Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Ultimate Writer Cred

Hank Phillippi Ryan:  When the amazing Katie Schickel told me she wanted to do a blog about research, and how wonderful it is to get deeply inside a certain part of the world, I thought—oh yeah. Because her new book is kind of about mermaids. (Whoa. The incredible Elin Hilderbrand says:  An original, fresh, and absolutely captivating read."!

Anyway, mermaids.  So I figured, well, we’ll finally find out the deal.

It’s just as fascinating that it turns out to be about the police. You know?  Just keep swimming.

The Ride Along
              by Katie Schickel

I’ve listened to many writers talk about the lengths they go to for research — interviews, shadowing doctors in emergency rooms, uncovering primary sources in far-flung libraries. I felt it was time to step up my game. Research, after all, gives your story depth and credibility.

For my latest book, The Mermaid’s Secret, my main character is a surfer who becomes a mermaid. Since I’m surfer, and a former professional scuba diver, getting inside the head of a surfing mermaid was cake. But I also had a main character who was a cop. I needed context. I needed to inhabit a cop’s world.

Which is how I came to find myself riding shotgun in a police cruiser on night patrol last summer.

We started with a tour of the police station — booking, biometrics, holding cells, dispatch, report room, and interview rooms, before moving on to the cruiser. Within five minutes on the road, the cop who’d been assigned to me (I’ll call him Bruce) immediately pulled over a car with a missing headlight. “Situation lights” on, Bruce called in the plates, and approached the car. I noticed that he deliberately touched the trunk before walking up the driver. When I asked why, he explained that he leaves his fingerprints on the vehicle in case he is shot and the driver flees.

Shot? On a routine traffic stop?

Yes, Bruce said. Motor vehicle stops are the most dangerous calls for a police officer. Drivers with felony outstanding warrants, or hidden drugs and weapons, have a high probability of shooting a police officer.

And the second most dangerous type of call? I asked.

Domestic violence, Bruce said. Which was our second call of the night, after only 30 minutes on shift. Bruce hit the flashing lights, pulled a u-turn, and barreled down the double line at full speed. My adrenaline was pumping.

When we got to the address, another police cruiser was waiting with flashing lights. This was a two-man job.

“Stay in the car,” Bruce said as he got out and headed to the house.

No problem, I thought. Since I wasn’t sure whether the cruiser had bullet-proof windows, I slunk low in the seat and watched from afar as Bruce and the other cop diffused the situation.

Next stop was the marina and back alleys where frequent break-ins occur. Frequent break-ins, I thought. I never even lock my door most of the time. Bruce was fastidious as he ran a property check, testing doors and windows, shining a light into buildings. I scribbled in my notebook, writing observations, jargon, and asking Bruce questions about chain-of-command, unattended death protocol, and details that I needed to make the character in my book come to life.

Then we moved onto the residential quadrant where Bruce pointed out the local crack house, the drug dealers’ houses, and the meth lab they had shut down a couple months prior.

Crack house? Meth lab??? But we live in a small, safe town. Nothing ever happens here. There are lemonade stands on every corner in the summer. You can buy goat manure for your organic garden at the gas station. Our streets are literally paved in cobblestone. I had assumed it would be a pretty uneventful night.

As the night wore on, my assumptions were shattered as we made a routine run of the many, many, many heroin hang-outs around town. We drove the railroad tracks (me, with the window up, slouching low, and peering into the dark night with growing concern), through the cemetery, and into empty parking lots. We checked for signs of gang grafitti behind buildings I didn’t even know existed. Every time Bruce got out of the car to check on dark pathways, or peek into “drug tents” tucked into the woods, I could feel the panic rise in my chest. For the first time, I realized that real dangers exist even in Beaver Cleaver Land.

In every situation, Bruce was calm. He never raised his voice. He never got spooked. He was there to protect and serve, no matter what kind dangers lurked in shadows.

I walked away that night (in one piece, thanks to Bruce) with much more than a notebook full of characters ideas: I walked away with a profound respect for the work police officers do every day.

If you could tag along with someone, whose shoes would you walk in for a day?

HANK: Whose shoes? Ah. So many possibilities. Sue Grafton. Lisa Scottoline. JK Rowling. (It’d be fun, right?) Anna Wintour. A first-grade teacher.  Do I get to BE them?  Stephen King! Meryl Streep.  A contestant on Project Runway.  Michelle Obama. Ooh, I could think of some really insider things, too.  Ride along with … ah. Barbara Walters.  But what about you?
**And a copy of The Mermaid's Secret to one lucky commenter!


Jess Creary fells like she’s drowning on dry land. She’s still reeling from the death of Kay, her older sister, killed two years ago in a boating “accident.” Her mother has disappeared, and her father is on her case to get a real job. The only bright sports in her life are surfing off their island home in Maine and Matthew, the handsome captain of the fishing boat where she works flipping burgers.

On her twenty-third birthday, Jess catches the perfect wave — a wave that transforms her into a mermaid. Under the sea, a startlingly beautiful dark place, Jess is reborn as a confident, powerful predator with superhuman strength. Facing down a great white shark, hunting prey, and rescuing a baby whale trapped in a net — Jess is finally someone to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, back on land, her relationship with Captain Matthew heats up and so does her quest to hold Kay’s ex-boyfriend, wealthy summer resident Trip Sinclair, responsible for her death.

When the strange old Passamaquoddy woman who owns the local curiosities shop tells Jess the legend of Ne’Hwas, the mermaid, Jess discovers that she has thirty days to choose between land and sea, legs and fins, her humanity and her freedom. Who could reject the freedom of the sea? Yet the ocean is a dark, untamed, lonely place. Will Jess choose family and love, forgiveness and truth, or will she be seduced by the wild call of the sparkling sea forever?

Katie Schickel grew up in Ithaca, NY and graduated from Georgetown University. She's worked as a newspaper reporter in New York, a scuba instructor in Key West, a magazine editor in Pensacola, and a dot com writer in San Francisco. Eventually, she moved back east where she has worked, among other things, as a middle school English teacher, farmer, fisherman, and silversmith. She lives in Newburyport, MA with her husband and two children.


  1. It certainly seems as if a police ride along is a great way to see the real goings-on in your town . . . .
    There are so many interesting folks to tag along with, so much to learn. If I had to choose just one, I believe I’d choose to tag along with a paramedic . . . .

    “The Mermaid’s Secret” is definitely going on my teetering to-be-read pile.

  2. Love your book description--it will go into my TBR pile!

  3. Waving to Katie from Amesbury! What a great premise for your book. I did a Saturday night ridealong with the Amesbury police a few years ago - and yeah, I had no idea of the local places that are drug hangouts, break-in locations, and so on. We also checked out plates in the gas stations and convenience stores near the convergence of two interstates - "Even drug smugglers coming down from Maine (or Canada) have to stop for coffee and the bathroom," he said. He dropped me at home at eleven PM and then offered to show me the contents of the trunk of the cruiser (SWAT bag, etc) - not sure what the neighbors thought!

  4. Oh, and on the Wicked Cozy Authors blog today Julie Holmes reports on going up in a clock tower for research. Fascinating.

  5. Welcome, Katie! Your books sounds fab! And I think Edith Maxwell wins the internet today with " ' Even drug smugglers ... have to stop for coffee and the bathroom. ' "

  6. Or sleep. Our local police have made a number of startling arrests at some of the smaller, respectable motels in our area.

    And, Katie, I enjoy a little fantasy with my mystery--I'll definitely be looking out for The Mermaid!

    A ride along? The next county over from where I live, the cops have gotten tremendous bad press. It would be interesting to do a ride-along and see them in action. Maybe I'll suggest it to the newspaper editor--we could organize a flood of citizen requests for ride-alongs--keep the cops on their toes--and the rot goes all the way up to the state AG, no kidding. Locally, we're much better protected by our sheriff and city cops.

  7. Katie, your book sounds very good, always wanted to be a mermaid, maybe because of all those Esther Williams movies of my distant youth. I look forward to reading it.

    Just yesterday I read about all the research authors must do in a very good interview with Jim Ziskin on that subject. It got me to thinking. As a nurse, I get distracted when someone gets a "nurse" thing wrong. Very distracted. I bet a - fill in a profession - has the same feeling, akin to annoyance, if I must admit to yet another failing. But I have great admiration when you get it right. I mean really, how many people not in a health care profession know the little details of starting an IV for instance? So if your character is a policeman, nurse, doctor, architect, lawyer, fireman, teacher, etc., you must spend eons in research to come up with the right combination of words to describe the situation. Yikes. I am so glad I am a reader and get the benefit of your research without doing any of the work. I know you also must know the community standard for the time period, even harder to get right. Good job my friends.

  8. I agree. It's important for writers to get the details right, or else it's distracting. And the research part of it is so much fun! Walking in someone else's shoes definitely gives you perspective.

  9. I've done a ride-along, but it was earlier in the day (sun still shining) so it was pretty quiet. I think if I was given another chance, I'd go for dark. And I'd love to do one with the state police in the county where my stories are set.

  10. And it's funny how just having been there makes such a difference--an attitude, or a slang phrase, how the back seat is not padded --even that they're known at the coffee shop or not. I loved ,!i have to admit, how it felt to power through red lights with lights and siren going --and everyone (well most everyone) gets out of the way.

  11. But other ride alongs? I keep thinking rock star--would that be fun or awful? Or a magazine editor--I'd love to see what that's like. I guess that's not what most might choose :-)

  12. Welcome, Katie - Leaving his fingerprint on the trunk in case he's shot!? That is just the kind of juicy detail that you cannot Cannot CANNOT make up.

    My next door neighbor is a Statie so for whatever I've needed he's been the go-to guy. I've never (yet) written a main character who's a cop so that's been enough.

    Who would I like to "ride along" with? Ana Sortun, one of Boston's great chefs. This week, Elizabeth Warren. Lin-Manual Miranda at the upcoming Tony Awards.

  13. Hank, I'm with you! I loved how it felt to power through red lights. I also loved the feeling of being in charge (well, at least seated very close to the person in charge).

  14. Elizabeth Warren would be an exciting ride along this week, Hallie. If I had unlimited access, I might shadow someone completely out there, like Kim Jong-un. Or and astronaut... while on the space station.

  15. Can't wait to finish Housewitch so I can read this one. I came from a long line of cops and I had always wanted to be a cop, but now even in small towns you can get badly hurt!

  16. And kind of amazing how safe you feel, right? Those officers are going to protect you. You can also see how that power could go wrong.

    Elisabeth Warren--that's a idea--talk about having an experience. And oh yeah Katie--how about the president of Brazil, holed up in that mansion? (We're talking one day, right?)

  17. The fingerprints on the car trunk is a graphic and sobering image.
    The book sounds like an insightful look into choices.

  18. just put on my tbr pile! I would love to ride along with you Hank Phillippi Ryan!

  19. THE MERMAID'S SECRET sounds like an absolutely perfect summer read (and that cover is to die for!) As an aquaphile, someone who boats, rows and swims, I would love to be turned into a mermaid for a day..although I might choose to do so off the coast of Florida, where it's warm at least six to eight feet down. In Maine, the ocean temperature, from surface to depth, is cold, wicked cold, and hypothermia. And that's in August.

    Ride alongs? I'd love to spend a day at NASA. Behind the scenes at the Met during opera season. In an emergency room (assuming following a doctor or nurse would be a lot more interesting then an actual visit.)A Coast Guard cutter. So many, once I start thinking about it!

  20. Katie, what a great premise. Definitely on my summer reads list. My husband used to be a cop, and I've always been terrified by traffic stops. The fingerprints on the trunk gave me chills. I love watching British reality cops shows, where 99% of the people pulled over are polite to the cops, and no one carries guns.

    Shadowing? A Scotland Yard detective:-) A flight medic. A great chef. A racehorse trainer. A film director. I could go on and on...

  21. I love this post, so interesting--and your book sounds really unique. Can't wait to read it!

    I've never done a ride-along with the police but I've shadowed chefs, actors, writers and directors on movie sets, and pilots in both helicopters and planes in the cockpit. My choice would be, inspired by your book, something to do with the sea--maybe a cruise ship captain, or a fishing boat crew.

    I loved the fingerprints on the trunk too (chills).

  22. Julia, I can't tell you how many times during the writing I thought to myself, "Why isn't this book set in Florida or the Caribbean where there are tropical fish and beautiful reefs?" Not as much to see in Maine's chilly water. Definitely an added challenge:)

  23. Some really intriguing ideas for potential ride alongs here! I'd love to shadow a director on a movie set. Shawn, that must have been so fascinating!

  24. Shawn has great stories--but she'll never tell them all because she is such a pro.

    Can you imagine shadowing an author for a day? Coffee, worry, more coffee, procrastination, writing, worry, laundry, worry, wine. Charlene! Love to have you, but it is better to leave it to your imagination! Xxxx

  25. I love the premise of your book, too, Katie. If I could shadow someone ... I'd love to know what really goes on inside the Scientology HQ, so I'd shadow the head honcho. In fact, I'd love to get the inside scoop on any shadowy enterprise: Monsanto, Trump, CIA, Koch brothers, and anyone in the top .01%. I want to know how the world really works.

  26. Yes, yes, LIsa, perfect. ONly crime fiction authors could make this investigative-y. xoxo

  27. Katie, your book sounds great! Though mystery is the genre I read most, fantasy is a huge soft spot for me. The few authors who manage to mix the two are dear to my heart. I will be reading THE MERMAID'S SECRET very soon.

    I worked as an admitting clerk in an ER when I was in college, so no shadowing there for me, thanks. I've seen enough. And politics holds no allure. Rock star seems like it might be interesting, likewise backstage at the Met. I also think I might like to shadow an over the road truck driver, or a horse trainer, or a tree farmer. But that's just because they seem so different from all the walks of life I have experienced, which were indoor, 9-to-5 type jobs or writing or consulting.

  28. I can't wait to read The Mermaid's Secret. What a neat story! I would love to shadow soldiers. Back in the day I would have been interested in joining the military, but women were relegated the jobs of nurse or secretary. That was it.
    And I would like to shadow a rancher. And an astronaut.

  29. This sounds like a great story. I think I'd like to shadow professional bakers, both for the atmosphere (& goodies!) and to see how they space out the tasks.

  30. Oh, mermaids! I love, love, love mermaids and have several mermaid pieces setting around the house. I even thought for a long time that I would get a small mermaid tattoo when I hit 50 or 60, but I haven't done that yet, and I've changed my mind to getting something focusing on books or reading, if I ever get up the courage. Our own Kaye here is supposed to take me and a few others to get a tattoo in New Orleans. We'll see. So, your book definitely appeals to me, and the cover is outstanding.

    Katie, your ride-along with the policeman sounds most exciting, and seeing how these brave men and women put themselves in harm's way must have been quite something. Your policeman touching the trunk of the vehicle to leave his fingerprints was so eye-opening for me. I can't imagine what it would be like to approach a car with no knowledge of what awaited you. And, you said that Bruce was calm, unruffled in all the situations. Impressive!

    Whom to shadow? Hmm. Hallie's mention of Lin-Manual Miranda would be fantastically entertaining. When I was growing up, I thought archeologists were really cool (and still do), so shadowing one on a dig, a dig of major interest, would fulfill a childhood fantasy and an adult curiosity. Of course, shadowing an author would be awesome, always. Other than my favorite Reds and other mystery authors, I'd love to shadow Neil Gaiman or Carl Hiaasen, or Anna Quindlen.

    Speaking of shadowing, I feel like I did do a shadow of sorts when my husband was in the intensive care burn unit in January for two weeks. Since I was there for four days and nights straight and then most of the day and night the rest of the time, I learned much about how trauma nurses work, and what great care they take of their patients. I also learned how to dress a burn wound, since they taught me this procedure to continue doing when my husband was released from the hospital and returned home. I can look back now and realize what an educational experience it was, but only now, as in the thick of it, it was simply a horrible time.

  31. Trisha, yes, the organizational element would be fascinating!

    Oh, Kathy, poor thing. (ANd only writers, you know? I was in nan ambulance recently (Im fie) but at the time I wasn't, but I still thought--OPEN YOUR EYES! See what this is like!

    Pat D--I just cannot share the astronaut thing…xoxoo :-)

  32. Off to an event--with Hallie and Elisabeth Elo! Back later tonight..xoxo

    And that was me, above..xoo

  33. Kathy, I'm so sorry to hear about your husband being in the burn unit. That must have been awful. I've been there - for me it was in Boston Children's Hospital - not knowing what the next 24 hours would bring. I know it's a cliche, but it makes you realize how precious life is. And for that reason, I don't think I could shadow anyone in the medical profession.

  34. Lisa, I love the idea of shadowing some shadowy figure in Scientology HQ!

  35. Thanks a million, Jungle Red, and especially Hank, for hosting me today! What a great group of women!

  36. Hank Phillippi Ryan, Hallie Ephron, and Elisabeth Elo!!!! That's some lineup!

  37. Hurray! Thank you dear Katie--you are wonderful.

    ANd see you all tomorrow!

    And oh:The winner of Rachel Howzell Hall's book is Denise Ann!

    And the winner of The Mermaid's Secret is Gram!

    Yay! Email e at h ryan at whdh dot com and tell me your address! xoxo