Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

PostHeaderIcon Getting Answers For Your WIP: How To Approach A Cop

As many of you know, I field an awful lot of questions from writers—“What kind of gun does a detective carry?” “What are all those little thingy’s on a cop’s gun belt?” “Do police officers have to take off their gun belts when they use the restroom?” And the ever popular, “Have you ever shot anyone?” But, one of the more consistently asked questions is, “How do I approach a police officer to ask him questions about my work-in-progress?”

Most police officers are actually quite willing to help you out, if you just ask. That’s the key to this whole problem. You’ve got to ask. I promise, the officer will not bite. Well, maybe you shouldn’t try this during the noon buffet at the local Chinese restaurant…but under normal circumstances you’ll be fine. Don’t be shy! And please do use common sense. For example, these are times when you wouldn’t want to approach an officer.

1. While the officer is involved in a shootout with bad guys.

2. When the officer is on the ground wrestling with a 300 lb. suspect who prefers to remain out of jail.

3. On the side of the highway while she’s conducting a traffic stop on a stolen car.

4. At a major intersection while the officer is directing rush hour traffic.

5. While he/she is in the act of breaking up a huge bar fight.

6. While they’re advising someone of Miranda. This would be the perfect time for you to “remain silent.”

7. Public restroom stalls. NO!

8. Any meal time. Officers never know when they’ll have to hop up and rush to save a life. Therefore, their meal times are often precious moments.

Anyway, here’s a great example of how easy it is to have an officer answer your questions. I used to travel a lot, especially between our former home in Georgia and our other house near Mayberry (Hey, Barney!). The drive between the two took approximately six hours, which translates into just over a tank of gas (this was pre-hybrid days). So, during one of my fuel stops I happened to park beside a patrol car. The driver, a sheriff’s lieutenant—I immediately knew he was lieutenant by the gold bars pinned to his collar—, was cleaning the windows and pumping gas into his blue-and-white marked car.

By the way, before heading out to your meet-n-greet with an officer, it’s a good idea to learn the various collar insignias. Officers appreciate being addressed by their rank, especially the officers wearing all that fancy hardware on their collars—gold bars, stripes, stars, and eagles.

The markings on this lieutenant’s patrol vehicle, “Aggressive Criminal Enforcement,” caught my eye since it’s not something you normally see on a police car. In fact, others had noticed it as well. Customers were casually walking past the vehicle, chatting among themselves. I heard one lady say to her companion, “I wonder what that means?” A man walked by, turning his head so hard to the right he looked like an owl that had just spied dinner. Two women walked up and pretended to talk about a business across the street so they could get a better look at the police car. As they walked away one said to the other, “I wish I knew what he did.”

Well, at that point I, too, was wishing I knew the meaning of those three words. So take a guess at what I did? Yep, I went completely crazy and did the unthinkable. I walked over and before I could stop myself, I heard these words fall out of my mouth, “What exactly is Aggressive Criminal Apprehension?” There. I’d done it. I’d gone where no writer dares to go. I asked a cop a question. Right there. Right out in the open where the whole world could see. And an amazing thing happened.

Without blinking an eye, that well-armed, muscular police officer turned to face me. Our eyes locked. A bead of sweat trickled down my back. He took a deep breath. So did I. And then it happened… He answered my question. And he did it with a smile on his face. You see, Lieutenant S. Graham of the Calhoun County S.C. Sheriff’s Office is extremely proud of the work he does.

In just a matter of minutes, I learned that Lt. Graham is actually a detective with the sheriff’s office, but he also serves on the Aggressive Criminal Enforcement Team, a team of deputies that was formed in 2005 to combat drug crimes, and to work in areas of Calhoun County that need “extra attention.”

Calhoun County deputy and evidence seized during drug interdiction operation.

For example, you all know that interstate highways are used to transport narcotics. Calhoun’s A.C.E. unit patrols the interstate looking for the indicators of drug trafficking (I can’t tell you what those indicators are…for a cop’s eyes and ears only…or a future blog post :). I’ve worked drug interdiction in the past and the time spent working the highways really pays off. Believe it or not, the simple question, “May I search your car?” yields tons of dope arrests each year. Why people say yes to that question, knowing they have a dozen kilos of coke in the trunk, amazes me.

Each member of the A.C.E. team receives specialized training in the detection of narcotics and the workings of narcotics cases.

A unit such as Calhoun’s A.C.E. is extremely beneficial to a department. I once headed up what we called “Street Crimes Unit,” which functioned basically the same as Lt. Graham’s team. Not only was the unit effective against drug crimes, it allowed patrol officers to devote the majority of their time to answering calls and, well, patrolling.

Anyway, after the lieutenant and I finished chatting, I asked if he’d pose for a photo for my collection. Afterward, we shook hands and promised to stay in touch, and I headed back to my car (the gas pump had long ago clicked off). But, by this time a small crowd had gathered to see what was going on, and as I walked away they moved toward Lt. Graham.

Just as I was was sliding into my driver’s seat I heard a woman ask, “What’s Aggressive Criminal Apprehension?” I saw Lt. Graham turn to face her. The two locked eyes. And that same big smile split the lieutenant’s face as he started the story all over again, this time to a half-dozen people.

So, I have this response to one of the most-popular writer-questions of all time… Just ask and they will answer.


*My thanks to Lt. S. Graham for answering my questions. It was 100 degrees in South Carolina that day. And it was even hotter standing on the asphalt. Also, thanks to Calhoun County Sheriff Thomas Summers and his dedicated deputies. The residents of Calhoun County are in good hands.

PostHeaderIcon Imaginary Law of Fiction: The Legal Basis To Make Up Stuff

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I’ve been doing the “help writers get it right” for a long, long time, and during all those years I’ve seen a ton of questions and discussions that would buckle the knees of the even the most seasoned detectives and coroners.

Some of the questions I see from writers are out there. I mean WAAAAYYY out there, and that can be a good thing…or a bad thing. It depends.

I know, it’s tough to come up with new material, ideas, and ways to keep readers interested, but you do it and you do it day-in and day-out, and you do what you do extremely well. I can say this with confidence because I read your books.

But that’s not the point of this post. Instead, I want to remind everyone that you’re writing fiction, which means you’re legally authorized by Chapter 18 Section 12 of Imaginary Law to make up stuff. Really, it’s true. Every single state and country has this law in place. Google it (wink).

Most of you turn to experts who provide factual information as responses to your questions, and those responses aren’t typically an opinion. They’re real, hard fact based on their knowledge and real-life on the job experiences. It’s up to you to transpose, mold, and shape those facts into a fictional story that’s believable. Doesn’t have to be true, just believable make-believe, even if just for a few moments, in the mind of the reader.

If you want your hero’s revolver to have the capability of firing 75 rounds while simultaneously ejecting each spent round, then so be it. But you’ve got to show why that’s possible, because it’s not in the real world. Perhaps your protagonist knows a mad-scientist-guy in Philly who made the gun in his garage workshop.

Or, you insist upon having the odor of cordite spilling from every single page of your book. Well, you know that’s not possible unless you’re writing historical fiction. However, suppose your villain stumbled across a perfectly preserved crate of cordite-stuffed ammunition left over from WWII? That would work, right?

You absolutely must have the FBI solve every single murder that occurs in the country, even though we all know the FBI does not work local murder cases. It’s just not what they do. Nor do they work all kidnapping cases. But this is an easy fix. Simply have the small town local cops ring up the nearest FBI field office and ask for help, or ask them to handle the case. Remember, though, you’d need to have an explanation as to why the county sheriff or state police wouldn’t/couldn’t help, because that’s the typical route taken when assistance is needed. Rarely do locals call on the FBI for local stuff. But you’re the master of dreams and ideas, so coming up with reasons why things happen the way they do in your mind is what you do best.

So please do feel free to use your imaginations to write fiction, even when the story is about cops. However, if you’re going for accuracy stick to what the experts tell you. And please, whatever you do, don’t argue with a professional when the fact she provides doesn’t fit with what you wanted to happen in your story. Asking the same question over and over again, hoping they’ll finally say what you want them to say, is not going to change the facts. Simply take the information and make it fit into the tale. If that won’t work, figure a way to show why it didn’t. If readers wanted a strictly factual accounting of a story they’d watch the news or read true crime. Well, maybe watching the news was a bad example of factual information, but you know what I meant.

So, by the power granted to you by Chapter 18 Section 12 of Imaginary Law, have at it!


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