This week in the WRITERSDETECTIVE Q&A forum on Facebook had some great questions and discussion that I wanted to expand upon:
We all obviously understand that the goal of your investigator (likely your protagonist) is to find the truth of the matter: what exactly occurred (determine the crimes), who was responsible (who to arrest and prosecute), why it happened (motive), etc.
HOW a Detective goes about that is by forming a timeline of what happened, based on the totality of the knowledge at hand. This means every interview, every piece of evidence discovered and analyzed, the data dumps from cell phone search warrants, the time stamp on video surveillance, -all of it- is plotted on a giant time line. I mean this literally.
We have a "war-room" (a conference room with a lockable door) in our Detective Bureau that we use during active homicide investigations, where a time-line is drawn on a white-board. (There is also a task-list that shows what task each detective has been assigned and whether it's been completed.) As new facts are discovered, they are plotted on the timeline board for everyone working the case to see at a glance. Obviously, this dry-erase board drawing isn't the formal document - all of that is done via the written word in dozens or even hundreds of reports and a Crime Analyst will likely create a formal visualization of the timeline as a document. But you get the idea.
That timeline often starts with the first 9-1-1 call that notified us of the crime. My goal, as a Detective, is to fill that timeline in. By doing so, it will paint the full picture of the crime and not only point to who is responsible, it will also show alibi factors for other suspects/conspirators/accessories/witnesses at a glance. It will also help us spot inconsistencies in stories quickly.
I'd suggest Authors try working this process BACKWARD. Since you're the omnicient storyteller (sorry, Pantsers...this may be tough if you can't stand planning out your stories), I'd start with creating the entire timeline of the events leading up to the crime, the commission of the crime, and then what happens after the crime in chronological order. This is all reference material for you to use as you create the story. Your story, most likely, won't start at the beginning of your Omnicient Timeline. It will probably start with the inciting incident of either the commission of the crime, or the discovery of the crime. From there, your story will be about the order in which the earlier bits of the timeline are discovered by the Detective.
Does the Coroner/ME provide a time of death window? Plot it on the time-line. When was the victim last seen alive? Plot it. When was the last phone call made by the victim? Plot it. When was the last ATM/Credit Card use by the victim? Plot it. Sooner or later, the window of unknowns on the timeline starts to narrow...allowing your Detectives to gain some insight into where the case is heading.
Obviously, take this advice with a grain of salt...being as I have not been in your chair as the author (tip of the hat in respect, BTW). However, I hope some explanation of how real investigations happen may help you form your own way of having characters discover the clues/events in your own story.
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