We all know that writing a book is the simplest and easiest way to earn a few bucks.

Actually, writing is a bulls**t job that even a trained monkey could do, right?

After all, how hard can it be to plop your hips down in the old easy chair and pluck out a few thousands words. Shoot, it’s all a bunch of made-up gobbledy-goop, anyway.

So here’s the real scoop on how this pie job really goes down. And, to back me up on these few simple steps to “Writing Made Easy,” I went to the pros to get their opinions on the process. And they agree, writing a novel is a piece of cake that anyone can do in in their spare time.

Don’t believe me? Well, see for yourselves. Here are the quick and simple steps to penning a bestseller …

Writing Made Easy

1. Whatever you do, do NOT write every day. In fact, once or twice a month works best for the writers who’re serious about their craft. Do you honestly believe people like Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen, M.J. Rose, Shirley Jump, Chris Grabenstein, Donald Bain, and Laura Lippman chain themselves to a computer seven days a week, hours upon hours per day? Puhleeze …

Yes, writing a novel is a silly little project you can do in your spare time. In fact, anyone can pen a 300 page book in … say … a couple of weeks. Of course, we’re speaking only of writing after dinner, between commercials while binge-watching episodes of Chopped, and after you’ve gone to your favorite club to whip and nae-nae yourself into a dabbing, Shomony frenzy. Right, Lee? MJ?

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Lee Child

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MJ Rose

2. Again, writing is simple and it’s quick easy money, and it’s a silly little project that’ll quickly take you from blank page to zillion-dollar paycheck in no time at all.

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Tess Gerritsen

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MJ Rose

3. Never, ever try to spread out the writing process. Instead, bang out 10,000 – 20,000 words each day and you’ll have your totally finished manuscript almost before you can mumble the phrase, “Tom Cruise is not Jack Reacher.”

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Laura Lippman

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Donald Bain

4. Always, always, always listen to music while writing, especially head-banging metal or classic rock. Of course, a few of the big-shot, fancy-smancy writers prefer Bach or Mozart, but they’re … well, you know. Anyway, music, and the louder the better, sends the creative juices into overdrive!

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Chris Grabenstein

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Shirley Jump

What about you, Laura? Surely, you’ve got The Ramones cranked up to full volume while you’re hard at work, right? So …

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So there you have it, writers. You may now safely step away from the keyboards because those books will write themselves while you head out to the club to drink yourselves silly while Texas Two-Stepping Gangnam Style, or Moonwalking the Macarena.

 

Corpus delicti, the main object of a crime. It’s proof that a crime has taken place. In the case of murder, the body is the corpus delicti, a detail that’s often the focus of mystery and crime fiction.

Writers go to great lengths to help the enthusiastic reader leave the comfort of their homes to accompany the protagonist as he or she embarks on a quest to solve a carefully plotted crime. And, during the writing process, writers sometimes travel a few feet past the expected “extra mile.” A step that sometimes lands them at the bottom of a freshly dug hole.

So let’s examine the dreaded “hole” and how not to write yourself into one. To begin, we’ll ask the feds to assist. Keep in mind that the hole mentioned below is the overwritten scene in your current WIP, the one your critique partners want you to revisit but you think is fine as is.

Ready? Okay, let’s take a brief walk into the woods where we see…

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Now we must ask ourselves, how many federal agents does it take to look into a hole?

Easy answer – Six.

One to do the official looking.

One to observe the looker to be sure the civil rights of nearby squirrels aren’t violated.

One to video the event, confirming that no rights were violated and that the opening in the earth is indeed a hole.

One to collect samples of the void for laboratory analysis (eight scientists will later conduct tests that will confirm nothing was there).

One Assistant Agent in Charge to supervise the operation, call in air support and ground teams that include two dozen agents who’ll scour the forest for clues and to sample the surrounding air for possible matches to air found in the hole. The ASAC will also bring in a few number-crunchers who’ll begin a 12-year study about holes and their role in climate change and the fluctuation of the violent crime rate. A parallel study will examine holes and their significance in the extinction of the wooly mammoth. Homeland Security will also be called in to provide perimeter security and to install video and audio surveillance equipment to record any movement or increase in size of the hole, an act that could be related to terrorism. Seven heavily-armed drones are on standby.

Finally, the last team member is the Special Agent in Charge whose duty is to supervise the ASAC. The SAC will also appear on camera as the official spokesperson at all news conferences. The appearances will serve as a lead-up to running for political office.

Media sources catch wind of the investigation and run stories with headlines such as:

FEDS UNCOVER MASSIVE HOLE IN EARTH CONTAINING SUSPICIOUS INVISIBLE REMAINS: END OF TIMES COVER UP?

And:

#HOLESLIVESMATTER GROUP TO MARCH AT LOCATION OF RIGHTS-VIOLATED HOLE IN GROUND

The president orders the Justice Department to investigate. The hole is invited to the White House for a beer and a private concert by Courtney Love and her former band, HOLE. The local police department is disbanded. Two senators are impeached. A no-fly zone is established over the area. Segregated safe spaces are created for all woodland creatures. An executive order was issued requiring all animals to pee behind the same tree. No one is permitted to say “Trump” or “Hillary.” The speech restriction is so stringent that one agent was suspended for two weeks without pay for saying,” This place is hilly.” Of course, the press ran with it, turning the phrase into, “FEDERAL AGENT BLAMES HILLARY FOR HOLE COVER UP.” A second headline read, “TRUMP TO BUILD WALL AROUND HOLE.”

All local universities and other schools are placed on indefinite lockdown. California residents, although 2,000 miles away, are ordered to shut off all water. CVS stores across the country are immediately evacuated in preparation for imminent destruction by fire. The National Guard surrounds all bird sanctuaries to prevent hostile takeovers. Bernie continues to promise free everything and Ted Cruz removes his Grandpa Munster mask and goes into hiding. Sarah Palin is speechless. It’s total and complete CHAOS!

Total cost for Operation Hole in the Ground – $242 million. Official finding = It’s a hole.

Finally…

Moral of the story? A hole is just a hole and it doesn’t take two pages of unnecessary words to describe it, unless you’re an employee of the federal government, in which case a 1,200 page report is acceptable as a first draft.

So write only what’s needed to further the story. Trim the excess and cut the fat. For example, a shortened version of the “hole” story:

Ralph Bumberner took a walk in the woods behind his house, searching for a place to bury his wife’s body. He came across a hole—six feet by four—but decided it was too close to the house and would be easy for police to find, especially the FBI agent who lived down the road, so he continued walking. He made a mental note of the location, though, so he wouldn’t stumble into the shallow pit while dragging Myrtle to her final resting place.

Elmore Leonard had this to say in 10 Rules of Writing.  – “My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”

*No federal agents were harmed during the writing of this article. References to those brave law enforcement officials were purely tongue-in-cheek. Myrtle, however, didn’t make it.

 

 

Readers want to become invested in the characters in their favorite books, and it’s the job and duty of writers to make that happen. Therefore, to prevent taking their fans down the wrong road, most writers spend a great deal of their time developing the people in their stories.

The hard-earned fruits of an author’s labor during this development stage often results in straight-shootin’, tall-in-the-saddle fictional characters who come with intriguing backstories and interesting current personal lives. They love, they hate, and they’re flawed in ways that make our hearts go pitter-patter. Yes, we love reading about drug-using, cursing alcoholics who smoke, regularly use violence, and who can shoot the hair off a gnat’s rear end. And those are those are the good guys.

But to read an entire book that’s solely about a super-cool man or woman who meanders about town smiling and helping old people cross main street each time Geritol and Depends go on sale at Happy Jack’s Corner Drugstore would be, well, boring. So, to transform unimaginative into exciting and interesting, it’s important that writers turn to Isaac Newton’s first cousin, Jerome “Winky” Newton, for a bit of advice.

Remember, it was Isaac said, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Well, Isaac sort of stole part of his law from cousin Winky who, after reading a tale featuring the aforementioned meandering, smiling street-crosser, made his own profound statement of, “For every action there’s an opposite reaction that’s not quite as equal, but it’s pretty doggone close to it and it’s one the hero of a book must overcome. It’s what makes the story interesting.”

Yes, that’s a direct quote.

Here’s a bit of trivia for you – Newton family rumors have it that it was Winky who was struck on the head by the falling apple, an act that caused him to spontaneously utter his own statement, words that Isaac promptly stole and turned into his third law. Until that day, he’d only written two and had been suffering from a terrible bout of writer’s block.

Anyway, back to Winky Newton’s Law and how it applies to today’s writer. For a tall tale to work properly there must be, of course, a totally compelling protagonist. AND, there must be a compelling antagonist, so sayeth the great and powerful Winky Newton. And Winky is right, writers should spend equal amounts of time creating both the hero and the bad guy (remember, an antagonist does not have to be an evil villain – see The Secrets to Creating and Writing Compelling Villains).

After Winky passed away, the family discovered his journal, a small book that included a list of rules further explaining his profound Law. Here are three relevant points to ponder.

  • Being crazy is not enough to make a good bad guy a good character. The author must show the reader WHY the evil one sees Elvis in his freezer. Maybe as a child his mother locked him in the freezer while she sat on the floor outside playing “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog” on the ukulele. Backstory is important, even for the major bad guys.
  • Writers should take time to view the world through the eyes of the antagonist. Place yourself on their street. Talk to their neighbors. Playing fetch on the front lawn with their dog. Step down into their rat-infested basement where they keep the butcher knives and body parts. How would they think? What would they see? What do they eat? What odors do you detect inside their homes? Do they walk with a limp? Do they smoke?
  • At some point during the writing process, take a moment to join the antagonist as he sits waiting for the hero to come walking along the path that leads to the end of the story. While the two of you are sitting together on that log, park bench, or inside the final victim’s home, the two of you can watch and see where it is the hero must travel to reach you. You can discuss the hurdles he’d need to overcome, and you can experience the emotions felt when you see the hero approaching. You’ll feel the anxiety levels increase and it is this moment when you’ll know what you must do to create that much-needed midpoint tension and what needs to be done in order to prepare for the finale.

*By the way, Isaac Newton has a solid place in today’s crime fiction. Remember his third law, the one he sort of stole from Winky – “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Well, keep this one in mind when you write about people shooting guns. If the blast is enough to send a victim flying backward through a door, then the same force is there in reverse and your shooter would also fly backward through the opposite door. Therefore, when the police arrive at the scene they’d find two unconscious people, one in the backyard and one in the front.

Typically, when people are shot they simply fall down and bleed.

For fun, here are some additional things writers often get wrong about police, crime, and criminals.

 

 

 

Congratulations to the winners of the 2016 Edgar Allan Poe Awards!

BEST NOVEL

Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy (Penguin Random House – Dutton)
BEST FIRST NOVEL BY AN AMERICAN AUTHOR

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Atlantic – Grove Press)
BEST PAPERBACK ORIGINAL

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)

BEST FACT CRIME

Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully by Allen Kurzweil (HarperCollins Publishers – Harper)
BEST CRITICAL/BIOGRAPHICAL

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards (HarperCollins Publishers – HarperCollins)
BEST SHORT STORY

“Obits” – Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King (Simon & Schuster – Scribner)
BEST JUVENILE

Footer Davis Probably is Crazy by Susan Vaught (Simon & Schuster – Paula Wiseman Books)
BEST YOUNG ADULT

A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis (HarperCollins Publishers – Katherine Tegen Books)
BEST TELEVISION EPISODE TELEPLAY

“Gently with the Women” – George Gently, Teleplay by Peter Flannery (Acorn TV)
ROBERT L. FISH MEMORIAL AWARD

“Chung Ling Soo’s Greatest Trick” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Russell W. Johnson (Dell Magazines)
GRAND MASTER

Walter Mosley
RAVEN AWARDS

Margaret Kinsman
Sisters in Crime
ELLERY QUEEN AWARD

Janet Rudolph, Founder of Mystery Readers International

* * * * * *

THE SIMON & SCHUSTER – MARY HIGGINS CLARK AWARDLittle Pretty Things by Lori Rader-Day (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)

~
*The EDGAR (and logo) are Registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by the Mystery Writers of America, Inc.

 

Why does almost every crime novel feature a muscle-bound, sharpshooting, fast-driving, marathon-running, cool-as-a-fresh-cucumber detective? What is it about the suit-wearing investigators that attracts a writer’s attention? After all, detectives are often the last officers to see any real action.

Police investigators are rarely in shootouts. They hardly ever chase fleeing suspects. In fact, their job is pretty mundane—see a body, collect some evidence, send evidence to a lab, talk to a few people, evidence results return from the lab, get a warrant, arrest the suspect (or have a uniform pick him up), testify in court, and then start all over again.

Many detectives have been on the job for years and years, doing not much more than the above, and it’s this lack of activity that sometimes takes its toll in the form of flabby muscles, poor shooting skills, slow reaction times, couldn’t run if they wanted to (and they don’t), and yes, as more time passes by, even hot flashes, crappy eyesight and hearing, and bad knees and hips.

Writers are actually going about this thing all wrong. Bass-ackward, as some of the old-timers on my old beat used to say.

Patrol officers are the guys and gals who see all the excitement—going toe-to-toe with 350 lb. musclebound crooks who refuse to be handcuffed, shooting it out with armed robbers, 110 mph vehicle pursuits, chasing armed robbers through dark alleys, getting bitten by dogs, removing unwanted 20-foot-long snakes from beneath mobile homes, rescuing people from burning cars and buildings, performing CPR on unconscious and unresponsive drug addicts, climbing in windows after burglary suspects, capturing prison escapees, wading into a street filled with drug dealers, gang members, and prostitutes, and rescuing tiny puppies and kittens. Now there’s the complete package—excitement and action along with a tender side. And who doesn’t love puppies and kittens, right?

So let’s explore this concept a bit further. Lots of people are attracted to fit men and women in uniform, right?

But how many people could possibly be attracted to detectives who wear rumpled, out-of-style suits and scruffy facial hair? For example…

Ridiculous to even consider, right?

Patrol officers hit the gym regularly. They have to so they can match muscle-for-muscle with the thugs they arrest on a daily basis. Detectives, well, they do ride by a gym or two while on the way to their colorectal pre-surgery appointments.

Patrol officers hone their skills every single day. They’re out there in the trenches, staying sharp, looking sharp, and acting sharp.

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Investigators start their day in their offices, drinking a cup of coffee while solving the daily Jumble, using a pencil crudely sharpened with the pocketknives they carry for peeling apples and cutting loose threads from their suit jackets.

Uniformed officers are the front line officers, the “faces of the department.” Therefore, their hair is neatly trimmed, clothing neatly pressed, and shoes shined to glossy perfection.

Detectives are often seen wearing t-shirts, old jeans, and sneakers. And the last time they saw a set of hair clippers was the day they spent an entire morning grooming the family Lhasa Apso.

Patrol officers stare into the face of danger. Detectives work “undercover.”

Patrol officers fight crime. Detectives wait until everything is over before “going in.”

Patrol officers rush into active crime scenes to save the victims. Detectives serve search warrants in the middle of the night, hoping to catch the bad guys while they’re sleeping.

So give this a little thought when you sit down to dream up a character for your next thriller. Do you go with bass-ackward tradition, or will your tale be facing a new direction?

Besides, who do you want saving your puppies, a super-fit, handsome patrol officer…

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Or an out-of-shape, poorly-dressed detective who adores puppies, rainbows, and long walks on the beach at sunset?

*No puppies were harmed during the research portion of this article. I cannot say the same for turkey legs, donuts, and chocolate cake.

 

 

Emily, my second cousin and daughter of my first cousin Shelley, was assigned to write a paper about D-Day for history class. Wanting to do her absolute best, Emily set out on a fact-finding mission for the project that included visiting various online sources. I understand she wound up writing a very nice report, but Emily’s narrative incorporated one tiny bit of unexpected and puzzling information.

Obviously, the subject matter surrounding the entire D-Day campaign is of an extremely serious nature because so many troops lost their lives on that day. But, in spite of the gravity of the real-life story, it was that one small tidbit of “information” in her paper that sent her mom into a spell of side-splitting laughter. I’m posting this because as writers we’ve all been in Emily’s shoes at one time or another.

In her detailed summary, Emily covered the overall basics of the invasion by penning facts found in most research sources. Things such as—On June 6, 1944, thousands of troops began the Battle of Normandy. The day, of course, is known as D-Day. The invasion began when Allied troops stormed the beaches in the early morning hours. More than 4,000 troops lost their lives in the invasion with many more wounded. However, approximately 156,000 successfully completed the operation. Within a week, over 325,000 troops were in place along with 50,000 vehicles and 100,000 tons of much-needed equipment.

But my young and well-intentioned second cousin wanted to delve a bit deeper into the incredible accounting of such bravery and intricate battle planning, so she included an unexpected “fact” about the paratroopers who were dropped that day. Later, while proofreading the paper, her mom came to the part about the paratroopers and stopped in her tracks to do a bit of head-scratching. For some reason, she said, the sentence didn’t quite seem to make sense. So she studied it again to be sure she hadn’t misread it. But no, it was what is was.

The line in question in Emily’s intricately-crafted and well-researched paper was, “Thousands of uneducated soldiers were also dropped in order to draw fire and confuse the enemy.”

Shelley asked her daughter to clarify, saying the sentence didn’t make sense and that surely the part about airdropping uneducated men onto the beaches couldn’t possibly be correct. Emily told her the information was solid, but that she re-worded it so as to not plagiarize the material. Shelley then asked her daughter to show her the site from where she’d gotten the material. And then it all came to light. Here’s the material that Emily so studiously transposed to avoid plagiarism, and I’m paraphrasing…

“Thousands of “dummies” were also dropped in order to draw fire and confuse the enemy.”

I can see how the tactic easily confused the Nazis, because the word alone scrambled poor Emily’s thinking. Now, whenever I write something that’s just a wee bit askew of an actual meaning, well, those bloopers will forever be known as “Emily moments.” Sorry, cuz…

(Gee, I hope my sweet, understanding cousin has a good sense of humor because I didn’t tell her what I planned to write).

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Emily

 

 

Using common sense when writing about cops

 

Today, when your keystrokes guide your police officer/detective/protagonist through the perils that go hand-in-hand with saving the world from total devastation, pause for just a moment and consider the lives of real-life officers. Do your characters measure up to a human officer’s abilities? Have you over-written the character? Are they mindless, superheroes? Have you given them human emotions? Is the danger level realistic? Are your action scenes believable?

I read a lot. A whole lot. Book after book after book, including tons of stories written by readers of this blog. Think about what you’ve seen on this site for the past few years—cordite, uniforms, handcuffs, Miranda, Glocks, Sig Sauers, edged weapons, revolvers, defensive tactics, etc. Where do I get my ideas? Well…mostly from the mistakes writers make in their books (smelling cordite, thumbing off safeties when there aren’t any, etc.).

The same is true at the Writers’ Police Academy. We present workshops based on questions we hear from writers. We also develop sessions that stem from the inaccuracies found in various books, TV shows, and film. Several of the activities at the WPA are based upon actual events that occurred during the year , such as the Boston bombings, school shooters, etc.

Just this past weekend I was poring over the pages of a wonderfully written book when a paragraph stopped me dead in my tracks. So I backed up to re-read the last few lines to make certain that what I’d read was actually on the page and not my mind playing tricks on my tired eyes. Nope, there it was as plain as day, one of the most impossible, unbelievable ways to kill ever written (I won’t go into detail because the book is very new). Then, to make matters even worse, the scene was followed by a few more paragraphs containing incorrect information about the weapons and materials involved in the goofy slaying. Not even close to realism.

This is a problem for me. I really liked this author’s voice. It was fresh, new, and exciting. However, I doubt that I’ll pick up another book written by this particular author. Why? Because he/she didn’t bother to check facts. The author didn’t even make an effort to use common sense. I wondered if they’d ever seen a real-life cop.

One of the best thriller writers of our time, Lee Child, writes some pretty over the top action, but he does so in a way that makes you believe it, even though some of it probably couldn’t happen in real life. I once asked Lee how much research he conducts before writing his books. His answer was, “Better to ask if I do any research before I write the last word! I don’t do any general research. I depend on things I have already read or seen or internalized, maybe years before. I ask people about specific details … like I asked you what a rural police chief might have in his trunk.  But in terms of large themes I think it’s difficult to research too close to the time of writing … research is like an iceberg – 90% of it needs to be discarded, and it’s hard to do that without perspective.”

So how does Lee make all that wacky action work? He uses common sense. Well, that and more talent in his little finger than I have in my dreams.

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In response to the question posted below, here’s a sample of what could be found in the trunk of a patrol car.

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The trunk of a patrol car is for the storage of evidence collection material, a defibrillator (not all departments issue defibrillators), extra ammunition, rain gear, flares, emergency signage, accident and crime scene investigation equipment, extra paperwork, riot gear, etc. Again, department regulations may determine the contents of the trunk.

Believable Characters

 

The Professor joins us today to share a few tips on developing well-rounded and layered characters. As in his last tip, Interviewing Your Characters, The Professor once again emphasizes that police investigators have got what it takes to concoct believable fictional characters. Here’s why.

When officers search a suspect’s apartment or a murder victim’s home, they’re not only looking for physical evidence of the crime, they’re also seeking information about killer and/or the current deceased resident. Therefore, they take a good hard look at the possessions in the home. Personal objects tell a vivid story.

While conducting the in-depth search, detectives are essentially reading a visual autobiography. They’ll learn things such as the person’s favorite color, their favorite authors, the extent of their wealth (if any), secrets (a diary or journal), left- or right-handed, natural hair color/non-natural hair color, travels, family history, clothing style and sizes (there may be clothing found that doesn’t belong to the victim, or that belongs to the killer), shoe sizes and brands, etc.

So, The Professor suggests that writers may want to build a list of the personal possessions that belong to the character-in-progress. Doing so will greatly assist authors in developing and building a character’s personality, and how and why the character goes about his/her daily affairs.

Lets say you’re developing a female protagonist, a woman who’s known for her superb crime-solving abilities. You might want the reader to see the sleuth’s home as a place crammed full of mystery novels and forensics manuals, magnifying glasses of assorted sizes, and a fully-functional DNA lab in the basement. However, her most prized-possessions are a large assortment of big, floppy straw hats.

As the readers step into your character’s kitchen they glance around, taking in the overall scene. On the laminate counter top, next to a shiny, Empire red KitchenAid artisan stand mixer, are two unopened bottles of an “As Seen On TV” weight loss product. (“But, wait! For the low, low price of $19.99 you’ll receive a second bottle of Lard-Ass-Be-Gone absolutely free, if you order within the next two seconds.”). Did the murder victim struggle with weight issues?

The pantry shelves are home to neat rows of canned goods, one non-stick pot, one glass baking dish, two plain white plates, two diner-style coffee mugs (Cafe DuMonde), two bowls, two glasses featuring scenery from Graceland, instant potatoes, 90 second rice, boxed soups of various flavors, and an assortment of tea blends from all over the world. Everything is arranged by size and species and they’d been placed in alphabetical order with all labels facing forward.

The kitchen is spotless. Like the rest of the house, not a thing is out of place. You couldn’t find a dust bunny if you tried.

A tour of the victim’s bedroom closet exposes only comfortable, flat shoes in shades of browns or black, and nine floral-print dresses in various hues of red. Her medicine cabinet contains denture cream, Ibuprofen, and partially-used container of Clairol age-defying dark-brown hair dye.

Have you started to develop a mental picture of the character yet? Do you have some sort of idea of her mannerisms? If you close your eyes are you beginning to see someone who maybe looks a little like this…

Now that we have an outline of our character, and we know a bit of her personality (she’s a neat freak who prefers comfort over style, and she loves, loves, loves, tea), we can start to add some color between the lines. To do so, writers should take a look at their character’s possessions and then ask why they possess each of those items.

The denture cream. Does she own it because she actually has dentures, or is there a gentleman caller with detachable upper and lower plates who often spends the night? How about the assortment of exotic teas? Does she drink the stuff, or is she merely an eccentric collector? Are the tea packets souvenirs from extensive travel? Maybe her gentleman caller is an airline pilot who picks up the various blends during his extensive travels.

So, you see, building a character can be fun. All you have to do is unlock your imaginations and go where your warped little writer-minds take you.

After all, there are countless characters out there who’re on standby, waiting for an invitation to step into your stories.

A cup of coffee

 

How do you start your day? A cup of coffee, a piece of toast, a glance at the morning paper? A nice long run on the path beside the duck pond? Maybe you prefer to watch the morning news while having a steaming bowl of oatmeal before heading off to the office where you’ll spend at least eight grueling hours dealing with clients, paperwork, employee woes, supervisor troubles, payroll issues, and, well, we all know how exhausting a work day can be, right?

Suppose there’s no time for coffee, though. No oatmeal or cornflakes. No toast or Pop Tarts. Instead, your office calls and says you’re needed right away. So you head out the back door and sprint to your car. Fifteen minutes later you’re enjoying a brisk, adrenaline-filled scuffle with a murderer who’s crazy-high on methamphetamine. Ten minutes after securing the killer behind bars you’re lucky enough to have a lovely peek at a bloated body that’s teeming with hundreds of writhing, squiggly maggots.

Yes, that’s how some cops start their day. How about you? Does your job description include wondering if a wanted cop killer is hiding in the trunk of the stolen car you’ve just pulled over?

How often does your boss send you out to a deserted location to pick up the guy who was last seen carving up his elderly neighbor like a Thanksgiving turkey?

Perhaps, instead of eating lunch you can stand out in the hot sun, on asphalt that’s at least 130 degrees, to direct traffic around an auto crash where a mother and her young children were killed by a hit and run driver.

I know this happens every day at your place of employment—a man walks in off the street, naked, holding a knife to his own throat. So you, or one of your coworkers try to talk him into putting down the knife and allow you to help him. Of course, the man begins shouting and cutting himself, severely. So you reach into your desk drawer, push aside a stapler and a pack of gum, and grab your handy TASER.

Maybe you’re a pizza delivery person who receives regular training on maneuvering through tight spots while driving at high speeds.

You get the picture. A cop’s world is, well, a world of its own. And it’s up to you, the writer, to bring your readers inside this most unique place that’s occupied by real people who just happen to have a job that’s a bit different than yours.

A police agency is sort of like a pot of stew—lots of different ingredients (officers and other employees) come together to make one dish. In real life, those ingredients are a diverse group of individuals, with different mannerisms, ways of speaking, beliefs, backgrounds, etc.

In other words, no two officers/detectives think and/or act the same, and that’s how those characters should be written. Diversity, diversity, diversity.

Keep in mind, too, that police officers are real people who do real things, including grocery shopping, sing in church choirs, play ball, spend time with their kids, cook, go to movies, etc.

There are many possibilities regarding officer assignments, and the larger the department the more divisions/duty assignments are available, such as detective divisions, SWAT, CSI, etc. In smaller departments patrol officers may do it all—1st responder, crime scene investigation, witness interviews, interrogate suspects, collect evidence, fingerprint and book suspects, etc.

Still, the job of police officer is extremely unique and you owe it to your readers to offer them a believable story, even if it means…hold on to your hat…doing a bit of research. Believe it or not, you’ll probably have a lot of fun “on the inside.” For example, you might see…

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Anyway, I’ve rambled enough. But before I close and head out for a doctor’s appointment, I’d like to walk you through the rest of of a police officer’s normal day (if there is such a thing as a normal day for officers). So here goes…drug dealers, shots fired, fighting, lost children, crying mothers, abusive parents, hungry children, murder, suicide, shoplifters, pursuits, fatigue, carjacking, crack cocaine, addicts, prostitutes, burglars, no lunch, robbers, assaults, bleeding, spit on by abusive citizens, battered spouses, drunks, rabid animals, B&E, lost pets, remove wild animal in citizen’s garage, pool, or basement, bad checks, autopsy, trip to crime lab, traffic accident, shots fired, fighting again, more lost children, more crying mothers, speeders, question witnesses, peeping toms, search woods filled with tons of poison ivy, serve warrants, miss child’s play at school, citizen can’t get furnace to work, dog stuck in drain pipe, citizen locked keys in car, see a woman about Elvis hiding behind the cheesecake in her refrigerator, citizen locked herself in bedroom and doesn’t know how to turn button on doorknob to get out, pull unconscious man from burning house, citizen hears prowler, kids throwing water balloons at elderly people, check homes for people while they’re on vacation, testify in court, 4-12 officer calls in sick—must work 8 more hours.

And, of course, there are moments like this one that make it all worthwhile…

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OBD, cleaning up your villains

We humans are experts at reinventing the wheel. And, while all the newfangled gadgetry tends to provide an easier style and quality of life, progress could make the present-day mystery writer’s job much more difficult.

How? Well, take the automobile, for example. For as long as the horseless carriage has been around writers have used it as a means of creating tension in their macabre tales—cut brake lines, deflated tires, stuck accelerator cables and linkages, etc.

However, what was once made of a handful of basic working parts and steel construction, the automobile of today is basically a rolling, plastic- and fiberglass-encased computer with seats and cup holders. Even the gas pedal is a computerized “thing.” That’s right, what used to be a handy little lever and cable system is now a complex set of controllers, sensors, magnets, and transistors that “talk” among themselves while we, the drivers, “think” we’re still using our right foot to push and pull a cable attached to something on a carburetor, which, by the way, has been replaced by computer-controlled fuel injection systems.

Back in the day, cut brake lines were a great means of causing a good guy’s vehicle to suddenly careen out of control while traveling down a serpentine mountain roadway on his way to save the current damsel in distress. Not so in today’s world of “safety first” technology.

Car brakes operate on a hydraulic system (pressurized fluid), and the system(s) must maintain a certain pressure to effectively stop the vehicle (a cut line causes a reduction of pressure). Today’s automobiles, however, feature split braking systems, which means that even if one of the brake lines is cut, the second system will provide some ability to slow or stop the car.

With a cut brake line on modern automobiles, the driver would need to press harder on the brake pedal to activate the secondary system, but he/she should be able to bring the vehicle to a stop. By the way, current braking systems are under an extreme amount of pressure, therefore, cutting the line could result in the bad guy receiving serious injuries.

Writers would be much better off having their villains hacking into the computer system that controls the good guy’s car. In fact, the bad guy could easily install a computer chip into the car’s diagnostic port (the place where mechanics hook their computer to diagnose troubles). FYI – all cars manufactured after the mid to late 90’s must have this diagnostic port located somewhere inside the passenger compartment, within three feet of of the steering column, and users must not need tools to access it.

For example, the diagnostic connector on a 2013 Lexus RX350 is under the lower left dashboard. Diagnostic ports look quite similar to the multi-pin plug-in ports on computers where monitors and other devices attach.

Using a computer chip manufactured by a high-tech bad guy, a villain could take control of the vehicle’s electronic systems (basically, every system in the car). No need to cut messy brake lines. No fooling around with cables and linkages. And no digging around under the hood or crawling beneath the car. Yes, today’s villain can remain clean, neat, and tidy while committing his dastardly deeds.

By the way, there’s nothing secretive about using the OBD (on board diagnostics) port for purposes other than to diagnose car troubles. In fact, companies such as Sears sell GPS trackers that simply plug into the diagnostic port. Then, using readily available software, you can track your kids while they’re out for the night, follow the path of your spouse, or companies can track their employees as they drive to and from jobs.

*Sears.com image