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Interview: August 5, 2005

August 5, 2005's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) interviewed Elizabeth Becka, author of TRACE EVIDENCE. Becka talks about her career as a forensic specialist, its effect on her writing, and the similarities and differences between her day-to-day work and what is glamorized on television. She also explains how she created the characters and settings in her debut novel, and identifies the authors who have impacted her the most. TRACE EVIDENCE, your first novel, is set in Cleveland, where you worked for several years in the coroner's office. Could you tell us about your work there?

Elizabeth Becka: I worked in the Trace Evidence department. Unlike most coroner's or ME's offices, we had extensive Trace Evidence and Toxicology labs. I did DNA at first, and then mostly clothing examinations, gunshot residue (from hands and clothing), blood typing, hairs, fibers, paint, and glass. I also had to lecture, examine crime scenes and testify in court.

BRC: You seem to have a number of things in common, at least professionally, with Evelyn James, the protagonist of TRACE EVIDENCE. How much of your professional life did you infuse into Evelyn? Did you find doing so to be painful, cathartic, or both?

EB: I try to include everything that readers might find interesting, especially the little inside tidbits that they might not read elsewhere. I've written things that felt cathartic, but that ultimately didn't make the final cut. It might have felt good to get it out, but it wasn't terribly relevant to the story!

BRC: The novel is populated with believable, fully developed characters. How long did you spend creating your core characters?

EB: I'm glad that my characters come across as realistic. I don't start out by creating full life histories for them, I don't talk to them, or even spend a tremendous amount of time developing them before I work out the central conflict of the novel. Once I decide their names, what they look like, and what's uppermost on their minds at the exact moment they're interacting with Evelyn, then I know what they're going to do.

BRC: Office politics --- specifically the Medical Examiner's Office --- provided an entertaining and believable back story in TRACE EVIDENCE. Did some of the people you encountered while working in the ME office provide a basis for any of the characters in the novel?

EB: Not really. It's too difficult to use real people for characters because you need your characters to do certain things, and then you might think, so and so would never do that. It's too restricting. I'm happiest with characters I create wholly from scratch. I had to invent the office politics as well, because at every job I've ever had, I'm always the last to know everything. I never keep track of the water cooler talk. I'm not above it --- I'm just lazy.

BRC: How did you become interested in the field of forensics?

EB: I've been watching cop shows as far back as I can remember, to the distress of my mother. But I couldn't be a cop --- I couldn't handle working so closely with people in stressful situations --- and I have an aptitude for science. It was a natural compromise.

BRC: Your ability to explain a number of forensic concepts is particularly impressive, especially to those of us whose eyes glazed over during high school chemistry class. Have you had much experience explaining forensic findings to juries and/or to individuals unfamiliar with forensic science?

EB: I did have to lecture and testify quite a bit, but the really difficult part in the novel is explaining things without using pictures. I just take extra care with those passages in the book.

BRC: Shows such as the CSI series have glamorized forensic medicine. TRACE EVIDENCE seems to focus on some of the darker aspects of the work. You touch a bit on how from television and movies people seem to assume that forensic medicine happens in the blink of an eye. What advice do you have for students who become interested in forensics after watching television shows? Are there any myths you would like to dispel about the forensics highlighted in television or other mediums?

EB: The biggest myths I would dispel are: a) every lab has dozens of people and tons of equipment --- actually, most staffs are small and overworked, and equipment is expensive; b) every substance on earth is detailed in a computerized database --- in reality, the more obscure databases have been put together by one individual who happened to take an interest in something; c) routine laboratory work is fun when accompanied by mood lighting and a soundtrack --- in truth, most forensic work is routine, and most routine is just that. I love the job and I don't want to be discouraging, but students today are going to face a hundred times the competition I had trying to get into the field.

BRC: What, in your opinion, is the most difficult part of the forensic work that you encounter on a day-to-day basis?

EB: Going to a crime scene and not knowing what's relevant. Is stuff trailing out of a drawer because the burglar was looking for something he knew was hidden there, or is it just lax housekeeping? And at the lab, did you not get any fingerprints on a piece of evidence because there weren't any, or because you handled the evidence too roughly, or didn't get to it quickly enough, or should have used another technique? On TV they always answer every question down to the tiniest detail, and that very rarely happens in real life.

BRC: The knowledge acquired from your work as a forensic specialist is utilized to ultimate effect in TRACE EVIDENCE. What is really impressive about the novel, however, is your storytelling ability. Have you always been interested in writing?

EB: Yes, though I can't really say exactly when it started. By high school I wrote stories regularly.

BRC: When did you begin writing TRACE EVIDENCE?

EB: It seems like a lifetime ago now, but I think it was 2002?

BRC: Joe (mis)spent his formative years in and around Cleveland and he was extremely impressed with the way you captured not only the geography, but also the flavor of the city. You moved away from Cleveland several years ago. Did you return to the city to do additional or refresher research for TRACE EVIDENCE?

EB: I try to, but usually when I go back I spend every minute letting my mother feed me piles of carbohydrates. I'm glad to hear that people like the depiction of Cleveland. I worked downtown and then on the near east side for a total of fifteen years, so I became very familiar with those areas. However, I was never an "in" kind of person; I didn't know who the movers and shakers were or where to find a hot spot, then or now. There's a huge spectrum of ethnic groups there too, and I wish I knew much more about them.

BRC: You were born and raised in Cleveland, but now live in Cape Coral, FL, where you continue to work as a forensic specialist. What is the biggest difference between your work in Cleveland and Cape Coral? Do you have any plans for a future novel set in Cape Coral or in another area of Florida's Gulf Coast?

EB: At the coroner's office we dealt with homicides, naturally. Cape Coral is a very large bedroom community, so we deal mostly with burglaries. Here I work with fingerprints and photography, which are the two things I *didn't* do in Cleveland, so it all seems quite different to me. My husband keeps wanting me to bring Evelyn to Florida on vacation, but it's way too early in the series for that!

BRC: What part of the novel-writing experience has surprised you the most?

EB: How difficult writing the second one is! This is my first experience with a series and it's really quite a different proposition.

BRC: What authors, if any, do you feel have most influenced your writing style?

EB: Authors I would like to have influenced my writing style (I word it this way to shield them from blame) are Jeffery Deaver and Tami Hoag. The first was Alastair MacLean. I have a copy of every book he ever published.

BRC: What authors do you read for pleasure?

EB: The above. Also Michael Connolly, Ethan Black, Peter Abrahams, Tess Gerritsen, Jan Burke, Val McDermid, Jeremiah Healy, Ridley Pearson, and I'm sure I'm missing a dozen or two.

BRC: What can you tell us about your next novel? When can readers expect it?

EB: I don't want to give anything away, but readers can expect to see Evelyn back on the job in early 2007.