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Where Do Stories Come From?

The second most common question I get concerns where ideas for our novels come from (the most common questions concern what it’s like to write with a partner). Do we dream up the basic storyline out of nothing? Do we rely on news stories or personal experiences? Do other people suggest ideas? As it’s often a mix of all of the above, I thought it might be fun to look at where some of our ideas have come from.

Ann and I have the two-heads-are-better-than-one advantage and our storylines often start small and then bloom as each of us takes suggestions from the other and builds higher. But that teamwork has to start with an initial idea. So, without spoilers, because we don’t want to give anything away for anyone who hasn’t read the books (and those of you who have will know exactly what we’re talking about), where did our ideas start?

DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT: A large part of the storyline for this novel was based in the setting. We were starting a new series and wanted to set it firmly in Essex, Massachusetts. Since a significant portion of history and life in Massachusetts, especially in that coastal region, involves the ocean and it’s shoreline, we picked the location of the body dump site and worked backwards around where the bodies exactly were found, what state they’d be in and why they were there.

NO ONES SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL: This story started with the details of the extremely specific bone injury involved. Because this kind of damage was so characteristic of a certain culture, the rest of the story fell in to place behind the type of abuse the victim portrayed.

A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH: We can thank our good friend and fire captain Lisa Giblin for this book. There are two arms to this story and she was behind both of them. The osteological angle in this story came from a suggestion after Lisa watched a TV documentary on it. As soon as she introduced the idea (one that we were unfamiliar with up to that time), we knew we had to find a way to set a book around it. And Lisa offered to be our consultant if we ever wanted to write a book about fire and arson. As any victim recovered from a fire would be prime consulting material for Matt, we jumped at the chance. We couldn’t have written this book without Lisa’s incredible knowledge and willingness to get into the trenches with us, right to the extent of mapping out all our fire scenes and rescue attacks, teaching us a huge portion of what she knew, and reviewing the manuscript multiple times to make sure we had our details correct.

TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER: The main story idea for this book actually came out of a side discussion of a very minor point in NO ONES SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL. Ann and I were discussing how the perp might be caught and Ann made an offhand comment about basements. I questioned whether buildings in that area had basements (because not all do, depending on terrain and other surrounding conditions). Ann replied that of course they had basements; that’s how they managed to hide a large number of the speakeasies during Prohibition. I kind of wish someone could have snapped a picture of the stunned look on my face and the light bulb over my head in that instant as the driving theme behind TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER was born.

Abbott and Lowell #5 (unnamed WIP): We have a lot of things to manage in our current manuscript. Not only do we have the full case that will push the story more into thriller territory than straight forensic mystery, but we have the long arc storyline that started in A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH that needs to be resolved. So it’s a busy book. But as far as the main case goes, the most important victim detail came from listening to a podcast featuring Jon Jefferson and Dr. Bill Bass (better known together as the writing team of Jefferson Bass). Dr. Bass made a comment about something found in every forensics lab and we realized it would be the perfect way to hide our victim in plain sight as well as reintroduce Matt’s nemesis readers were briefly introduced to in concept in DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT.

Abbott and Lowell #6 (planned): Even though we’re still writing book 5, we already have a good idea where this book is going. The main story line will actually be crafted to fit where we need the team to be emotionally in this book, a state that drives the majority of the story and will push them into what we have conceived for book 7.

Abbott and Lowell #7 (planned): This book has been planned since the series was born. The character of Juka Petrović was put in place in the very first book to allow for the horrors this book will examine. It’s a history that has touched us with its tragedy and infuriated us with how the situation was handled. It’s a story that isn’t known nearly well enough, but this will give us the opportunity to highlight it and inform our readers through our fiction.

Abbott and Lowell #8 (planned): Ann brought a news story to my attention this week, and that story line may very well turn into the plot for book 8. It’s got everything we need—a mystery, tragedy and the bone clues we need to hang our hat on.

So that’s a quick rundown of where the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, past and future, have come from. For the other writers in the group, where have your ideas come from?

Photo credit: Kamil Porembiński

It’s giveaway time! TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER will release in February of 2015 and we’ve got ARCs to give away months beforehand. Want a signed advanced reading copy of Matt and Leigh’s next exciting adventure? Sign up here: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/116827-two-parts-bloody-murder. The giveaway is open until 11:59pm on November 30th, so don’t miss out!


Jack the Ripper Revisted (or not, as the case may be…)

Before we start into this week’s blog post, Ann and I wanted to give a little shout out to Kirkus Reviews who has once again reviewed our upcoming novel, saying of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER: “Leigh's fourth is a complex case loaded with forensic and historical detail, the authors' best so far.” For those who are interested in the full review (warning— which comes with some spoilers), you can find it here.

Two months ago we covered the supposed revelation of the identification of Jack the Ripper more than 125 years after the Ripper’s final kill. It was a story that made a very big splash and was carried on almost every news outlet in the English-speaking world (and beyond). It also accompanied Russell Edwards’ book on the same topic, Naming Jack the Ripper. In our response to the story, we outlined all the reasons we were more than skeptical about the identification. However, we didn’t have access to the samples to be able to put data-driven science behind our opinion; we simply logicked through the information provided and were entirely unconvinced that Aaron Kosminski was the Ripper.

The original case naming Aaron Kosminski as the Ripper rested entirely on the discovery of a shawl that was posited to belong to Ripper victim Kate Eddows. According to Dr. Jari Louhelainen, the scientist working with Edwards, the shawl was matched to Karen Miller, a descendant of Kate Eddows, and thereby to Kate herself by showing an extremely rare genetic connection—a gene called 314.1c—in the mitochondrial DNA passed down through the female line of the Eddows family. Due to the scarcity of this gene in the general population, it was deemed that the shawl must have come from Eddows. The entire case rested on this one point.

Last month, in a story that barely made a ripple on the vast ocean of current media, it was announced that other scientists got access to Louhelainen's data, and science simply doesn’t support the Ripper identity claim. What was declared to be the rare gene 314.1C (occurring in only 1 in 290,000 people), was, in fact, the extremely common gene 315.1c (occurring in 99 out of 100 people of European decent). Four well-known and respected experts in the field of DNA analysis and fingerprinting all agree that there is no ground for a direct match between the modern family member and the scarf.

It has been stated that Dr. Louhelainen used an ‘error of nomenclature’ when doing his analysis and carried that error into announcing his findings. But the bottom line in this case is that nearly anyone could have left the DNA on the shawl that is attributed to the victim of Jack the Ripper. Without this crucial link, the rest of Edwards’ case for Aaron Kosminski falls apart.

With all the fuss and furor over the revelation that Jack the Ripper had been identified, it’s a shame that the news disproving this claim has hardly been noticed. For us, at least, this was no surprise considering the previous analysis. But for the majority of the world, I suspect they still believe that the Ripper case has been closed.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s giveaway time! TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER will release in February of 2015 and we’ve got ARCs to give away months beforehand. Want a signed advanced reading copy of Matt and Leigh’s next exciting adventure? Sign up here: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/115336-two-parts-bloody-murder. The giveaway is open until 11:59pm on November 20th, so don’t miss out!


Paperback Cover Reveal – DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT

More than a year ago, our debut novel and the first in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, released in hardcover and eBook formats. Last spring Harlequin Worldwide Mysteries purchased the mass market rights to the novel and will be releasing this version in January. Recently we were treated to some details of their version of the book, from a brand new cover to a different version of the back cover copy.

Here is the all new version of the mass market cover:

We always write out own back cover copy for our Five Star releases, so it was interesting to see someone else’s take on the book in the HQN version of that same copy:

Dark Tide… Her past is as troubled as the storm-battered marshes near her Massachusetts town. Still, for State Trooper Leigh Abbott, those brutalized by crime will always matter more than her reputation or career. So when a single human bone turns up in a beaver dam, she has no problem skirting the rules to consult forensic anthropologist Dr. Matthew Lowell. His skills and her persistence lead them to the grimmest of discoveries—a mass grave of the tortured and murdered going back years…

But a near-fatal attack on the desolate shoreline tips Leigh that the serial killer they’ve interrupted is anything but scared off. As she and Matt carefully excavate the nameless victims’ lives and secrets, their quarry is using their deepest vulnerabilities against them. Now it will only take one insidious misdirection, one lethal chance to bait a trap that could sweep them both away without a trace.

So, what do you think? How do you like the brand new version of DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT? And there’s more to come in this series from Worldwide Mysteries as A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH is set to release in mass market format in April….

It’s giveaway time! TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER will release in February of 2015 and we’ve got ARCs to give away months beforehand. Want a signed advanced reading copy of Matt and Leigh’s next exciting adventure? Sign up here: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/115336-two-parts-bloody-murder. The giveaway is open until 11:59pm on November 20th, so don’t miss out!


Traveling This Week…





I’m in New Orleans this week frolicking in the French Quarter attending The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene for our annual international dengue investigators meeting. But I’ll be back next week with an all new post! See you then…

Photo credit: David Ohmer


Forensic Case Files: A Look at Gladiator Diets, 2000 Years Later

In past Forensics 101 posts, we talked about the use of radioactive isotopes to establish the geographical origins of remains, the date of death post WWII, and the date of death for remains older than 100 years (i.e. Joan of Arc). Recently a journal article was published by PLOS One, an open source scientific journal that anyone can access (most scientific journals are paid content only). In the article, the authors used isotopes to look back at the gladiators of ancient Rome in an attempt to discern their diet.

Texts from the time derogatorily describe a ‘gladiator diet’ of beans and barley; a diet quite different than today’s protein-heavy regimens for muscle building. But using the tools of both stable isotopes (carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur) and inorganic bone components (calcium and strontium), the authors of the article tried to analyze gladiator remains to see if they could compare their diet to that of upper class Romans of the time.

Their research is partly based on the phenomenon of C3 carbon fixation in plants as opposed to C4 carbon fixation. Carbon fixation is a part of photosynthesis, leading to sugar metabolism, and the production of energy with oxygen as a waste by-product. C3 fixation is used by such plants as wheat and barley with carbon dioxide and a sugar as the starting materials. C4 fixation, a newer evolutionary pathway exploited by plants such as millet and corn, starts with the same sugar, but uses malate as the source of carbon dioxide, instead of the surrounding atmosphere.

Also in the authors’ research toolbox is the nitrogen found in bone collagen that indicates the amount of animal protein consumed. Sulfur, co-located in that same collagen, can indicate a living environment where higher sulfur levels correspond to a sea-side location, often tied to increased seafood as part of the daily diet. We have previously discussed how strontium levels are measured and how they indicate location. The ratio of strontium to calcium corresponds to the plant-to-meat ratio in the diet.

While some gladiators were voluntary Roman citizens, the majority of them were slaves, criminals, and prisoners of war. Through winning combat, even the lowly could be raised up to the equivalent of Roman rock star status, and the promise of gladiator school was reintegration into normal society. . . if you won.

It's rare to discover remains of actual gladiators—skeletons with the characteristic trauma patterns that match descriptions of combat. These kinds of remains tend to be very few and far between, but an entire gladiator graveyard was discovered in Turkey, on Panayirda Hill, in 1992. Gladiator remains were sampled from this location; normal Roman citizen remains were excavated from a number of nearby cemeteries. All the gladiators were male, while the Roman citizens were a mix of male and female. The researchers sampled a total of 88 individuals dating back to the 1st to 3rd century A.D.

So keeping all the possible isotopes in mind, what did the researchers actually discover when they compared the gladiators to the upper-class Romans?

Carbon: Both groups consumed wheat and barley as a staple part of their diet.

Nitrogen: This was where the researchers found the greatest deviation within the gladiator group itself, suggesting that some gladiators were meat eaters, contradicting the original hypothesis of a uniform gladiator diet. But between the two groups overall, there was no statistical difference.

Sulfur: Both groups were surprisingly low on average, indicating that even though the two groups lived near the Aegean Sea, as a population, they were not seafood eaters. Any outliers in both groups are postulated to be immigrants from other areas since they tended to sit outside the normal range for multiple isotopes.

Strontium/calcium ratio: This is where the largest difference occurred between the two groups with the gladiators having levels nearly twice as high as their Roman contemporaries (statistically highly significant). Overall, a high ratio indicates a plant and vegetable heavy diet, while a low ratio suggests a better balance between the green foods supplying the strontium and dairy products etc. supplying calcium. The higher gladiator ratio implies that contemporary upper class Romans had a more varied and dairy-rich diet. Another possible explanation for the high values in the gladiators is the post-combat consumption of a drink that included plant ash as an ingredient, commonly used as a spice in cooking and as a pain killer. Yet another suggestion is that due to their training, gladiators had increased calcium metabolism and turnover in their bones. This would lead to a more constant level of strontium and a decreasing level of calcium, resulting in a higher ratio value.

The overall conclusion drawn is that the gladiators did not overall have a greatly different diet than their Roman contemporaries. There is the possibility of a difference in dairy consumption, but it is just as likely that it was their physiological state that lead to any differences in the trace elements. Hats off to the authors for some interesting detective work almost two thousand years after the fact!

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons