13 Jan 2012

Solve the Forensic Puzzle, Win a Copy of Trouble in the Hills

Posted by Helaine Becker

Research is naturally a big part of my life as a science writer. For my nonfiction books, I regularly get on-line, into the library stacks or on the phone to dig out interesting science-y information, and find out from experts how things really work. But what about when I write fiction? How much scientific research is required to produce a frothy adventure story?
Quite a lot, it turns out.

For example, I had to call in the experts when writing my most recent book, Trouble in the Hills, an action-packed YA adventure that pits an injured teen against the elements. As Cam slowly makes his way back to town over cold, mountain terrain, he encounters a trio of kidnappers, the girl who escaped them, his former best friend, and a gang of drug runners. The book is less concerned with scientific theory than with, “Will he escape the baddies, and wind up happily ever after with the girl?”

Nevertheless, I did want to make my plot, my scenery and my action as believable as possible. And I can tell you without embarrassment I have never mountain-biked in the Kootenays, or stumbled across a mad mama bear, human traffickers, or a corpse in a cave.

But my gutsy and attractive teen protagonists, Samira and Cam, do.

When I was writing the scene in which they find the corpse, I had a problem. In order to write it, I needed to know: ‘in what state was the body?’ Being a science writer, I could not just rely on conjecture and hope nobody noticed. I needed facts.

To learn them, I turned to an expert in forensics, Dr. Shari L. Forbes. She’s the Director of Forensic Science and Associate Professor of Forensic Science and Chemistry at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

I posed this question to her:

“A corpse has been lying in a cave complex in British Columbia for close to a year. Here is a description of the (real) caves I’m using as a model for my fictional ones:

                    The Crystal caves are the remains of an old mining prospect,
                    crystal quartz cover part of the rock wall on the exterior of the
                    caves. Make sure to bring a flashlight along, as the caves can be
                    pretty dark, but safe to check out. The cave is laid out in a ‘L’ shape
                    extending to about 25m into the mountain side to a dead end.

The cave would be at about 750 m altitude.

What would my characters be likely to find when they come across the body in the cave L? Would the boy’s body be skeletonized? Mummified? Frozen? (I think the avg. temperature in the cave must be quite cool). What condition might his clothes be in? Would they be able to be removed from the body, or is that just too gross and unlikely to happen?”

Dr. Forbes was able to give me the scientific information I needed to write the scene as accurately as possible. It appears about mid-way through Trouble in the Hills, and is well, troubling. :)

So what does the body look like? Can you guess – or do you think you know – the answer to this gruesome forensic puzzle?

If you do, please post your anwer in the comments section below. The most accurate answerer will win a signed copy of Trouble in the Hills!

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