Tuesday, September 14, 2010

True Crime, Jungle Red Style

ROBERTA: As you heard from Hank last week, we're experimenting with a new feature called "True Crime Tuesday". Since we all write crime fiction, I thought it would be fun to hear how much and often the Jungle Red Writers have contact with real crime fighters.

I've never been tempted to write a police procedural because I haven't had much personal experience with cops. In fact, I've always been a little afraid of the police. Besides, getting all those details nailed down looked like an awful lot of work. (Although my very good friend SW Hubbard, who wrote a wonderful police procedural series, claims she made every bit of hers up.)

With my amateur sleuth mysteries, I assumed I could finesse most of the police work details and concentrate on things I was more interested in, like psychology and golf. But as I wrote my first book, SIX STROKES UNDER, I realized I needed some specific local facts. In particular, if a murder occurred on the golf course just before a tournament began, would they cancel or postpone the event? A cancellation would ruin my story, so I had to know. Not seeing any way around it, I ferreted out who had jurisdiction of the area covering the Plantation Golf and Country Club and drove to the Sheriff's office.

"I'm a writer," I told the heavyset fellow who manned the front desk, "and I have a question." I explained the scenario. Golf course. Dead body. Tournament. He looked at me blankly. A crackpot, I could imagine him thinking, but is she dangerous?

"There's a law enforcement library in Orlando," he finally said (3 hours away). "I'm sure you could find the answer there." I left in a quiet huff and promptly wrote him into the book as Sheriff Tate, a "short, very sweaty man whose uniform barely stretched over the expansive girth of his stomach."

HANK: Oh, what a great question—this is happening to me right now! The other day in a cab, the driver told me he was an ex-cop. Hurray, I thought, exactly what I need. (Although why an ex-cop is a cab driver might be a better story.) But I said—okay, listen, question for you. You’re going up to a house to ask the resident for information. You don’t who or what is behind the door. What do you say? How do you stand? What are you thinking about? If they say—‘who is it,’ how do you answer?

Huh? He said.

Sigh. Never mind, I replied.

Then the other day, I was walking down the street and walked by a police officer in uniform. Hurray! I thought. Just what I need.

So I said, “Hey, I’m..”

And he said, “ I know who you are, and I can’t talk to you. I can’t say a word to you. You’re press. In fact, I’ve already said too much, and if anyone saw us, I’m already in trouble.”

SO! Two strike outs? Not at all! I got great info—not what I was looking for, but still great—from both!

ROSEMARY: I've interviewed cops for each of my books, not because I have a lot of procedural detail in them but, I just didn't want to write anything flat-out ridiculous. The most detail I went into was for The Big Dirt Nap in which some crimes took place on a reservation. I spent days researching tribal law. Maybe a page wound up in the book, but ask me anything about tribal law.

HALLIE: My favorite research was back when I was writing about a group of neuroscientists and I needed to know how brains are handled for research. I visited the amazing brain bank at Harvard's McLean Hospital. Can you believe, (donated) brains arrive in Fedex boxes marked PERISHABLE!...like you'd ship a bowling ball. And on the floor, in transluscent buckets filled with some kind of preservative, floated brains looking like heads of cauliflower. I went right home and signed an organ donor card.

JAN: All through my Hallie Ahern series I met for lunch on a monthly or bimonthly basis with the head of the criminal division in the RHode Island AG's office. He kept me up on crime and law enforcement trends and told great anecdotes that often made it into my manuscript. I also was also lucky to meet with Providence Police as well as an undercover detective in Portsmouth NH who was an expert in online predators (for TEASER). I meet with retired cops and investigators, too. I find that not only do you get the "facts" right when you meet with law enforcement, but you also get away from law enforcement stereotypes and write real characters.

I actually think that meeting with cops and prosecutors and defense attorneys is my favorite part of mystery writing. Next week I get to meet with prosectors in the Suffolk County office (Boston) but that's for my true crime book.

RHYS: I'm relieved that my books take place in the past. That way I don't have police departments to deal with any longer. When I was writing the Constable Evans mysteries I had a friendly police officer in Wales who answered all my questions, including complicated ones on the procedure for a child kidnapped by a Russian national father. I've found every expert I have queried to be extremely helpful.

ROBERTA: Great stories, you guys! Hank is right--again--whatever you get, you can use. What's your favorite police story--have you seen it translated into a book? And if not, can we have it?


  1. Nice topic. When I lost my job almost two years ago, I decided it was a perfect time to research video forensics, and found a very helpful police chief who uses the system I had heard about. In fact, I'll be the guest blogger on the Sisters in Crime blog (http://sisters-in-crime-sinc.blogspot.com/) sometime this week (I think tomorrow, Sept 15) describing what I learned.

    I also became a 'fan' of our local police department's facebook page, and the officer in charge said I could ask him questions any time. So I'm saving them up to ask all at once.


  2. My brother-in-law is a cop. He told me a story once about a cop friend of his who was heading home. He saw two boys just looking like they were going to cause trouble. They saw the cop car and tried to get away by turning into a driveway. The cop followed the car. He stopped the boys and asked what they were doing.

    "Just dropping off my friend at his house."

    The cop said, "Wrong answer. This is my house."

    He scared the boys so bad that he sent them home, knowing they would not cause any trouble. When the cop went inside, his wife had no clue what happened.

  3. Great topic! Research is such an important--and enjoyable--part of writing. I always call the LAPD before I submit a manuscript to be sure there's no real cop I could insult by using his/her name. Also, I'm having great fun now talking to animal control officers and cops to research my new Pet Rescue mystery series.

  4. So many stories, so little space! I was called out in the middle of a frigid winter's night to process a meth lab in a local hotel. The perps threw an automatic handgun out the window and it landed on the portico covering the hotel's entrance. The drug detective in charge called the fire department for a ladder. The ladder truck (brand new and they wanted to show it off rather than dispatching an engine with a ground ladder) arrived Code One, the firefighters went to work stabilizing the truck to raise the ladder, then extended it to the roof. In the meantime, the detective and fire chief were arguing about who would retrieve the pistol.

    Chief: It's evidence. My guys can't touch it.

    Detective: I'm a cop. I don't do fire trucks.

    Then they turned to me. "Let the CSI do it!"

    Ha! Neither of them knew I'd been an ARFF (airport rescue firefighter) in my "previous" life. I scampered up, slithered across the icy roof, grabbed the weapon--bagging and tagging, and clamoured back down. Yeah, they were all a little embarrassed. *snerk*

    Luckily, if there's a question I don't know the answer to, I still have contacts in both fire and law enforcement I can ask. Great topic today, ladies!

  5. Cops are great - the homicide detective at my local police department gave me the ins and outs of how they'd investigate a homicide, and I used ALL of it in my book.

    Silver, I am wowed! That's such a great story. I've got to believe you've put it in a book.

  6. Hallie, actually I haven't, lol. When I get back to writing crime novels, that one is going in, along with some other "insider" stories. ;) (Though some of them takes a dark sense of humor to appreciate.)

  7. Linda, great idea about the names!

    In the ms. of AIR TIME I named an FBI agent "James Larrimer."

    A few months later, I was giving a speech to the FBI recruits, and guess who I was seated next to? Yup.


    And a big lesson.

  8. Great topic. For my first novel I was fortunate to wrangle a 6am interview with a LAPD homicide detective downtown. He was great. We sat for two hours; he was open and honest - gave me everything I needed.

    This time I'm not having much luck with the Hollywood division. One visit and a phone call, skeptical patrol officers manning the desk looked at me like I was a nut case instead of a curious writer. In North Hollywood! And I dressed up nice!

    No results and no way in. Anyone have suggestions?

  9. My mystery (The Blue Virgin) is set in Oxford, England. On my visit there, I walked into the police station and asked the desk sgt. for the name of the DCI. At home in NC we corresponded by email and he was VERY helpful with details and even descriptions of the building and the inquest court.

    Fast forward three years and The Blue Virgin is published by Bridle Path Press. I Google the Oxford station to send him his promised copy, and find my DCI has been given a huge promotion to an area position. Further inquiries show that "my detective" has just been "relieved of his duties" pending the investigation of him fudging an insurance form after his work car burned down--seemed he'd used it for assignations with his married lover and needed to get rid of the evidence~

    I may have to use that one down the road...(PS: I still sent him a copy of the book!)

  10. wow, that's a story Marni!

    Rochelle, are you involved with Sisters in Crime in LA? I can't believe one of them wouldn't have a source they'd loan you...

  11. Due to a misunderstanding (honest) and the wrongful report of an armed robbery, my friends and I were pulled over back in the 60s by five L.A. County Sheriff cruisers and dragged from our Chevy under drawn weapons. In the back seat, I was grabbed by my collar and lifted out, the barrel of a revolver inches from my nose. My heart and lungs didn't work for two minutes. The only reason I didn't wet my pants: My body was frozen solid. In my writing, characters are never blase' about guns.

  12. I almost feel guilty saying this. I represent a guy who was sued for something he blogged about. He's a retired detective. Used to be an under cover narc, then did homicide for 10 years. We're working stuff out in trade.

  13. I've got some great stories from cops I've met. The best was a story about a pair of cops answering a domestic violence call. Now those are the worst ones to answer since you never know what's going to happen. But they went to the house and this old woman was sitting in her rocking chair while they searched the house. It was empty. They came back and told her the house was empty, he must have left. The woman got very upset and started pointing at a chair opposite her. "There he is. He's right there, in front of you." It turned out it was her dead husband. The cops tried to reason with her, but she wasn't mollified. In the end one of the officers turned to the chair and demanded the man leave and never come back. Apparently she was satisfied and they never heard from her again.

    I used it in my book, L.A. BONEYARD, but I changed the woman to an elderly drag queen and the ghost her dead lover. But otherwise it was much the same. Real cops have great stories. I never miss a chance to talk to one.

  14. When I was researching my books I contacted several Orange County Deputy Sheriffs. (I was taking the Civilian Police Academy course and bypassed the dreaded "official no comment" channels. I asked one detective if I could buy him a cup of coffee and ask questions. He said, "Is there an Ale House near you?"

    The money I spent on beer and bar snacks for a group of cops was more than worth it. I've got a SWAT commander and homicide detective who will answer all my crazy questions. And one sent me write-ups of some of his experiences early in his career which were featured on my blog once a week.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  15. I’ve never had a problem meeting LEOs.

    My first run in with the law happened when I was almost four years old. My twin, Mikki, and I had cut our hair and stuffed it in out dollhouse furniture. Dad must have told his friend a New York State motorcycle cop, who also had twin daughters, and Buff McGuire (a hefty, tall guy) must have chewed us out. I really don’t remember that part, but the next time a state police car pulled into Dad’s gas station, Mikki and I took off. She hid behind the snowplow out back but I went into the house and hid behind the sideboard in the dining room. I remember thinking to myself. “You can’t stay here, it’s the first place they will look for you.”

    That’s all I remember about the whole incident but Mom told me later they’d searched the property and state police dragged the pond next to the school a block away for my body. Why? because the week before Dad had caught Mikki and me at the back gate with towels and tubes. We were going swimming.

    Four and half hours after I was declared a missing child possibly drowned, my Mom went upstairs to my pareant’s room and sat on the side of the bed. I crawled out from the folded feather bed quilt at the bottom of the bed and asked. “Mommy, why are you crying?”

    She always said she never knew whether to kiss me kill me. Never thought to ask what the state police said or did then.

    That, a couple of other incidents with New York finest and growing up in a high school crowd where all the guys became LEOs, has given me an interest to include them in my writing. I seem to attract them. I’ve been to the Citizens Police Academy at least half a dozen times and interviewed many local, county, state and federal LEOs. It also helps to have a police commissioner with NYPD backgound for a nephew who answers questions, gives me many stories, and sometimes kills my plot idea completely.

    Also known as Patti, Mikki's twin sister.