A Review of ThrillerFest’s FBI Workshop for Fiction Writers
If you’re a fiction author and writing novels in the thriller genre (crime, mystery, suspense, etc.), then you’re likely interested in gaining an intimate understanding of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI serves as our nation’s law enforcement agency at the federal level and the lead government agency for countering terrorism.
There’s an adage in the fiction world: “write what you know.” For the most part, I agree with this wisdom, but as fiction authors, we must often write about many things in which we thankfully don’t have actual real-world experience (for example, murder, kidnapping, conspiracy). If you’re a former FBI special agent, writing about the FBI and the life of a special agent will come fairly easy. But if you’re like me, you know what you know about the FBI mostly from film and TV, you don’t have time to sift through stacks of books to learn every detail, and you still want to avoid the clichés and common myths.
Each year, fiction writers from around the world gather at ThrillerFest at the Grand Hyatt in New York City to learn, network, pitch and celebrate leading thriller, suspense, crime and mystery authors. This year, ThrillerFest XII took place from 11-15 July 2017. For the past several years, ThrillerFest has offered a unique opportunity to spend a day at the FBI in the Ted Weiss Federal Building in New York City and and attend the “Today’s FBI: Crime Essentials for Writers” Workshop. Space is limited to about 100 participants, and there’s a long waiting list each year. If you’re interested, make sure to sign up early.
To help you make your decision about whether or not to attend ThrillerFest’s FBI Workshop next year, Retired Special Agent and Crime Fiction Author Jerri Williams asked me to provide a non-agent perspective on what I learned. I would also encourage you to listen to her FBI Retired Case File Review podcast and get the real scoop from actual FBI agents. Like you, I’m writing fiction novels that involve the FBI in some way and doing my best to get it right.
On 9 July, the FBI workshop kicked off with a presentation from the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs, which is extremely passionate about the accurate portrayal of the FBI in pop culture (TV, film, and books), so much so that they invite fiction writers to send in queries with specific questions. The Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit (IPPAU) has a staff that works with domestic and international screenwriters, producers, authors, and other industry personnel associated with TV programs, documentaries, made-for-TV movies, books, and motion pictures. For more information on how to submit a query, visit their website.
The specific focus of the FBI Workshop varies from year to year. This time around, the workshop focused on forensics with esteemed speakers from the renowned FBI Laboratory located in Quantico, Virginia. The FBI Laboratory operates a state-of-the-art facility, handles the evidence for crimes with federal jurisdiction and provides technical support to state and local law enforcement agencies.
For federal cases, the FBI’s evidence response teams (ERT) are deployed to collect evidence from the crime scene and transfer the case evidence to the nearest field office. At the field office, the lead special agent on the case submits the evidence to the FBI Laboratory where it is contained in an evidence bay (about the size of a two-stall garage) until it can be analyzed by different analytical units. The FBI can acquire many different types of evidence from a single item. For example, from a threatening letter containing a white powder, the FBI would collect saliva from the stamp and adhesive strip, develop any latent fingerprints, analyze the handwriting and determine the nature of the powder contents. As such, each piece of evidence goes through a carefully choreographed process of analysis to avoid evidence contamination or destruction.
In the first step, forensics scientists analyze any available trace evidence. The Trace Evidence Unit identifies and compares specific types of trace materials that could be transferred during the commission of a violent crime. These trace materials include human hair, animal hair, textile fibers and fabric, rope, soil, glass, and building materials. Second, the Latent Print Unit examines the item visually for fingerprints and indicates key areas with tape. Third, forensics scientists in the DNA Casework Unit gather DNA evidence while being careful to avoid swabbing on marked areas. Finally, the item returns to the Latent Print Unit where forensic scientists develop any latent prints using powders and chemicals.
A major portion of the FBI workshop covered the analysis of DNA evidence. Every person has a unique DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) sequence that makes up their genome (the total DNA within a cell). Much like the 0s and 1s of computer software code, a DNA sequence is made up made up of four letters (G’s, C’s T’s and A’s) and consists millions of base pairs of C’s and G’s and A’s and T’s. These base pairs build up two long DNA strands, a spiral-like structure called a double helix. Each person has a unique combination of 3 million base pairs in their DNA sequence.
The FBI began using the modern tools of DNA analysis in the late 1990s. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique allows for copying DNA in a sample to make a larger quantity of the DNA for testing. In the past, using older methods, a DNA sample found at the crime scene had to be large enough to test, at least a quarter size of blood or semen. This challenge often constrained the evidence available to investigators for prosecuting the crime. While the old methods were time-consuming and expensive, the new techniques are not only quicker (results within 24 hours), but also allow forensics scientists to look at the entire genome from tiny amounts of material. This technological advance greatly expands the amount of evidence available to investigators at a crime scene. Evidence response teams can sample DNA using a cotton swab from cigarette butts, steering wheels to coffee cups. In addition to blood and semen, forensics scientists can get DNA samples from skin cells, saliva, tears, hair, bone, and teeth.
At the workshop, we learned an important distinction between mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. Whereas the mitochondrial DNA in each person is inherited from the mother, nuclear DNA is derived from both parents. Mitochondrial DNA sequences (for example, found in small pieces of hair) offer a critical tool for determining the source of DNA recovered from damaged, degraded, or very tiny biological samples. However, an individual’s mother, siblings, as well as all other maternally-related family members will have identical mitochondrial DNA sequences. Only a nuclear DNA sequence (for example, a hair with an attached follicle or tissue) is unique to the individual. Of course, there is one exception to this. Identical twins possess the same nuclear DNA sequence.
The Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) is a national database of DNA samples that are gathered at crime scenes by the FBI, state and local law enforcement agencies as part of lawful investigations. The database is not comprehensive as each state has its own holdings that are not accessible at the national level. For this reason, it’s always better to begin an investigation at the local level. Unlike as shown on TV, CODIS does not contain names, addresses or individual profiles. The database only contains the DNA profile and tracking information. Law enforcement officers must contact the collecting agency to get more information on the personal identity of the DNA profile.
The workshop included an extensive briefing on the analysis of fingerprint evidence. Every person has a unique pattern of grooves and hills on their hands, feet, fingers, and toes, known as friction ridges. An inked fingerprint captures the distinct pattern of friction ridges.
Forensic scientists began developing fingerprint evidence to solve cases already in the early 1900s. Fingerprints offer investigators a truly unique marker for every person that remains unchanged throughout their life. Even identical twins have different fingerprints. Although identical twins have the same genetic material, twins are positioned differently in the mother’s womb, leading their finger pads to develop in a unique way.
We learned the distinction between latent prints—a chance impression left on an object from the transfer of sweat and oils—and known prints, for example, a full set of prints on ten-print cards or prints found in FBI records. Unlike known prints, latent prints are fragmentary, covering small areas of a finger. Latent prints are developed through the application of powders and chemicals to make them visible. Although the best latent prints are taken from smooth surfaces, they can be found on textured surfaces as well.
Once developed, latent prints are compared against known records, for example, in the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), the national database of fingerprint records. Since 2013, IAFIS has been replaced with the Next Generation Identification (NGI) database, which is not just limited to fingerprints, but rather includes all biometric information including palm prints, irises, and facial recognition. The new fingerprint-matching algorithm employed by the FBI has improved matching accuracy from 92 percent to more than 99.6 percent.
When comparing a latent print to a known record, investigators look for identifying markers such as arches, loops, and whorls. Arches are ridgelines that rise in the center and look like an ocean wave. Loops are one or more ridges that double back and produce a looping pattern. Whorls are ridgelines arranged in a circular pattern, much like a whirlpool. Every fingerprint contains one of these major markers.
The final briefing of the day provided an in-depth overview of the remaining capabilities of the FBI laboratory including firearms and tool marks, cryptanalysis, and chemistry. The speaker encouraged interested authors to peruse the online FBI Vault, which is a library containing 6,700 original documents, many of which were released to the public via FOIA requests.
All in all, the workshop proved to be an extraordinarily valuable resource for authors who want to write the FBI into their fiction novels and get it right. The ability to ask speakers specific questions was probably the most useful part of the event. From my perspective, an intimate overview of the life of FBI special agents was the only missing element that could have taken the workshop to the next level.
I’m planning to integrate the knowledge I gained about the FBI into my Lara Kingsley Series, a series of crowdsourced fiction novels set in Washington, D.C. that blends elements of the technothriller and cozy mystery genres.
Each novel in the series thrusts ex-military operator and private investigator, Lara Kingsley, her side-kick, Vik Abhay, and a vibrant cast of characters which includes an FBI special agent and D.C. Metropolitan Police detective, into a new technological world to solve crimes involving drones, biotechnology, gene editing, robotics, microelectronics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, cyberspace, and 3D printing. These novels leverage my 17-year career in U.S. national security, weapons of mass destruction and emerging technologies working for the Department of Defense.
If you’re interested in learning more, I hope you join me for a unique interactive experience as I kick off my next novel in the fall of 2017. I am inviting readers to provide input on the second novel in the series, Project Gecko. You’ll get to help me brainstorm during the pre-production phase, choose character names and settings, vote on what my characters do in upcoming scenes, send immediate feedback on draft scenes, and even make choices about the cover design. That’s right, you get to help choose the adventure!
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.