Science is an evolving field. For proof of this, open a newspaper on any given day, or browse any of the numerous on-line news sources and scan the entries. Likely you’ll find an account of a recent discovery or a technological advance. Often the new finding impacts our lives in profound ways. At times, it even changes the course of history.
When a report about Beethoven hit the news a few years ago, it attracted my attention. Tests on Beethoven’s skull and locks of his hair had resolved a long-standing mystery – the likely cause of Beethoven’s strange behavior in later life and the possible cause of his early death. There was something intriguing about this development. I clipped the story out of my daily newspaper and saved it.
A number of my books have started this way – a single story sparks the imagination and a theme or topic surfaces. Sometimes the idea dies there and never makes it past this point. Sometimes it hangs on for a long while then vanishes when other priorities take its place. Some ideas, though, live on and even thrive. The Beethoven story and the theme of science detectives solving mysteries was one of these.
Some time later I dredged up the item and scoured the Internet for more information about the Beethoven tests. There were many sites devoted to Beethoven, and a number of accounts that covered the scientific details that I needed. I drafted the story and refined the theme as I wrote, building in a number of sidebars with additional details and fascinating facts. Then, with a better understanding of how the book might evolve, I wrote a proposal that outlined my vision for the book and highlighted its marketplace potential.
Assigning a title is a necessary step of the proposal process. Titles often change before publication, but a preliminary one is needed. Find the right one – a title that says in just a few captivating words what the book is about – and it helps to sell the concept to a publisher. I struggled with a title for a long while. Nothing really jumped off the page. Finally, I settled on the best of the bunch: What Killed Beethoven? and Other Science Detective Stories It wasn’t really a great title, but I thought it might be enticing enough for a start.
With the approval of my editor, I e-mailed the proposal and sample story about Beethoven to Scholastic Canada, my long-time publisher. Months later, after rounds of discussions about the content and format of the book, I received approval to go ahead.
Finding intriguing stories was never a problem, but shaping the book and establishing exactly how those stories would be presented was a struggle. I knew from the outset that I wanted a number of scientific fields to be represented and that there had to be variety in the types of cases that I would include. I didn’t want them all to be about crimes, or involve DNA exclusively, or be cases that centered around one just scientific discipline. I wanted readers to get a real sense of how science detection worked, the collaboration that was often needed between various specialties, and the way evidence and analysis worked in tandem when arriving at conclusions. I especially wanted readers to recognize the tenuous nature of conclusions and how they were often revisited – and sometimes even changed – in the light of new evidence or improved analytical methods.
It took a few months of writing – and some hard questioning by my two editors – to actually recognize the structure of the book. We agreed on four chapters, each focusing one a different goal of scientific detection: Identify, Prove, Explain, and Resolve. In addition to the 20 plus main stories, we aimed for 2 sidebars in each chapter. The sidebars offered opportunities to highlight other scientific disciplines or other approaches, and in particular to show readers how discussion, controversy and differing perspectives are the norms for science.
The Steven Truscott story (The Case of Death’s Forgotten Visitor) is a good example of a situation where conclusions change over time. The murder of Lynne Harper was big news when I was a youngster, and the review of the case was big news once again around the time I started working on the book. I knew almost from the outset that I wanted to include the story.
It was one of the more difficult ones to write for a couple of reasons. First, the nature of the crime was violent and I had to be careful how much detail to include. This was a book for young people, after all. Secondly, the review of the original case showed that errors had been made along the way, both in the treatment of evidence and in the scientific conclusions that had been reached, but the primary reason that Steven Truscott was eventually absolved of the crime was because science itself had changed. The blowfly maggots that were considered irrelevant to the case originally now became an important factor in establishing time of death. It was important, I felt, to keep this point at the forefront of the story rather than dwell on the mistakes that might have been made in the past. It took many drafts before I felt I had properly nailed it down.
The missing soldiers…
One of the most rewarding stories to write (The Case of the Intertwined Bones) centered around the discovery of two sets of bones in a field in France that during World War I had been the site of trench warfare. Early in the investigation, the bones were identified as belonging to Canadian soldiers. Most fascinating to me was the position of the bones – upper limbs overlapping, the lower limbs of one missing almost entirely. There was speculation about how the men had died, and how their bodies had come to lie in the same trench, one on top of the other. A story of heroic means seemed quite possible.
Eventually, though a variety of scientific measures – DNA analysis, chemical deposits in teeth, among others – one of the soldiers was identified as Private Herbert Peterson. I wrote the story, ending the account with this information, and speculating on the role played by the other unnamed man. Then, just as deadlines were approaching, my editor led me to fresh information. Thanks to new forensic evidence and a skull reconstruction of the second soldier that had been completed by forensic artist Christrian Corbet, the second soldier had been identified as Private Thomas Lawless. I rewrote sections of the story, adding this new information and also including what many believe may have been the circumstances of the deaths – an heroic attempt by Lawless to carry the injured Peterson back to the safety.
I didn’t realize the impact the story might have until the book was released. One of the relatives of Thomas Lawless obtained a copy, found comfort in the story, and wrote my editor at Scholastic with an update of the latest news. Both men had been interred in the same military cemetery in Vimy, France. Their graves are beside each other, as close in death as they might have been in life.