|The traffic team at KWPD|
But it also makes me realize how little I actually know about police work. The lucky thing is, I don't write police procedurals. But now that I know a little more, I realize I need to avoid the temptation of putting in a lot of details that will bog the story down.
Reds, how do you handle detectives and police work and crime scene investigations? Debs and Julia--you actually have main characters who are cops. How do you balance getting things right enough and just writing the dang thing?
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I went to the FBI Citizens Academy, and it was terrific, wonderful, brilliant and even inspirational. The guy sitting next to me eventually said--during a break--"Can I just ask you something? You seem to be writing down different things than I am. What are you writing?"
And I realized-I was writing down HOW the agents talked. More than what they talked ABOUT.
My main character, Jake Brogan, is a Boston police detective. Writing his point of view, which I love, I just try to imagine--how would a police officer think about this? How would they see this situation? What would they care about? What would they worry about? I just try to--channel it.
If I need jargon or info, I--hmmm. What DO I do? I ask my criminal defense attorney husband. I ask Lee Lofland. And I ask police offiers when I see them during my news reporting. (I also watch them and listen to them when they dont know it.) I mostly..don't worry about it too much. I've been out with police lots of times..and I write them the way I write everyone else. As real people with a goal.
LUCY: Hank, you are so smart!
DEBORAH CROMBIE: Luckily for me, my husband is an ex-cop. He was a 911 dispatcher, then a patrol officer, then ran the 911 call center as a certified police officer (it's usually a civilian job) for ten years. It was a smaller city so he worked with detectives and often with the fire marshall. So there's not much about police work that he doesn't know.
I also have a writer friend who is a twenty-five year-plus officer--he just passed his captain's exam. He reads my manuscripts and gives me tips about things like how the crime scene would be handled. More importantly, though, I count on him to tell me if my cops are doing what cops would really do--asking the right questions, interviewing the right people, coming to logical conclusions based on the evidence they have.
But much of it is what Hank said--I think of my cops as characters with goals, and let the goal move the story.
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Debs married a guy who is not only a webmaster, but also a cop? Talk about planning ahead for a crime fiction career...
I get my info from a variety of sources; talking to cops (writer-cops like Lee Lofland, Jim Born and Ken Lang can be especially helpful) books on criminal investigation, articles and newspaper reports, and, I will admit it, even reality TV shows. I think it was Jim who told me once that RENO 911 was the most realistic cop show on the air!
But to echo Hank and Debs, much of the work in getting LEOs "right" is the same sort of work that it takes to step into any other character's skin. The author needs to be able to empathize with the character and to see the world as he or she sees it.
One of the trickiest things to write about are forensics, nowadays. There's so much on TV that people think they know how it works, but a lot of it is wrong, wrong, wrong. I had a reviewer take me to task for one book where the autopsy tox screens took over two weeks. On CSI, the results come back within hours, but in real life, lab findings can take weeks - months if it involves DNA.
RHYS BOWEN: This one of the reasons I love setting books in the past. So little forensics to worry about! When I want to know something specific I ask an expert. When I was doing a Constable Evans book with a child abduction I had the South Wales police expert talk me through the stages. And when I was writing those Welsh books I had two tame policemen I could ask about anything.
I've always been amazed at the generosity of experts. They always give up time to answer questions.
HALLIE EPHRON: Police procedure isn't usually a focus in my books, so I strive to be believable, not accurate. A lower standard (like "preponderance of the evidence" rather than "beyond a reasonable doubt").
The book I'm writing takes place in 1965 and 1985, so when I ended up chatting with a family sitting next to me at Mohegan Sun, and it turned out the older man was a retired police officer, I grilled him on "old" police procedure. "If you found a drowned body in full rigor in 1965..." - He was great, and though I'm not sure he's absolutely right, it sounded good enough.
For any clueless writer who needs to know accurate current police procedure, there's the Writers' Police Academy.
ROSEMARY HARRIS: As in Hallie's books (I always get a kick out of writing that...I so want to be like my fellow Reds!) police procedure does not play a huge role in my stories. I've done the occasional interview and I've allowed myself to briefly occupy a cell at the Stamford Police Station but it's not a hot issue for me. So far my protags have not needed to reload their weapons or shoot from an improbable distance.
I'm doing research now for a new project - a historical - and getting THAT right is going to be a challenge. Props to Rhys and Jan for getting that right!