evidence and if that evidence is something that will hold up in court. One of my favorite episodes of CSI is called Jackpot and has Grissom alone in the tiny, isolated Nevada town of Jackpot several hours away from Las Vegas.

In the CSI episode titled JackpotDr. Robbins receives a severed head that sends Gil Grissom on a fateful trip to to Jackpot ,NV.

When he first arrives, all the evidence he has is a head and the townsfolk are all tight-lipped and unhelpful. Then he has his evidence kit stolen and has to buy supplies from the local hardware store to remake some of his evidence collection tools. It is a great example of how, in a small town or isolated place, the characters may not have the equipment or skills to process a scene, even if they find one. Also, I’m not sure if Grissom’s makeshift evidence collection techniques would allow that evidence to be admissible in court.

The CSI cast examines the wedding murder
scene in Rashomama.

Another great (and hilarious) CSI episode, Rashomama, has all the evidence the CSI had collected in Nick Stokes SUV and the SUV is stolen before the evidence makes it back to the lab, rendering all of the evidence inside contaminated and inadmissible in court. This is a good example of the necessity of proper chain of custody of evidence and how it may be broken, rendering the evidence lost or useless.

I’d also just like to quickly mention that in today’s age of people having at least a CSI level of understanding of forensics, you must have a very good reason for a criminal to leave behind any obvious evidence. Unplanned or heat of the moment crimes are fine, but if someone has planned a murder, you must consider the steps they would have taken to minimize the evidence left behind unless your crime doesn’t take place in the present. If it takes place in the past, be very careful not to have police acting like the CSI of today and collecting evidence that there are no techniques yet established for analyzing.

7. Where does forensic science fit into non-crime stories?

JSG: Investigational-style observations could fit into lots of stories. You don’t have to be a trained detective to walk into your boyfriend’s apartment, find two wineglasses, and realize the lipstick on one of them isn’t a shade you wear, to infer he’s been entertaining another woman. Perhaps one of your characters is an amateur graphologist who never does business with someone whose handwriting shows certain characteristics. Anytime a character wants to learn something, there’s an opportunity to use an investigative approach.

JH: This is a good place to talk about all of the different disciplines of forensics. There are so many different aspects of forensics that apply to the environment, to engineering, to computers, to fields like anthropology/archeology, and so many others, that a crime is not necessary to employ forensic disciplines. The following is an almost exhaustive list:

Physiological Sciences

–       Forensic anthropology

–       Forensic dentistry

–       Forensic entomology

–       Forensic pathology

–       Forensic botany

–       Forensic biology

–       DNA profiling

–       DNA phenotyping

–       Bloodstain pattern analysis

–       Forensic chemistry

–       Veterinary forensics

Social Sciences

–       Forensic psychology (human behavior)

–       Forensic psychiatry (evaluations)

Forensic Criminalistics

–       Ballistics

–       Ballistic fingerprinting

–       Body identification

–       Fingerprint analysis

–       Forensic accounting

–       Forensic arts

–       Forensic footwear evidence

–       Forensic toxicology

–       Gloveprint analysis

–       Palmprint analysis

–       Questioned document examination

–       Vein matching

Digital Forensics

–       Computer forensics

–       Forensic data analysis

–       Database forensics

–       Mobile device forensics

–       Network forensics

–       Forensic video

–       Forensic audio

Related Disciplines

–       Fire investigation

–       Fire accelerant detection

–       Forensic engineering

–       Forensic linguistics

–       Forensic materials engineering

–       Forensic polymer engineering

–       Forensic statistics

–       Vehicular accident reconstruction

Many recent, popular police, mystery or thriller dramas on television use forensics as an important part of their stories. For some it is the primary focus, while it plays a smaller role in others.

8. Is the public done with forensics and shows like CSI? Is it still interesting to readers?

JSG: I think in the post-CSI era it’s hard to completely get away from forensics in at least some plot lines of crime stories. Consider that most of the N.C.I.S. franchise include quirky forensic analysts as regular members of the team, for example—and they’re some of the most popular shows on the air right now.

Similarly, Elementary, Hawaii Five-O, and Bones (although the latter is in its final season) all prominently utilize forensics. Moreover, the enduring popularity of crime series such a Patricia Cornwell’s “Scarpetta” novels, built around a character who is an evidence-collecting medical examiner, all would argue that forensics are far from “dead” in crime fiction.

JH: Sadly, I have just recently come to fully realize how obsessed the public is with crime and particularly murder and particularly the murdering of women. I came to this conclusion (that I should have reached long ago) after reading The Girl on the Train (excellent novel and movie by the by) back to back with The Woman in Cabin 10.

For more of my soap-boxing on this subject, please see my previous blog post. But stepping off the soapbox, I think the continued interest of the public in forensics is also evidenced by true forensic shows like Forensic Files and The New Detectives (yes, I’m a real forensics Netflix junkie).

Several long-running reality television shows also focus on forensics.

9. If forensics are so good, why are there any unsolved crimes? What problems with or drawbacks of forensics can make a story more interesting?

JSG: An earlier question that touched on “what if there isn’t any forensic evidence” partially answered this question, in my opinion. Forensics can only address the physical evidence. Such evidence can provide powerful corroboration, but in a satisfying crime story, often the most important element in the investigator’s “holy trinity” of means, motive, and opportunity is the middle one: MOTIVE. That’s usually what lies at the heart of a crime story. Forensics might be able to tell us who, what, when, where, and how, but rarely can do more than point vaguely in the general direction of the WHY.

JH: Though it is true that there are unsolved crimes due to lack of evidence, lost evidence, and contaminated evidence, there are also other hot issues dealing with forensics that can make your story more interesting. How about a forensic scientist skewing or just downright faking the results of a test to get a conviction? How about trying to validate a forensic technique in time for it to be admissible in court? How about taking a fresh look at old evidence with new forensic techniques (consider The Innocence Project)? How about planted evidence? Plenty of great story in the drawbacks of forensics.

10. What is your best piece of advice for authors wanting to write about forensics? Or conversely, what makes you crazy when you read stories where the forensics is poorly executed?

JSG: Ha! My answer is the same for both questions: Do your homework, authors! Especially in our field, it’s essential to check your facts. Anything else just doesn’t stand up to critical scrutiny by people who actually know. Who do you think your audience is, anyway? If you’re writing sf and your answer doesn’t include a fair number of scientists and scientifically-literate people, you haven’t framed your demographics accurately. Moreover, when it’s crime fiction, you might be surprised how many law enforcement folks are in the audience. This also means, of course, that experts may be more open to helping you get it right than you might expect.

JH: I agree with Jan here. If you are going to write about forensics, make sure to do your homework at least to the CSI-watcher level. That being said, I have several huge pet peeves with CSI:

1) the time it takes to do forensic testing,

2) the fact that they run every test on every piece of evidence collected,

3) the fact that they often work without masks and other PPE when analyzing DNA,

4) they have been shown working on multiple pieces of evidence at the same time,

5) CSI analyzing the evidence also interrogate the suspects, and

6) they often get DNA “matches”.

First, it should be noted that some forensic testing takes days or even weeks to do, so make sure that you don’t have an inappropriate turn around time. Second, many forensic tests are possible, but very expensive, so typically only the quickest and easiest are done unless it is a high profile case.

Also, not every forensic lab has the latest shiny, new forensic testing machine. Third, my masters thesis required me to analyze DNA and even with the strictest controls and appropriate PPE (hat, gloves, gown, booties, safety goggles, mask), there was still the possibility of contamination. Additionally, as an aside, don’t have people talking to each other directly over DNA evidence or while analyzing DNA evidence. Your spit has DNA and you should not speak when analyzing DNA. Fourth, cross contamination.

A crime lab scientist tests evidence from a sexual assault kit. As Jen described in her answer, the woman wears a mask to avoid cross contamination.

Fifth, forensic lab technicians must be as impartial as possible when analyzing evidence. In a perfect world they wouldn’t know anything about the crime or the suspects involved so that they could not introduce bias when analyzing and presenting results.

Sixth, okay, so in today’s world you can actually genotype an entire human genome from a sample and match it to another entire human genome from another sample. However, this is NOT how DNA testing is typically done, particularly since DNA samples at a crime scene have often undergone some type of DNA degradation (time, heat, chemicals, sunlight, dryness, etc.).

Typical DNA testing compares a small sampling of loci on just a few genes and comes up with a probability that the sample in question (i.e. found at the crime scene) came from the suspect as opposed to another random individual. This gets really complicated really fast, so best just to say “consistent with” instead of “match” (only the pilot episode of CSI gets this right).

Also, again, if you are writing in the past, make sure that you are using forensic techniques appropriate for your story’s time frame.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Capricon 37‘s website for their logo. So sorry I couldn’t be there in person, after all! Jen Haeger’s photo is from her Google+ Profile page. My photo is used by permission of my daughter Signy, the photographer. 

Many thanks to Hawaii Reporter’s article, “Allow the justice system to render the verdicts in violent crimes for the photo with the evidence bag in the foreground, and to Criminal Justice Degree Link’s article “10 Great Criminal Justice Jobs” for the fingerprint-scan photo. 

Many thanks to Reference-dot-com’s article “Why is forensic science so important?” for the photo of forensic scientists in a lab, to the Belleville News-Democrat for the photo of the officer talking with the neighbor about a gun report in 2015. 

There is no cover art for Going to the XK9s yet, but Jeff Porter has created a character sketch of Rex and Charlie. The cover for Jen’s Moonlight Medicine: Onset is courtesy of Amazon. 

Many thanks to Fandom’s CSI Wiki, for the photo from Jackpot, and to CSI Geekromance for the photo from Rashomama. I am indebted to Prisma Dental’s article “Your Teeth as a Tool for Investigation,” for the forensic odontology image, and to the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s article “New Ballistics Control Chart for Forensic Imaging,” for the photo comparing cartridge casings.

Many thanks to the CBS TV shows’ official websites for the title cards for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Elementary, and Hawaii Five-O, and to Wikipedia for the title card for Bones

The cover images for The Girl on the Train and The Woman in Cabin 10 are from their respective Amazon pages. I am indebted to Wikipedia for the title cards for Forensic Files and The New Detectives, from their respective Wikipedia pages. 

Grins and many thanks to Marche Marie Regan’s Pinterest board on Forensics/Criminal Justice for the “criminologist baby meme”(via quickmeme). I am grateful to the National Institute of Justice’s “Sexual Assault Kits” page for the photo of the scientist testing evidence.

Desk piles

There’s only so much you can do in advance.

That’s what I keep trying to remind myself. There are some things that can’t be totaled up or capped off until after the fireworks go off at 12:01 a.m. January 1. 

For days now, I’ve been planning to write a blog about “desk piles of the future” (considerations of what we might clutter our offices with, in the purportedly “paperless” future). 

This was gonna be the week!

This isn’t gonna be the week. Too many desk piles of of the present. 

These are actually not my own personal desk-piles. Mine aren’t anywhere near this extensive and chaotic. These are more like a dramatization of how mine feel at the moment.

So please excuse this all-too-brief mid-week blog post, while I work on my 2016 Year Review, and my 2017 Year Plan With Interim Benchmarks, while also working on final revisions for Going to the XK9s and squeezing some art-making in edgewise from time to time.

Also, wish me luck, please.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Point It Digital Marketing, for the 2016-to-2017 image, and to Craig Jarrow’s Time Management Ninja website, for photo of the not-so-virtual desk piles.