We had a great visit with author Pat MacEwen. She was here to talk to us about her story in the May/June issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, entitled Coyote Song - and about her expertise in forensics, which features in the story.
Pat says it's an advantage to writers to have a "checkered career," as she was originally going to be "Jacques-Yvette Cousteau," i.e. a marine biologist. However, life took her in other directions. She says she likes having a background in anthropology. She feels that a lot of anthropology people are "misfits much like science fiction and fantasy fans," with a "taste for the Other."
She told us that the three steps to forensics are, 1. learning how to see what's there, 2. figuring out how that got that way, and 3. proving it.
In crime scenes, you see what you expect. You have to train your eye to look for things, such as shell casings. In fact, if you bring a shell casing with you, drop it on the ground and train your eye on it, thereafter you will have an easier time seeing others. Also it's important to figure out what is normal. There is such a variety of people, we can't necessarily predict what will be normal to them.
Pat's first novel is called Rough Magic and involves the fae and forensics.
She's also spent a lot of time working on archaeological sites, including mass graves in northern Iraq. She doesn't like getting shot at. She told us that no one will sell Zimbabwe paper to make money because they had 3 million percent inflation. This crisis contributed to genocidal tendencies.
Pat describes economics as the basis of all the stuff going on in the world. We should keep our eye on "love, lust, liquor and lucre."
Coyote Song was a story written on the basis of stories she picked up at crime scenes. It involves the Cambodian Angel of Death, as well as a Native American character and a character with ties to Vodou. Pat is very interested in unusual, culture-specific phenomena like Banginget, where Cambodian people in their late 20's to early 30's wake up, scream and die in the middle of the night. Maybe it's genetic; maybe it's a nightmare leading to tachycardia. The families of the victims would hide the bodies because they didn't want them to be cut up, and to CA police it would then look like a homicide.
So Pat does lots of research, files the serial numbers off people she's met, and creates totally unique stories. She has a deep interest in Native American culture because she has a mixture of ancestors from Cherokee, Sioux, Oneida, and Onondaga peoples. She is very interested in cases like the California Miwoks trying to repatriate bones which have been held in museums. When she works with Native American culture she asks people to read the story to see if she's "out of line."
She says that Stockton, where she lives, is very cosmopolitan. People speak 125 languages and dialects there, and it is home to the oldest Sikh temple in the US.
When I told her that there was a great deal of practicality in her stories, she explained that her mother had cerebral palsy, so practicality was critical. Furthermore, in crime scenes, you have to adjust to them, not the other way around. "You can't apply time management to crime scenes." Practically, you can't do everything. There will be a mistake. 95% of what you do won't matter and isn't relevant in court, so you hope your mistake is in the 95%. She has done things like stop by a local hardwarestore to pick up metal screen to help the plaster hold together when she was taking footprints in soft dirt under a bridge.
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Pat says nobody does what you see on TV. No one is actually on the cutting edge. Techniques have to be proven in court, and they also involve considerable expense, so they have to be worth the expense. There have been problems with the FBI, such as the hair analysis issue. However, the FBI can also do amazing things like fingerprint ID. Apparently they have an office for detached fingers and hands; local departments can cut pieces off with pruning shears and send those pieces to the FBI where they can be treated with dyes etc. to get fingerprints that wouldn't be recoverable locally. DNA can now be extracted from hair - they use the mitochondrial DNA present in the hair shaft. She told us a story about how the police had been authorized to get a hair sample from a rape suspect (not from the head) and the police had to be pretty forceful to get it (ripping out a handful!).
I asked Pat about archaeological digs and how much we can get with certain types of technology, and how sometimes things get left untouched in anticipation of technological advances that won't destroy the evidence. She told us that there was a period of war in 500 AD when suddenly they started finding arrowheads stuck in bones instead of spearheads. Even if you have no pueblos and no maize, the style of shells, tools, and bird whistles change over time. You can have sudden changes in war technology. The use of an atlatl (spear thrower) actually changes your skeleton. The use of a bow changes it in a different way. She has done work examining skulls and seeing how biologically different they are between one tribal group and another.
She once went to Kosovo to do some work. She was told not to learn the language because simply speaking a local language might commit a person to one side or the other of local conflicts between Albanians and Serbians. The word "pivo" for beer could get you in trouble because it was in fact a Serbian brand of beer. Pat said she drank Turkish beer while she was there. She told us that because the area was Muslim, there were minarets, and calls to prayer at 5am. Also, dogs in the area had gone feral and would run through the town during the night like the Wild Hunt. They would also attack children.
We returned again to the question of what is normal, this time in the context of medical treatments. In some cultures, heated cups are placed on the back for the flu. To California police this can look like child abuse. Pat said they made an effort to tell people that the cups wouldn't pull bronchitis out through the skin.
Deborah, one of our discussants, told us there are times when conventional wisdom doesn't work, as when you are foraging for mushrooms. Apparently there is a mushroom considered a delicacy in Vietnam, that looks a lot like a poisonous mushroom that grows in California. Pat told us that ammonita will kill your liver. She also said that in Italy, pharmacists are trained in mycology so that they can help people tell what they will be able to eat and what might be dangerous.
"It's called a liver for a reason; you don't live without it."
Pat said her grandmother was Cherokee, and they did a lot of berry and mushroom gathering, particularly morel mushrooms. She said that there are two varieties of katniss, one of which is deadly. You have to watch out for these slight variants in wild species which may make them totally inappropriate for consumption. There are also things like red tides which make foods poisonous. Pat says if a berry is blue or black, it's probably safe; if it's red, it's 50/50, and if it's white, don't eat it under any circumstances.
Pat considers Coyote Song the first part of a series. The second story is now in edits, but she has at least two more in mind. The first has Cambodian culture, the second has magic with insects, the third has Santeria, and the fourth may have golden Buddha babies.
This was a great discussion and ranged all over, sometimes too quickly for me to keep up with notes. I recommend that you watch the video for more.
Pat, thank you for joining us and sharing your amazing expertise! Next week we will meet on Wednesday, May 25th at 10am. I'm checking into the technical issues that scuttled the hangout this week, but planning to be there to talk about Bathrooms. I hope you will join us!