Last Updated: Jan 8th, 2015 - 07:42:25

CSI:Prince George: Young mystery writers get a real world look at crime scene investigation
By Sarah Steele Wilson
Oct 26, 2012, 15:07

photo by Sarah Steele Wilson President Obama smiled as he greeted a crowd of 15,000 at Byrd Park in Richmond

Most young writers scribbling mystery stories in their notebooks have to rely completely on what they have learned from other writers to shape their crime scenes and spin the tales of the sleuths that get to the bottom of those scenes.

On Friday night, the imaginative powers of a group of Prince George County students from J.E.J. Moore Middle School got an assist from the VCU Department of Forensic Science and popular mystery writer Marcia Talley.

As part of the Library of Virginia Literary Festival, the workshop designed for 12 to 15-year-olds paired the techniques forensic scientists use to solve crimes with the techniques professional writers use to tell stories of crimes, to create a memorable evening.

“I thought it was interesting, to say the least,” said J.E.J. Moore seventh grader Trae Wesbrook, describing the workshop.

Hunched over microscopes in the labs used by VCU’s graduate and undergraduate forensics students, the middle schoolers examined hair, soil and paint chips to see how they might play a role in solving a crime.

“We got to use things we wouldn’t be able to use, like the microscopes, which were interesting,” Wesbrook said. “The hair part, we would see how they could tell the difference between a human hair and a dog hair for a crime.”

Some students were conducting bloodstain pattern analysis (using red paint), learning how different shapes formed by blood drops could help reveal how far the source was from the ground, helping to create a more accurate vision of what might have happened at a crime scene.

“I want to get the science out of a crime scene,” Dr. Marilyn Miller, a Crime Scene Investigation expert at VCU told the students as they worked on their blood drops. “Even though it’s blood and guts, it’s still science.”

In next room, more students were dusting for fingerprints and measuring and sketching miniature crime scene reconstructions.

“We hope it’s going to be a pretty unique learning experience for them,” said Dr. Michelle Peace, interim chair for the Department of Forensic Science at VCU.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson A VCU graduate student discusses observations of a soil sample with Brandon Humphrey on Friday.

She said that the exercises were designed to provide students with an introduction to the scientific concepts that help solve crimes, but also to add real world inspiration and energy to the stories they began to write under the tutelage of Marcia Talley.

“[Talley’s] really interested in talking to young people about how to write mysteries, and what better way to get them to think about those mysteries than when they actually have some kind of experience to also think about?” Peace asked.

Talley, the award winning writer behind the Hannah Ives mysteries, said she was excited to be participating in a writing workshop with a twist.

“I’ve done mystery writing work shops, but never one in conjunction with a forensics lab, which really makes it much more interesting and exciting for the kids I think,” she said.

She said she wished she could have participated on the other side when she was a student.

“I just wish when I was stealing ideas from Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and writing these horrible stories when I was this age, that I had had a program like this that had some reality to it,” she said.

Although some of the Prince George students participated in the workshop because they wanted to learn more about science, others were lured by the writing component.

“I liked the writing and how we could just kind of open up and create our own,” said seventh grader Jakob Kennedy.

Several days after the workshop, Alejandro Gonzalez said he was still working on the story he began writing that night under Talley’s guidance. He was also using the tips she offered to inform some of his other writing.

“I was working on a story a couple weeks ago,” he said. “It was also a mystery, so it helped me get new ideas for that too.”

Talley had the students begin by creating a main character, a task which yielded a diverse range of people, ranging from an Italian journalist to a vegetarian lawyer from Quebec to a mental patient.

Some of the students had seen crime programs on television and were able to combine what they had seen on those shows with what they learned in the VCU lab to create colorful stories.

“I usually always watch those mysteries, like ‘CSI’ with my parents, so that kind of helped me get with the start of the novel she helped us start writing,” said David Branch.

One sixth grade student said the experience had encouraged her to broaden her reading range.

“It just made me think that I should read more, because you never know what’s out there,” Anisa Isaac said. “It could be interesting.”
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Anisa Isaac investigates a miniature crime scene, measuring it and sketiching it for documentation.

Some of the students who participated in the workshop may also have been alerted to a more immediate career alternative, should writing bestselling mystery novels be awhile in the making.

“I was interested in science but I didn’t know specifically what interested me the most,” said Danielle Mackowsky, a first year VCU grad student studying toxicology, who volunteered to help guide the younsters through their examination of hairs from humans and dogs.

That all changed when she participated in a similar workshop through her middle school in New York. That early experience inspired her to pursue a career in the field of forensics.

“I was very excited when I came here to hear that we were going to be doing this in October in the Richmond area,” she said, noting she hoped it might do as much as it did for her for another student.

“I figure that if one of them goes on to do anything then this program is more than a success.”

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