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Using common sense when writing about cops

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

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

The same is true at the Writers’ Police Academy and our exciting new venture “Writers” Police Academy Online” that’s scheduled to go live in October 2020. We present workshops mostly based on questions we hear from writers. We also develop sessions that stem from the inaccuracies found in various books, TV shows, and film. Several of the activities at the WPA are based upon actual events that occurred during the year , such as the Boston bombings, school shootings, etc.

Not so long ago I was reading a wonderfully written book when a paragraph stopped me dead in my tracks. So I backed up to re-read a few lines to make certain that what I’d read was actually on the page and not my mind playing tricks on my tired eyes. Nope, there it was as plain as day, one of the most impossible, unbelievable ways to kill ever written (I won’t go into detail to protect the author’s reputation). 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 reality, and it was obvious that reality was the intention.

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

Writing Reality

One of the top thriller writers of our time, Lee Child, writes some pretty over the top action, but he does so in a way that makes you believe it, even though some of it probably couldn’t happen in real life. I once asked Lee how much research he conducts before writing his books.

His answer was, “Better to ask if I do any research before I write the last word! I don’t do any general research. I depend on things I have already read or seen or internalized, maybe years before. I ask people about specific details … like I asked you what a rural police chief might have in his trunk.  But in terms of large themes I think it’s difficult to research too close to the time of writing … research is like an iceberg – 90% of it needs to be discarded, and it’s hard to do that without perspective.”

So how does Lee make Reacher’s actions believable? Simple. He uses common sense. Well, that and more talent in his little finger than I have in my dreams.

By the way, in response to Lee Child when he contacted me to ask what what a rural police chief might have in the trunk of his car, I sent him this photo (below).

I took the shot while visiting a sheriff’s office in Ohio. Yes, you may have read the scene that was based on this very image, along with the description I provided to Lee.

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

Department regulations may determine the contents of the trunk. And common sense will tell you that there are no bazookas, portable helicopters, rocket launchers, or inflatable speed boats inside the trunk of a police car.

However, you might find a baseball bat and glove, a football, or a few teddy bears. Cops often come in contact with children who need a friend.

So please, if you’re going for realism, use common sense.

Common sense will also tell you to ask an expert before plunging into a topic you know nothing about, such as “what might a rural police chief have in his car trunk?”


Lee Child teamed up with his brother Andrew Child to write the next Reacher novel, “The Sentinel.” Andrew, though, will take the reins from that book forward to continue the Jack Reacher series.

On a personal note, Lee Child has been a great friend to me and my family. We are blessed that he has been a part of our lives.

I wish Andrew all the success in the world.

“Hey, Sarge,” said Officer Trevor “Curly” Barnes. “Would you do me a favor and see if you can get a clear set of prints from this guy? I’ve tried three times and all I get are smudges. I must be out of practice, or something.”

“You rookies are all alike,” said Sergeant Imin Charge. “Always wanting somebody to do the dirty work for you.”

“But—”

Sgt. Charge dropped his fat, leaky ballpoint pen on a mound of open file folders. “But nothing,” he said. “All you “boots” want to do is bust up fights and harass the whores.”

The portly “three-striper” pushed his lopsided rolling chair away from his desk and placed a bear-paw-size hand on each knee. Then with a push and a grunt, he stood. The sounds of bone-on-bone poppings and cracklings coming from his arthritic knees were louder than the Buck Owens song—I‘ve Got a Tiger by the Tail—that spewed from the portable radio on his desk.

“Well,” said the sergeant. “Paperwork and processing evidence, including fingerprinting people, comes with the job too. You might as well get it in your head right now that police work is not all about flashy blue lights, driving fast cars, and badge bunnies. Not all ”

“I’m serious, Sarge. I can’t get a good print. I think the guy’s messing with me, or something.”

Charge sighed and rolled his deep-set eyes. Everyone in he department knew the eye roll as Charge’s trademark “I don’t want to, but will” expression.

“All right,” said Charge. “Go finish up the paperwork and I’ll take care of the prints and mugshots.” Then he pointed a meaty finger at the young officer. “But hurry up and get your ass back down to booking. I get off in thirty minutes and I’ve got plans. There’s a behind the scenes documentary on tonight about how they made the Smoky and the Bandit movies, and I don’t aim to miss it.”

“That’s right, it’s Thursday night, huh? What was it last week, The Best of Swamp People?”

“Bingo. And me and the little woman never miss. So, if you ever want to see day shift again, you’d better be back here in ten minutes to take this slimeball off my hands.”

Twenty minutes later, Sergeant Charge was on the phone with Captain Gruffntuff, the shift commander. “That’s right, Captain. The guy doesn’t have any prints. Not a single ridge or whorl. Nothing.”

A pause while Charge listened. Officer Barnes leaned toward his boss, trying to hear the other side of the conversation. The sergeant waved him away as if swatting away an annoying fly or mosquito. “No, sir. Not even a freckle.”

Another pause.

“Nope, not on either finger.” Charge leaned back in his chair. “All as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Beats everything I’ve ever seen.”

“Yes, sir. I checked his toes, too. Nothing there either. Slick as a freshly waxed floor.”

Sergeant Charge opened a pouch of Redman and dug out a golfball-size hunk of shredded black tobacco leaves.

“Nope. He’s not from around here. Says he’s from Sweden. Says his whole family’s like that. Not a one of them has any prints.”

“Says it’s a condition called adermatoglyphia.”

Charge shoved the “chew” inside of his mouth, maneuvering it with his tongue until it came to rest between his teeth and cheek.

“Looks like a hamster with a mouth full of sunflower seeds,” Barnes mumbled to himself.

“Yes, sir. Beats everything I’ve ever seen,” Sergeant Charge said into the phone’s mouthpiece. “Will do, sir.

A beat passed, then he said, “Yes, sir. I’ll stay to see it through.”

Another beat.

“Right, sir.”

Sergeant Charge placed the phone receiver back in its cradle without saying goodbye. His typical pinkish cheeks were the color of a shiny new fire truck. He sat silent for a second, thinking.

“Won’t be watching the Bandit tonight, I guess,” he said.

The man from Sweden, the prisoner, sighed, knowing it was going to be a long night. He’d been through this many times.

“Better call the little woman,” said Sergeant Imin Charge as he reached for the phone to give her the bad news. “And she ain’t going to be happy. No, sir. I’d bet a dollar to a doughnut that she’s already made a dozen or so of those little meatball sandwiches that I like so much. Probably has an ice cold can of Blue Ribbon waiting for me too.”

After a few “Sorry, dears,” Cgarge returned the receiver back to its resting spot and then turned to the prisoner who sat handcuffed to a wooden bench with the back of his head against the mint green wall. Another grease stain added to the collection, thought Charge.

“Okay,” he said to the man who’d been arrested for breaking into home of an Hazel Lucas, an elderly woman who’d whacked the intruder on the head with a rolling pin while he was climbing through a kitchen window. “Lemme see those fingers, again.”

The burglar held up his hands and said to the sergeant, “Good luck.”

Photo Credit: Nousbeck et al., The American Journal of Human Genetics (2011)

Adermatoglyphia, or “immigration delay disease” as it’s also known, is an extremely rare and unique condition found in members of only four Swiss families. What’s so unique about the condition? Well, for starters, people with adermatoglyphia produce far less hand sweat than the average person. But, perhaps the most startling characteristic is that people with adermatoglyphia do not have fingerprints.

In one instance, a female member of one of the affected families traveled to the U.S. but was delayed by border agents because they couldn’t confirm her identity. Why? No prints to compare.

The cause of adermatoglyphia has, until recently, been a mystery. Now, however, scientists have learned that the affected members of the Swiss families all had a mutation in the gene called Smarcad1. And this mutation is in a version of the gene that is only expressed in skin.

So, all you mystery writers out there…yes, there are people who do not have fingerprints.


A Tiger by the Tail


There’s still time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

www.writerspoliceacademy.com

 

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.”

There’s nothing in this world that can be compared to entering an abandoned house in mid July, in the south, to begin working a murder case. If the stifling heat, humidity, and smell of decomposing human flesh and organs don’t get to you, well, the flies, maggots, and other creepy crawlers certainly will. Without a doubt, it’s a full-on attack of the senses. But, it’s a job that falls into the laps of homicide cops—it’s what they do—and it’s a job that requires a special skill set. Not to mention a stomach made of cast iron and steel plating.

But, once you’re past the stench, gore, fly-swatting, and overall feel of ickiness, solving murder cases are a bit like writing crime novels … sort of.

Writers typically begin their stories knowing the identities of the murderers du jour, right? Protagonists typically work toward a “killer” ending to the story in which they travel, while their creators provide clues along the way that help their fictional heroes and readers solve the carefully plotted crimes.

Real-life detectives begin their journeys with an initial report that’s a written introduction to the basics—victim’s name, location where crimes took place, weather conditions, dates, times, responding officers’ names, time of arrival of the medical examiner, witness names and statements, if any, etc. This information, much like the very first Post-it note of a plotting author’s outline launches a story into a convoluted journey to the final page of a book, provides the starting points for investigations. And, those initial police reports often serve as guides that determine which direction the investigations should follow.

Remember, no two investigations are the same!

What follows the reading and studying of the initial police report or, an author’s first Post-it note, is an extremely detailed and meticulous prying, pawing, digging, and rummaging through each and every aspect of all the twists and turns and potential characters/suspects. No stone is left unturned, and no potential piece of evidence is left unexamined. For detectives, this often results in lots of long hours without sleep, meals, or time to rest. For writers, this means tons of sticky notes placed in all the right places, tons of research, police ride-alongs, and attending the fabulous Writers’ Police Academy.

When I approached a case where the suspect’s identity was unknown, and clues and information were scarce or non-existent—after collecting physical evidence—I often found it helpful to begin by first eliminating people who could NOT be involved, such as the people who had solid, unquestionable alibis. Then, I’d eliminate the folks whose innocence was proven by physical evidence (fingerprints and DNA didn’t match, etc.). It was often the last man or woman standing who committed the crime.

Writers, in lieu of using actual evidence to eliminate characters/suspects, they develop fictional evidence to do the same. And when something doesn’t seem quite right with a scene or character, well, the writers then simply removes a sticky note here and there and toss them aside. However, both detectives and writers typically file any discarded information in the event it’s needed at a later time. And, like writers, cops often find that information gained/gathered in one investigation just may be valuable in the next.

To Step Into a Murder Scene is Like …

So let’s open the door to the spooky house at the end of your street—the old Victorian that’s been empty for two years and is now surrounded by waist-high weeds. The once beautifully manicured lawn is now a graveyard for litter and other garbage left behind by transients and the kids who toss their empty fast food wrappers and plastic soda bottles over the rusted chain-link fence. Window panes are broken and many of shingles have fallen from the roof, leaving behind patches of tar paper and rusted nails.

For months now you’ve seen a homeless man going and coming, but this morning you realized that he hadn’t been around in the past two weeks. And there’s that strong odor. Like something is … dead.

So you call the police and the next thing you know your neighborhood is overrun by patrol cars and crime scene tape. You even heard one officer say something about murder.

Inside the “spooky” house, detectives are doing what they do best. They’re checking all the boxes on their mental checklist. And now their focus is on the victim.

The Effects of Death on the Human Body

Prior to the removal of a body from the crime scene, homicide investigators should note (and photograph) the presence of each of the following in his/her report:

1) Livor Mortis/Lividity (color, location, blanchability, Tardieu spots, other coloring). Are these consistent or inconsistent with the current positioning of the body?

Remember, lividity is the pooling of blood/purplish staining of tissue at the lowest portions of a dead body, caused by gravity. Livor continues to form for up to 8 – 12 hours after death. This process can be slowed to as much as 36 hours in a cool environment, including a morgue cooler.

To test for blanchability, a death investigator uses a finger(s) to push against the flesh. The pressure forces blood out of the capillaries in that area, causing the flesh to present as much lighter in color. If the pressure does indeed cause a change in skin color, the flesh is blanchable. This tells the investigator the body is still within the lividity period, meaning the victim died sometime within the past 12 hours, or up to 36 hours in cool surroundings.

You can try this on your own skin. Use a finger to apply pressure to the back of your hand. Release the pressure after a second or two and you’ll see the change in skin color (obviously you’ll use the finger of one hand to press against the skin on the back of your other hand). By the way, if you needed that instruction, well, the warning to remove Pop Tarts from their wrapper before heating are probably very important to you. And, if there was no change in your skin color, well, I hope your life insurance policy is up to date.

Tardieu spots are dark, circular areas—capillary ruptures.

2) Rigor Mortis

Muscles contain bundles of long, narrow cells. While we’re seated at our computers reading blogs and watching goofy videos, our muscles are, for the most part, at rest.

While resting, our muscles pump out calcium ions which build up electrical potential (energy). Then, when we’re ready to make that run to the mailbox to retrieve the latest royalty check, a nerve impulse causes those ions hook up with actin and myosin filaments and the muscles contract (become tighter). They remain in that state until adenosine triphosphate (ATP) binds to the myosin, and before you know it the muscles once again relax.

Got it now? No, well, don’t worry. All we need to know is that ATP has an obsession with oxygen. It absolutely has to have it to survive.

Actually, the body needs oxygen to produce ATP. Therefore, when a person stops breathing (no oxygen) the body ceases to make adenosine triphosphate. Without ATP our muscles can no longer relax. And when the muscles can’t relax, what happens? Right, the body stiffens, and that, my writer friends, is called Rigor Mortis.

3) Degree of decomposition (putrefaction, adipocere, mummification, skeletonization, etc.). Everything affects decomposition, from air temperature to animals and insects to shellfish, fish, alligators, snakes, and turtles, when the body is in water. Even soil types and clothing can affect the rate of decomposition. Interestingly, newborns who have not yet been fed, decompose slowly since the body is basically sterile. However, an injury or being fed will cause a newborn’s body to decompose more rapidly.

a) Putrefaction – the final stage of decomposition. Presents as discoloration of tissue, disfiguration, liquefaction of tissue, bloating due to gases forming in the tissue and organs.

The general order of putrefactive changes are as follows:

First to go are the larynx and trachea, followed by…

– stomach, spleen, and intestines

– lungs and liver

–  brain

– heart

– bladder, uterus, kidneys

– skin, tendons, and muscle

– bone

*The prostate resists putrefaction for a long time.

b) Adipocere – a waxy, soap-like substance that’s sometimes formed during decomposition. Normally caused by moist or damp conditions surrounding the decomposing body.

D. Insect and animal activity. Obviously, insects and animals can and do consume body parts. Animals may also scatter human remains, sometimes making the murder scene a bit more difficult to understand, at first look.

E. Scene temperature. Death investigators make note of the ambient temperature at the location of the body, and the method used to obtain it.

F. Description of body temperature. Is it warm to the touch? Is the flesh cold, or frozen.

It is extremely important to preserve the security of the body. Remember, the body is more than likely THE most important piece of evidence in a murder case. Investigators should oversee the labeling, packaging, and the removal of the remains by the M.E’s personnel, or EMS, etc. An identification tag should be attached to the body to prevent any mix ups later, at the morgue (yes, this has happened, and on more than one occasion).

Finally … No, police detectives do NOT use thermometers of any type, including rectal thermometers, to check the temperature of a dead body. It is not in their job description to do so. Yes, I once read the rectal thermometer thing in a book. So, no, no, and NO!

By the way, the image at the left is of a grilled pork chop. Had your stomach turning for a moment, huh?


*Remember, laws and procedure differ across the country. What happens in San Francisco or L.A. may be, and likely are, entirely different in Richmond or Baltimore or Dallas or Phoenix or Denver or Kansas or ….

*The black and white images contained in this post are from an actual crime scene, the largest mass family murder to occur in the U.S. It’s a case I featured in my true crime tale, Murder on Minor Avenue.

As part of my research prior to writing the story I visited the scene(s), interviewed dozens of people involved in two cases, including police detectives, neighbors, prosecutors, judges, family members, etc., and I visited the gravesites of the slain. Murder on Minor Avenue was published in an anthology called Masters of True Crime: Chilling Stories of Murder and the Macabre (edited by R. Barri Flowers) Publisher – Prometheus Books.