Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On Getting Things Right

The traffic team at KWPD
LUCY BURDETTE: The past few weeks I've been attending the Key West Citizens' Police Academy. For eight weeks, two hours on Wednesday night, we attend classes to learn about how the department works, what the challenges are about policing Key West, and some hands-on activities like searching for clues in a hypothetical crime scene and making safe traffic stops. It's such great fun!

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.

: 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!


  1. I think actually firing weapons is important if you're going to get the gunplay realistic in your novels. Thanks to Mystery Writers of America, NYC Chapter, I spent a day at a gun range firing handguns and a rifle. A lot of what I've seen on TV since has made me laugh. Those Glocks and Berettas are incredibly powerful, and make so much noise, they'
    re like bombs going off in the room. Numbing. Without headphones, hearing wouldn't be the only sense a shooter lost.

  2. I'm very lucky to have a just-retired police officer who patiently answers my questions. I try to follow his advice. Not only has he helped with technical questions, he's also helped with motivation.

  3. I don't write police procedurals but if I have to put in some kind of details, I keep them to a minimum. Like Hank, I try more to get into the character's head and think how he or she would think and react. Great post! Maybe I'll take one of those classes one day, too. Sounds interesting and fun.

  4. I attended the Writers Police Academy last fall and LOVED it. Fabulous experience. And I've been following Lucy's messages about the Key West version, as I am waiting right now to hear if I scored one of the twenty slots in my town's upcoming Citizens' Police Academy. I have so many questions for them. ;^)
    (And if I don't get in, I'll just walk down there and befriend one of the officers, I guess.)

    But the FBI academy? Makes me drool to think about it! And I don't even write police procedurals.

    Debs, do you also have a British police consultant? I would think there might be some critical differences, but maybe not.

  5. Edith, yes, I've been drooling over the writers police academy, but I can't spare the time right now. So this Key West program was a godsend. Before that, I asked an IT guy who worked there, and then the community liaison officer--they are almost always willing to give a tour and explain things.

    Good Point Jack! I went to the firing range with Sisters in Crime a number of years ago. I am a big dud as a shooter! My friend Susan Hubbard said I looked like I was holding a bouquet of gladiolas in my official picture. (It was a rifle.)

  6. I stumbled into police procedural when I made the lead character in a story a PA state trooper. It wasn't my intention and I didn't want to do it because of the details. But I love the characters, so I'm stuck.

    While at Bouchercon last fall, I shared a cab with a retired Cleveland Housing Authority cop. She insisted on buying me a glass of wine when she found out I was writer (even an unpublished one). She graciously answered a ton of questions. =)

    Interestingly, she said getting every last detail right is not that important (she's a big police procedural reader) as long as you don't do something stupid. For example, don't throw your guy into the back of the car without cuffing and searching. Don't crash into a building without a warrant unless you have exigent circumstances.

    I'm attending the Pittsburgh Citizen's Police Academy now. We talked with SWAT last week and the K-9 unit this week. Yeah, TV gets so much wrong. And everyone I've met is so happy to share their knowledge.

    I follow Lee Lofland's blog Graveyard Shift, and I took a class with him via Guppies last fall. I so want to attend Writer's Police Academy. This year it might happen!

  7. Things I've gotten wrong: the smell of cordite after a gun went off. Turns out cordite hasn't been around since World War II.

    And when I visited my local police department, their jail cells did not have the bars I thought they would. They had plexiglass doors. And the toilets were stainless steel without seats. Apparently porcelain breaks. Who knew?

  8. Hey guys,
    Roberta, I love this topic. I always have a lot of legal and cop stuff in my books, so lunched monthly with a prosecutor and interviewed a lot of cops. I find that a little current cop stuff goes a long way.

    The most amazing thing the cops told me? ANd I can't believe they admitted this, but it's useful in mysteries. That they decide in the first five minutes who "did it' and it's really hard for them to re-engineering their thinking. They tend to view all the evidence in line with their original theory.

    And one day at the shooting range trying to hit a target with a .22, .38, a revolver that freaked me out and a M-16 was an awesome tutorial in how hard a real gun is to handle and what caliber can do (or not do in the case of the .22, which was my favorite, lady-like gun).

    But Edith, I'd be drooling with you over the prospect of an FBI Academy, only now I'm more focused on what terrible use I might make of a whaling spade....

    Miss you guys!!

  9. I develop my mysteries around a journalist. She is investigative and curious, but I don't have to worry about competing with experts in crime detection, forensics, etc. The emphasis falls on atmosphere and character, not technique. This approach, however,does cause problems related to categorizing my work.

  10. Barry - you share the same problem with a LOT of authors -- Hank Phillippi Ryan, Lucy Burdette, and Lisa Scottoline to name just a few.

    I have to say it annoys me when a reporter who's a mystery sleuth gets invite behind the yellow tape and his/her friend/detective offers up all kinds of insider information. More fun when it's a bit more realistic and the reporter has to work for it.

  11. Jan, we miss you too!

    Some of you may have seen this on facebook, but one of the sessions in our citizens' academy involved investigating a "crime scene" that the detectives had set up for us. I was not as good at finding clues as you might expect:). But these detectives were the opposite of what you described Jan--very open to all the possibilities about what might have occurred. They don't even like much of a briefing before going to the scene, for fear it will slant their conclusions.

  12. Lucy, I learned the same. Even the SWAT guys said they don't want to study architectural maps before going into a building because if they expect a door to be there, and there isn't, it costs brain cycles to adjust and that is often time they don't have.

  13. I was SO hoping for a Lucy/Roberta mug shot! Is there still a chance for that?

    Debs, Edith asked the same question I have, about possible differences between US and British police procedures. Do you have someone "over there" that you can go to with questions?

  14. "The most amazing thing the cops told me? ANd I can't believe they admitted this, but it's useful in mysteries. That they decide in the first five minutes who "did it' and it's really hard for them to re-engineering their thinking. They tend to view all the evidence in line with their original theory."

    Alas, I have encountered this in real life. Even with contrary evidence from their own experts, it can be very hard for LEO and prosecutors to back away from those initial snap judgments. In one negligent homicide case stemming from a late-night car crash, our client spent 18 months in the state prison as a direct result before his conviction was reversed.

    But while we hope for more of
    those open-minded officers in real life, the quick deciders might make for better fiction!

  15. One resource I consulted when I was plotting my mystery was retired NYPD Lt Commander Vernon Geberth's Practical Guide to Homocide Investigation. Probably outdated now, but he takes you through how to investigate crimes step by step, and through this you can see how he thinks and feels. Crime scene photos are included - not for the faint-hearted. Jeffrey Dahlmer's own photographs of his victims continue to haunt me years later!

  16. Police Science was my major in college, lo, these many years ago. Most of our classes were taught by actual police officers who were working in the local department at the time. Attending a Citizens' Police Academy a couple years ago was like old home week to me, visiting the jail (there have been a LOT of changes since 1970!), shooting (simulators now, computer-keyed in to a video projected onto a wall), and seeing all the new technology around investigation, forensics, and equipment.

    Self-defense was almost the only thing that has changed very little. Even the attitude of today's cops is different. Then, they were tough, macho, and sometimes brutal. Now, they view their work as much more of a profession, and as such they act more professionally. It was quite an eye-opener.

  17. Oh, and Lisa, when I was in college we took a field trip to the Cincinnati morgue. Part of the trip involved a slide show of victim photos from the Cincinnati Strangler, Posteal Laskey, who killed several women, and who was caught in the mid-60's. They were the most gruesome photos I'd seen up to that point, and it took a long, long time to forget them.

    The weird thing about him was that he raped and then killed mostly elderly women. That was also an eye-opener, that one did not have to be young and comely to attract such violence.

  18. I just wanted to say that I just finished reading "The Other Woman" yesterday, and it blew me away. I loved it! Well done, Hank! It was my first book of hers to read--and it certainly won't be my last. Alex is okay, btw, but I'm all in for Team Jake. haha

    I've also recently finished "In the Bleak Midwinter" and loved that, too. Go Julia! Cannot wait to read more in that series. I love the Clare/Russ dynamic.

    And more Jungle Red love to Rosemary for "Pushing Up Daisies" and Lucy/Roberta for "An Appetite For Murder." Took me longer to read that one because all the descriptions of delicious food kept making me hungry!! :)

    Up next is Jan's "A Confidential Source," and then Rhys' latest Molly.

  19. We all thank you for reading Kimberly--you guys are so much appreciated! xoxo

  20. Having ex-cops as friends, schoolmates, spouse, etc., sure helps. In Connections, my debut novel, I have a scene involving cops interrogate bad guys under arrest without a lawyer present. My editor was concerned, so I had a retired police chief/high school classmate look it over. Since the setting is mid-1970s, he said Miranda wouldn't be an issue back then unless I had a courtroom scene, so I left it alone.