A member of the Crime
  Writers of Canada

BestCriminalJustice.com Top 24 Forensic Blog


Top 24 Forensic Blog

Top Forensic Science Blogs

Word Count: Abbott and Lowell #5

Current stage - first draft


 Follow Me:



 Subscribe to the blog by email (via Feedburner)



What's in a Title?

Ann and I are in the last few weeks of working on a new series proposal and we’ve hit that time, that dreaded time, when we have to come up with . . . a title. *cue scary horror movie music* You might think: It’s a title. How hard can it be? But when you consider what rides on a title—it needs to not only reach out and grab a reader’s interest, but also convey the tone of the book—it’s actually a key part of any novel and can’t be taken lightly.

Normally, we write the entire book first and have the luxury of settling into the story, so a title comes to us mostly organically. Ann is the title master; throughout the overwhelming majority of our writing together, she’s come up with both our book and chapter titles (and explanations). We tend to take our titles from other works, mostly poetry, using material in the public domain, or with express permission of the author or their estate.

The title for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT is a line of poetry from an 1865 Civil War poem called Behind the Lines, about a Union soldier, wounded and near death on a battlefield. He fears that he will be buried in an unmarked grave and remain forever unknown:

Dead? and here—where yonder banner
Flaunts its scanty group of stars,
And that rebel emblem binds me
Close within those bloody bars.
Dead? without a stone to tell it,
Nor a flower above my breast!
Dead? where none will whisper softly,
"Here a brave man lies at rest!"

We changed the punctuation around a bit, but felt it was the perfect title for our debut novel. Admittedly it’s a mouthful, but for those of you who have read the book, you know exactly how well suited it is for the burial ground in the story.

The poem Until I Fall by HaliJo Webster, is the source of the title for NO ONE SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL, a story about loss of identity and how we fit into society, our own and the larger society around us:

I shout and no one seems to hear.
I dance naked and no one responds.
I wow my "self" and stand higher
than any mountain I have stood on before!
No one sees me.
Not till I fall.

A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH was the trickiest title for us so far, as we tried to link the concepts of fire and death in the same line of text. When we finally discovered the 1923 poem Fire, written by Australia’s Dorothea Mackellar, we knew we’d finally found what we were looking for:

This life that we call our own
Is neither strong nor free;
A flame in the wind of death,
It trembles ceaselessly.

The title for the upcoming TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER was the earliest title we matched with a novel. Ann found this little gem in a book called The Devil’s Dictionary. Originally a series of satirical newspaper columns written by Ambrose Bierce between 1881 and 1887, it was published in book form in 1906 as The Cynic’s Word Book before taking on its final title in 1911.

BRANDY, n. A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the-grave, and four parts clarified Satan. Dose, a headful all the time. Brandy is said by Dr. Johnson to be the drink of heroes. Only a hero will venture to drink it.

An aspect of the storyline for TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER centers around Prohibition, so the combination of murder and alcohol implied in the title was simply perfect for us.

So what makes a good title? A title needs to be clever, but not so clever that it is misunderstood by the reader. It needs to not only identify the intended audience, but sometimes more specifically the exact series it is a part of. A good title is memorable and sets the tone for the story it encapsulates (Okay, the title for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT is maybe not memorable because of its length and structure, but it totally sets the tone for the book!).

Will a publisher keep the title you’ve worked on so diligently once they’ve purchased your manuscript? Not necessarily, but we’ve had excellent luck so far since every one of our titles has been accepted without question. Will that luck continue? Not necessarily, but an author certainly hopes so when she puts this much work into finding the perfect title. As far as we are concerned, we work at this aspect of storytelling assuming the title will be a keeper because if it suits so well, perhaps our editor will agree with our choice. Wish us luck…

Photo credit: Dustin Gaffke (photo has been cropped from original size)


Ethnic Burial Customs

Malagasian traditional 'dancing with the dead'Last week on the blog we talked about the Parisian catacombs and the mind-boggling six million sets of remains found under the city of Paris. For many people, the sanctity of the original gravesite is paramount and this kind of redistribution of human remains is nothing short of sacrilege. For others, it’s a sensible solution to a real and pressing problem, and every effort was made (and continues to be made) to honour and respect the dead.

Late last week, Ann sent me a link to a Washington Post article entitled “Reburying the Dead in Guatemala”, concerning the Guatemalan custom of reusing crypts that are no longer supported financially by the family or the community. Crypts are not bought, but leased, and if payments on the lease lapse, paid grave cleaners break open the crypt and remove the remains. If the remains are claimed by the family, they are boxed and put into a central ossuary. If the remains are not claimed, they are bagged in clear plastic with magic marker identifications and added to a mass grave.

Frankly, the article left me gaping. Mummified remains are carelessly manhandled and tossed on the ground. They’re carried under arms like packages and left propped against walls. Bags of remains and uncovered mummies are transferred to mass graves with forklifts. For me, it was the attitude of disrespect for the dead that appalled. But how much of that is simply my societal views of how the dead should be treated? Clearly this is an accepted practice for the people of Guatemala.

It made me think about burial culture and how we as North Americans don’t hold the only proper ideas of how the dead should be laid to rest. Different cultures and different time periods have/had different customs:

  • In the Victorian era, before photography became a common tool of the masses, the deceased was dressed in their finest and photographed, often with live family members. This would often be the only image of the deceased the family would ever have.
  • Hindus believe cremation is the most spiritually pure way for a human soul to depart. The deceased is burned in a public ceremony and the pyre is lit by the eldest male in the family. The traditional custom of Sati involves the burning of an Indian wife on her husband’s funeral pyre, sometimes voluntarily, often not. Various laws have been passed in different countries, with India finally criminalizing the practice in 1987.
  • Cremation is strictly forbidden for Muslims, as is embalming. As a result, burials must take place within only a few days of death. Autopsies are also forbidden unless required by law.
  • The Baha’i believe that death is only the beginning of a great spiritual journey. Baha’i dead must be buried within an hour’s travel of the place of death, and may not be embalmed or cremated.
  • Several cultures—the Egyptians, the Chinese, and the Vikings—have buried their dead with everything they might need in the afterlife, including sometimes their live servants or wives. For the rich and powerful, this often meant burial sites of great size.
  • The people of Tibet traditionally practiced Jhator, or sky burials, where the dead are cut into pieces and left on the top of the mountain for carrion birds to feast on. The practice was both practical and spiritual. Due to the local rocky terrain, the digging of graves for burial was practically impossible, and the lack of trees to provide fuel for fires meant that cremation was not an option. From the spiritual side, the Tibetans believe the vultures are ‘sky dancers’ that will carry the soul of the departed to heaven. The body is simply considered an empty shell after death, so there is no need to preserve it.
  • On the island of Madagascar, the tradition of Famadihana, or dancing with the dead, has been practiced since the seventeenth century. Also referred to as the ‘turning of the bones’, it is a celebration, a time for family and friends to gather to reconnect with each other and those who have gone before. The bodies of the dead are exhumed from their tombs and rewrapped in fresh, costly grave cloths. A band plays while the shrouded bodies are lifted up onto shoulders and danced around the tomb before being laid back to rest. Within the community, it’s seen as a way of honouring their family members, and as an act of love.

These are just a few of the cultural traditions around death. Do you know of any others not covered here?

Photo credit: Hery Zo Rakotondramanana


Forensic Case Files: The Parisian Catacombs

Paris is often called The City of Light. But deep under the city, another world exists, a world of darkness and death—the great Catacombs of Paris. Holding the remains of more than six million dead, over two hundred miles of underground tunnels stretch under the city in a labyrinthine sepulchre.

For over a millennium, Parisians buried their dead in cemeteries inside the city walls. But even by the twelfth century, the cemeteries were already overflowing with no room to expand. Parisians attempted to manage the issue by exhuming the oldest of the remains and burying them packed together in mass graves. This helped for a period of time, but, by the eighteenth century, things were getting desperate once again. Finally, after the weight of the mass grave caved the contents into an adjoining residential basement, a radical plan was concocted and acted upon.

Paris was built on top of a series of limestone mines, many which were excavated to supply the city with stone for its rapid expansion. Coincidentally, as the cemeteries were being closed, those same mine tunnels were being renovated to ensure the stability of the streets and buildings above. It was the perfect, if somewhat creepy, solution to dual problems: the mine shafts could hold the remains, while the bones of the dead could help support the great city where they’d once travelled above ground. A number of cemetery headstones and sculptures were also moved underground and slowly, the mausoleum was formed. It took over two years to move the dead of Paris underground, and an additional four years to arrange the bones into their current arrangements. The ossuary opened to the public in 1814.

A map showing the extensive catacomb plans:

Entry to the catacombs (translation: Stop! Here lies the Empire of Death):

Bone sculptures:

Cemetery sculptures and artefacts:

The first time I saw the cover for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, I knew they’d used the Paris catacombs for some of their material. Needless to say, it’s hard to get photos of skeletal remains at actual crime scenes as they are evidence and must be protected. So the cover designers had to go to accessible photos to include real bones. Even knowing where the material came from, I still thought it worked beautifully.


The catacombs hold a more varied history than simply the home of the dead. During World War II it was home to the French resistance, who used the system of tunnels to traverse the city in secret. At the same time, a section below a high school in the sixth arrondisement was used as a German bunker. But the catacombs’ impact on the city is lasting—due to the presence of the tunnels under the city, tall structures cannot be supported in Paris. As such, tall, modern skyscrapers will never grace the cityscape and Paris will forever retain its historical appearance.

Photo credit: Cesar I. Martins, Wikimedia Commons, Shadowgate, Adam Baker, Julian Fong, Americano, Will White, Sharat Ganapati, Fraser Mummery, Tommie Hansen, and Randy Connolly.


Forensic Case Files: Famine and Death at an Irish Workhouse

The Irish Potato Famine took place between 1845 and 1852 when a severe potato blight ravaged Northern Europe. It is believed that potatoes carrying the microorganism Phytophthora infestans carried the blight from North America’s eastern coast to Europe in 1844, where it then spread. In 1845, half of Ireland’s single strain potato crop was lost to the blight; three quarters was lost in 1846 and the first starvation deaths were recorded. A staple food for both the farmer and the poor, some families depended almost solely on the potato to stave off starvation. Paired with the vitamins and protein in milk, the twelve to fourteen pounds of potatoes consumed per person per day provided a relatively balanced, albeit uninteresting, diet. But with their crops dying by the acre, many families had no chance of survival. And even though the majority of Ireland’s lands produced enough grain to feed its starving people, this was considered a cash crop and Ireland continued to export thirty to fifty shiploads of food to Britain daily while their own people died by the thousands. By the time the famine finally ended, over one million Irish had succumbed to starvation and related diseases, while another million had emigrated, many coming to North America.

In 2005, a worker for a local archeology consulting firm, Kilkenny Archaeology, discovered human remains on the site of the old Kilkenny Union Workhouse. Excavations started the following year, and 63 mass graves were uncovered, each holding the remains of 6 to 27 deceased for a total of over 970 dead. Out of that 970, 545 were children under the age of 6.

The Kilkenny Union Workhouse opened in 1842, following the creation of the Poor Law Act. It became home to over 1,300 poor souls, providing food and shelter in exchange for backbreaking and brutal labour producing clothes and blankets by hand. But as the famine continued, the number of people seeking refuge at the workhouse skyrocketed, and by 1851 it housed over 4,300 inhabitants—more than three times its intended maximum population.

With so many residents housed inside its walls, the workhouse buildings were extremely overcrowded and became a prime incubator for diseases such as cholera, typhoid and consumption. The final stressor came when a typhus outbreak struck in 1847. Because of a recent ban from burying paupers in local cemeteries, the workhouse constructed an unconsecrated cemetery on their own property. Due to the number of inhabitants dying each day, there was no choice but to use a system of mass graves to manage the dead, creating and closing one grave per week.

Over half of the recovered remains show signs of scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C; for the Irish, this need would have usually been filled by the potatoes in their diet. Without that component, the bones showed a range of characteristic clues:

  • severely low mineral content
  • thinning of the cortex (the hard outer layer of bone that provides the majority of structural support)
  • epiphyseal separation in young victims (a reversal of the normal process of epiphyseal fusion)
  • holes in the skull at the temples and around the teeth.

The bones tell a heartbreaking story of starvation and suffering. But they also speak of redemption, as many of these osteological signs only come about during the recovery from scurvy. Clearly many of the dead had survived near starvation to begin their recovery at the workhouse, only to die from typhus in their still weakened state in the overcrowded ranks of the workhouse.

One thing to note about the mass graves—the dead were buried with care. Compared to mass graves in war zones like Srebrenica, where bodies were carelessly tossed on top of each other, the Irish remains were carefully shrouded and laid in simple pine coffins. The coffins were then neatly stacked in the mass graves before being finally filled in. Sometimes family were buried together, a parent and child or siblings interred together in a single coffin.

In May 2010, a reburial ceremony was held, consecrating the ground as part of the new Famine Memorial Garden.

Photo credit: Bioarchaeologist Dr Jonny Geber, University College Cork


Word on the Street Toronto

This past Sunday I took part in Word on the Street Toronto, Canada's largest book and magazine festival. Celebrating its 25th year, Word on the Street has everything for the book lover—one-on-one interviews, panel discussions, publishers, booksellers, libraries, literacy groups and much, much more.

This was my first Word on the Street, but what a fabulous festival! Every genre and taste was represented for every age. Despite the doom-and-gloom weather forecast for severe thunderstorms, the sky cleared during the festival and Toronto residents responded, coming out in droves.

I was part of the crew coming out from the Crime Writers of Canada and helped man booth 147. Along the way I met some of our existing readers, some new readers, and had great discussions with readers and authors alike. It was a really wonderful experience being immersed in a crowd of people who were all there for one reason—a universal love of reading.

Here are a few pictures from the afternoon...

Queen's Park Circle shut down for the festival:

Rick Blechta and Terry Carroll selling books and signing at the Crime Writers of Canada booth:

Jonathan Bennett, Jeramy Dodds, and Michael Lista in the ‘New Narratives’ tent:

Gail Gallant, Lucy Leiderman, and Lesley Livingston specializing in spoken word poetry in the ‘This Is Not the Shakespeare Theater Stage’ tent:

The Toronto Public Library booth was hopping with both kids and adults:

Penguin Random House's Author Solutions was out with several of its authors doing signings:

The Kobo Writing Life booth:

Toronto Book Award finalist Anthony De Sa, talking about his novel Kicking the Sky:

The ‘Amazon.ca Bestsellers Stage’ tent, introducing Andrew Pypers' The Demonologist:

Ottawa firefighter John Kenny with his debut novel The Spark:

And what's a festival without a beer tent?

Joan O'Callaghan and I manning the Crime Writers of Canada booth, meeting new readers, talking up the CWC and signing books:

Thanks Word on the Street for a great time. Looking forward to seeing you again next year!