Becky Levine

 

Becky Levine is a writer, freelance manuscript editor, and book reviewer. Her first children’s mystery is currently doing the agent hunt, and she is the co-author, with Lee Lofland (yes, that Lee Lofland) of The Everything Kids I Want to Be a Police Officer Book, for Adams Media. As an editor, Becky helps other writers with their projects, critiquing and copyediting both fiction and nonfiction works. Becky lives in California’s Santa Cruz mountains with her husband and son. You can read more about her at her website, http://www.beckylevine.com/, and her blog, http://beckylevine.livejournal.com/.

Becky Levine:

“I…do not approve of murder,” says Hercule Poirot.

In that one line, you have Poirot’s motive, his reason for investigating and solving any murder that comes his way. Yes, he was a police officer, and he is now a private detective, but his real reason for catching killers is that they offend him.

For Agatha Christie, and for her hundreds of thousands of readers, that has always been enough. We don’t need anything else; murder is Poirot’s, and Miss Marple’s, job, and we’ll follow them through any number of pages with pleasure.

Agathie Christie's Miss Marple - The Moving Finger / At Bertram's Hotel

So, of course, what works for Christie can work for us, right? Wrong. First, Christie was a genius. Most of us aren’t. Second, she started producing books over fifty years ago, gathering her first fans from a very different set of readers than the ones we’re writing for.

Today’s readers and, I’m guessing, today’s agents and editors, want a stronger motive for crime-solving than an abstract sense of justice. They want a specific reason why a detective gets involved in a case.

Okay, let’s back up a minute. I can hear you now. “I’m not writing about an amateur detective. My protagonist is a police detective. She has to solve crimes.

Sure she does. She’s collecting a salary, she’s wearing a badge–when her boss says to go investigate, she goes.

It’s not enough.

These days, your readers want a second story thread. They want a detective, whether he’s a professional or the curious boy next door, to have a concrete, personal motive for stepping in. They want the detective to have something at stake.

So what do you do? Well, there are the standards: The victim is a personal friend of the detective. The detective’s brother is the primary suspect. There’s a child involved. And you can use these. I firmly believe there are few, if any, new plots, but the most familiar plot can be made new by individual details and captivating specifics.

Why not push yourself, though? Sure, it’s possible every idea has been used once, but you haven’t read them all. Go for something you haven’t seen on another page, a problem you haven’t watched a hundred times on the big screen. Maybe the murder was committed with an historical artifact that was stolen from a museum where your detective is the guard. Maybe the killer left a “treasure” map leading to another body, and the “X” is marked on your detective’s great-grandmother’s farm.

 

Maybe your detective’s prime suspect is her own chief-of-police, and she wants to be the one to a) prove him innocent or b) hang his badge from the nearest yardarm. Maybe, as my son would surely suggest, you throw in a space alien or two!

Just make sure you pick something. Set up your hero with a strong, solid goal, one that is his alone, and help him pursue it. Throw up obstacle after obstacle, so he’s tested, and give him the tools to push through all the barriers and get there in the end. Weave this personal thread in with the professional, mystery-solving one, and you’ll keep your reader hooked. He’ll read the book cover to cover and, when the story is finished, he’ll get to see your detective solve the crime.

Does that detective solve her personal problem, too? That’s up to you. Maybe it’s time to write that sequel!

Comment away-I’ll be checking in all day and will get back to you. For more thoughts on writing, books, and life, check out my blog at http://beckylevine.livejournal.com/. Come on over this week, and enter my first blog contest http://beckylevine.livejournal.com/37253.html: a chance to win a signed copy of Terri Thayer’s mystery, Wild Goose Chase.

A refugee from the world of politics, Scott Hoffman is one of the founding partners of Folio Literary Management, LLC. Prior to starting Folio, Scott was at PMA Literary and Film Management, Inc.

He has served as Vice-chairman of the Board of Directors of SEARAC (the only nationwide advocacy agency for Southeast Asian-Americans), a Board Member of Fill Their Shelves, Inc. (a charitable foundation that provides books to children in sub-Saharan Africa) and a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Associates Steering Committee.

Before entering the world of publishing, he was one of the founding partners of Janus-Merritt Strategies, a Washington, DC strategic consulting firm. He holds an MBA from New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, and a BA from the College of William and Mary.

Scott Hoffman:

When Lee asked me if I would do a guest blog entry for him and this fabulous site, I jumped at the opportunity. I figured that not only would it be a lot of fun, it would also be an opportunity to give readers a little bit of an insight into the mind of a publishing industry insider, and in the process, maybe pass along a little useful advice.

As a literary agent who represents a fair amount of both fiction and nonfiction that often deals with police procedure, crime scene investigation, and forensics– and as a reader obsessed with the genre– I often find fairly glaring errors in writers’ descriptions of the way things happen in the real world.

Here’s the question—Does it matter? Is it going to harm your chances of getting your book published if you don’t dot every “I” and cross every “T” when it comes to ensuring the accuracy of your work?

The answer: yeah, probably.

Here’s why. Publishing, to a large extent is a gigantic numbers game. Top literary agents get besieged by submissions. I would say that, on average, great agents get anywhere between 250 and 500 query letters a week. That’s a lot of letters. 500 query letters a week times four weeks in a month equals 2000 queries in a month. 2000 queries in a month times 12 months in a year equals 24,000 queries in a year.

And remember—it’s not a literary agent’s job to read query letters. An agent’s job is to sell books for his or her clients. To the extent we read query letters at all, it’s only when we have extra time, and there’s room on our client lists. Some agents like me will only sign one or two new clients a year. So when we’re looking for a needle in a haystack, we don’t have much time to spend on writers who aren’t experts in their subject.

Here’s a dirty little secret about the way I (and most of the other people in the publishing industry) read material from people we don’t have a preexisting professional relationship with, whether it’s query letters, sample chapters, or an entire manuscript from a client we’re considering taking on.

Basically, we read until we CAN stop—and then we do.

So, if your initial letter to us has a typo in the first line, that’s easy. Pass. And onto query number 12,467.

The same goes for technical details. I can’t tell you how many writers have their studly main characters using their thumb to “flip the safety off” on their Glock 17 before wasting a bad guy or “breaking open” a “Mossberg pump-action” shotgun to reload it.

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These are just the mistakes that *I* catch. I’m hardly a firearms expert; I shudder to think how many errors I *don’t* see that people who read this blog shake their heads over.

So how can you use this phenomenon to your advantage?

Well, readers of crime fiction like to feel smart. To the extent that you can debunk closely-held myths in the course of your writing, agents, editors, and ultimately readers will love it. If you can tell readers how things REALLY happen—as opposed to the way they look on TV, it will give your work a feeling of authenticity that’s often missing in crime fiction (and nonfiction.)

So—here’s my challenge to you, faithful blog readers. When you read crime fiction, what are your pet peeves? What do writers get wrong? What are the most glaring errors you’ve seen? Who are the most egregious offenders?

I’ll even sweeten the pot. Whoever comes up with the best response will get a copy of the galley for Brent Ghelfi’s amazing thriller, VOLK’S SHADOW. Ghelfi’s first book, VOLK’S GAME, was nominated for the best debut thriller of 2007 by the International Thriller Writers. The winner is going to be announced this summer at ThrillerFest.

 

Bring it on.

Scott Hoffman

FOLIO Literary Management, LLC

www.foliolit.com

***

Tomorrow – Freelance editor/author Becky Levine

Set handcuffs

 

New York Times Bestselling Author Allison Brennan is a former consultant in the California State Legislature and lives in Northern California with her husband and five children. Her eighth romantic thriller, TEMPTING EVIL, is on sale 5/20/08.

Truthful Fiction

I make-up stories. My books are fiction and I’m an expert at nothing. I know a little bit about a lot of stuff, which is both a blessing and a curse.

I’m keenly aware that I don’t know everything (please, do not tell my children this fact!) I did a bit of research for my first three books-just enough, frankly, to realize that I had become dangerous-to myself.

There are two mistakes beginning writers-many of whom are published-make. The first is to not do any research and make up everything, stretching credibility. I’m willing to suspend disbelief if the story and writing is good enough, but some things I have a hard time forgiving. The other extreme is putting in too much information. You learn something new, become an “expert” on-for example-how internet feeds can hide their location. Then you show-off your knowledge to your readers, often resulting in long, boring passages. And unless you ARE a computer expert, you’re going to get something wrong.

I received some great advice from two published author friends of mine. The first is married to a retired cop. She laughs at errors in books related to law enforcement. She told me, “Less is more.” Don’t over-explain because unless you’ve walked the beat, you really don’t know much about being a cop. My other friend, a retired FBI Agent, said, “You’re writing fiction. You can make it work.”

Yes, I write fiction and therefore I can break and bend a lot of rules. But because I really want my stories to have a flavor of reality, I want them to be as accurate as possible. I’ve become addicted to research.

Right now, I’m in the middle of the FBI’s Citizen’s Academy. This is the most fun I’ve ever had learning something new. The reason I wanted to do this was because I’m launching an FBI series in early 2009, but in my current “Prison Break” trilogy I have FBI agents as either major or secondary characters.

Tempting Evil (Prison Break, Book 2)

The premise of my series is the “best of the best” Evidence Response Team members form a unit at Quantico to handle high-profile and complex cases, like multi-jurisdictional serial killers, mass murderers, and kidnappings. I’ve done a lot of research on ERT and am fascinated by their dedication and training. ERT members train and specialize in different areas, like firearms, bombs, forensic anthropology, etc. They are full Special Agents, but have an added skill or talent and are sent out to crime scenes to collect and process evidence like a traditional local criminalist would do. One high-profile case they worked near where I live was the Yosemite murders. The ERT unit processed the burned car where two of the victims were found. They are used on federal cases or when local law enforcement requests help-particularly helpful in smaller districts who can’t afford their own crime scene team.

 

I was very happy with my premise, until I talked to the PR guy at my local FBI office and learned that the beauty of the ERT program was that each of the 56 regional offices has an ERT and the purpose is to be able to respond quickly to a crime scene. Having a national unit sort of defeats the purpose of the program.

I was a bit upset learning this. But, because this is fiction, I figured I would just go with my original plan. I’ll admit, I’d lost a little love I had for the series and was considering coming up with a completely different idea.

My first night at the citizen’s academy, we learned the priorities for the FBI. After 9/11, the number one priority is counterterrorism. No brainer there. Protecting our country from another terrorist attack, foreign or domestic, is crucial to the health and safety of the public.

 

The second priority is counterintelligence. Then Cyber crimes (which includes online child pornography.) Then public corruption. Followed by civil rights, criminal enterprises (RICO), white collar crime, and finally . . . violent crime.

 

Violent crime was at the bottom of the list. This doesn’t mean that the FBI won’t get involved in a case when asked by local law enforcement-they will. But it means that the violent crime squad has fewer staff and resources than the other units. This is largely because violent crime generally stays within local law enforcement jurisdiction, and local cops are well trained to handle robberies and homicides and other such crimes. If a life is in immediate danger-such as the kidnapping of a child-the FBI will make that the number one priority. But for all intents and purposes, violent crime is no longer a priority.

This actually works very well for my FBI series premise. Why? Because if violent crime is not a priority of the bureau, then having an elite team focused on violent crimes has merit. To be honest, I highly doubt that the FBI in this current global climate would create a national ERT unit to focus on violent crime. BUT I can make it work for my story-which is fiction.

In my book FEAR NO EVIL, a very small sub-plot revolved around the disappearance of Monique Paxton. We (the readers) know that she was murdered by the villain. What we learn near the end of the book is that her family never knew her fate. When one of the villains reveals the information about her murder and how her body was disposed, her father finally has closure. In one paragraph I created the backstory for my entire new premise without intending to do so. Jonathon Paxton, Monique’s father, ran for public office on an anti-crime platform after Monique disappeared. Over the years, he worked himself up into higher and higher offices, and is now a US Senator, all on a strong anti-crime platform.

We’re now getting into an area I know something about. After 13 years working in the California State Legislature, I know that lots of legislators come in with pet projects. If it’s something we don’t like or it only benefits their individual district, we call it pork. If it’s something we do like, we call it desperately needed legislation. So in my first FBI book, SUDDEN DEATH (4/09) I’m using Senator Paxton as the vehicle to get funding for a special FBI squad that focuses on violent crime-serial killers, mass murderers, missing and exploited children, and kidnappings.

My premise holds. Likely? Probably not. Plausible? Absolutely. I can sell the idea because Senator Paxton believes strongly in this, so strongly he’s willing to put his political future on the line to fund the program through a budget trailer bill. If his character is strong enough, I think all my readers will believe in not only the program, but that it could be done in real life.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the FBI and what they do (and don’t do.) Before 9/11, the FBI was a reactionary agency. A crime occurred, they investigated. Now, the FBI is proactive, hence the focus on counterterrorism and counterintelligence. They want to stop disasters before they happen.

 

Most of the successes of the FBI and the other national agencies are classified. We’re not going to read about them in the newspaper. Sleeper cells destroyed, terrorists taken out over seas, stopping an attack by having a strong presence at a major event. People become complacent when there’s nothing big or sexy being reported. They think, wrongfully, that terrorism isn’t a threat any more, or the terrorists who attacked on 9/11 were a few crazy idiots. But the threat is there, and it’s not going away, and our diligence and strength is keeping them at bay.

There’s so much more I could write about! I’ve had three classes (and a day at the gun range) and each day I came up with an idea for a book. One of them I’m really excited about because it centered around an informant whose motivations and conflicts were so clear in my mind that I could see her as a fully-developed character.

I’m going to wrap this up and visit again in a couple of weeks with more details about how the FBI operates and how to use it-or not-in fiction. But I thought I’d go on my bully pulpit for a moment and discuss the other night’s final presentation on cybercrimes against children.

The SSA in charge of this unit takes his job seriously. Child pornography is a widespread and devastating crime. We’re not talking about naked kids in a bathtub; we’re talking about violent and abusive sexual assault against children-the majority of them infants and toddlers. Yes, babies and small boys and girls. There’s a threshold that the FBI looks into-the child has to be 12 or under. Prepubescent. This isn’t to say that the FBI won’t get involved in a violent crime against a teenager, but because the breadth of this problem, they have to prioritize their resources to protecting and rescuing the youngest of the victims.

Those who prey on the most innocent of the innocent should be dealt with harshly, but unfortunately, as the SSA said: “There is not enough law enforcement in the country to combat this problem.”

If every cop in America focused on child pornography, they’d make only a dent in the distribution of these hideous videos. A recent law enforcement operation discovered 20,000 computers in Virginia alone with downloaded child pornography videos. Yes-videos of sex with young children that are downloaded off the Internet every minute of every day. Over 20,000 sick perverts who watched sexual violence against children.

One case study showed that it doesn’t take long for a adult porn addict to turn to child pornography. A 60-year-old-man was arrested for enticing a 15-year-old girl to commit sexual acts over a webcam. He’d been a legal adult porn addict his entire life, and in one chat room had an exposure to child porn. At first he rejected it, disgusted. But over a few months, he’d become desensitized to the adult porn that had satisfied his addiction for decades. He started looking at more violent porn, then child porn, then violent child porn, then he reached out to victims. This downfall took eight months. Eight months from exposure to child porn to attempted sexual assault.

These men and women who spend countless hours chatting with these men online in order to stop them, viewing child porn videos in the hopes of identifying the child in order to rescue him/her, need to be commended for their dedication and commitment. It is not easy to view the hideous and disturbing videos that are available online. Each child in these videos is a victim of violent, sexual abuse. Most of the law enforcement officers and support staff use their own time to track these predators, in addition to their regular jobs. Truly unsung heroes.

I’m happy to answer questions if anyone has them. I’ll post in a couple of weeks more information about the academy and how to use crime research in novels.

Lee, thanks so much for having me today!

You can visit Allison on her website http://www.allisonbrennan.com/

Allison also writes a weekly blog over  at Murder She Writes

http://www.murdershewrites.com/

***

Tomorrow – Scott Hoffman, Owner/Agent of Folio Literary Management

Peter Gessner

 

I’ve been a private detective in San Francisco for nearly twenty years. My cases have ranged from traffic accidents and missing persons to decades-old homicides and complex civil litigation. Each one is a learning curve. There is no single route to becoming a detective. The traditional path to becoming a private detective used to be from law enforcement, but some of the best investigators I know come from careers as booksellers, journalists, roofers, and cab drivers.

Yes, there are courses you see in the throwaway weeklies promising to make you into a private eye, but I think you’re better off taking criminal justice or legal secretarial courses at a good community college.  The best scenario, if you’re lucky, as I was, you find someone to hire and mentor you.

How do private eyes approach a case in real life? A well-known San Francisco detective who handled high-profile cases told me there are two kinds of detectives: those who meticulously arrange the facts and draw conclusions and those who sift the facts intuitively. He turned to me – I was working for him at the time – to ask which one I was.  I told him I wasn’t sure.  Now, years later, I think I should have said I wanted to be both.

Which brings me to the notion that a good detective can’t specialize, that he or she has to be able to do it all:  interview people, knock on doors, use the computer, and write reports that make the reader/client “see” people and places he or she will never know in reality.  Of course, there are “specialists,” the PI’s that do just accident reconstruction or surveillance, and that’s certainly ok. But if you’re a single practitioner like me, you have to be able to take whatever comes in the door. And do it with a high standard of care.

Take one example; surveillance. There are manuals dealing with it. I remember reading one put together by the FBI which laid out the three-car, radio connected (this was before cell phones) paradigm, moving along parallel streets and switching positions so the subject never sees one car for any extended period. Perfect for the government, but generally well beyond the budget of a private eye.

One very famous female San Francisco private investigator told me she learned how to follow people by watching the “Rockford Files” – the best-written depictions of a private eye eve on television or in the movies. Remember how in that show whenever he went into an office, James Garner collected business cards that he would later use himself? Private investigators do that. I learned a few years ago that there is now  a computer program called “Rockford” which allows you to print up your own cards. Life, in America, will always imitate art.

In real life, following someone in a car is not easy. Traffic, red lights, and the unexpected can be expected to intervene. In a split second, you have to decide to go through the light and risk a) a ticket or b) my life? Remember, the PI has no cover of “legal necessity.”  You are out there, Willy Loman-like,  with only a smile and sunshine. This applies also to getting people to talk to you.  Simply put, they don’t have to. And usually it is not in their interest to do so.  Of course, no one has to talk to the police either, and if you’re arrested, it would be wise not to. But the behind the shield is the weight of the state and people talk.

People often ask if I carry a gun. I do not. I think if you do you’ve already made the decision to use it, and I’m not comfortable with that. Only once, when I was working for another detective agency, did it become an issue. The case involved a man-the brother of a well-known TV actress-whose male lover had threatened him with a gun and stolen his car; the task was to make sure the angry lover wasn’t there waiting for him.

I got the assignment to go into the apartment. The head of our agency asked if I wanted a gun. I declined. We’ve all seen the scene in the movies: the detective or cop enters an apartment he’s never been in and expertly moves from room to room like Barishnikov.   I had the key from management, but I had no idea what the layout was. I went from room to room, terrified. I yelled out: “Federal Express delivery!” several times, and got no response. The bathroom was the last door. The shower curtain was drawn. Sucking in my breath, I swept it back. I stood facing the hard glare of ceramic tiles. Nothing more.  Nothing less.

peter-cu.jpg

Peter Gessner is a licensed private investigator living in San Francisco.  Prior to becoming an investigator, he was an award-winning documentary filmmaker.  His first novel “The Big Hello and the Long Goodbye” was published in 2007.  He is presently working on a sequel.  More information available at: http://www.petergessner.com/

* Tomorrow – Author/police lieutenant Monty McCord

Joyce Tremel

 

Joyce Tremel works for the Township of Shaler Police Department located just north of the City of Pittsburgh. She holds a second degree blackbelt in Taekwondo and volunteered as a trainee instructor for two years. She is a member of Mysterywrights (a critique group), and a member of Pennwriters. Joyce is a former Vice-President of the Mary Roberts Rinehart chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can visit Joyce on her website http://www.joycetremel.com/bio__links, or you can read her very popular blog every Thursday on Working Stiffs http://workingstiffs.blogspot.com/

Joyce Tremel:

For some reason, when I hear the question, “What does a police secretary do?” it makes me think of the song, “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” from the musical Camelot. Not Spamalot, people. Camelot. You know, Lerner and Loewe? Richard Burton and Julie Andrews? Oh, never mind.

Anyway, in the song, Arthur and Guinevere are pondering what their subjects might be doing. They get it all wrong.

The same holds true with the public and most police work. How many of you knew there was such a thing as a police secretary? Come on. Hold up your hands. Uh-huh. Thought so. We are so under appreciated. You never see us on Law and Order or CSI. One more thing they get wrong!

So, what does a police secretary do? The simple answer is pretty much anything. I work for the Shaler Township Police Department in Pennsylvania. Shaler Township is a suburb of Pittsburgh. Our population is around 30,000 people. (To get an idea of the calls we get look here: http://workingstiffs.blogspot.com/2008/04/statistics-again.html ) We have 27 sworn officers-this includes the Chief, two Lieutenants, one Sergeant, two Detectives, one Officer who handles juvenile cases, and the rest are Patrolmen. The two civilians are an administrative assistant, who acts as the Chief’s secretary and does, well, administrative things, and myself.

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Shaler Township Police Department

I have my own office which consists of my computer station, a desk and file cabinets. I have a bullet proof glass window that looks out onto the reception area. If someone needs a copy of their accident report, etc, I pass it through the slot at the bottom. After they pay the $15.00 fee for a copy of the report, that is.

My office

My desk

 

One of my main duties is answering the phone. All the municipalities in Allegheny County have a single 911 dispatch center, so I don’t dispatch any calls. The calls that come into the office are usually people calling to talk to  a police officer, calling for a copy of an accident report, or people filing a complaint by phone. I also get a lot of calls from people who need to see an officer but didn’t want to call 911. I have to tell them if it’s important enough to dispatch an officer, they should hang up and dial 911. If there happens to be an officer in the station, I’ll give him the call, but they’re supposed to stay out on the road unless they’re writing up their reports. Many times, I’m the only one in the station. We do get walk ins (or 10-12s as we call them) and then I’ll get on the squad room radio and ask someone to “10-19 for a 10-12,” which translates to “get your ass in here and talk to this person.” Not literally, but you get the idea.

Squad room

My most important duty is entering the police reports into the computer. We use a software program called “The Informer.” The officers write a report up for every call they get and turn over all the handwritten reports to me the next day. I then make sure that none are missing and spend most of the day typing. We average about 10,000 calls a year, and a report must be filed for all of them. I type most of them with help from the administrative assistant. We always split up the weekend reports on Monday-too many for one person to do.

Someone asked me once why the officers don’t enter their own reports. The most important reason is they have to be entered correctly. For reporting purposes, there are certain things that have to be on the reports and most of the guys would take short cuts. Sometimes what they have written as the type of call is nothing like what it really is. For example, the officer might put “harassment” down where it says type of call, but it’s really a dispute between neighbors. Another reason the officers don’t enter their own reports is time. They would need to be sitting at a computer for hours instead of out patrolling. Even if they could do it from the patrol car, people complain that the officers are loafing if the car is parked somewhere.

Another duty is to enter all the traffic and non-traffic citations. Really, really boring. I also process requests from insurance companies for accident and police reports. They mail in a check and I record it and send them the report. Sometimes I get requests from attorneys for the same thing. I really like it when an attorney asks for a report because his client is suing the other party and it turns out his client is the one at fault. Or someone is suing for injuries and the report clearly states there weren’t any. Now that really amuses me.

I’ve also done things that aren’t in the job description. I’ve fingerprinted people who needed them done for their jobs when the detective who usually does them was out. I’ve done pat-down searches on females who have been arrested. I’ve watched lost children and lost dogs. I watched an arrestee when everyone had to leave on an emergency. I stayed over and helped out when we had a major flood after Hurricane Ivan. I did the same after 9-11 when we were in “lockdown.”

So, that about sums up the glamorous life of a police secretary. At least in Shaler Township. Oh, and did I mention that I only work part-time? I do all this working twenty eight hours a week.

***

* Tomorrow – World renowned professor of forensic psychology and bestselling author Dr. Katherine Ramsland.

Thursday – San Francisco Private Investigator Peter Gessner

Friday – Police Lt./Law Enforcement Historian/Author Monty McCord

Benjamin Leroy

 

Benjamin LeRoy is the founder of Bleak House Books, a publisher of crime and dark literary fiction headquartered in Madison, WI. He was recently featured in Publishers Weekly’s FIFTY UNDER FORTY series. The story can be read here. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (English and Philosophy), is endlessly fascinated by the history of baseball, and is  currently at work on a novel, The Fringes, set in his spiritual home along the swamps and rivers of northern Florida.

Benjamin LeRoy:

There are approximately 538 things about the publishing industry that thrill me to no end. At the top of that list – above the black tie parties in fashionable libraries, huge endorsement deals, and the millions of dollars in personal wealth – is the feeling of deep personal satisfaction I get when I read a manuscript from a first time author and know, right away, that we have to publish the damn thing.

The weird part about it? I usually can tell by the time I’m done reading the first paragraph.

I say this to illustrate two points:

(1) Books and words still mean something to people. There are still plenty of folks in this industry that live and die by the excitement that comes with reading perfectly strung together sentences. The novel is still holy ground to me. It is not simply a product or a commodity or a value-added good. It is spiritual.

(2) An author’s job is to write something undeniably great from Word One. There are no excuses. There is no wait-and-see policy for things that cross my desk. Either the book has it from the opening Once Upon a Time or it doesn’t. And in seven years of reading submissions I’ve learned that if I don’t get moved on page one, I’m not going to get moved on page one hundred.

Too much more analysis of the first point is only going to sound pretentious and self-serving so I’ll keep it neatly boxed. All you need to know is that I love words and books. My right hand at Bleak House Books, Deputy Sheriff Editor Alison Janssen, shares the same passion. We don’t publish repackaged episodes of CSI. We don’t follow the hot trends. We look for books that capture the human experience in a meaningful way that doesn’t rely on car chases or elaborate kidnapping plots. Forget the special effects. I want to be effected.

So how do I know when that book is dropped on my desk? That’s a good question and one that I have tried answering for years with varying degrees of success. Here are some of the discussion questions and answers that I explore when I’m speaking at writers conferences.

How much can you possibly know about a book after only reading the first paragraph or two?

Plenty.

We get approximately ten submissions a day from aspiring writers and hopeful agents. As the days turn to weeks turn to months the pile grows tall if it doesn’t get tended to on a regular basis. You can do the math. Because we make our money selling the books we’ve published, and not by the volume of our slushpile, we’ve learned to put efficiencies in place to keep the machine moving at a steady clip.

As soon as I see awkward prose on page one, I reject a book. You wouldn’t trust a clumsy surgeon with a scalpel. I don’t trust authors who aren’t in complete control of their environment. Sloppy work is sloppy work. Doesn’t matter the profession, I don’t want it. See the first paragraph for how much words mean to me.

Well you edit books, don’t you? It’s your job to fix sloppy work to make it as good as possible.

I know there are a few misconceptions floating around about what exactly an editor at a publishing house does, and I think I came up with something a few months ago to make it all make sense. Here’s that thing.

An editor is like a Building Inspector. An author is like a general contractor. The author’s job is to make the best possible use out of the tools accumulated and experience gained to build a sturdy, up to code building. When the author is done with the construction and the clean up, the inspector is brought in to check the big things-is the foundation level? Does the plumbing work the way it’s supposed to? The electricity? After the inspection is over the author receives a checklist of things that need to be fixed before the structure is ready for occupancy. The building inspector doesn’t pound nails or rework the wiring, that’s the contractor’s job.

Too many authors get the checklist of major problems and think if they hurry and throw a new coat of paint over the walls, nobody will notice that the building is still crooked. Often what we see in the slushpile are buildings that are better off condemned. And, more often than not, the people put in charge of the repairs are either too lazy or too unskilled to fix the trouble spots.

With as many books that agents and publishers see on a daily basis from both published and unpublished authors it’s your job to make sure that your novel is the best damn book you can write before you send it off. Nobody in the slushpile will receive special consideration. There will be no chance to say, “But, if I could just …” What’s on paper is the only argument an author gets to make. We receive over two thousand submissions a year. We publish somewhere between 15-20 books, and most of those are from authors that have a history-have proven that they can successfully perform surgery and build skyscrapers that won’t crumble in a stiff wind.

I hope the stuff above has been helpful. Like I said, sometimes it’s hard to articulate the challenges faced by writers when it comes to publishing. But I want you to know that there are publishers waiting for your best stuff. Is it hard to get published? Yeah. I’m not going to lie to you. But anything worth anything is a challenge. The discovery that comes along the road is maybe as important as anything else and you shouldn’t try to skip to the head of the line. Anyway, that’s what I’m thinking. If anybody has questions, I’ll be around all day.

Best,

Benjamin LeRoy, Publisher

 

Bleak House Books

http://www.bleakhousebooks.com/

* Bleak House Books published fifteen titles last year. Out of the fifteen, three were nominated for 2008 Edgar Awards. Congratulations to Bleak House Books and its authors, Reed Farrel Coleman for Soul Patch (Best Novel), Craig McDonald for Head Games (Best First Novel), and “Blue Note” by Stuart M. Kaminsky from the Chicago Blues collection (Best Short Story).

 

Tracy Seybold

I am a police dispatcher, and I work the graveyard shift in a small county in southern Colorado. Once the sun goes down, I am the only contact point for three law enforcement agencies, three fire departments, two ambulance garages, the department of social services, the department of mental health, the water, gas and sewer departments and the county road and bridge crews. I man eight phone lines, answer 911 calls, and keep track of six to ten law enforcement officers simultaneously.

Because I work for such a small county, there are times when nothing much is going on, but there are also periods of utter chaos, when multi-tasking is not just a word but an art form. In training, I was told only six percent of the population have the multi-tasking skills required to be a police dispatcher, and given the huge attrition rate for this profession, I believe it. Less than one in four of the people we hire make it through the training program, but it’s almost impossible to predict which ones. Until you are thrown into the chaos, I don’t think anyone knows if they have what it takes.

Let’s say 911 rings, and the caller reports that there has been a serious accident on the interstate. While keeping the caller on the line, and asking him questions about injuries and trying to gather all the pertinent information, I must also dispatch an ambulance and perhaps a rescue unit. I also have to advise State Patrol’s dispatch so they can send a trooper. Meanwhile, probably twenty other people have seen the accident and are also calling in to report it. I have to answer every one of those calls, and get details from all of them, because they may be calling in to report a different accident (which is very possible on one of our snowy Colorado days) or something else entirely. I now have every phone lit up, and four or five different people trying to reach me by radio. Somehow I must juggle all of this, while perhaps also running the license plates and names of all the people involved through NCIC/CCIC (National Crime Information Center/Colorado Crime Information Center) to determine if they are wanted, if the vehicles are stolen or if they have valid licenses. It can become overwhelming, to say the least.

On my desk, I have the 911 system, which includes a phone and a monitor, a computer which is always logged in to NCIC/CCIC, a radio console with 11 channels, another computer where I manually type in every phone call and every bit of radio traffic with the exact time it occurred, and a phone with eight lines. I have at least 20 binders filled with information-maps, security codes for gates and alarms, contact people for various businesses, city and county government officials, bee keepers, taxidermists, animal rescue, cattle owners, etc.-and I need to know where everything is and find it in a matter of seconds. I probably have at least 200 phone numbers memorized. The cops, firemen and paramedics I work with expect me to have the answer to every question they ask me, and they want the answer now.

As a police dispatcher, I get to live vicariously. Nearly every day brings some new situation I’ve never dealt with before. My job can be terrifying and stressful but is always challenging and rewarding. I have to be the calm, comforting voice that sends help when someone’s life is falling apart. That’s not always easy, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.

***

Tracy Seybold has been a police dispatcher for five years. To prove her multi-tasking skills, she is also the award-winning author of nine historical romances under the pen name Diana Bold, is an editor for Cobblestone Press and has three teen-aged boys. Her first book, THE MAIL ORDER BRIDE was nominated for both the 2006 CAPA Award for Best Historical Romance and Ecataromance’s Best First Book of 2006. You can visit her website at http://www.dianabold.com/ or email her at [email protected] if you have any questions about police dispatching or small town sheriff’s departments.     

Presumption of Innocence and Reasonable Doubt

Today, The Graveyard Shift welcomes Leslie Budewitz as our featured guest blogger. Leslie, a practicing attorney and author, is a member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. As busy as she is, she always manages to find the time to share her vast knowledge of the law with other writers. Thank you for stopping by, Leslie.

Presumption of Innocense and Reasonable Doubt

We all know the phrases “presumption of innocence” and “reasonable doubt,” but what do they really mean?

The presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle of American criminal law. It  means that the prosecution – that is, the government, acting on behalf of we the people – has the burden of proving a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Because of the presumption of innocence, defendants are not required to prove or disprove anything at trial, or even to present evidence on their own behalf. Most defendants cross-examine witnesses and present their own evidence to rebut arguments against them, in the attempt to show doubt about their guilt.

The presumption of innocence emphasizes to the jury and the public the importance of judging a person’s guilt on the evidence presented in court, and not on suspicions arising from arrest or indictment – or on pre-trial publicity.

In some authoritarian systems in other countries, an accused is presumed guilty and required to prove his innocence – often a dicey proposition.

Reasonable doubt is easier to recognize than describe. Here’s a typical definition – this one comes from the West Virginia model jury instructions:

“It is not required that the state prove guilt beyond all possible doubt. The test is one of reasonable doubt. A reasonable doubt is a doubt based upon reason and common sense – the kind of doubt that would make a reasonable person hesitate to act. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt, therefore, must be proof of such a convincing character that a reasonable person would not hesitate to rely and act upon it. The jury will remember that a defendant is never to be convicted on mere suspicion or conjecture.”

Reasonable doubt is sometimes described as proof “to a moral certainty” or “an abiding conviction” in the accused’s guilt. The test is subjective – not every juror will view the evidence the same way. Although the government’s burden is heavy – as it should be – the government isn’t required to prove the charges beyond all doubt. But doubts or mistakes favor the defendant because of what’s at stake – liberty, and sometimes, life.

Every element of the crime must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, your character is charged with arson for setting a fire that destroyed an office building. The code in your story state defines the crime as knowingly or purposely damaging or destroying a structure by fire or explosion. (Arson can apply to other situations, but let’s use a limited definition for now.) The elements of the charge are:

             – your character set the fire;

            – he acted with the knowledge or purpose of damaging

               or destroying the building;

            – the building was damaged or destroyed; and

            – the damage or destruction occurred by fire or explosion,

               not some other, independent cause.

If the state fails to prove any one element beyond a reasonable doubt – say, the knowledge element, that your character knew or intended that the building be destroyed – then reasonable doubt exists and the character must be acquitted.

A defendant can challenge whether reasonable doubt existed on appeal, but if he is acquitted, the state doesn’t have the same right.

Answers to legal questions are often fact-dependant, and can vary based on state or federal law, but I’ll be happy to try to respond to questions in the comments.

***

 

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Leslie Budewitz is a practicing lawyer admitted in Montana and Washington, and a graduate of Notre Dame Law School. Currently, her practice focuses on civil litigation, although she has been involved in criminal cases regularly throughout her career. Leslie provides information for writers on her website, http://www.lawandfiction.com/ , and regularly works with writers one-on-one. Her short story, “Snow Angels,” about the struggles of two young women – one a deputy sheriff, the other a desperate mother – on the Flathead Indian Reservation will appear in the May 2008 issue of Thug Lit, http://www.thuglit.com/

* Tomorrow, literary agent Janet Reid goes undercover on The Graveyard Shift. You don’t want to miss this one!

Dr. Denene Lofland

 

Our guest expert today on The Graveyard Shift is Dr. Denene Lofland. Dr. Lofland received her PhD degree in pathology from the Medical College of Virginia, and she’s a trained clinical microbiologist. She has served as the Director of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at Wright State University, and has worked in biotech/drug research and development for many years.

Denene has worked on drug development programs for the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA).  She contributed to the FDA approval of the gemifloxacin (Factive), an antibiotic for the treatment of bacterial pneumonia, a drug that is now on the market and prescribed by physicians worldwide. She recently served as Manager of North Carolina Operations for a company that conducts high-level research and development in areas such as anti-bioterrorism.

She also supervised several projects, including government-sponsored research which required her to maintain a secret security clearance. Denene has published several articles in scientific journals and recently contributed to the thirteenth edition of Bailey and Scott’s Diagnostic Microbiology. She currently serves as Associate Professor in the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Touro University.

Microscopic Murder


What’s so interesting about microbiology? Microorganisms were here before man walked the Earth, and they’ll be here after we’re gone. Actually, you would find it difficult to survive without them. Some bacteria, called commensals, live in and on our bodies to our benefit, protecting  us from invading pathogens (disease causing germs), and they produce vitamins.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the bad bugs. They’re responsible for more deaths than cancer, heart attacks, and war. They can disfigure, eat flesh, paralyze, or just make you feel so bad you wish you were dead.

There are four major types of microorganisms: bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. They can cause damage directly, or they can release toxins that do the dirty work for them.

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HIV virus

E.coli bacteria

Aspergillus (fungi)

Loa loa (parasite) in eye

So, how can your antagonists use microorganisms to kill? They’ll need a fundamental knowledge of microbiology, such as information that’s taught in a basic college course. Next, the bad guy will need a source of bacteria. Microbiology labs all over the world contain bugs of all types.

Biological safety hood for the safe handling of bacteria

Most of these laboratories are locked, so a little B & E would be in order. Or, maybe your antagonist has a connection with a person who has control of the bug of interest. If so, the evil-doer could make what’s known in the trade as a V.I.P. trip. He’d fly to the friend’s lab, place the bug in a plastic vial, hide the vial in his pocket (V.I.P.), and get back on the plane for the trip home.

Once the antagonist has the bug, he has to keep it alive and reproducing. Bacteria are grown on agar plates (food for bugs) in an incubator. In general, bacteria double in number every 20 minutes. So, if you start with just a few bugs, let’s say 10, and allow them to grow overnight…well, you do the math. Once the killer has enough of the bug, then it’s time to deliver it to the intended victim.

Picking up bacteria from agar plate. The brownish-red material is the agar. The grayish coloring at the top of the agar is E.coli bacteria.

Now for a true story. It wasn’t murder, just an unfortunate accident that involved a woman, some green beans, and a home canning jar. Canning jars have lids designed to exhibit a slight indentation in their centers when food is fresh. If the indentation inverts (pops up), the vegetables may be contaminated, and should be discarded.

A woman was preparing dinner for her family and decided to serve some of her home-canned green beans that evening. She picked up a jar of beans, but thought the pop-up didn’t look quite right. So, to satisfy her curiousity, she opened the jar, touched her finger to the bean juice, and tasted it. It tasted fine to her, so she cooked the beans, and served the steaming hot dish to her family. The next day, the woman died, but her family survived. The beans contained botulism toxin, produced by the bacteria, Clostridium botulinum. C. botulinum lives naturally in the soil.

Botulism toxin is one of the most powerful neurotoxins known to man. About 10 ounces could kill everyone on Earth. It works by paralyzing its victim. Why didn’t the other members of the family die? The toxin is inactivated by heat.

Danny P. Smith

The Graveyard Shift is pleased to introduce a wonderful and talented author, Danny P. Smith. I first met Danny at a writers conference several years ago in California and my cop instincts told me he had what it takes to survive in a writer’s world. I was right.

Smith come from a long line of tough Chicago cops and I’m proud to call him my friend, especially since he survived a childhood as a cop’s kid. To me, that makes him just a little tougher than most people. My daughter would say that probably made him a little crazy. What can I say? He’s a writer. Welcome, Danny.

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At first a high school English teacher, Daniel P. Smith left the world of education behind in 2004 to pursue the writing life. Less than five months removed from the classroom and all of 23 years old, Smith teamed with Chicago-based Lake Claremont Press to pen On the Job: Behind the Stars of the Chicago Police Department, a project inspired by his roots in a Chicago Police family. Already an award-winning, nationally published journalist, On the Job is Smith’s first book. A 2003 graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Smith resides in Chicago’s western suburbs with his wife, Tina, and dog, Dublin. He lives in cyberspace at www.onthejob-smith.blogspot.com.

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My mother always told me that my father’s downward spiral began when he found the Canzanerri boy. Though my father was on a self-destructive path, which included alcoholism and the eventual abandonment of his family, the Canzanerri case accelerated his demise. A Vietnam vet and Chicago cop, my father had encountered his share of tragedy and struggled at processing such events; the Canzanerri case, I’m told, was the beginning of the end.

 

In Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, a horde of the district’s cops assembled to begin their search for the missing infant.

Chicago PD squad car

Searching one home, my father looked under the stairs to find a blanket. Opening the blanket, he discovered the Canzanerri boy—murdered and sliced. From then on, tells my mother, my father changed. He hit the bottle harder. He woke daily from nightmares. And he started talking feverishly about leaving the department so he could make quick cash elsewhere. Perhaps driven by his own mortality as well as the nightmares, my father left us. Though I’ve seen him in the 25 years since, I can’t say I’ve ever known my father or, to be truthful, wanted to know him. He was cold, unchanged, and guarded.

But what if the Canzanerri boy had never gone missing and my father didn’t make that discovery? Would my parents have remained married? Might I have grown up with a father? Doubtful—the selfish tendencies that sparked my parents’ separation existed long before the Canzanerri mystery and remain long after. Still, the case does show the ripple effects that police work sends throughout a cop’s life.

Chicago PD snipers

 

In the second half of 2004, I began penning my first book. Inspired by my roots in a Chicago Police Family, I wanted to explore the work-life juxtaposition Chicago’s officers face. For much of my life I couldn’t reconcile the public perception of officers—one that frequently labeled Chicago’s cops as lazy, corrupt, and prejudice—with what I knew from my home life, where four of six uncles were cops and my brother also wore the Chicago Police star. (With the exception of my father, in fact, all those men put their best effort forward each day for their families, communities, and city. To be certain, they each have their faults, but their passion for Chicago Police work and the city could not be mistaken.) I sought to tell human stories against the backdrop of the Chicago Police Department, seeking to examine the personalities behind the star (in Chicago it’s a star, not a badge or shield).

Chicago PD officer helping a lost child

Last month, On the Job: Behind the Stars of the Chicago Police Department arrived (https://www.lakeclaremont.com/prod_page.php?isbn=978-1-893121-12-6). Gratefully for this young writer, On the Job has earned glaring reviews for its candor and sincerity as it erases the Hollywood stereotypes as well as what we think we know of cops. The book is far less blood and guts and far more heart and soul. And the truth is that real police work requires more heart and soul than just about any profession in America.

 

It’s easy to be pulled into the silver screen lore or CSI’s drama, but real cops often snicker at Hollywood portrayals of their work. Dirty Harry shoots the bad guy and walks into the sunset, right? Well, it doesn’t happen that way, particularly for the cops who reflect on their work in the realm of human relations. Police work consumes the soul as much as the days. It’s work that alters one’s view of the world as well as one’s perception of life’s fellow travelers. As soon as officers take that oath, they sacrifice a piece of themselves—perhaps their trust or faith or relationships suffering from the job’s constant tension. It’s a helluva price to pay for a blue-collar civil service job. Any cop who says he or she’s the same as the day they entered the job is either: a.) lying or b.) never really been the PO-LICE. The job changes minds and souls and futures. It does not allow for stagnation.

So what tidbits might I be able to offer you, the aspiring crime writer who seeks stories based in truth and accuracy?

True, you’ll need to have your facts and jargon down; you’ll need to know the culture and organization of any law enforcement unit you discuss; and you’ll need to have the details of a given investigation in order. But above all, you’ll need to remember that any story, whether about cops or farmers or plumbers, is ultimately about people. And I’d make the argument with vigor and purpose that the cops’ stories, in particular, must adhere to this principle without fault because in the job maintains such an overwhelming impact on one’s life.

 

As a high school teacher, I would begin each school year by asking my students the following: Why do we read? They’d come up with a litany of answers that we’d jot on the blackboard—entertainment, knowledge, escape, etc. But in the end, don’t we really read for the same reason we watch reality TV? We read to see how people deal with shit, don’t we? How do people grieve and live and overcome adversity? How do people build relationships and find a place in society? How do people react to tragedy and triumph? How do people reconcile their actions?

 

In On the Job: Behind the Stars of the Chicago Police Department such is certainly the task I set out to accomplish: to tell human stories in which we, as readers, get a glimpse into how people deal with life’s diverse range of challenges and successes. Early reader response tells me I did my part. I sparked empathy for Chicago’s officers and an understanding of their lives by sharing stories anchored in sincerity and heart. I told stories about people.

Chicago officers conduct a pat-down search

Now the challenge is how can you do the same and, at least for today, how can I help you move your own writing ambitions forward?