Jennifer Dornbush, author of Forensic Speak: How to Write Realistic Crime Dramas, is a long-time storyteller who grew up around death investigation.
“My father was the county Medical Examiner and kept his office in our home, ” she says. “Besides a few nightmares and therapy sessions, my childhood has also given me some very uncanny experiences for my storytelling. To round out my death investigation knowledge, I went back to school and completed over 360 hours of CSI training.”
Dornbush has published more than 100 articles, and has written short films and documentaries, a children’s book, and a dozen film and TV scripts.
What inspired you to first start writing?
I’ve been writing since before I could actually write, so I guess you could say it was a gift that was given to me rather than something that inspired me. I’m grateful every day for this gift and my prayer is that I will continue to be a good steward of it.
Why did you write Forensic Speak?
Forensic Speak started out as a project for an independent study course I designed in order to earn my certificate at the Forensic Science Academy. To pass the academy, I needed a prerequisite course and when that course was cancelled after the first week of class, I convinced the director of the program to allow me to write a handbook for crime writers instead. I was the only writer in the class and I wanted to tailor something specific to my educational goals. The director loved the idea, so off I went. Later, my writing group encouraged me to publish it. But I was so busy at the time that I dismissed it.
What was your process for writing it? Getting it published?
After I finished the academy a writer friend sent me a YouTube video to Michael Wiese Publishing. In the video Ken Lee announced that MWP was seeking material. My friend encouraged me to send in a query. The book was far from ready, but I thought, why not? On a lunch break one day, I wrote a query and sent it off. In less than an hour later Ken contacted me to say MWP was interested. However … it took us a year from to get the pitch right and figure out what the book would be. So I didn’t actually sign the book contract until a year after I sent the query. From there it took me another year to write the book. This month will mark exactly three years since I entered the Forensic Science Academy and had the idea to write the book.
Having such an intense upbringing around foresics science, how did you decide what to include and what to discard?
My upbringing dealt primarily with death investigation, not so much criminology, DNA, ballistics, and fingerprinting. I wanted to round out my knowledge of crime investigation so I attended the Forensic Science Academy here in Los Angeles. When I was telling my writer friends about my experiences in the academy, they said that they wished they could go through it. I thought, well, why not put the academy in book form for those who aren’t able to take the academy? That inspired me to create a book built on the forensic foundation we were taught in the academy. Forensic science is vast and growing! My book is a smorgasboard. You get a sample of everything. You can pick and choose what you need. And if you want more of one thing, I’ve provided resources that will bring you to a larger meal.
What’s your favorite part of writing Forensic Speak? The greatest challenge?
Favorite part: Research and interviewing experts. Greatest challenge: Deciding what details to keep in or leave out. I’m an academic at heart so I tend to want more and more information. But I realize that can bog down the message.
What are the three biggest mistakes new writers make when writing in the crime genre?
1. Not spending the time, energy, or research to get the forensic facts right.
2. Thinking that what they see on TV or in movies is correct procedure.
3. Writing crime scenes that come off at cliche, plastic, or static (in action and dialogue!).
You also have a children’s book … talk about different ends of the spectrum. In what ways was that writing/publishing process different?
I view my children’s book as a fun way to give something of value to the next generation. The book is my hobby, not my profession, so this takes away a lot of the pressure of marketing and selling. The message of the book is joy: what happens when we lose it? How do we get it back? I do book readings and when I see the children’s engaging with the story that means so much more to me than the couple bucks I get from a sale.
Additional advice for crime writers?
– Read and watch crime fiction.
– Figure out what brand of crime fiction best suits you.
– Keep a journal or file of interesting cases you want to explore in your writing.
– Create interesting, dynamic antagonists. Give them a story, a life, a emotional motivation.
Advice for non-fiction writers?
Write about your hobbies and interests to benefits others. Find your niche and explore ten ways you can share what you know with others.
For example… I took the concept behind Forensic Speak and created a monthly newsletter that features a forensic fun fact, a forensic link of the month, a forensic term of the month and a crime writer’s Q&A of the month. Then, I created a series of seminars: Writing the Killer Procedural, 10 Essential Steps in Death Investigation, How to Choose a Crime Show That’s Write For You…
You get the picture… be creative and do what inspires you.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
How long things take!!! I wish I had started out with more patience. I still get impatient and anxious at time. I want things to happen sooner, faster, better! I’m hard on myself, but I guess that’s human nature and my stubborn work ethic. Thank goodness for coffee, yoga, and my wiener dogs.