Friday, June 13, 2014

"I’m Not A Forensic Anthropologist… But I Play One In Fiction"

Jacqueline Seewald:

Hi, I previously interviewed Jen J. Danna for Author Expressions when her first mystery novel was published. Today, she is our guest blogger. As a scientist specializing in infectious diseases, Jen is part of a dynamic research group at a  Canadian university. Her true passion, however, is indulging her love of the mysterious through her writing. Together with her partner Ann Vanderlaan, she crafts suspenseful crime fiction with a realistic scientific edge. Her Skeleton Keys blog at has been listed by ITSGOV and as one of the top forensic blogs on the web. Jen lives near Toronto, Ontario with her husband and two daughters, and is a member of the Crime Writers of Canada. You can reach her at As a mystery author myself, I find her writing fascinating. Okay—here’s Jen!

Everyone wants to have their own angle when they write a novel—something unique to interest readers. But when constantly told there are only a handful of constantly recycled universal storylines, writers need to find their own take on those stories. Be it a background in law, an interest in quilting, or a love of military history, a great way to pull readers into your story is to share your love of the topic with them.

In my case, it’s science. I’m a scientific researcher in my day job at the same university that awarded me my Bachelor of Science degree. And while I have 20 years (or maybe more *cough cough*) in the business of infectious diseases, it’s the science of forensics that really caught my attention.
So, for fun, I taught myself the field of forensic anthropology (yes, I hear you cry, that’s fun? Actually, it is for me…). I’ve always found it fascinating how experts can tell the story of a murder victim given nothing more than their skeletal remains. The idea of someone who speaks for the dead like this fascinates me. Thus Dr. Matt Lowell, forensic anthropologist, was born. Matt is paired with Trooper Leigh Abbott of the Massachusetts State Police because someone who speaks for the dead needs someone to stand for them. From a burial ground of torture victims in DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, to the remains of a young woman, tossed away at a landfill in NO ONE SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL, to arson victims in A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH, or the discovery of a victim in a long forgotten Prohibition-era speakeasy in the upcoming TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, Matt and Leigh are a formidable team, dealing with what can be the messiest of the dead in their relentless drive to find justice for their victims.

As part of learning this background material, I’ve blogged on the topic of forensic anthropology and forensics on my Skeleton Keys blog for more than three years. Every week we cover a new topic (note—I say ‘we’ because my writing partner, Ann Vanderlaan, stands as editor for all my blog posts) around the basics of forensic anthropology, forensics, or the discovery of historic remains.

The Forensics 101 series of blog posts may occasionally have been unintentionally misleading. I’ve been called by the CBC here in Canada, when they were looking to interview a forensic anthropologist. Recently I was contacted by a gentleman who acquired a real human skull and was looking for someone to examine it for age, sex and race. In both cases, I was very honest about my background—I’m not a real forensic anthropologist, I just play one in fiction. In the case of the skull identification, the gentleman was aware of my background, but allowed me to take a stab at it anyway (for those who are interested, it was a male, of American white heritage, between the ages of ­­40 and 45, based solely on pictures of the skull and without any of the post cranial skeleton for confirmation). So sometimes, the role you play in fiction can become the roll you play in real life.

Whatever your passion, find a way to embed it naturally into your writing. The readers who share that love will find you and will stay with you for the long haul.

Thanks, Jen for providing us with this wonderful discussion. Comments and questions are most welcome!


Jen J. Danna said...

Jacqueline, thanks so much for hosting me again!

Susan Oleksiw said...

You've chosen a fascinating line for your detective. I love that you fictional character has influenced your real life. I'll check out your blog.

Maggie Toussaint said...

I love your passion for forensic anthropology, Jen. And I share your scientific background too. Best wishes with A flame in the wind of death!

Jen J. Danna said...

Susan - thanks for stopping by. I think it's a fascinating line of work. Hard, in many ways, because of the nature of a lot of the remains, but it must feel good to identify these victims and bring them home to their families.

Maggie - it's such an interesting science, isn't it? Thanks for the good wishes and for taking the time to read and comment!

Peter DiChellis said...

Great post. And your Forensics 101 posts rock!

Jen J. Danna said...

Peter - thank you so much! I love those posts, but I'm always worried that they're too technical. Glad to hear you're enjoying them!

Carole Price said...

Interesting angle, Jen: the role you play in fiction can become the role you play in real life, and the reverse. I think it's what I do without realizing it.

Jen J. Danna said...

Carole - thanks for your comment. It's funny how the material we learn for our writing becomes such an integral part of us, isn't it? :)

Joan Reeves said...

I love the title of this post. *g* I hosted Jen on my blog back in the spring which was my intro to her excellent book.

Jen J. Danna said...

Joan - thanks for stopping by. I was aiming for a bit of humour in the title, seeing as it's something that's so rarely in my books. Forensic anthropology is serious bushiness apparently.