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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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Did you know that not all sheriff’s deputies are police officers? How about that some sheriffs in the U.S., and their deputies, do not have any arrest authority? Is it possible that you, as writers, haven written scenes incorrectly based on not knowing the above facts? Well, there’s a super easy solution to fixing this lack of basic knowledge … Do Your Homework!

It takes a minimal amount of effort to check the policies, procedures, laws, and rules and regulations in the area where your story takes place. Of course, if your town is fictional then you’re the law-maker in charge. But if the setting of your latest tale is Doodlebop, Alaska, then you should conduct a bit of research to learn how things operate in Doodlebop’s town limits and surrounding areas. After all, what happens in Doodlebop, Alaska is most likely quite a bit different than the goings-on in Rinktytink, Vermont.

For example:

1. Use caution when writing cop slang. What you hear on TV may not be the language used by real police officers. And, what is proper terminology and/or slang in one area may be totally unheard of in another. A great example are the slang terms Vic (Victim), Wit (Witness), and Perp (Perpetrator). These shortened words are NOT universally spoken by all cops. In fact, I think I’m fairly safe in saying the use of these is not typical across the U.S. Even the slang for carbonated beverages varies from place to place (soda, pop, soda pop, Coke, drink, etc.).

2. Simply because a law enforcement officer wears a shiny star-shaped badge and drives a car bearing a “Sheriff” logo does not mean they are all “sheriffs.” Please, please, please stop writing this in your stories. A sheriff is an elected official who is in charge of the department, and there’s only one per sheriff’s office. The head honcho. The Boss. All others working there are appointed by the sheriff to assist him/her with their duties. Those appointees are called DEPUTY SHERIFFS. Therefore, unless the boss himself shows up at your door to serve you with a jury summons, which is highly unlikely unless you live in a county populated by only three residents, two dogs, and a mule, the LEO’s you see driving around your county are deputies.

3. The rogue detective who’s pulled from a case yet sets out on his own to solve it anyway. I know, it sounds cool, but it’s highly unlikely that an already overworked detective would drop all other cases (and there are many) to embark on some bizarre quest to take down Mr. Big. Believe me, most investigators would gladly lighten their case loads by one, or more. Besides, to disobey orders from a superior officer is an excellent means of landing a fun assignment (back in uniform on the graveyard shift ) directing traffic at the intersection of Dumbass and Mistake.

4. Those of you who’ve written scenes where a cocky FBI agent speeds into town to tell the local chief or sheriff to step aside because she’s taking over the murder case du jour…well, get out the bottle of white-out because it doesn’t happen. The same for those scenes where the FBI agent forces the sheriff out of his office so she can set up shop. No. No. And No. The agent would quickly find herself being escorted back to her guvment vehicle.

The FBI does not investigate local murder cases. I’ll say that again. The FBI does not investigate local murder cases. And, in case you misunderstood … the FBI does not investigate local murder cases. Nor do they have the authority to order a sheriff or chief out of their offices. Yeah, right … that would happen in real life (in case you can’t see me right now I’m giving a big roll of my eyes).

Believable Make-Believe

Okay, I understand you’re writing fiction, which means you get to make up stuff. And that’s cool. However, the stuff you make up must be believable. Not necessarily fact, just believable. Write it so your readers can suspend reality, even if only for a few pages. Your fans want to trust you, and they’ll go out of their way to give you the benefit of the doubt. Really, they will. But for goodness sake, give them something to work with,—without an info dump—a reason to believe/understand what they’ve just seen on your pages. A tiny morsel of believability goes a long way.

Saying This Again

If you’re going for realism, and I cannot stress this enough, please do your homework. Remember, no two agencies operate in exactly the same manner, nor are rules and even many laws/ordinances the same in states, towns, counties, and cities. Actually, things are never the same/uniform across the country. Therefore, it’s always best to check with someone in the area where your story is set. Again, rules and regulations on one side of the country may not be the same on the other. And the middle of the country may also be totally different from the other localities.

For example, there are 3,081 sheriffs in the U.S., and I can say with certainty that neither of those top cops runs their office in a manner that’s identical to that of another. Each sheriff has their own set of policies, rules, and regulations, and each state has their own laws regarding sheriffs and their duties.

The same is true with other agencies, including the offices of medical examiners and coroners. State law, again, dictates whether or not they utilize a coroner system or that of a medical examiner.

*By the way, three states do not have Sheriff’s Offices—Alaska, Connecticut, and Hawaii.

Location, Location, Location!

As when writing about a sheriff’s office, if your story features a medical examiner, or coroner, you should narrow your research efforts to the area where your story takes place.  Here’s why …

In some locations, typically rural, a medical examiner does not always go to the scene of a homicide. Instead, as is the case of many areas within in the Commonwealth of Virginia, EMS or a funeral home is responsible for transporting the body to a local hospital morgue where a doctor or local M.E. examines the victim. If an autopsy is to be performed, though, it is not the local medical examiner who’d conduct it. Instead, the body is transported to a state morgue which could be hours away.

In Virginia, there are only four state morgue locations/district offices (Manassas, Norfolk, Richmond, and Roanoke). Each of the district offices is staffed by forensic pathologists, investigators, and various morgue personnel, and this where autopsies are conducted, not at the local morgue/hospital.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) is located in Richmond (the office where Patricia Cornwell’s fictional M.E., Kay Scarpetta, worked). This is also the M.E.’s office that conducted the autopsies on the homicide cases I investigated. The real-life Kay Scarpetta was our Chief M.E.

There are several local medical examiners in Virginia (somewhere around 160, or so) but they do not conduct autopsies. Their job is to assist the state’s Chief Medical Examiner. by conducting field investigations, if they see fit to do so, but many do not. Mostly, they have a look at the bodies brought to hospitals by EMS, sign death certificates, and determine whether or not the case should be referred to the state M.E.’s office for autopsy. They definitely do not go to all death scenes. Again, some do, but not all.

An example (one of many) was a drug-related execution where I was called on by a nearby county sheriff to assist his department in the investigation. Following the evidence, I and sheriff’s detectives located the killers. After interrogating one of the suspects he led me to the crime scene where we found the deceased victim after an exhausting search. The suspects carried and dragged the body several yards, deep into a wooded area. The local medical examiner did not attend. Instead, he requested that the body be delivered to a local hospital.

Above – Me standing on the left at a murder scene where a drug dealer was executed by rival gang members, who then hid the body in a wooded area. I was asked to assist a sheriff’s office with the investigation. The medical examiner was called but elected to not go to the scene. The body and sheet used by the suspects to drag the victim were placed into a body bag and then transported to the morgue via EMS ambulance.

Pursuant to § 32.1-283 of the Code of Virginia, all of the following deaths are investigated by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner:

  • any death from trauma, injury, violence, or poisoning attributable to accident, suicide or homicide;
  • sudden deaths to persons in apparent good health or deaths unattended by a physician;
  • deaths of persons in jail, prison, or another correctional institution, or in police custody (this includes deaths from legal intervention);
  • deaths of persons receiving services in a state hospital or training center operated by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services;
  • the sudden death of any infant; and
  • any other suspicious, unusual, or unnatural death.

* Remember, “investigated” does not mean they have to go to the actual crime scene.

Again, me on the left as a sheriff’s office crime scene investigator points out the location of spent bullet casings, drag marks, and a blood trail. Pictured in the center are the county sheriff and prosecutor. The M.E. elected to not travel to the scene. As good luck would have it, we had the killers in custody at the conclusion of a nonstop, no sleep, 36-hour investigation.

After a lengthy interrogation, two of the four confessed to the murder. Of course, they each pointed to someone else as the shooter, and he, the actual shooter, placed the blame on his partners. But all four admitted to being present when the murder occurred and all four served time for the killing.

Take Two Bodies and Call Me in the Morning!

In the areas far outside the immediate area of Virginia’s four district offices of the chief medical examiner, officials rely on local, part-time medical examiners who may or may not visit crime scenes.

In those rural areas, once a death is confirmed, detectives call the local, part-time M.E. who typically defers to EMS to determine that the victim is indeed dead. They then advise the detectives to, once they’ve completed their on-scene investigation, have EMS bring the body to the local morgue where they’ll have a look at their earliest convenience..

Since most local M.E.s work full-time jobs they are not always readily available to visit a crime scene.

“Yeah, he’s dead, now gimme my money.”

The pay for local M.E’s in Virginia is a “whopping” $150 per case, if the case referred to the state is one that falls under their jurisdiction. The local M.E.s receive an extra $50 if they actually go to a crime scene. Again, many do not. Interestingly, funeral homes pay the local medical examiner $50 for each cremation he or she certifies.

The requirements to become a local M.E. in Virginia are:

  • A valid Virginia license as a doctor of medicine or osteopathy, Nurse Practitioner, or Physician Assistant
  • An appointment by Virginia’s chief medical examiner
  • A valid United States driver’s license

Once someone is appointed as a local medical examiner their term is for three years, beginning on October 1 of the year of appointment.

The four district offices employ full-time forensic pathologists who conduct all autopsies. Obviously, a physician’s assistant is not qualified to conduct an autopsy, nor are they trained as police/homicide investigators. They do attend some training courses, however.

And, Again …

Keep in mind, things are never the same/uniform across the country. It’s always best, if you’re going for 100% realism, to check with someone in the area where your story is set. The rules and regulations on one side of the country may not be the same on the other. And the middle of the country may also be totally different from the other localities.

Coroners

The same inconsistencies seen in the running of sheriffs’ and medical examiners’ offices occur in individual coroner’s offices. For example, in one Ohio county, one of four coroner’s investigators respond to a scene, if they believe it’s necessary. Then, after the body is brought back to the morgue by the coroner’s team, within the next day or so, a pathologist conducts the autopsy. The same or similar is so in many, many areas of the country … or not.

Per state law, a coroner in Ohio must be an MD, but they may or may not be the person who conducts the autopsy. In the office mentioned above, autopsies were typically performed by a part-time MD/pathologist who also works at the local hospital. The same MD there now was the pathologist who conducted autopsies when I was last there. I checked today, in fact.

Pathologists in the Ohio county are paid per autopsy. At the time I was there, the office received $1,500 per autopsy, with $750 of the sum going to the pathologist performing the exam. (the sum was $750 the last time I viewed an autopsy there) with remaining $750  going to the coroner’s general operating budget. The pathologist was not a full-time employees of the coroner’s office.

Oh, yeah, there’s a difference between a coroner and a medical examiner, but that’s a topic for another article.

Fun Fact – Some California sheriffs also serve as coroners. They are not medical doctors, obviously. Coroners are elected officials and could be the local butcher, baker, or candlestick maker, as long as they won the local election.

So, from me to you, here’s your homework assignment …

DO YOUR HOMEWORK!!

Believe me, your readers will love that you’ve “gotten it right.”

Speaking of doing your homework, here’s the ultimate training event for writers …



Register here!


Featuring David Baldacci – Guest of Honor

 

David Baldacci is a global #1 bestselling author, and one of the world’s favorite storytellers. His books are published in over 45 languages and in more than 80 countries, with over 130 million copies sold worldwide. His works have been adapted for both feature film and television. He has also published seven novels for young readers.

David is also the cofounder, along with his wife, Michelle, of the Wish You Well Foundation®, which is dedicated to supporting adult and family literacy programs in the United States.

David is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia School of Law. He lives in Virginia.

 

With special guests …

Judy Melinek, M.D. was an assistant medical examiner in San Francisco for nine years, and today works as a forensic pathologist in Oakland and as CEO of PathologyExpert Inc. She and T.J. Mitchell met as undergraduates at Harvard, after which she studied medicine and practiced pathology at UCLA. Her training in forensics at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner is the subject of their first book, the memoir Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner.

T.J. Mitchell is a writer with an English degree from Harvard, and worked in the film industry before becoming a full-time stay-at-home dad. He is the New York Times bestselling co-author of Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner with his wife, Judy Melinek.


Ray Krone is co-founder of Witness to Innocence. Before his exoneration in 2002, Ray spent more than 10 years in Arizona prisons, including nearly three years on death row, for a murder he did not commit.

His world was turned upside down in 1991, when Kim Ancona was murdered in a Phoenix bar where Ray was an occasional customer, and he was arrested for the crime. The case against him was based largely on circumstantial evidence and the testimony of a supposedly “expert” witness, later discredited, who claimed bite marks found on the victim matched Ray’s teeth. He was sentenced to death in 1992.

 


With a special presentation by Dr. Denene Lofland – A Microbiologist’s Perspective of Covid 19 and the Spread of Disease.

Denene Lofland  is an expert on bioterrorism and microbiology. She’s managed hospital laboratories and for many years worked as a senior director at biotech companies specializing in new drug discovery. She and her team members, for example, produced successful results that included drugs prescribed to treat cystic fibrosis and bacterial pneumonia. Denene, along with other top company officials, traveled to the FDA to present those findings. As a result, those drugs were approved by the FDA and are now on the market.

Calling on her vast expertise in microbiology, Denene then focused on bioterrorism. With a secret security clearance, she managed a team of scientists who worked in an undisclosed location, in a plain red-brick building that contained several laboratories. Hidden in plain sight, her work there was for the U.S. military.

She’s written numerous peer reviewed articles, contributed to and edited chapters in Bailey and Scott’s Diagnostic Microbiology, a textbook used by universities and medical schools, and, as a professor, she taught microbiology to medical students at a well-known medical school. She’s currently the director of the medical diagnostics program at a major university, where she was recently interviewed for a Delaware public service announcement/video about covid-19.

Denene is a regular featured speaker at the annual Clinical Laboratory Educators Conference, and she’s part of the faculty for the National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners.

She was recently named a Fellow of the Association of Clinical Scientists, an elite 200-member association of top scientists from around the world that includes pathologists, clinical chemists, molecular and cell biologists, microbiologists, immunologists, hematologists, cytogeneticists, toxicologists, pharmacokineticists, clinicians, cancer researchers and other doctoral scientists who are experts in laboratory methods for the elucidation, diagnosis, and treatment of human diseases. 

Realism in fiction is important, when it’s needed. The ability to weave fact into fiction is aa must. But one must first know what’s fact and what’s fiction before attempting to use reality as part of fiction. Otherwise, the author is offering readers fiction as reality.

And that’s a fact. Or is it fiction? Okay, now I’m confused.

Anyway …

Have you done the unthinkable? Are there words in your latest tale that could send your book straight to someone’s “Wouldn’t Read In A Million Years” pile? How can you avoid such disaster, you ask? Fortunately, following these four simple rules could save the day.

1. Use caution when writing cop slang. What you hear on TV may not be the language used by real police officers. And, what is proper terminology and/or slang in one area may be totally unheard of in another. A great example are the slang terms Vic (Victim), Wit (Witness), and Perp (Perpetrator). These shortened words are NOT universally spoken by all cops. In fact, I think I’m fairly safe in saying the use of these is not typical across the U.S., if at all.

2. Simply because a law enforcement officer wears a shiny star-shaped badge and drives a car bearing a “Sheriff” logo does not mean they are all “sheriffs.” Please, please, please stop writing this in your stories. A sheriff is an elected official who is in charge of the department, and there’s only one per sheriff’s office. The head honcho. The Boss. All others working there are appointed by the sheriff to assist him/her with their duties. Those appointees are called DEPUTY SHERIFFS. Therefore, unless the boss himself shows up at your door to serve you with a jury summons, which is highly unlikely unless you live in a county populated by only three residents, two dogs, and a mule, the LEO’s you see driving around your county are deputies. Andy was the sheriff (the boss) and Barney was his deputy.

3. The rogue detective who’s pulled from a case yet sets out on his own to solve it anyway. I know, it sounds cool, but it’s highly unlikely that an already overworked detective would drop all other cases (and there are many) to embark on some bizarre quest to take down Mr. Freeze. Believe me, most investigators would gladly lighten their case loads by one, or more. Besides, to disobey orders from a superior officer is an excellent means of landing a fun assignment (back in uniform on the graveyard shift ) directing traffic at the intersection of Dumbass Avenue and Stupid Street.

4. Those of you who’ve written scenes where a cocky FBI agent speeds into town to tell the local chief or sheriff to step aside because she’s taking over the murder case du jour, well, grab a bottle of white-out and immediately begin lathering up that string of goofy words because it doesn’t happen. The same for those scenes where the FBI agent forces the sheriff out of his office so she can remove his name plate from the desk and replace it with one of her own along with photos of her family and her pet guinea pig. No. No. And No. The agent would quickly find herself being escorted back to her “guvment” vehicle.

The FBI does not investigate local murder cases. I’ll say that again. The FBI does not investigate local murder cases. And, in case you misunderstood … the FBI does not investigate local murder cases. Nor do they have the authority to order a sheriff or chief out of their offices. Yeah, right … that would happen in real life (in case you can’t see me right now, I’m rolling my eyes).

Believable Make-Believe

Okay, I understand you’re writing fiction, which means you get to make up stuff. And that’s cool. However, the stuff you make up must be believable. Not necessarily fact, just believable. Write it so your readers can suspend reality without stopping in their tracks to wonder if they should, even if only for a short time.

Your fans want to trust you, and they’ll go out of their way to give you the benefit of the doubt. Really, they will. But, for goodness sake, give them something to work with—without an info dump, provide readers a reason to believe/understand what they’ve just seen on your pages. A tiny morsel of believability goes a long way.

But if you’re going for realism, then please do some real homework. I say this because I recently began reading a book and I’d barely made it halfway through the first chapter when I tossed it into my WRIAMY pile (Wouldn’t Read In A Million Years). This was a ARC a publisher sent me to review, by the way.

It was obvious the author was going for realism, and it was also painfully obvious the writer’s method of research was a couple of quick visits to crappy internet sites, and a 15-minute conversation with a friend whose sister works with a man whose brother, a cab driver in Dookyboo, North Carolina, picked up a guy ten years ago at the airport, a partially deaf man with two thumbs on his right hand, who had a friend in Whirlywind, Kansas who lived next door to a retired security guard who, during a Saturday lunch rush, sat two tables over from two cops who might’ve mentioned a crime scene … maybe.

Please, if you want good, solid information, always speak with an expert who has first-hand knowledge about the subject. Not a person who, having read a book about fingerprinting or bloodstain patterns, suddenly believes they’re pro. Sure, they may be able to relate what they’ve read on a page, however, those mere words are not the things writers need to breathe life into a story. Reading about bloodstains is not the same as standing inside a murder scene, experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions felt by the person who’s there in person. The latter is the true expert who can help a writer take their work to the next level, and beyond.

So, is there a WRIAMY pile in your house? Worse … have you written something that could land one of your tales in someone’s “Wouldn’t Read In A Million Years” pile of unreadable books? If so, perhaps it’s time to change your research methods.

A great means to assist in adding realism to your work is to, of course, attend the Writers’ Police Academy! Registration for the 2020 WPA’s special event, MurderCon, our 12th anniversary blowout, opens on February 23, 2020. You will not want to miss this thrilling experience. It is THE event of the year!

*The all new MurderCon website is scheduled to go live by the end of next week (February 15, 2020). Please check back to view the all new topics and schedule.

Jail Cell

Writers are a curious bunch of folks who should never let walls, doors, locks, or the word NO stop them from producing the best stories possible.

The tellers of both tall and short tales, in fact, go to great lengths to find detail—the perfect setting, great, believable characters, and those wonderfully juicy tidbits of information that stimulate a reader’s senses.

With pen in hand and minds wide open, a writer will do whatever it takes to reach the last page of their work-in-progress, including hopping on a plane, train, car, or truck to travel to wherever information can be found. They walk, they talk, they telephone, they email, they read blogs and books, they ride with cops, attend court proceedings, and they attend awesome events such as the Writers’ Police Academy. Again, they do what it takes and they do it all in the name of pleasing readers.

Many stories include prison and/or jail settings, as well as the residents and/or employees of each. So what do writers do? They meet with jail officials and arrange to tour their facility. Sure, it can sometimes be a very steep uphill battle to get a foot in the door to some places of incarceration. But, as it’s been said, where there’s a will …

Suppose, though, that you, a writer, find yourself incarcerated for a long, long time … perhaps even for the remainder of your life. What would you do? After all, your passion is the written word. You have so many stories to tell, especially the one that landed you behind bars. You’ve gotta write!

So how on earth would you obtain the information you need for your book(s)? The internet is often not available. No modern library (in many lockups you’d be fortunate if there’s anything more than a few tattered paperbacks stacked in what used to be a mop closet). You’d have very little, if any, contact with people on the outside. And, if your story involves law enforcement, forensics, etc., you can pretty much rule out the assistance of cops and CSI experts.

What would you do?

Well, one such writer, a prisoner, once reached out to me back a while back, via my publisher. He sent a three page handwritten letter, complete with a very nice, well-written one-page introduction that explained the reason for his incarceration—murder. He went on to say that he’d been sentenced to life for killing a woman (a close associate of a well-known outlaw motorcycle club) during a heated argument. He also said he feels no ill will toward police. In short, he did what he did and accepted full responsibility for the act, but the circumstances hadn’t stopped his desire to write.

Interestingly, this fellow, the convicted murderer, subscribes to Writer’s Digest Magazine, which is where he read an article I wrote (published in the September 2014 issue). Yes, WD is delivered to prisons.

My article is what prompted the lifer to write me with an unusual research request. A request that I strongly considered. It was a consideration that went against the very grain of my being. However, I was inclined to help because his story could’ve very well been a good one … a life-changer for someone on the outside.

There was a small problem, however, with delivering my information to this prisoner. You see, he had no idea where I lived at the time and I didn’t want him to know (return addresses are required on all inmate mail at this and other facilities). In fact, the bio in my book about police procedure states that we reside in Boston. This is a book the inmate has in his possession and he mentions it his introductory letter to Writer’s Digest.

howdunit_PPI

Non prisoners may also my purchase!

Therefore, when the inmate wrote my publisher he was under the impression that I lived somewhere in New England.

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As many of you know, we’re frequent re-locators (and that’s putting it mildly), so imagine my surprise to see a return address that just happened to be that of a state prison located very near where we lived at the time I received the letter. Very. Very. Near.

I finally came up with with a means to give him the information he needed, via an online source. I used the internet instead of snail mail to prevent him from learning our home address. After all, he had family and friends and “business associates” on the outside.

Anyway, the point of this long-winded story with no real end is that writers should never settle for an “okay” book when overcoming small obstacles is all that stands in the way of producing a really great story.

What are some of those barriers?

  • Too chicken to make contact with cops and/or other experts. Believe me, cops love to talk about their work and, if you let them, they’ll talk about it until the cows come home. So please don’t hesitate to approach a police officer. Of course, you may have to extend an offer of a cup of coffee to start the ball rolling, but after that, hold on because your mind will soon be filled with real-life tales of car chases, shootouts, drug raids, puking drunks, and struggles with the biggest and baddest bad guys who ever walked a dark alleyway. Of course, you should probably avoid weird and scary opening lines, such as, “Hi, my name Wendy Writer and I’m wondering if you would please tell me how to kill someone and get away with it?” Or, “Hi, my name Karla Killer and I’d really like to hold your gun so I can see how heavy it is.”
  • Procrastination (I was too busy to attend the Writers’ Police Academy. Maybe next year. In some instances, “next year” may never arrive. After all, we can’t do this forever!)
  • Fear of rejection by agents and editors. Settle for nothing less than a big fat YES, and don’t stop working and writing and bettering your craft until you reach your goals.
  • Television (Please STOP using TV as a source of information!! Easy isn’t always best).
  • Allowing life to run you instead of you running your life.

I guess what I’m getting at is that if a murderer who’s serving a life sentence in a pretty harsh prison setting is willing to go the extra mile for a scrap of important information needed for his book, then why shouldn’t all writers at least make some sort of effort to “get it right?”

How about you? Do you go the extra mile for the details in your tales?

Speaking of details …


It’s almost time to announce the name of the 2020 MurderCon/Writers’ Police Academy guest of honor. In the meantime, here are a few hints …

Over 3 dozen bestselling novels.
Rarely appears at writers conferences.
Numerous books adapted for film and TV and each feature big name actors.

Oh, and don’t forget, in addition to naming the 2020 guest of honor, the The Writers’ Police Academy/MurderCon will also soon announce an exciting, unbelievably thrilling, and closely guarded secret. Yes, you’ll lose your mind over this one! Hint … Reacher.

AND, we also have a couple of fabulous extra-special guest speakers in the lineup!

We’ve added some pretty cool hands-on classes, all related to murder investigations. Practical exercise workshops are extremely realistic where you’ll learn to use the equipment and the techniques and tactics utilized by investigators at actual crime scenes. In fact, MurderCon attendees will have the opportunity to properly collect and process evidence, all in a realistic residential setting which, by the way, happens to be a crime scene. Yes, you will be the police investigator and it’s up to you to solve the case. This is realism at its best!

Again, MurderCon/Writers’ Police Academy and Sirchie provide the same training that’s taught to law enforcement investigators from around the world. The classes offered at this one of a kind event include sessions taught in Sirchie’s elite Evidence Collection and Processing Training Program that, according to Sirchie …

“Our Evidence Collection and Processing Training Program provides law enforcement professionals and crime scene investigators with hands-on training using forensic tools that will help to execute the best crime scene investigation mission possible.”

cops and guns. are you using the right terminology

Writers are hard workers.

It’s not an easy task to reach into the brain to pull out and assemble just enough details from the swirling mass of ideas located there in order to create an entire world along with a bunch of individual characters whose job it is to entertain and hold the attention of devoted readers as they travel through your imaginary setting, one page at a time (how’s this for a run-on sentence?).

I’ve seen the amount of work that goes into writing a book, and I know writers spend a lot of time researching cops, private investigators, detectives, CSI techs, state police, sheriffs’ deputies, and federal agents. Lots of time.

A great deal of a crime/cop writer’s valuable time and energy is devoted to participating in citizens police academies, attending the Writers’ Police Academy, emailing cops and former cops, visiting police stations, and reading blogs, such as this one.

The results of the hard work are obvious, and I applaud them for their dedication to the craft. They, the hard working writers, want their details to be accurate, and they want their tall tales to be fantastic, maybe even perfect.

So why do we still see books with cop facts that are totally and absolutely wrong?

Some writers devote tons of time to the finest of finite crime scene details, but not a single second goes toward the accuracy of other aspects of  the story. Yes, it’s true. Some writers pick and choose which facts to feature with precision, leaving other “stuff” to fend for itself, meaning the book is a hodgepodge of solid realism mixed with sloppy carelessness. Trust me, the laziness always bleeds through the text.

Selective Research

I know, some things are more fun and/or more interesting to research. Therefore, it’s quite easy to focus some, most, or all of the attention on the cool stuff, the stuff that tickles the writer’s own fancy. As a result, there’s no time for the other details that may be a reader’s fancy-tickler.

Another hazard of conducting selective research is that it could cause a writer to spend a ton of time on just the details of interest to them, resulting in a rush job of the not-so-fun elements of the story. Of course, as we all know, a hurried approach can and often does result in unfortunate innacuracies.

Guns and Cops

I could easily settle into a long rant about the firearms, shooting, and ammunition errors I sometimes read in books written by various authors, but I’ll refrain from the foot stomping tantrum and opt for the usual presenting of facts (below).

In addition to gun inaccuracies, a great example of selective research is how small town cops are portrayed in some books. They’re often presented as totally and unbelievably dumb. S.T.U.P.I.D.

To those people who aren’t aware, and apparently there are more than a few, being from or working in a small town does not cause ignorance. Nor does it mean the only way the town’s officer got the job is because no one else wanted it.

Like people who long to become writers, lawyers, doctors, educators, plumbers, electricians, landscapers, etc., there are people who actually do dream of becoming police officers, and many of those people are from small towns. You know, just like many doctors and lawyers are from small towns.

To suggest that officers in small towns are inferior humans is highly offensive to small town police everywhere.

Small Town Cops are Hillbilly Racist Rednecks

Cap’n Rufus “Peanut” Jenkins

Let’s explore a bit further by leading with a question. Why do some writers think it’s okay/not offensive to write all officers who live in the south as hillbilly racist rednecks? I saw this today, again, in fact.

Or that cops are fat, ignorant slobs who can barely dress themselves because they always have a donut in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. Yes, this stuff is highly offensive, but it seems to be okay to write as long as it’s about cops from the south, or sometimes cops in general. Actually, writing this stuff shows a complete lack of knowledge and understanding of the good people of the south. Again, Selective Research.

And, I won’t jump on the cordite bandwagon again (No, No, and NO cordite!).

Firearms Terminology in Crime Novels

For now, let’s get back on track and address some of the firearms terminology I often see in crime novels. And, that’s where some of the trouble begins. Starting with …

Automatic v. Semi-Automatic

Both types of firearms, the autos and the semi-autos, reload automatically, hence the “auto” label that’s included in the name. Duh.

However, the difference between the two is huge.

  • Semi-automatic – The shooter must pull the trigger each time he or she wishes the gun to fire.This is not a machine gun. These weapons do not “spray” gunfire at the speed of light. Included in this group of firearms are the typical AK-47 and AR-15 owned by many people in the U.S. Also, in this group are pistols such as the Glock, SIG Sauer, Ruger, Smith and Wesson, Colt, etc. They are  the pistols carried by most gun-owning citizens and police officers. Again, these are not automatic weapons.
  • Automatic Weapons – If the shooter continues to depress the trigger, without letting go, the gun fire indefinitely until it is out of ammunition. This is a machine gun, an automatic.

I repeat, the main difference between a semi-automatic and a fully-automatic machine gun is that when using a semi-automatic, the user must pull the trigger each time he or she wishes the gun to fire. As long as the shooter depresses the trigger and holds it in place, a fully automatic gun continues to fire until either there are no bullets left in the magazine and chamber, or when he/she releases the trigger.

Please, writers, make note of the distinction and functionality of the two weapons. A semi-auto is NOT an automatic. The pistol carried by your local police detective is NOT an automatic.

I point out this difference between these two firearm types today because I nearly tossed my Kindle outside this week when I read a recent release by a super-famous, household-name author whose characters carried and fired “automatic” pistols. The terminology, of course, should’ve been semi-automatic. Again, cops don’t carry automatic pistols and writers truly should conduct a bit of research no matter how famous they become.

The book mentioned above was superbly written, by the way. As always, the author had the uncanny ability of inviting and welcoming the reader to step into a world they’d created. The settings itself was a living breathing character. It was a pleasure to allow myself to begin the journey.

I read each night before I go to sleep and I found myself anxious to pick up this book (on Kindle) to continue the trek. However, this wonderful tale began to crumble near the end. It seemed as if the author had either lost their train of thought or had someone else write the final chapters. Even the voice changed ever so slightly, but the change was noticeable. I’d love to know if others sensed the transformation.

Then came the firearm errors along with a couple of oddly placed mentions of todays politics, mentions that weren’t needed to further the story. Actually, it felt as if the writer suddenly remembered they’d intended to insert politics so they went back to a completed story and inserted the stuff at random places. At that point (the bad gun information and politics) I was done. A perfectly fine book suddenly took a sour turn. Sadly, I felt as if I’d wasted a few hours of my life.

Anyway …

The Machine Gun, an Automatic Firearm

This is what it looks like to peer down-range from behind a Thompson fully-automatic submachine gun. You can actually see a spent cartridge ejecting at the lower right-hand side of the picture, just above the major’s right elbow.

The Thompson is an extremely heavy weapon that’s capable of firing 900 rounds of .45 caliber ammunition per minute, and let me tell you, that’s fast. The experience of firing one of these babies is like no other. I took this photo and was peppered with gunpowder during each burst of gunfire, even from the distance where I stood, which was as you see it. I didn’t use the zoom. We took this shot in a controlled situation while wearing full protective gear and employing other safety precautions. I say this because I don’t recommend this method of photography. It’s not safe. Gee, the things writers do for book and blog article research.

The Thompson was extremely popular in the 1920s among both law enforcement and gangsters alike. The notorious John Dillinger and his gang amassed an arsenal of these “Chicago Typewriters.” The FBI and other agencies, such as the NYPD, also put Tommy Guns to use in their efforts to battle crime. In fact, the weapon became so popular in law enforcement circles it earned another nickname, The Anti-Bandit Gun.

Shotgun v. Rifle

sniper using a rifle

Snipers use rifles, not shotguns.

I see these two used interchangeably, and they’re not. Not even close. Yes, they’re both considered long guns, but a rifle has a barrel with interior spiraled grooves that cause the projectile (bullet) to spin (think of a football thrown by a quarterback). The spinning increases accuracy and the distance the round can travel. Normally, shotgun barrels are not rifled.

Snipers use rifles, not shotguns.

Officer using a shotgun

Officers typically make use of shotguns at distances of 75 yards and less (distances vary).

A shotgun has a smooth barrel that’s designed to fire a shell containing several small pellets called “shot.” When fired, the shot spread out allowing a greater chance of hitting a target. However, a shotgun is basically accurate at closer distances. But, hitting a moving target, or smaller targets, is much easier with a shotgun than with a rifle.

Of course, there are over-and-under long guns that feature two barrels, one above the other. One of the two barrels is a shotgun barrel. The other is a rifle barrel. Therefore, an over-and-under of this type is both a shotgun and a rifle!

Part rifle, part shotgun

Top barrel is rifle. Bottom barrel is shotgun.

To go one step further …

Combination rifle and shotgun

Handguns vs. Firearms vs. Pistols vs. Revolvers

I might create a little buzz with this one, but yes, there’s a difference between a pistol and revolver. A revolver is a handgun with a rotating cylinder that feeds ammunition, one bullet at a time, to its proper firing position each time the trigger is pulled. A revolver is a handgun, and it is a firearm.

A handgun, such as the Glock or Sig Sauer, is actually a semi-automatic pistol. Ammunition is fed to the firing position by a spring-loaded magazine. A pistol is also a firearm.

I know, the NRA uses a slightly different set of terms. For the purpose of cops and guns, and federal law and terminologies, though, we’ll stick to ATF’s definitions and explanations.

Clip vs. Magazine

It’s a magazine that’s loaded with bullets and inserted into the pistol carried by your protagonists. A clip is actually something that stores ammunition and refills magazines. So please don’t confuse the two.  Officers do not shove a fresh “clip” into their pistol when reloading. Magazine, magazine, magazine!

Ammunition

One round of ammunition is a cartridge.

Typically, pistols, revolvers, and rifles do not fire shells (there are a few exceptions).

So, silly writer, shells are for shotguns …

Or the beach …

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Pistol v. Revolver

The images and information below are from ATF’s website.

Pistol (semi-automatic)

The term “Pistol” means a weapon originally designed, made, and intended to fire a projectile (bullet) from one or more barrels when held in one hand, and having:

  • a chamber(s) as an integral part(s) of, or permanently aligned with, the bore(s);
  • and a short stock designed to be gripped by one hand at an angle to and extending below the line of the bore(s).

Pistol nomenclature (below)

 

Revolver

 

 

The term “Revolver” means a projectile weapon of the pistol type, having a breechloading chambered cylinder so arranged that the cocking of the hammer or movement of the trigger rotates it and brings the next cartridge in line with the barrel for firing.

Revolver nomenclature (below)

 

*All of the above (nomenclature text and images) are from ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives). Thanks to the folks at ATF for allowing the reproduction and use.

For Writers: Semi-autos and fully automatic (machine guns) automatically eject spent cartridges. Revolvers DO NOT. Therefore, writers, chances are slim and mostly none of finding empty revolver cartridges at a crime scene. Please remember this when writing the “aha” moment in your WIP.

Important Notice!!

As always, I highly recommend presenting your questions to a qualified expert, not the brother of a brother’s sister’s cousin’s third wife’s hairdresser’s neighbor’s son’s father who lives next door to a guy who once saw a cop walking along the sidewalk. And, someone who merely reads something about a law enforcement topic and then relays the information to you, well, this is not the best method of conducting research. Reading a chapter in a book does not make your barber an expert on police procedure and/or forensics.

So please, please, please, speak with law enforcement professionals about the desired cop-stuff. After all, you wouldn’t ask a cop to diagnose the poor condition of your lawn, right? So why ask a landscaper about police procedure, even if her advice comes straight from my book on police procedure. Why not? Because sometimes people, even those with the best of intentions can misread and/or misspeak, and then it is your work and your reputation that suffers for the mistake of someone else.

The best solution, of course, is to attend the Writers’ Police Academy, where you learn by participating in actual hands-on police training, such as shooting, driving, fingerprinting, evidence collection, and homicide investigation.

My name is Detective I. Ketchem and I’ve been asked to step outside the pages of my current book to help the heroes of your stories, the poor characters whose writers sometimes forget how important it is to conduct even just a wee bit of research.

Those writers, bless their hearts, think they know everything about police work and crime scene investigation because, believe it or not, they’ve watched a few episodes of Law and Order, Hawaii Five-O, and Barney Miller.

Thant’s not proper research folks, and your readers deserve better. After all, they spend their hard-earned money by driving through forests and deserts and mountains and deep, dark jungles, searching for stores where they can purchase your books.

Those same fans stand in long lines at their neighborhood Piggly Wiggly stores, lines that snake through the pickled pigs feet and cottage cheeses, passing eggs, bacon, and tripe, before finally winding through the dips and chips and Cool Whips and beef lips, all to have you sign copies of those precious books.

Later, they proudly post cheesy posed pictures of you with your arm around them at those signings where everyone leaves smelling like raw clams and smoked hams.

Yes, fans adore you. So why let them down by inserting not-so-hot information into your tall tales. Besides, those inaccuracies could do us in before chapter one concludes on page twelve. And you need us to bring your tales to a satisfactory conclusion.

So I decided the best means of addressing the problem would be to dive right into the deep end of some of the books found out there today. After an exhaustive search, here are the tips I have for the characters in your books.

If you won’t help them out by conducting proper research, well, it’s up to the fictional heroes of your stories to do the things that keep them safe so that they may live on to star in the next book.

A List of Ten Traps That Could Kill Your Characters

1. No matter how hot or uncomfortable it is in a setting, always wear your vest. Bad guys carry guns in scenes where the settings are hot and humid! Don’t believe it, drive over to New Iberia, Louisiana and have a chat with Dave Robicheaux. He’ll fill you in on all the sticky, sweaty details.

2. When responding to a call in an unfamiliar area, always plan an escape route. Never drive into an ambush situation, especially deep in those crevices where the pages meet the spine. And, whatever you do, look behind every single cookie crumb down there. You never know…

3. Search every suspect thoroughly before placing them inside your police car. Officers in other books have been injured or killed because they skipped this simple step.

4. Don’t be shy when searching criminals. Weapons have been found in every imaginable place, and some have been found in places you don’t want to imagine. This is fiction, after all, so anything and everything is possible, including in those places where the “sun don’t shine!”

Shyness Can Be A Death Sentence!

5. Use the same caution when arresting women as you would when arresting male suspects. You’re just as dead when killed by a female character. Letting down your guard can be a series-ender. Female crooks in real life take advantage of the fact that male officers are a bit apprehensive about placing their hands in places where the hands of strangers shouldn’t be placed. So, where do they hide guns, handcuff keys, drugs, etc.? Yep, they often hide those thing right “there.”

And, to make things far worse for the male detective who’s searching a female for weapons, she often pretends to enjoy the hands-on search and even quite loudly vocalizes her feigned pleasure so that bystanders hear every blush-inducing comment.

Shoot, I once stopped a dress-wearing shoplifter who’d concealed a plastic garbage pail between her legs. And when I removed it found that it contained several packages of steaks, CDs, a small umbrella, and a cantaloupe.

So yeah, search EVERYWHERE!. Do. Not. Be. Shy.

6. When engaged in a vehicle pursuit never fixate on the suspect’s tail lights. If he runs off the page or hits a dog eared corner and crashes, you’ll likely follow straight into death. (Yeah, we dislike dog-eared pages too. Drive us nuts).

Instead, of following taillights, watch the entire vehicle and where it’s headed. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Also, all bright lights are not oncoming cars and trucks. Instead, it’s possible they’re merely reading lights. Still, use caution when heading “into the light”.

7. Always double-lock handcuffs. This is not the time to rush to the next page. Doing so before it’s time can have disastrous results. You don’t want to spend the next three chapters in some fictional hospital.

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To double-lock, insert the pointed end of a handcuff key into the tiny hole on the side of the cuffs.

Remember, the writer of your tale can be pretty darn devious, so don’t put it past her to give her crooks some serious brainpower. Even make-believe thugs sometimes practice escaping cuffs with only one lock (the ratchet) secured. A paperclip or bobby pin will do the job. Besides, double-locking prevents the cuffs from becoming too tight on your suspect’s wrists.

8. Never allow tunnel vision to run your investigation. The deadly blow could come from any character and from any scene. Your writer is actively dreaming up hurdles for you, and this one could be a doozy.

9. Never let your guard down. The well-dressed man with the flashy smile on page 67 just might be another Dr. Lector.

10. Don’t let your job come before family. Every story needs a dose of personality. Readers want to know and like you. So make it happen. Smile. Love your wife or girlfriend. Take the kids to the park. And definitely get an ugly dog. Readers gush over this stuff. Without it, you may as well be tromping through the nonfiction aisles of a B&N.

And, the dour detective has been done to death. You’re writers, so use your imaginations.

Finally, please, please, please stop having us smell the odor of cordite at crime scenes. It can’t happen. It doesn’t happen. They stopped making it back at the end of WWII. The stuff we smell is smokeless gunpowder, and it smells a bit like the odor of 4th of July fireworks.

 

As a police detective whose job was to solve murders, I found it especially helpful to immerse myself into the lives of the victims rather than merely going through the motions of filling in the blanks of police reports. I had to make it personal, to try my absolute best to see the case through the eyes of the victims. I needed to know them and everything about them. I practically had to BE them until the point where they exhaled for the final time.

I needed to know a victim’s family and friends. I walked the paths they traveled. I learned their routines. I spoke with and interviewed their friends and family and neighbors, yes, but I also made the effort see those friends and relatives from the victim’s perspective, not in reverse, as those people thinking about their loved one occupying a table space in the state morgue.

It’s Personal

To know the family and friends and acquaintances from the point of view of the victim is a telling and sometimes eye-opening experience. Getting to know people on a personal level is a key that unlocks many “doors,” and doing so, more often than not, helps to crack those hardened exteriors people often develop toward police officers. Showing that you do indeed care about them and their loved one as people and not as items on a checklist goes a long way.

Above all, I listened. And I listened and I listened and I listened.

Caring About the Victim

I cared about the victims, each of them. I learned their habits. Their likes, hopes, and dreams. I grew to know their coworkers and their bosses and the people in the stores where they shopped for food and clothing, and the places where they purchased gas for their cars. I knew what they liked to read and to watch on TV. I held their dogs and cats and their babies. I hugged their parents, their spouses, and their young children. I played ball with their kids. I sat with the family, again listening to stories about the past and of lost futures.

I had to know the victim, personally.

If a victim once stopped by a donut shop in the mornings, well, I sometimes retraced the route and did the same. Along the way, I saw joggers, dog-walkers, letter carriers, delivery people, children on their way to school, bus drivers, cab drivers, and I saw the grumpy old men and women who spend their days peering at the street through gaps in dingy lace curtains. I saw garbage collectors, street sweepers, patrol officers, ambulance drivers, FED EX and UPS drivers, animal control officers, the man who waters his lawn at precisely 9 A.M., and the woman who wore a big floppy hat while tending to her roses each day at the crack of dawn. I spoke with each of those people. People see the little things and those “things” no matter how small, could lead to the killer.

Clues

Tiny clues are often the ones that bring a case to a close. And those leads are sometimes offered by ordinary people not associated with the crime in question—the lawn waterer, neighborhood street sweepers, etc.—who each have an opportunity to see something, and often times they did. But had I not taken the time to to stop and say hi and to ask a few simple questions, well, those little tidbits and tips may have gone forever unspoken.

I visited the homes of murder victims. I examined the rooms where they slept. I saw where they cooked and ate their meals. I looked into the refrigerators to see their contents, searching for anything that could help me better understand the unfortunate and poor soul whose heart no longer beat with metronome precision.

Research

I even used this method when researching and writing a true crime tale published by Prometheus books. The story was about the extremely brutal murder of a young woman named Tina Mott.

While conducting the research for the book , a process that lasted over a year, I found myself delving deeper and deeper in Tina’s life until I felt as if I’d known her. I learned so much detail about her short time on the planet that I knew her likes and dislikes, her hobbies, and even her emotions.

Tina wrote poetry and it was through her writings, works I studied, hoping to use them to provide me with insight, when I began to set her story to page.

I tacked photos of Tina on my bulletin board. I even had one of my desk. In the image on my desk, she was at a birthday celebration for her, a small event hosted by friends. In the picture, she was smiling and obviously happy.

Images like those helped to take me into her life and, together with the poems and interviews with friends and family, well, she was no longer a stranger whose remains sadly went unfound for a year.

Instead, I knew Tina even though we’d never met. She was a person. A good-hearted young woman, a brand new mother with feelings and emotions. She laughed. She cried. She hurt. And she loved life. And then she died at the hand of her boyfriend, another person I came to know during the research.

I experienced both his good and his dark side. He, too, was real person. A real and evil person.

This is the same way I approached all murder cases. I came to know the victims as people.

Locking Away Biases

While working to solve a homicide case, it is paramount that investigators leave their predispositions locked away in an imaginary safe. Actually, officers should never pre-judge anyone. Instead, they should start fresh at each and every crime scene and with each and every suspect, witness, and victim. Isn’t that exactly how the great writers of our time produce such wonderful books, over and over again? They do so by starting with a fresh story on page one, chapter one.

Starting anew, without predisposition and prejudice, and without knowing the identity of a killer is one reason why I believe Agatha Christie remains so wildly popular in the mystery world. This is so because she, like police homicide investigators, did not know the name of the killer when she started her stories.

As Christie’s characters worked through their convoluted and fictional crimes—bad and good folks alike—, they often made the same mistakes real-life officers tend to experience as they wind their ways through along the journeys leading to the ends of their cases. Christie wrote in this style because she, too, was working out resolutions to the clues and traps that she herself had planted while writing.

Human Nature

As a former detective who still thinks like an investigator as I read book after book, I sometimes see subtle things in Christie’s writing that leads me to believe she was solving her own cases with each written word.

In Five Little Pigs, Christie’s story clung tightly to the cause and effect of human nature. It’s a character-driven book where Poirot solves a cold case and he does so through his and Christie’s understanding and examinations of a person’s emotions and passion. Like Poirot, through Christie’s eyes and typewriter, a real-life police investigator who has the ability to “see” human nature is an investigator who’ll find success in their field.

Sure, DNA and fancy lights and chemicals and laboratories are nice, but they’re nothing more than icing on the cake when compared to the detective who knows and understands people, and human nature.

Are Real-Life Detectives Plotters or Pansters?

If one were to stop and ponder for a moment they’d see that homicide and other detectives are often both plotters and pansters. The former due to department guidelines and standard methods as to how a scene is approached—911 call, first responder arrives, detectives and CSI arrive, coroner is called, speak to witnesses, collect evidence using Sirchie evidence collection tools and products, yada, yada, yada.

But it is the panster detective, the cop who’s not afraid to step outside the line, who’s the investigator that people will open up to most quickly. They’re the cops who turn over all the stones, just not in any particular order. They easily adapt to fast paced and quick-changing cases.

Detectives who follow along a more plotter-type course of investigation are perhaps science-based linear thinkers and, sure, their style produces results. But even they must vary from the “plot line” in order to reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Christie knew and understood that humans are flawed. No one, including either of her characters, is perfect. And it is this, the fallibility of human beings, that helped her characters and her tales ring so wonderfully true, and believable.

Agatha Christie was indeed the queen of writing believable make-believe, and this is so because she understood the importance of adapting real-life into her work. Poirot, for example, was based upon first World War refugees who arrived Torquay, in 1916. Miss Marple assumed characteristics of Christie’s own grandmother. Others were based upon traveling companions and co-workers from her dispensing days. She based settings on her own property, holiday locations, archaeological digs, and more. Much more.

Police detectives understand the importance of knowing each of the characters involved in the crimes they investigate. They also study setting, the crime scene, victim’s home, etc.

They know the value of stepping outside one’s comfort zone to reach a satisfactory conclusion. They’re also extremely willing to conduct research and attend training to help set them apart from the average cop. Shouldn’t you, as a writer, be willing to do the same?

Research. Research. Hands. On. Research!


There’s still time to register for this extremely rare opportunity where you will attend the same training offered to top homicide investigators from around the world! This course of instruction is typically for law enforcement eyes only, but the Writers’ Police Academy, in conjunction with Sirchie, the world leader in in Crime Scene Investigation and Forensic Science Solutions, has made it possible for to attend this, the only event of its kind in the world!

MurderCon takes place at Sirchie’s compound located just outside of Raleigh, N.C.

Please, do your readers a huge favor and sign up today while you still can.

MurderConRegsitration

Today, as your keystrokes guide your police officer/detective/protagonist through the perils that go hand-in-hand with saving the day, pause for just a moment to 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 they believable?

Think about what you’ve seen on this site for the past few years—cordite (NO!), uniforms, handcuffs, Miranda, Glocks, Sig Sauers, edged weapons, defensive tactics, etc. Where do I get the ideas for blog topics? Well, I read a lot. A whole lot. Book after book after book. I read tons of books including books penned by readers of this blog. Therefore, and unfortunately so, I have a near endless supply of fodder for articles—the mistakes writers make in their books (smelling cordite, thumbing off safeties when there aren’t any, etc.).

For example, while pouring over the pages of a wonderfully written book, a paragraph stopped me dead in my tracks.

Wonderfully Written Book

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 means 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.

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

Common Sense Works for Lee Child: Writing Believable Make-Believe

One of the best thriller writers of our time, Lee Child, writes a ton of 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.

Lee Child – Writers’ Police Academy

I once asked Lee how much research he conducts before writing his books. His answer was (click here to read the entire interview), “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.

Here’s a brief list of “not-so-accurate” cop-stuff seen in books. Were those books … um … yours?

  1. Yes, bloodstains can help tell investigators what happened at specific moments in time (suspect stood “there” when he delivered the fatal blow, etc). However, it is not unusual to find that bloodstains are too few or the volume of blood is far too great for investigators to come to any reasonable conclusions. In other words, it’s not at all uncommon to locate bloodstains that are unusable as evidence.
  2. Most laboratory scientists working in crime labs specialize in one area. Therefore, a narcotics expert wouldn’t be the scientist who examines tool-mark evidence. Nor would a DNA expert be found attempting to match fingerprints.
  3. Low-quality digital images cannot be enhanced to a point that’s better than the original image. Low resolution images are produced by capturing fewer pixels. Experts are good but they cannot magnify and clarify pixels that aren’t there.
  4. DNA science/testing is not an exact science. Accidents happen (contamination, etc.).  DNA evidence is merely the icing on an investigator’s cake. He/she should concentrate on gathering other evidence since those things are often more valuable/useful for solving a case and as proof of an offender’s involvement in the crime. Think of building a sturdy brick wall. It takes several well-made bricks to construct a strong wall. The same is true with a criminal case. It takes several pieces of good, solid evidence to build a strong case, one that’s suitable to present to a judge and jury. DNA is not a slam dunk.
  5. It’s not always possible to lift prints even in places where the suspect definitely touched the item in question. Why Not? Fingerprints are 98% water, therefore prints might not survive in extremely hot and dry climates. Or, technicians could destroy prints by improperly handling or packaging developed prints or items to be printed/processed.
  6. When someone is shot he does not fly backward. Instead, the victim merely falls to the ground.
  7. Revolvers do not automatically eject spent casings.
  8. Not all deputy sheriffs are sworn/certified police officers. Some work in jails as corrections officers. Others work as courtroom security officers and some are employed as process servers, serving jury summons, etc.
  9. There is only one sheriff in each sheriff’s office … the boss. The rest are deputy sheriffs who are appointed by the sheriff to assist in carrying out the duties of the office.
  10. Detectives typically do not maintain their rank when transferring from one agency to another. Should a detective leave one department to begin employment with another he’d need to start over as a patrol officer and work his way back up the ladder. Of course there’re exceptions to the rule, but the occurrence is rare, if at all.

My protagonist is former police detective turned college writing professor. (Hey, we have to have some stuff in common!) Because I share her disabling hearing loss but not her police experience, the Writer’s Police Academy is the perfect place to put myself in my character’s shoes.

I know TV is not the place to learn correct police procedure and even the best authors can make mistakes. Writers need to learn as much as they can so they write about police procedure correctly.

So what did I learn?

1. Police gear is heavy, bulky, and hot (and sometimes smelly).

Yup, it looks cool, but it’s bulky and heavy. Notice that that duty belt is mostly empty. It needs extra ammo, a night stick, extra handcuffs, extra pouches of miscellaneous stuff (like medical gloves and tourniquet), etc. These make the belt so bulky you can’t comfortably lean back in a chair or car seat – and female officers have to take the belt off to go to the bathroom. (Ask Tami Hoag about that.)

And it’s HOT. In the photo I’m comfortably dressed in shorts and t-shirt. In her patrol officer days, my protagonist would have worn long pants and a uniform shirt over that t-shirt and vest. Did I mention how hot that would be? The vest doesn’t breathe well so you sweat more. That means your t-shirt, vest, and even your uniform shirt become sweaty in no time.

Now imagine how hard it is to get in and out of a patrol car in all that gear, without snagging it on the seat belt, steering wheel, car door, etc. It impedes other movement too, like chasing bad guys and tying your shoes.

The equipment changes your stance, too. The first couple hours I wore a duty belt, I was busy trying to figure out what to do with my arms. I ended up putting my hands on my hips or resting them on the duty belt. Now I understand why some people find the cop stance threatening or intimidating.

2. But wait, there’s more!

(Photo by Angi Morgan)

In some situations, officers carry a Break Out Bag (BOB) with extra gear. That way if they’re stuck in a stand-off they have extra ammo, snacks, water, first aid stuff, cargo straps for hauling injured office to safety, and any extra equipment they might need. In this photo Matt Ninham is showing just a few things from that BOB: a mirror on a stick, a selfie stick (for looking in attics, etc.), a pry bar, first aid gear, etc. The BOB is carried on the officer’s non-weapon side. Yup, even more added weight. My protagonist definitely does her push-ups and weight lifting.

3. There’s MUCH more to training than you might think.

Need to use your night stick to get a suspect to back up? Don’t aim for the head!

(Photo by Annette Dashofy)

When searching a building for an armed suspect, can you walk quietly and safely using a roll-step? Communicate silently with your fellow officers? Go though doorways without whacking your weapon, duty belt, etc., on the doorframe? It’s a good thing my protagonist knows this stuff!

That doorframe probably has marks from my weapon and duty belt whacking it. The bad guys would definitely hear me coming.

Can you anticipate an attack?

This was an example of how fast a suspect could draw a knife and kill an armed officer.

Writers Police Academy 2017 Knife Vs. Gun

It’s one thing to read about that on The Graveyard Shift; seeing it in action is an eye-opening experience.

This was also a good example of other skills my protagonist needs, like dealing with Emotionally Disturbed Persons (EDPs) and having a basic understanding of languages used by local populations (like Spanish in Green Bay). Hmm, what language does my protagonist need to learn?

4. Practice, practice, practice.

I thought hitting a target on a shooting range meant I was a good shot. During Shoot/Don’t Shoot training I learned that hitting a moving target is NOTHING like hitting a stationary target at a range.

I also learned that If my life depended on drawing a Glock from the holster on a training duty belt, I’d probably die. Officers have to practice drawing their weapon tens of thousands of times so they can do it quickly and smoothly when their lives depend on it.

Shoot/Don’t Shoot training really gave me insight into what a shooting situation feels like. I knew it was just a training scenario and that I was completely safe but I felt my heart rate increase when the countdown started. (“Your scenario will begin in 5 seconds… 4…. 3…” Yikes!) In my second scenario I even experienced the stress-induced slow-motion effect. It was like the bad guy reaching for that revolver was moving underwater. (Too bad for him that all but one of my shots hit center mass.) I was so focused on being ready to shoot that I forgot all the other things I should have done like speak, move, and take cover. This give me a lot more to work with when I have to imagine what my protagonist is experiencing in a shooting situation.

5. So much to learn, so little time to learn it.

WPA is only four days. I’d love it if it were at least two day longer so I could take all the sessions. Here’s a smattering of what learned in the sessions I haven’t mentioned yet:

  • Handcuffing another student is much easier than handcuffing a training dummy.
  • Tasers don’t cause convulsions, drooling, or any of the other amusing affects seen on TV or in books. They do cause muscle stiffness and involuntary screaming but not permanent harm.
  • TASER stands for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle. (How cool is that?!)
  • You can leave behind touch DNA (from sweat and skin cells).
  • You can leave fingerprints behind even when using latex gloves. (Who knew?!)
  • Fingerprints can be recovered from the sticky side of duct tape, even if when two sticky sides stuck to each other.
  • Bad guys are more likely to give up when they see police dogs, even when the human cops are visibly armed.

I learned so much more about procedure, mind set of cops, interview and interrogation, etc. than I could possible describe in one short blog post.

After thinking about all I learned at WPA and how little I have in common with my protagonist, I’m now working on making her a more realistic, well-developed character. It’s working, too. For the first time, I feel like my character is telling me things I need to know about her, like what her name really is (which is not the name I chose for her).  Either I’m starting to get the hang of this writer thing or I’m becoming an EDP – and I have WPA to thank for it. I can hardly wait for next year!



Cathy is a college writing instructor at the University of Michigan-Flint. In her copious spare time she’s working on her first mystery novel and enjoys attending mystery writing conferences and the WPA. She can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]