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…

2012-05-05 13.18.14

2012-09-21 14.32.04

2012-11-15 14.05.28-1

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…

2013-01-08 14.07.31

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.

* image


Believable Characters


We recently took a short trip where I ran into a fellow who considers himself an expert on writing fiction. He’s also a retired police detective. The wise old gentleman wouldn’t tell me his name, asking that I refer to him as “The Professor.” He did share some of his writing tips with me. He also introduced me to the members of his close circle of friends, and you’ll meet them in the coming days. Anyway, here’s what The Professor (pictured above) had to say about the correlation between police officers and fictional character development.

The Professor – Police officers have unknowingly cornered the market on developing believable fictional characters. And, it’s something they do on a daily basis while interviewing witnesses to crimes. Their job is to help those witnesses reach deep into the corners of their minds, where they’ve stored details that help round out descriptions of suspects—scars, tattoos, a limp, a missing finger, an odd accent, a habit of throat clearing or twirling a lock of hair, a mole on the cheek, a distinct cologne, etc. The end result is a wonderfully detailed picture of a unique person who’d stand out in a crowd of dozens.

Writers have the same job, to develop characters with unique qualities and physical appearance. Writers must go a few steps further, though, showing readers the characters’ personalities, their strengths and flaws, and how they live their lives.

It’s best when writers introduce character traits through means other than like listing a string of grocery items—he was a tall, thin, bald, and nervous man. Instead, how about…

Andre ducked when he entered the bedroom, which, as with most pro basketball players, was something he was used to doing, in every single house he’d ever visited. Thankfully, the ceiling inside this particular room was vaulted. His slick scalp reflected the light from the overhead fixture, a human-powered lighthouse beacon.

Andre flashed a lopsided smile at his dying friend, exposing a set of teeth as bright as the keys on a new Steinway piano. He couldn’t find the right words to say to the man he’d known since childhood, so he stood at the foot of his friend’s deathbed, jingling the change in his pocket.

Sure, sometimes writers have a bit of difficulty bringing life to characters, so here are a couple of methods that might help out.

Try interviewing your character.

Pretend you’re sitting across the breakfast table from, say…this guy…

You want to know what makes this fellow tick. So you might want to start out the interview by asking…

1. Are you angry because you recently filed your teeth to sharp points and now you’re in excruciating pain?

2. What are your favorite foods?

3. Where do you live?

4. Have you killed anyone else besides your mother and the ladies of the Afternoon Tea Club?

5. Do have any hobbies? Well, other than chopping people into tiny bits?

6. What is your deepest, darkest secret? I know you mentioned wanting to learn ballet, but I mean something you’re holding really deep down.

7. What’s your favorite color, other than blood red, that is?

8. Are you religious?

9. What’s your favorite time of day? You know, when you’re most active doing whatever it is you do?

10. What is your most valued possession? No, I don’t mean the girl in the basement.

Once you’ve completed the interview, try asking your soon-to-be character if it’s okay if you have a quick look around the inside of his house (you may have to promise that you won’t call the police, or his shrink). During the quick tour of his charming abode, make note of the things you see. A character’s possessions will tell you a great deal about him.

1. Clothing – you see nothing but tattered and well-worn overalls and grungy work shirts. Now you know he’s probably a man who works with his hands. This could indicate someone who frequents honky-tonk bars and has friends who drive rusted and dented pickup trucks. A matchbook collection from various bars would also be a clue. So would a scrapbook containing locks of assorted hair colors and types, all labeled “Girls from bars I go to.”

Suits and ties = a man who works in an office setting, therefore he most likely pals around with the upper class people.

2. Your guy from the above photo might possess a backpack filled with human heads, and that could be a great clue about his hobbies and interests.

3. There may be a secret door in “pointy-teeth’s” bedroom that leads to a torture chamber. Now you know where he spends his weekends.

4. Are his things new, old, broken, or meticulously cared for?

5. If he were to take a trip, what would he pack to be certain all his needs would be met?

6. The very last question of your life might be, “Why do you keep your best cutlery locked in that bloodstained footlocker?

So, these are only a few examples of ways to squeeze important details from your characters. There are more tips on the way, featuring an unusual cast of characters. So please stay tuned…


5 things your antagonist


The antagonist of your story is, of course, someone who opposes the hero. It’s the antagonist’s job to prevent the protagonist from achieving her goal.

Antagonists provide stumbling blocks and hurdles for the lead character to overcome, and they create tension and drama.

Villains, on the other hand, are evil and will stop at nothing, including murder, to reach their goal. They’re often over the top characters who enjoy blowing things up, tearing things down, destroying human lives, and maybe even taking out the entire planet if they can devise a workable plan to do so.

So, here’s the deal. Villains are also antagonists (they definitely oppose the protagonists, but also want to kill, maim, mutilate, and disfigure…well, they’re just plain evil), but antagonists are not villains (antagonists are adversaries—roadblocks the hero must overcome or go around). Antagonists are not evil. Instead, they may simply have an opposing view, opposite of the protagonist’s ideas. Make sense?

A great example of an antagonist is Ernest T. Bass, the rock-throwing mountain man on the Andy Griffith Show. He was definitely a hurdle for Andy and Barney, especially Barney.

Anyway, here are five things an antagonist should not do.

1. The antagonist has stocked up on a variety of weapons and tons of ammunition, yet when he confronts the hero in the final showdown, he runs out of bullets first, and then tosses the empty weapon at the hero. NO! Bad guys who’ve risen to the rank of antagonist are basically equal to the hero in the intelligence department. They’ll think their plans through before acting out. Besides, cops carry backup weapons and extra bullets, why not have the antagonist do the same?

2. Villains who are bound and determined to destroy the world clearly haven’t thought this through. If the world goes up in smoke where will he live, the moon?

What will he do? And with whom will he do it? Everything will be gone! The earth would be a ghost town.

Of course, we know the world won’t end on page 367, but the villain doesn’t know he’s merely a character in a book. Therefore, the end result must be believable to the reader…and to your characters.

3. Finally, when all the smoke clears and last piece of buckshot has been plucked from the hero’s rear end, somewhere near page 289, we find the antagonist having the upper hand over the hero. Maybe he has the protagonist tied up, or something. And what do we see next…the antagonist spouting off a full confession to the hero—everything he’s done wrong over the course of his entire lifetime.

Then he slithers away, leaving the hero bound and gagged inside a burning building. How cliche’ is that? They don’t confess like this in real life. Normally, bad guys lie like tired dogs until the very end, when they feel they’ve exhausted all means of hiding the truth. But not while they’re winning the battle.

4. Number four is actually part of number three, but it’s such a wiener that I’ve given it a separate spot in the countdown. The bad guy has the hero in a position where he could easily finish him off, however, the thug chooses to talk for a while, or his heart softens and he decides he just can’t pull the trigger. Puhleeeze… The bad guy has hated the hero for 147 years. Why would he suddenly have a change of heart? There has to be a better way for these scenarios to play out. Where’s the creativity? Why write the same old, same old?

5. Your antagonist is a pretty clever guy. He’s devised a plan to end the world, found a way to stockpile plutonium, uranium, missiles, grenade launchers, and a couple of fighter jets, and is able to sneak in and out of the Pentagon and White House any old time he chooses, yet he picks an accomplice who’s as dumb as a box of rocks. I ask you, how believable is that?

Please, give your antagonist a healthy dose of smarts. They’ll appreciate it, and so will your readers.

I’ll say it again…it’s a writer’s duty to create believable make-believe.


Transferring DNA evidence


Leading characters should be written as real people with real problems and real goals. They’re people a reader wants to care about. Protagonists are likeable and smart, yet flawed in some way.

Sure, the hero will win, we know that, and we love seeing them doing what they do to solve the murder du jour. But what should they NOT do while poking and prodding through crime scenes? Well, here’s a short list of seven things we shouldn’t see in your books.

1. Picking up the murder weapon at an already secure homicide scene is a no-no. First, be sure the weapon was photographed exactly as it was found. Next, when the time comes to move the weapon, the detective should use care to protect possible fingerprints, trace evidence, and DNA. Of course, if the scene is not secure and 100 people are still running through the area like crazed zombies, officers should immediately secure the weapon to prevent contamination and the possibility of becoming murder victim number two.

2. Don’t let your hero cover the body with things found at the crime scene (blankets, sheets, the living room rug) because doing so could transfer potential evidence from the covering to the body, or from the body to the covering. I promise, the dead guy doesn’t care that he’s lying on the floor in his birthday suit.

3. Don’t let Richard Castle plunder around inside your protagonist’s crime scene. Outsiders are apt to step on evidence, move evidence, bring things into the crime scene (fibers, etc.) that shouldn’t be there, and touch things. A crime scene isn’t the place to have a conversation about going to Cape Cod on vacation while walking from room to room drinking a cup of coffee. This also isn’t the time for shyness. If necessary, have the hero ordering people to remain outside the perimeter.

4. Please don’t allow your hero to dig a bullet from the door casing and then say, “Just as I suspected, the murder weapon is a 9mm SIG Sauer.” It’s darn near impossible to know the caliber of misshapen bullets/fragments merely by looking at them. And they certainly wouldn’t be able to guess which brand of gun fired it. The same is true about entrance and exit wounds. You can’t judge the caliber size merely by glancing at an entrance wound in flesh.

5. Revolvers do NOT automatically eject spent brass. If empty casings are found at the crime scene it’s because the shooter manually dumped them there, which would be highly unlikely. Semi-automatics and automatic weapons do automatically eject spent casings, but you won’t find them in a neat little pile beside the body. Normally, semi- and fully-automatic weapons eject brass a few feet away from the shooter, and they may bounce in several directions, depending on the surface/item they strike—concrete floor, wood flooring, lamps, tables, carpeting, etc.

6. Robbers cannot rob a house. A robbery occurs when a bad guy forces someone to give him money/items. Breaking into an empty house and taking a TV or jewelry is burglary. The two are not synonymous. They are not the same!

7. Cordite. Need I address this again? Your hero won’t smell cordite because the stuff is no longer used in modern ammunition.


Point your tale


Why does almost every crime novel feature a muscle-bound, sharpshooting, fast-driving, marathon-running, cool-as-hell detective? What is it about the suit-wearing police officers that attracts a writer’s attention? After all, detectives are normally the last officers to see any real action. They’re rarely in shootouts. They hardly ever chase fleeing suspects. And they almost never get their shiny shoes dirty. In fact, their job is pretty mundane—see a body, collect some evidence, send evidence to a lab, talk to some 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. And many detectives have been on the job for years and years, NOT doing much more than the above, which may begin to take its toll—flabby muscles, poor shooting skills, slow reaction times, couldn’t run if they wanted to (and they don’t), and hot flashes.

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 350lb crooks who refuse to be handcuffed, shooting it out with armed robbers, 110mph 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 a window after a burglary suspect, 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. 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 are attracted to older detectives who wear rumpled, out-of-style suits and scruffy facial hair?

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. Investigators start their day in their offices, drinking a cup of coffee while solving the daily Jumble, using a pencil crudely sharpened with the pocketknife they carry for peeling apples.

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 their hair saw a set of clippers was the time they spent an entire Saturday morning attempting to groom 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 fit, handsome patrol officer…

Or an out-of-shape, poorly-dressed detective?

Creating and writing


Villains. They’re the bad guys of our stories who are devoted to wickedness. They have specific goals and will stop at nothing to reach them. Are you as driven to write them as compelling characters?

The hero of the story is a stumbling block for the villain. He’s in the way, therefore the villain must do all he can to eliminate the him. An antagonist (someone who merely opposes the hero) simply makes waves for the hero.

Villains are used to create tension in a story. They also provide much-needed hurdles for the hero to overcome during his journey.

Unlike antagonists, villains are sociopathic, narcissistic, and can be quite unpredictable. And they often use fear to get their way.

Villains must be layered characters—three dimensional. And they absolutely must have a reason to do what they do. Do not make your villain a mindlless killing machine!

Think of real-life villains… What makes them so creepy, and scary? Yep…they’re real.

When should you first bring your villain to the page?

Readers must be able to identify with the villain. Perhaps he has an interest in animals, or children. Maybe he’s a devoted church member or the hero’s letter carrier. Maybe the villain is the babysitter for the hero’s children.

Villains are extremely motivated.


Don’t go “villain crazy!” Over the top villains are unbelievable.


Those were just a few basic guidelines for creating a compelling villain. If all else fails you could follow a simple recipe I concocted. It goes something like this (Of course, like all good cooks I’ve kept a few secret ingredients to myself).


Writers all know how important setting is for their stories. A well-written description of a place and its surroundings can seem just as alive as any hero or villain. Authors like James Lee Burke use setting as if it’s one of their book’s main characters, with emotions, scars, and varying moods. Burke, of course, is a master of the craft. With his exquisite lyrical style a reader can almost smell the Louisiana swamps when they open one of his books.

I sometimes wonder if setting plays a role when Virginia prison officials choose the locations for their corrections facilities. Do the directors purposely place the cold and lifeless concrete, steel, and razor wire facilities among some of the prettiest scenery the Commonwealth has to offer? Is the contrast between cinder block and chain-link and rabbits and pine trees an integral part of the state’s criminal justice?

First, a little background information:

By the time you read this blog, the notorious D.C. Sniper, John Allen Muhammad, will have been executed by lethal injection at Greensville Correctional Center (GCC) in Jarratt, Virginia. Greensville, as it’s referred to by the locals and by corrections employees, was built in the late 1980’s and opened in early 1990. Residents of town of Jarratt strongly opposed having the mega-prison built in their community. After all, the prison was designed to hold over three-thousand maximum security inmates. At the time, the entire population of Jarratt was barely over 500. The disproportionate odds were unnerving to many of the local folks. To add insult to injury, prison officials announced that GCC would also be the new location for the death chamber, where all state executions would take place.

The town of Jarratt is situated within two counties, Greensville and Sussex. The town’s main street is basically the county line, which means that part of the residents live in Greensville County while the other half lives in Sussex County. This also means the town is patrolled by two separate sheriff’s offices. The Sussex County Sheriff has jurisdiction over one-half of the town and the Greensville County Sheriff has authority over the other. However, a mutual agreement between the two sheriff’s allows deputies from each department to make lawful arrests anywhere within the town limits. By the way, the town does not have a separate police department, and the nearest sheriff’s office is eleven miles away.

At the time when GCC was in the planning stages, even though the local residents opposed the prison, both sheriffs lobbied to have the facility built in their county. Their unusual desire was fueled by the fact that a sheriff was allowed to have one state-funded deputy per 1,500-2,000 county residents, and that number includes a prison’s inmate population. GCC’s 3,000 prisoners would allow the local sheriff to hire two additional deputies, an increase in manpower of nearly 20% for the Greensville department.

The state finally decided to build the prison in Greensville County, at the edge of Jarratt’s town boundary. They purchased 1,105 acres and constructed a semi-circular grouping of buildings on the center 125 acres. A new road, Corrections Way, leading to the facility was built, and suddenly the sleepy section of southeastern Virginia that was once home to the Meherrin Indians, several Civil War battles, and Henry Jordan of the Green Bay Packers, was changed forever.

The prison’s cells were built off-site and delivered to the site on large trucks. They were fabricated as two 70 square-foot cell modules complete with all wiring, plumbing, TV connections, ductwork, desks, and bunks. Once the modules were on-site they were stacked on top of one another, or placed side-by-side in their proper configurations. Workers then connected all utilities until the large 3-D puzzle was completed and inmates began to arrive by the bus load. The new paint hardly had time to dry before officials fired up Old Sparky, the state’s electric chair.

How does all this connect to a book’s setting?

(This is a fictional account of what may have happened on the day the DC Sniper was transferred to GCC from Death Row. )

John Allen Muhammad, the D.C. Sniper, was shackled like the condemned man that he was. Guards fastened a bullet-proof vest around his torso and then led him to a white prison van.  With each step the leg irons dug into the tender flesh around his ankles. He climbed into the van and then slid across the bench seat, looking out through the metal screen covering the rear windows. He was leaving Sussex I and Death Row, headed for Greensville Correctional Center and the Death Chamber. The sobering fact that this was a one way trip made him swallow hard.

The drive was short, forty miles or so. He could see the brake lights from the support vehicle in front. Headlights in the rear were from another prison van. Both carried heavily armed guards. He’d seen their automatic weapons and shotguns before they got inside. The DOC wasn’t taking any chances. They didn’t want anyone to kill their passenger before they had a chance to do it.

Route 40 was two lanes. A double yellow line ran down the center, split occasionally by dotted lines for passing. At 4am, traffic was light. The vehicles that did pass were probably guards on their way to work at one of the area prisons. There were several – the largest employer in the area, followed by plywood plants and farming. A beat up Ford truck pulling an aluminum boat passed by. The guard waved to a driver he couldn’t see. A southern thing. They all do it.

The entourage turned left on 301, instead of I95. Stony Creek. A one-horse town. Nothing there but a truck stop, a hotel, and one traffic light. He remembered passing through the area when going to D.C. from Alabama. Or maybe it was Louisiana. He couldn’t remember. Everything was a blur from back then.

The asphalt was uneven. Pot holes the size of hubcaps. No street lights. It was pitch dark. He couldn’t remember ever seeing that many stars. Country-ass place.

The turn signal on the van in front began to blink, indicating they were turning right. Corrections Way. The road looked out of place. The new pavement was extremely wide with freshly painted lines down the middle and near the shoulders. A crackle spewed from the guard’s walkie-talkie. He held it close to his mouth, mumbling something Muhammad couldn’t understand.

They drove for a mile on a road that was as straight as a yard stick. The shoulders were narrow, dropping off into ditches filled with black, brackish-looking water. A couple of raccoons ambled along the edge of the pavement, turning to look at the van when it rolled by. The animals’ yellow eyes seemed to look directly at Muhammad. He shivered.

They rounded a curve to the right and were suddenly bathed in the hot white light that illuminated the grounds of Greensville Correctional Center. The place was freakin’ huge. A gun tower was directly in front of the van. A guard holding a high-powered rifle in the crook of his left arm stood on the catwalk.

The entourage stopped. One of the guards in the lead van got out and walked to the sally port. The driver of Muhammad’s van rolled down his window. Muhammad leaned toward the opening and took a deep breath knowing it would be his last taste of fresh air. Outside, a frog burped out a steady melody. Bats flew in wide, quick loops around the large lights. Catching bugs, Muhammad thought.

Wispy tendrils of steam rose from a storm drain near the main gate. He smelled freshly cut grass. The inmates from the camp must have mowed the lawn earlier in the day. The odor reminded Muhammad of that parking lot in Maryland, the one where the guy was cutting the grass at the auto mall. Or was it when that woman was reading her book?

They all seemed to run together.

Did he pull the trigger on both of those?

The sally port gate opened and all three vans pulled inside.

No more fresh air.

It would all be over soon.

John Allen Mohammad

Officers searched cars in the D.C. area after one of Mohammad’s shootings.

The Death Chamber at Greensville Correctional Center

11/10/09 – A vehicle carrying Mohammed’s body leaves GCC enroute to the morgue in Richmond where an autopsy will be performed.

Mohammad’s attorney, Jon Sheldon, is led away from the press conference at GCC by a fellow attorney.

People for and against the death penalty wait outside Greensville Correctional Center for the news that Muhammad had been executed.

Mildred Muhammad, ex-wife of John Allen Mohammad

*Reuters photos

*     *     *

Writers Police Academy

There has been a slight delay in getting the Writers’ Police Academy registration online. We want to make sure everything is perfect before we do open registration. Hopefully , we’ll see it in a day or two. Thanks for your patience.

There is a test page up at so you can get an idea of what the site looks like.  Keep in mind that this is just a test page. There are still a few errors, missing information, and incomplete text.

Remember, the hotel has limited space due to other large events in the area. Please register early! In fact, some people have already begun securing their rooms. If you plan to attend the academy I strongly urge you to do the same.

Yesterday, I attended a very interesting Sisters In Crime meeting in North Carolina. The drive over from our house was quite pleasant. Traffic was light and the scenery was outstanding. No one was in a hurry, which is pretty normal for these parts. And that slow pace gave me time to really take in my new surroundings.

It’s fall in our neck of the woods, and the area trees have gone way above and beyond the call of duty to provide us with a spectacular showing of color. Even though it was a sunny day, there was a slight crispness in the air that reminded me of growing up in the south. Sometimes, on cool autumn nights, my mother would load a cookie sheet with freshly-dug peanuts, right off the vines and still in their shells, and roast them in her old gas oven. The smell of those toasty legumes would quickly fill the house, drawing my father, my brother, and me to the kitchen like hogs to slop (I’m trying to fit in my new hood. Is it working?). There’s not another smell (the peanuts, not the hogs) like that on earth. It’s wonderful.

For me, the south is peanuts, tobacco, soy beans, red clay, pork barbecue, sweet tea, sitting in the shade, lightening bugs, catfishing, good friends, magnolias with leaves as large as dinner plates, and kids that still say “Yes Ma’am” and “No Ma’am.”

What the south isn’t, is the stereotypical place that’s filled to the brim with dumb redneck men, and wimpy, faint-at-the-drop-of-a-hat, women. However, there are some people below the old Mason Dixon line who still think the woman’s place in this world is in the kitchen, not writing books, or anywhere else that doesn’t involve cookin’, cleanin’ and birthin’ babies. Which brings me back to the Sisters in Crime meeting and one of the topics we discussed – writing cross gender.

The timing of this meeting with a group of strong, successful women writers, was perfect. I’d just finished reading a book where the author chose to write the female hero as a wimpy, yet over the top character who couldn’t make a move without consulting her male partner. This so-called hero, who, while lacking in basic skills like decision-making and backbone-wearing, could fly helicopters, shoot any weapon known to mankind, and build explosives and other handy-dandy life-saving devices out of household products, such as oatmeal and dental floss. Yet, she dressed in high heels and low-cut tops while saving the underdog from death and destruction (I’m sorry, but it would be nearly impossible to chase down and fight a bad guy while wearing sexy platform slingback heels). She used her femininity to the point of being downright slutty. In other words, the author committed what I believe to be one of the deadliest writing sins ever – thinking female cops are wimps, therefore overcompensating for what the writer obviously thought was the protagonist’s major flaw, being a woman.

Folks, there’s no need to do this. In fact, please don’t do this. To write female cops in this manner and style is a real show-stopper for me. I’ve worked with many female officers in my day, many of whom were quite feminine, and every single one of them were every bit as suited for the job as their male counterparts. Actually, many women score higher than men, academically, in the basic police academy. Some female trainees outperform men in various practical exercises as well, and continue to do so throughout their careers.

On the street, female officers are equal to male officers. Sure, some female officers excel in certain areas, while other duties aren’t their strong points, but the same is true for male officers. Bravery is not an issue for officers of either gender. I’ve been in some pretty tough situations where my backup was a female officer, and in each situation the woman jumped into the fight without hesitation. Again, there’s no difference in the job performance of the two sexes.

Female and male officers receive the same training, wear uniforms manufactured by the same companies, take the same oath, drive the same patrol cars, carry the same weapons, and arrest the same bad guys. Male and female detectives work the same cases. They solve the same murders, question the same witnesses, raid the same crack houses, and testify in the same courts. So why write male and female cops differently? Why do the writers of the Castle TV show write the female M.E. weaker than the male M.E.? Why is she a wimpy character? His character is certainly very strong.

The problem, I think, with people writing opposite genders is that some authors simply try too hard. Being a woman is not something that should require an apology, which could be what all this over the top stuff is all about.

Sgt. Kimberly Munley, the hero at Fort Hood.

What do you guys think? Why do some authors write women heroes differently than they pen their male protagonists? Are there authors who do a good job at writing opposite gender? If so, who are your favorites?

*     *     *

Writers Police Academy

There has been a slight delay in getting the Writers’ Police Academy registration online. We want to make sure everything is perfect before we do open registration. Hopefully , we’ll see it in a day or two. Thanks for your patience.

There is a test page up at so you can get an idea of what the site looks like.  Keep in mind that this is just a test page. There are still a few errors, missing information, and incomplete text.