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I have many fond memories of my days as in law enforcement. Sure, there were bad times and I still bear those scars, both physical and mental, but all things considered I value and cherish the experience. After all, I have a built-in resource library that’s practically unending, and part of that vast lump of knowledge includes interacting with people from all walks of life.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting celebrities and I’ve had the unique opportunity to sit mere feet from a notorious serial killer when the “switch” was pulled to end his life. I’ve met wonderfully nice people and I’ve dealt with some of the worst of the worst. I can honestly say that I’ve been punched, bitten, stabbed, and shot at by some of the best worst in the business.

But pushing aside all of the “bad” cop stuff, I’d like to call attention to plain old human interaction and the differences in our cultures, and how those backgrounds can sometimes affect police officers during their daily duties. These are also details that can go a long way toward bringing that extra bit of realism to your stories in progress.

Such as …

Imagine for a second that you’re a deputy sheriff whose patrol area covers a vast portion of real estate that’s so deep into the countryside that sunshine is delivered each day by horse and wagon. Trips to the grocery store roll around only once or maybe twice each month. These are the places where residents keep their “deep freezes” filled with vegetables from their gardens and home-butchered meat from freshly-killed hogs, deer, and squirrels.

Back in the day, not everyone in these areas had a telephone. Keep in mind, this was pre-cellphone and that meant party lines were still in use, as well as some people having to go to the nearest county store or phone-owning neighbor’s house to make or receive a call. Even then, those precious calls were mostly reserved for emergency use only.

It was during those days—pre-cellphone and pre-GPS—when deputies had to rely on obtaining directions from local residents when they weren’t sure of a particular address. Houses were often set so far from the road we couldn’t see house numbers, if there were any to see. 911 had not come into play. And, well, you get the idea. Cops were on their own when it came to finding someone’s house.

So, we’d often stop the first person we saw to ask for directions. Or, we’d stop in at the country store to ask the overall-wearing guys who sat around a warm potbelly stove chewing tobacco, discussing crops and livestock, and gossiping about so-and-so getting a new tractor or truck, and who’d killed the biggest deer.

This is what we’d sometimes hear in response to our inquiries.

Me to the checker-playing, work-booted group: “Do you by any chance know Joe Imacrook? He’s somewhere around five-feet tall and weighs in the neighborhood of four-hundred pounds. Thick beard and missing one front tooth. His wife’s name, I believe, is Hattie Sue.” 

The men look up from their games, glance at one another, and then the loudest, most vocal of the crew said, “We might. Why’re you asking?”

Me: “He killed a man last night. Shot him twice in the forehead and then took the victim’s cash, car, and his shoes.”

Crew leader: “Did the guy need killing?”

Laughter erupts from his buddies.

Me: “The guy he murdered had just left church and was on his way home to his pregnant wife and two small children. He killed him for no reason other than to rob him.”

The laughter shut down as if someone flipped a switch. These folks were serious their women and children.

Crew leader: “Yeah, we know him. He lives down the road a piece.”

A second man spoke up. “I always thought old Joe was a few pickles shy of a full jar. Told the missus so, too.”

Crew leader leaned back in his chair and ran a hand across the patch of scraggly, bristled whiskers dotting his cheeks, chin, and neck. “Here what you do,” he said. “Go back out to the crossroads and take a left. Then go on about, oh a mile or so and then keep goin’ till you pass Robert Junior’s old horse barn. Then you hang a sharp right at the big oak tree. You can’t miss it ’cause it’s got a big old hornets’ nest a-hanging from one of the bottom branches. When you see the tree, the one with the hornets’ nest, keep on a goin’ til you see a red mailbox. That ain’t Joe’s mailbox, but you’re close. He’s just past where John Henry Thomas used to have a store. It burned down 37-years ago next week, but they’s a big rock there with some yaller paint on it. Yaller was John Henry’s favorite color so his wife, Etta Jean—she’s Romey and Winonna Jenkins’ oldest daughter—painted the rock so’s everybody’d remember him and the store. You know, John Henry sold the best cheese, bologna, and peaches this side of Atlanta. 

Anyways, if you get to where the road splits into a “Y” you’ve done gone too far, so turn around in Mable Johnson’s driveway and head back the way you come. Old Joe’s house is the blue one a’settin’ off the road about two-hundred yards. The one with the goats and chickens running ’round the place. You can’t miss it. Oh, whatever you do, blow the horn three times when you drive up so he’ll know you’re okay, not some of those pesky Joe Ho’vers Witnessers. I ‘spect he’ll come on out peaceful.”

This bit of dialog may sound a bit overwritten, however, it’s a fair representation of what I’ve encountered on more than one occasion throughout the years. Anyway, the point I’m so poorly trying to communicate is that no detail is too small to store in your memory banks. You never know when those intricate pieces of information are the things needed to take your work to the next level.

James Lee Burke, one of my all time favorite writers, is a master of detail and he often utilizes simple things to enhance his stories. To open the cover of one of Burke’s books is to release the scents of swamp water and crab boils. The smell of meat cooking on open fires greets you warmly as you turn the pages.

In short, Burke makes us feel the words he’s written.

For example, here’s a brief passage from The Jealous Kind, one of his recent books.

“I drove her into the same neighborhood where I bought the switchblade knife. It was Sunday morning, and a few people were on the streets. A blind woman of color was playing bottleneck guitar under s canopy in front of a liquor store.”

In three short sentences Burke takes us by the hand to guide us through this neighborhood. I see the blind woman sitting in the shade of well-weathered canvas awning. I hear the twangy sounds she makes while pushing and pulling a metal slide across the steel strings of her guitar. I hear the notes faintly echo from the sides of brick and glass storefronts. I picture her seated on an overturned plastic milk crate, wearing layers of tattered clothing. In the windows behind and beside her, a few tubular neon lights advertise beer and cigarettes.

Burke’s words show me people strolling along sidewalks littered with faded, discarded lottery tickets and scraps of fast food wrappers. Both men and women avoid making eye contact with anyone. They’re going nowhere particular, just going. The fact that the character purchased a switchblade there indicates it’s a dangerous area, especially after the sun slips behind the skyline.

It’s quite possible that Burke visited this place at some point in his life, and at the time he needed the information he pulled it from that place in his mind where he stores such vivid detail. And this spot, a place we all have inside our minds, is where the dialog I posted remained in limbo until I dug it up.

So yes, details, even the tiniest of them all, can be used to bring life to an otherwise unremarkable three sentences. Imagine if Burke had written the passage without detail.

I drove her through a place I’d been before, where I once bought a knife. We saw some people, including an old blind woman. She was playing a guitar.

See what I mean? Same information, but absolutely no life.

So yes, details. Look for them. Store them. Write them. They are the heartbeat of a good book.

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Sometimes it’s the tiniest detail that makes a setting pop, zing, and sizzle. They’re the little things that cause readers to sit up and take notice. They evoke emotion and stir memories of real life experiences. They’re the things that make readers leave everything behind to step into the worlds you’ve created. After all, a well-written and well-crafted setting can be a character in its own right, and it’s equally as important as the fictional people who live within the covers of your books.

A great example of a writer who’s mastered the art of setting is superstar author James Lee Burke. Burke, whose settings are incredibly detailed, are written from the heart, and the details he creates shine through in every letter of every word. His scenes and characters are deeply layered and this is so because he often relies on personal life experiences.

Burke often talks about having worked in the Texas oilfields, and as a surveyor. He taught school and was employed once as a social worker. As a reporter he wrote for a  newspaper. Like many of us in our early years, and even later in life, money was tight back in the day for Burke and his family. They’d lived in a garage, motels, and a trailer. Thirty years ago Burke was an alcoholic.

It is the combination of Burke’s experiences that offers inspiration for his writings. He’s also adamant that writers should be aware of the people around them.

During a 2015 interview with Publishers Weekly, Burke said, “A good writer is a good listener. The great dialog of the world is all around us, if we’ll only listen. In similar fashion, the great stories are in situations we see everyday, just as the great heroes, the real gladiators, are usually standing next to us in the grocery checkout.”

I’vr often heard writers speaking about adding to their next book a bit of information they heard while at a writers conference. A couple of years, for example, at the Writers’ Poilce Academy,  Tod and Lee Goldberg saw a sign featuring a unique business name and both authors immediately claimed “dibs” at using the name in a future book.

Lee Child once asked me about the typical items stored in the trunk of a patrol car. He needed a speck of detail for a Reacher book. J.A. Jance once asked me about driving and skidding on icy roads. The scant bit of information was vital to an opening scene of a book that, as usual with Judy, quickly turned into a bestseller.

Donald and Renee Bain used to contact me often when they needed information for their Murder She Wrote series. Stuart Kaminsky called on both Denene and me for material. Lee Golderg … more of the same—tiny details for a Monk book. James Lee Burke asked me about fingerprints, a very specific but small detail and, like the others who contact various experts, much of the information was needed to “perk-up’ a scene, paragraph, sentence, or dialog. Sometimes all that’s needed is a single word … proper terminology.

So when writing about cops and when you really want to insert something special into your twisted and thrilling tales of mystery, suspense, and/or romance, ask an expert for unique behind the scenes details that will surprise the reader. Show your fans that you’ve done your homework. After all, your goal is to entertain and please the people who spend their hard-earned money to purchase the books you’ve labored over for the past several months, creating something special just for them.

Unique Cop Stuff

To help out, here are a few tiny specks of information you might find intriguing.

  1. A kevlar vest typically doesn’t quite reach the waistband of the wearer, which leaves a gap of a couple of inches between the bottom of the vest and the belt area of the pants. Nothing there but shirt material and flesh. Therefore, when sliding in and out of a police car, the hard and dense material of the vest sometimes catches and pinches a bit of “love handle,” and it feels like you’d imagine. It hurts and causes the officer to wince. Although, if people are around at the time, the officer will suck it up and pretend it didn’t happen. Still, that tiny tear in the corner of the eye is a dead giveaway. OUCH!
  2. While wearing a Kevlar vest, officers typically wear an undershirt of some type. The problem, though, is that the undershirt often “rides up” with all of the climbing in-and-out of patrol cars and scuffling with bad guys that officers do all shift long. So, to avoid the uncomfortable bunching-up of material that you can’t get to without stripping down, some officers tuck the tail of their undershirt into their underwear. The elastic band of the “Fruit of the Looms” holds the t-shirt firmly in place.
  3. Officers sometimes store an extra set of cuffs on the spotlight control arm.While driving along, especially on bumpy and curvy roads, etc., there’s a constant “click” of metal tapping metal as the handcuffs hanging from the spotlight arm sway with the motions of the car. After a while, though, the noise is “tuned out” and simply becomes a part of the cacophony of sounds inside the patrol vehicle—constant police radio chatter, FM radio station, the drunk yelling and singing from the backseat, and even a partner going on and on about his kids or the big fish he caught, or the mangled dead body they’d discovered at a crash scene earlier in the night.

4. Police departments use many symbols of rank designation. Some department supervisors wear white shirts (some departments issue white shirts to all officers), while others issue gold badges to their higher-ranking officers. But the easiest way to tell an officer’s rank is to look at their collar insignia. Each pin is a representation of the officer’s rank.

Collar insignias, beginning with the top ranking officer (chief)

Colonel, or Chief (some chiefs prefer to be addressed as Colonel) – An eagle (birds) on each collar

Sheriffs and chiefs may also wear a series of stars to indicate their rank.

Major – Oak leaf on each collar

Captain – Two bars on each collar (the two bars are often called “railroad tracks,” a great detail to include in a story)

Lieutenant – One bar on each collar

Sergeant hree stripes on the collar and/or the sleeve (photo below)

Sometimes rank is indicated on the badge.

Corporal – Two stripes on the collar and/or the sleeve

Officer – Chevron, or single stripe

 

Hash marks on the sleeve indicate length of service.

For example, each hash mark normally represents five years on the job. Sometimes, to avoid a sleeve fully-covered in long row of hash marks, stars are often used to represent each five years served. In the case of the officer/police chief above, each star in the circle represents five years of service, plus four hash marks, each of which, in this case, indicate a single year. So, 5 stars and 4 hash marks = a total of 29 years on the job.

Other pins and medals worn by officers may include …

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Here’s a closer look at the bling.

(from top to bottom):

– Name tag.

– Award ribbons – Community service award, length of service, expert marksman, lifesaving award, medal of valor.

– Pistol expert (to earn this award the officer must consistently shoot an average of 95% or better on the range).

– FTO pin worn by field training officers.

– K9 pin worn by K9 officers.

– Indicates outstanding service, above and beyond.

*Remember, ribbons and pins and other do-dads will vary by individual departments and agencies.

Pins

Pins on the back of name tags, ribbons, etc. are used to attach the insignias to an officer’s uniform. A small clasp (similar to an ear ring backing) is pressed over the pin tips to hold them in place.

Unfortunately, the clasps often fall off during scuffles with rowdy bad guys and, if the officer is not wearing a bullet-resistant vest, which was typical “back in the day,” could result in the pin tips puncturing the officer’s skin.

For a quick fix in the field, lost clasps can be temporarily replaced with pencil erasers.

Okay, that’s the tip of the detail iceberg. Questions?


“The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand.” ~ Robert Lewis Stevenson

When I crack the covers of a James Lee Burke novel, the words on the page begin to dance and sing. The odor of swamp water oozes out into the air. I feel the humidity and I smell the delicious odors of meat cooking on open fires. I see the mist on the bayou. More importantly, though, I’m there, in that book following along with Dave and Clete and Alafair as they go about their journey to the final page.

In The New Iberia Blues, Burke described a young deputy sheriff who’d grown up in a small town on the Louisiana-Arkansas line as having an accept that sound like “someone twanging a bobby pin.” Well, y’all, I instantly heard the officer’s voice ring as clear as a bell from that point forward.

The author described this fictional deputy, Sean McClain, as “slender, over six feet, his shoulders as rectangular as a coat-hanger wire inside his shirt, his stomach as flat as a plank.”

In that brief passage, readers had a mental picture of the lawman. He was fit and strong and tall.

Burke also, within just a few lines, brilliantly gives the reader a look inside the mind of Deputy McClain, describing his sincere innocence, and how he views life and approaches it from day to day. And he used his lead character, Dave Robicheaux, to introduce us to the man.

Robicheaux said to the reader, ” … I drove down to the tip of Cypremort Point with a young uniformed deputy named Sean McClain, who had seven months experience in law enforcement and still believed in the human race and woke up each day with birdsong in his head.”

Sean McClain was now a person I knew—how he walked, talked, and how he would confront criminals and witnesses. I knew his approach to investigations—reserved and with a glass half-full mindset. His lack of experience would cause him to first give the benefit of the doubt before looking at someone’s dark side. Rookie innocence. I’ve seen a hundreds of times.

So yes, words are the key to making a story come alive. But only when they’re assembled in the correct order and only if the selected words used are absolutely necessary to advance a scene. Too much is, well, too much.

So, without further ado, here are your …

Crime Writers’ Words of the Day

 

Incised Wound – A wound caused by a sharp weapon and is typically longer than it is deep. These types of wounds usually bleed quite readily.

Infanticide – The killing of an infant shortly after the child is born.

Infarct – An area of dead tissue (necrosis) caused by a lack of blood supply. A Myocardial infarction (MI) refers to the myocardium, the heart muscle itself, and the changes that occur in it when the muscle is suddenly deprived of fresh blood. When blood ceases to flow to the heart muscle it causes necrosis, the death of myocardial tissue. This is a heart attack.

 

K.

Klismaphillia – The use of enemas for sexual arousal/pleasure.

 

L.

Latent Prints – Fingerprints that are NOT visible to the human eye. (Patent prints are visible).

Ligature – Any string, rope, material that’s used to bind or tie, such as a household extension cord used by a killer to strangle his victim.

The post-autopsy photo below/right shows a deep ligature mark on the neck (upper left). Note the post-autopsy stitching of the “Y” incision.

The murder weapon was an extension cord, the typical cord (left) found in many homes.

Thanging autopsyo help orient – the head is to the left, just outside the upper edge of the photo. The Y-stitching begins at the bottom left  (upper right shoulder area) and continues to the mid chest area where it’s met by a like incision that began at the upper left shoulder area (upper area of the image) and continued to the chest center. The incision continued down to the area below the navel (bypassing the bellybutton).

 

Livor Mortis (lividity) can help investigators determine the time of death. The staining of tissue normally begins within the first two hours after death. The process reaches it’s full peak in eight to twelve hours.

If the victim is moved during the first six hours after death the purplish discoloration can shift, causing the new, lowest portion of the body to exhibit lividity.

After a period of six to eight hours after death, lividity becomes totally fixed. Moving the body after eight hours will not change the patterns of discoloration. Therefore, investigators know a body found lying face down with lividity on the back, has been moved.

Rookie officers have often confused lividity with bruising caused by fighting.

Remember, ambient air temperature is always a factor in determining the TOD (time of death). A hot climate can accelerate lividity, while a colder air temperature can slow it down considerably.

 

M.

Marbling – Not to be confused with the desirable tenderness caused by the intermixing of fat and muscle fibers in good beef, marbling, as it relates to a dead body, is the result of damaged blood cells that leak from deteriorating vessels. Bacteria converts haemoglobin molecules, the molecules that once carried oxygen around the body, into sulfhaemoglobin.

When the sulfhaemoglobin molecules present in settled blood (once the heart stops beating) it causes the skin to display a marbled, greenish-black appearance. this is a characteristic of a body that undergoing decomposition. These vessels, mostly the veins, often have the appearance of the squiggly lines of a roadmap. Marbling generally appears on the skin in early stages of decomposition, approximately 3 to 5 days, or so.

Marbling

Midline – The center of the head, chest, and abdomen, as if an imaginary line is drawn from top to bottom.

Midline

Mysophilia – Sexual attraction to filthy, dirty people, animals, clothing, etc.