Using common sense when writing about cops


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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