Helpful Hints for the Accident-Prone Police Officer

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Yes, police officers look sharp in their neatly pressed and properly-creased uniforms, shiny shoes, and polished hardware. They stand straight and tall. They move with purpose. They’re as steady as a boulder and have nerves of steel. They’re fearless.

Well, most of them.

However …

Did you know there are cops who have two left feet? You know what I mean … clumsy cops. Every department has them—butterfingered badge-wearers, klutzy K-9 handlers, ungraceful undercover officers, lumbering lieutenants, stumbling sergeants, and, well, you get the idea.

Police officers are no different than anyone else. They’re human. They trip. They stumble. They spill and drop things. And they sometimes fall.

So what happens when one of the “bumbling blue” has a slight faux pas while at work?

Let’s dig into this unusual topic and see what we can uncover …

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Shallow grave workshop – Writers’ Police Academy

Everyone has their own secret weapons for fixing life’s little problems, right? You know what I’m talking about … problems such as removing candle wax from a tablecloth by placing the soiled material in the freezer for a couple of hours, and then … presto! The wax scrapes right off.

Wait! What if the wax dripped onto your brand new carpet? No problem. Simply fill a metal pan with ice cubes and place directly over the wax. Soon, the wax freezes and you’ll be able to whack it a few times with a hammer, breaking the hardened wax into bits and pieces. Pick up the shattered wax and discard.

Okay, I understand the confusion. you want to know what in the world household hints have to do with cops? Well, we already know there are cops who encounter “problems” and must be ready to tackle them on a moments notice.

For example …

1. You’re on patrol in the “rough” part of town when you roll up on a couple of guys who’re in the midst of a pretty good fist-fight. So you call in your location, asking for backup, and then dive in to separate the two. As always, the little one is as slippery as an eel swimming in a vat of cooking oil, and the big one delivers a jackhammer-like punch with his left hand. Unfortunately, he’s right-handed and the blows coming from that ham-size fist feel like incoming missile strikes. But, you’re a survivor and you somehow manage to get cuffs on both men. Afterward, you’re sitting in your patrol car telling your backup to slow down, you’ve got everything under control (as if they were hurrying), and you notice your name tag is hanging by only one metal clasp.

So, what do you do? Easy fix.

Tear the eraser from one of the pencils you keep in the console and push it over the end of the pin. It’ll hold the name tag snugly in place until the end of the shift.

 

2. You’re parked on the side of the interstate waiting for an approaching pursuit. The last report from the state to your south indicated their officers were headed your way, chasing a silver Honda driven by a murder suspect. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could somehow contact the drivers of those two passing tractor-trailers and ask them to occupy and block both lanes and then slow down to a near crawl? Then the suspect would at least have to hit the breaks for a minute or two, giving the officers time to catch up to him. Well, why don’t you use the handheld CB radio you picked up at the yard sale a few weeks ago. Power it up and give a good ‘ol “Breaker, Breaker, Smokey needs assistance,” shout out. The operators of those eighteen wheelers are normally more than happy to help out the driver of a “plain brown wrapper.” 10-4?

3. There’s nothing worse than being on the losing end of a fight, especially when you’re wearing a police uniform. Well, maybe there is one thing that’s just a wee bit worse than a black eye and bruised ego. And that’s losing a fight and getting handcuffed with your own cuffs! Imagine the teasing that’s headed your way. Can’t let that happen. No way!

You’ve got to get out of the cuffs before your co-workers find you sitting in a dark alley with your hands bound behind your back.

Be prepared, guys.

A little preventive medicine here and you’ll never be caught with your pants down again. Simply duct-tape a spare handcuff key to the inside of your duty belt, where it meets the small of your back. That’s the best spot because you can reach it with either hand. It might take a few minutes to wiggle the key from beneath the tape, but what else have you got to do? By the way, some duty belts have small cuff key pockets fitted into the back of the belts.

Also, a handcuff key could easily attach to a belt keeper.

Belt keepers loop around the duty belt and the belt holding up the officer’s pants.

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Belt keeper

Without belt keepers the duty belt would easily and quickly fall down to the ankles, especially when running/chasing someone through a dark alley.

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Two belt keepers positioned between handcuff cases

4. Don’t you just hate it when you finally get the big man under control and suddenly learn that your cuffs are too small to fit his tree-trunk-size wrists? So what do you do? If you let go he’s going to start pounding on your sore head, again.

Here’s an idea. Send your partner back to the car (while you’re hanging on to the thug like a rodeo clown trying to calm a buckin’ bronco) to retrieve a pair of leg irons, the ones you use for transporting dangerous criminals to court. They’re large enough to hold anyone, including the guy who’s now about to toss you through your own car window if your partner doesn’t hurry.

5. And then there’s a guy whose wrists are so small they slip free of the cuffs no matter how tightly you ratchet them. Again, there’s a solution. Hold his arms together behind his back (hands facing opposite directions) and lock one single cuff over both of Skinny-Minnie’s tiny wrists. Then attach the second cuff to the little fellow’s belt or belt loop.

6.  At night (stakeouts, etc.), when you need to use light, keep one eye closed to preserve your night vision.

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Finally, you’ve just left a particularly gruesome murder scene and notice another pesky blood stain on the sleeve of your uniform shirt. Now what do you do? After all, the department only issued you five shirts and four pair of pants.

First, calm down. Next, simply break out the emergency can of meat tenderizer you keep in the glove compartment and apply a fair amount of it to the stained area.

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No, silly. Not that kind of meat tenderizer. This …

Then, with the shirt material properly pounded treated, rush home, using lights and siren, if possible, because time is not a friend in this situation, and immediately toss the garment into the wash. I’m kidding, course, about the use of lights and sirens. They’re for real emergency use only. You know, murders, robberies, and the times when sudden restroom urges hit and you’re three miles from the nearest public facility.

Then kick back, relax, and enjoy the rest of the night. Wait a minute! Is that … yes, it’s a gravy stain on your new pants. Better sprinkle a little artificial sweetener on it to soak up the grease. And isn’t that a red wine stain? Where’s the salt shaker?

Might as well remove the green gunk from the bullets while you’re at it. A little paste made from vinegar, flour, and salt should have the brass shining like new money, all 46 rounds.

Man, are you ever going to be ready for the 0800 inspection …

Hey, hold on! This isn’t our usual inspection. What are you guys up to???

I want my lawyer!!

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Times Are Changing: Buy Your Villain A New Weapon

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Are the villains in your tales growing weary of having to choose from a limited supply of murder weapons? Do you hear them sigh each time you type the words Glock, Oleander, chainsaw, wood chipper, candlestick, and severed gas and/or brake lines? Who can blame them for their dismay? After all, for decades now they’ve reached into their toolboxes to find the same old tired instruments of death, time and time again.

Well, thanks to a handful of computer geeks and hackers, your bad guys will soon have a new method of “whacking” the cleverly-crafted characters you’ve designated for the grave. Now, instead of having to chop, hack, shoot, and slice, killers can keep their hands spotlessly clean while tending to their evil business.

How will they do it, you ask? Okay, imagine this … your evil-doer, I. Stoppa Uhart, is on a tight schedule, needing to kill several people before the noon hour. So he whips out his handy-dandy, hand-held pocket computer, otherwise known as a cellphone. He sets a special app to the scan mode. And … presto! He’s located three people nearby who’re connected to insulin pumps. He pushes a few touchscreen buttons and … WHAM! The pumps each deliver a lethal dose of insulin to the unsuspecting victims. The murderer switches off the device and goes on to his next appointment … the hospital trauma ward where there should be plenty of morphine drips.

The best part of the whole deal (for the killer) is that there’s no physical evidence to tie him to the murder—no fingerprints, no trace evidence, no shell casings, no murder weapon … nothing.

Across town, Uhart’s first cousin and partner in crime, I. Maka Ubleed, is standing by at the freeway, ready to switch on a hacking program that would soon give him control of the on-board computers regulating the systems of nearly every passing vehicle. His button-pushing-finger, poised and ready to act, trembled slightly as it hovered above the bright red key marked “Press Here For Death And Destruction.” Yes, in just a few minutes there’d be a massive auto crash and countless deaths and injuries.

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Sound like fantasy to you? Well, it’s not. The hacking of these types of programs is relatively easy to accomplish with technology that’s readily available. And, if hackers already have the ability to control our medicine and our vehicles, what’s next? Our food and water supply, power grids, and … no, not that. Not our Kindles!

It’s true, folks. The day may soon come when a band of evil hackers decide to gain control over all e-readers, and that would surely mean certain and instant death for us all. Either that, or we might be forced to do the unthinkable … buy and read real books. What a “novel” idea …

 

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Police Interrogation Leads To Fictional Characters

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Imagine that you, the police detective, have arrived at the scene of a murder. Patrol officers, after their hurried, blue-light-and-wailing-siren response, immediately secured the area and have ten potential suspects standing by to speak with you. And that’s where you shine. You’re well-known for your abilities as an interrogator. But how exactly do you begin an interview or interrogation? What are your first words? How do you know they’ll be the right words?

Well, we all know that no two people are exactly alike, right? Therefore, the ten suspects most likely have stark differences in personalities, backgrounds, physical characteristics, habits, hobbies, and likes and dislikes.

Speaking of dislikes, you can safely assume that one of the more common hostilities will be an aversion of police officers. Yes, believe it or not, there are actually people out there who just don’t think too kindly of the men and women who wear badges and uniforms (What a surprise!). And, along with the basic hatred of the blue polyester clothing and shiny shoes comes a huge portion of distrust. I know … more surprising news, huh?

A good interviewer, though, finds ways around all that hatred and lack of trust. And, by possessing the remarkable ability to overcome those obstacles, professional interviewers/interrogators are nearly worth their weight in gold when it comes to crime-solving. How do they do it? Well, for starters, to be a really good interviewer one must be a fantastic listener. I’ll repeat that for the “motor-mouths” out there. A good interviewer must be a good listener. A Good Listener. Good listener. Listen. Shhhh ………… listen. Stop talking and what? Ah, there you go.

A savvy interviewer is also a human chameleon, a person who’s able to change tactics and topics as quickly as the suspect formulates and weaves new lies and new alibis. Good interviewers are also good actors.

The successful interviewer must possess the ability to detect subtle changes in a suspect’s voice, mannerisms, and attitude. The investigator must also know to never judge a person and their capabilities by his/her appearance. After all, criminals come in all shapes and sizes, and from all walks of life.

This also works in reverse. Investigators should never assume the worst about someone. Shabby clothing and a disheveled appearance are not positive indictors of criminal behavior. Likes, a suit and tie are not solid indicators of successful and honest success. And this differences are part of why interviews and interrogation are often extremely important aspects of police investigations.

So let’s try a little exercise to see how you measure up as an interviewer. I think most of you will find that you’re already quite good at it, and you’ll soon see why.

The body of 26-year-old movie starlet Iona Porche was found in a walk-in closet, not far from the bathtub in her bedroom suite. She was quite dead, and most definitely squeaky clean and embarrassingly nude. Well, except for the bath towel draped across her right leg.

Iona Porche on the set of her hit movie “IRONY VII: Strange-Looking Man Kills All Bad Actors Who Take Showers and Then Walk into ‘That’ Dark Room.”

Ms. Porche’s personal assistant told you that she’d been concerned about the assortment of “weirdos” hanging around her boss in recent weeks. The assistant also stated that Ms. Porche was extremely naive, and that perhaps some of the odd folks had been taking advantage of her boss’s generosity.

The really odd thing, she’d said, was that she’d overheard Ms. Porche involved in what sounded like a bitter argument with at least two males and one female (it was, after all, difficult to make out the voices with her ear tightly pressed to the wall). And, for the life of her, the assistant couldn’t understand why on earth Ms. Porche would allow those people in the room with her while she was taking a bath. “That sort of thing should be kept private,” were her exact words.

After thanking the assistant for what was basically a gossip-fest, you begin the interviews of the ten suspects. You know it’s important to first establish that you’re in charge … but you’ve also got to make the suspect feel comfortable with you. In other words, you’ve got to be the boss while assuming the role of best friend, mother, father, brother, cousin, and even their drunk uncle, if that’s what it takes to solve the case.

Yes, good investigators must have the ability to “walk the walk and talk the talk.” Finding common ground can definitely help start the dialog flowing. In fact, it’s a must in most instances.

If the suspect is a green lizard-like man with horns, bumps under the skin where eyebrows should be, head to toe tattoos, and a forked tongue, then the good detective could possibly begin to build rapport by speaking about the silly Bugs Bunny tattoo he’d gotten on his right butt cheek after drinking one too many tequila shots the night of his twenty-first birthday. Doing so could be the ice-breaker needed to start the wagging of Mr. Lizard’s tongue.

Now, with a conversation underway, the detective can ease into the real purpose of the meeting by asking simple questions, such as, “How did you know the victim? Was she your friend? A lover? A co-worker?” The idea is to establish a connection between the victim and the suspect, if there is one.

Okay, you have the basic concept. So what could you say to this next suspect that could be the start of a trust-building conversation?

Did you offer him a soft drink and candy bar because his breath smelled like root beer and chocolate? Sure, that’s a start. And please do look for the little things, not just an overall survey of the property. What you probably wouldn’t want to say to the suspect is that you own a plaid cover for your motor home that’s practically the same size as his shirt. Besides, common courtesy goes a long way in police work, and in life in general. A badge is not a license to be mean.

How about this next suspect? How do you get inside his head? Hmm … maybe that was a poor choice of words, but you know what I mean.

A great ice-breaker could be telling him about your cousin Sammy “The Nose” who used to entertain the neighborhood kids by shoving sewer rats up his nostrils. And yes, it is okay to tell a fib at this stage of the game—“I used to have a pet snake who looked just like yours. I named him ‘Slim’ after my dad. His nickname was Slim Jim.”

All of this is solid and basic information for a police detective, but did you notice that it’s also a great tool that could help writers add depth and personality to their characters? Readers want a personal connection to the people who live inside your books. They want to know them. To know what makes them tick. Why do they do what they do? When do they do it? Is is a compulsion? Are they obsessed? And it is the writer’s job to deliver answers to those questions by allowing the reader to follow the characters as they travel their daily journeys throughout a normal and believable world.

So, try it for yourself. Have your characters “sit” in a chair across from you and then find that one big thing that defines them—the forked tongue or the candy bar and root beer. Then continue to question your “suspect” until you “know” them as a person. You’ll soon find that with each question comes another layer, until soon you have a very real but fictional character sitting across from you. Of course, you may want to do this when no one else is at home to avoid being carted off by the net-wielding folks who run Nervous Hospitals.

For now, you can practice your interviewing skills with this next potential suspect. Oh, I almost forgot, always remember to watch the eyes. They tell 70% of the suspect’s story. 10% is up to you. The other 20% lives in the imaginations of your readers. It’s up to you, though, to set those minds in motion.

 

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The Professor’s Tips for Developing Believable Characters

We recently took a short trip where I ran into a fellow who considers himself an expert on writing fiction. He’s also a retired police detective. The wise old gentleman wouldn’t tell me his name, asking that I refer to him as “The Professor.”

He did, however, share some of his writing tips with me, and here’s what The Professor had to say about the correlation between police officers and fictional character development.

The Professor: Police officers have unknowingly cornered the market on developing believable fictional characters. It’s something they do on a daily basis while interviewing witnesses to crimes. Their job is to help those witnesses reach deep into the corners of their minds, where they’ve stored details that help round out descriptions of suspects—scars, tattoos, a limp, a missing finger, an odd accent, a habit of throat clearing or twirling a lock of hair, a mole on the cheek, a distinct cologne, etc. The perfect end result is, of course, a wonderfully detailed picture of a unique person who’d stand out in a crowd of dozens.

Writers have the same job—develop characters with unique qualities and physical appearance. Story creators must go a few steps further, though, showing readers a character’s personalities, their strengths and flaws, and how they live their lives.

It’s best when writers introduce character traits through means other than like listing a string of grocery items—he was a tall, thin, bald, sad, and nervous man. Instead, how about …

Andre stopped by, asking if I’d join him on a trip to visit a sick friend. I didn’t want to, despising anything having to do with germs, but I owed him a favor so I grabbed my hat and coat and followed him to his car.

His friend’s house was a freaking mansion. My place could fit inside ten times, or more. An elderly housekeeper showed us to a room at the rear of the house.

Andre ducked as he entered the bedroom, which, as with most pro basketball players, was something he was used to doing, in every single house he’d ever visited. Thankfully, the ceiling inside this particular room was vaulted. His slick scalp reflected the light from the overhead fixture. 

Andre flashed a lopsided smile at his dying friend, exposing a set of teeth as bright as the keys on a new Steinway piano. He couldn’t see to find the right words to say to the man he’d known since childhood, so he stood at the side of his friend’s deathbed, staring down at his own feet while jingling the change in his pocket. He watched a tiny spider fall from the bed railing to floor, where it scurried away to the shadows beneath a well-worn and tattered wingback chair. I wished he could join the insect, to avoid the strained silence that hung heavy in the room.

Sure, it was overwritten and poorly written, but to make the point that showing something is far more interesting than typing a long laundry list of encyclopedic details (info dump).

Anyway, writers sometimes experience a bit of difficulty bringing life to characters, so here’s a simple Professor-tested method that might help out.

Interview Your Fictional Character

Pretend you’re sitting across the breakfast table from, say … this guy.

You want to know what makes this fellow tick. So you might want to start out the interview by asking:

1. Are you angry because you recently filed your teeth to sharp points and you’re now in excruciating pain? Have you ever worked in any factory as the person who perforates stuff, like those holes in crackers?

2. What are your favorite foods? Do you have trouble eating corn on the cob?

3. Where do you live? Is your castle equipped with electricity, or do you use an open fire to boil water for children-cooking?

4. Have you killed anyone else besides your mother and the ladies of the Afternoon Tea Club?

5. Do have any hobbies? Well, other than chopping people into tiny bits?

6. What is your deepest, darkest secret? I know you mentioned wanting to learn ballet, but I mean something you’re holding really deep down.

7. What’s your favorite color, other than blood red, that is?

8. Are you religious? Do you regularly sacrifice animals, or small women and large children?

9. What’s your favorite time of day? You know, when you’re most active doing whatever it is you do?

10. What is your most valued possession? No, I don’t mean the girl in the basement.

11. Is your dentist sight-challenged?

12. Do you prefer your human flesh to be rare or well-done?

Once you’ve completed the interview, try asking your soon-to-be character if it’s okay if you have a quick look around the inside of his house (you may have to promise that you won’t call the police, or his probation officer). During the quick tour of his charming abode, make note of the things you see. A character’s possessions will tell you a great deal about him.

1. Clothing – you see nothing but tattered and well-worn overalls and grungy work shirts. Now you know he’s probably a man who works with his hands. This could indicate someone who frequents honky-tonk bars and has friends who drive rusted and dented pickup trucks with assorted meat hooks scattered about the bed. A matchbook collection from various bars would also be a clue. So would a scrapbook containing locks of assorted hair colors and types, labeled “Girls from bars I go to to find girls I want to kill and then take their hair as trophies.”

Suits and ties = a man who works in an office setting, therefore he most likely pals around with other business people before killing and dismembering them and roasting their remains in the assortment of Easy-Bake Ovens he keeps in his basement playroom.

2. Your guy from the above photo might possess a backpack filled with human heads, and that could be a great clue about his hobbies and interests.

3. There may be a secret door in “Pointy-Teeth’s” bedroom that leads to a torture chamber. Now you know where he spends his weekends.

4. Are his knives and chainsaws new, old, broken, or meticulously cared for?

5. If he were to take a trip to Transylvania, what would he pack to be certain all his needs are met?

6. The very last question of your life might be, “Why do you keep your best cutlery locked in that bloodstained footlocker?

Then, when you’re all done and your character comes to life right there in your office, it’s time for you to make an appointment with your shrink to find out why your mind works like it does. Why are you so weird? Why do all your thoughts drift back to the murder on page 666? Why do you write about death and poisons and autopsy? Why? Why? Why?

Perhaps it is indeed time to check yourself into a nervous hospital. At the very least you should up the dosage of your nervous medicine. Before you do, though … we want to know what happens to Pointy-Teeth. So get busy and write, write, WRITE!!

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Biff Steele: Have You Created A Rocky Hardplace?

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I cringed when I read the opening line of the first draft of the new series. She’d named me Biff Steele, as if Rod Manly hadn’t been bad enough in the previous books. But names, however cheesy they may be, are not the worst thing that could happen to me. At least my author does her homework, unlike my best friend’s creator.

My pal, poor guy, has lived a really tough life. Not only does he have a name worse than mine—Rocky Hardplace—his psycho-behind-the-keyboard author lives her fantasies through him—killing, bombing, fighting, shooting, and sex … so much sex. Too much sex. SEX, SEX, SEX. It must be all she ever thinks of, day and night. Well, that and how to solve crimes using the dumb stuff she sees on TV shows. Doesn’t she realize that most of those characters are also products of poor research and fantasy?

My writer understands the huge differences between the written word and the on-screen action seen on TV and film. Live-action stuff quite often needs over the top excitement to capture and hold the attention of a viewing audience. TV watchers see events unfold in vivid color. They hear the excitement pumping throughout their living rooms via high-dollar surround sound systems.

Readers, on the other hand, require a carefully planned and plotted mental massaging of each of the senses in order to bring movement and stimulation to what’s nothing more than carefully arranged blots of ink on a page. There are no images within a murder mystery; therefore, the writer must somehow form detailed pictures inside a reader’s mind.

We, as characters who’ve traveled the paths inside the minds of readers, know that each person has a different perception of what they read, and that’s because they draw upon their own past experiences. And this is where Rocky Hardplace’s writer really goofs. She has no experience in the world of cops and robbers so she makes up what should be realistic information, and some of it is totally absurd.

Unfortunately, the poor woman has Rocky tromping about his fictional city while doing some pretty ridiculous stuff—shooting a revolver that spews spent brass, knocking out bad guys with nothing more than a tap to the back of the neck, shooting guns from the hands of serial killers, and her wacky-ass notion that FBI agents ride into town on white horses to solve every murder and kidnapping case. Someone really should tell her the FBI does not work local murder cases. That’s not what they do. And don’t get me started on the smell of cordite. Yes, STOP with the cordite already! The stuff hasn’t been around since WWII.

Thankfully, as I said earlier, my author does her homework. She reads books such as Police Procedure and Investigation, and she’s a regular reader of this blog. She also attends the Writers’ Police Academy.

My writer is a fictional hero’s dream author. I rarely ever do stupid stuff in my quest to save my city from crime and corruption (Have you ever noticed how much of this stuff goes on in books? I’m thankful that reality isn’t nearly as bad).

My author dresses me nicely. I carry the best guns money can buy. I’m an expert in the martial arts … all of them. My girlfriend is an astronaut. My work partner is smart, but remains at one level below me (my IQ is over the moon). I drive a really cool car. I live in a wonderful beach house. I have a flea-less dog as a best friend. And I have just enough flaws and quirks to keep my fans interested. Yes, my world is perfect.

If I could only convince her to change my name. Biff Steele … yuck.

Could be worse, I suppose. She could’ve written me as … Sergeant Lance Boyle.

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Details: The Heartbeat of a Good Book

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I have many fond memories of my days as in law enforcement. Sure, there were bad times and I still bear those scars, both physical and mental, but all things considered I value and cherish the experience. After all, I have a built-in resource library that’s practically unending, and part of that vast lump of knowledge includes interacting with people from all walks of life.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting celebrities and I’ve had the unique opportunity to sit mere feet from a notorious serial killer when the “switch” was pulled to end his life. I’ve met wonderfully nice people and I’ve dealt with some of the worst of the worst. I can honestly say that I’ve been punched, bitten, stabbed, and shot at by some of the best worst in the business.

But pushing aside all of the “bad” cop stuff, I’d like to call attention to plain old human interaction and the differences in our cultures, and how those backgrounds can sometimes affect police officers during their daily duties. These are also details that can go a long way toward bringing that extra bit of realism to your stories in progress.

Such as …

Imagine for a second that you’re a deputy sheriff who’s patrol area covers a vast portion of real estate that’s so deep into the countryside that sunshine is delivered each day by horse and wagon. Trips to the grocery store roll around only once or twice each month. These are the places where residents keep their “deep freezes” filled with vegetables from their gardens and home-butchered meat from freshly-killed pigs, deer, and squirrels.

And, back in the day, not everyone in these areas had a telephone. Keep in mind, these times were pre-cellphone era and that meant party lines were still in use, as well as some people having to go to the nearest county store or phone-owning neighbor’s house to make or receive a call. Even then, those precious calls were mostly reserved for emergency use only.

It was during those days when deputies had to rely on obtaining directions from local residents when they weren’t sure of a particular address. Houses were often set far from the road (couldn’t see house numbers). 911 had not come into play. And, well, you get the idea. Cops were on their own when it came to finding someone’s house.

So, we’d often stop the first person we saw to ask for directions. Or, we’d stop in at the country store to ask the overall-wearing guys sitting around a warm potbelly stove.

This is what we’d sometimes hear in response to our inquiries.

Me to the checker-playing, work-booted group: “Do you by any chance know Joe Imacrook? He’s somewhere around five-feet tall and weighs in the neighborhood of four-hundred pounds. Thick beard and missing one front tooth. His wife’s name, I believe, is Hattie Sue.” 

The men look up from their games, glance at one another, and then the loudest, most vocal of the crew said, “We might. Why’re you asking?”

Me: “He killed a man last night. Shot him twice in the forehead and then took the victim’s cash, car, and his shoes.”

Crew leader: “Did the guy need killing?”

Laughter erupts from his buddies.

Me: “The guy he murdered had just left church and was on his way home to his pregnant wife and two small children. He killed him for no reason other than to rob him.”

The laughter shut down as if someone flipped a switch.

Crew leader: “Yeah, we know him. He lives down the road a piece.”

A second man spoke up. “I always thought old Joe was a few pickles shy of a full jar. Told the missus so, too.”

Crew leader leaned back in his chair and ran a hand across the patch of scraggly, bristled whiskers dotting his cheeks, chin, and neck. “Here what you do,” he said. “Go back out to the crossroads and take a left. Then go on about, oh a mile or so and then keep goin’ till you pass Robert Junior’s old horse barn. Hang a sharp right at the big oak tree. You can’t miss it ’cause it’s got a big old hornet’s nest a-hanging from one of the bottom branches. Then go on down until you see a red mailbox. That ain’t his, but you’re close. He’s just past where John Henry Thomas used to have a store. Now, it burned down 37-years ago next week, but they’s a big rock there with some yaller paint on it. Yaller was John Henry’s favorite color so his wife, Etta Jean—she’s Romey and Winonna Jenkins’ oldest daughter—painted the rock so’s everybody’d remember him and the store. You know, John Henry sold the best cheese, bologna, and peaches this side of Atlanta. 

Anyways, if you get to where the road splits into a “Y” you’ve done gone too far, so turn around in Mable Johnson’s driveway and head back the way you come. Old Joe’s house is the blue one a’settin’ off the road about two-hundred yards. The one with the goats and chickens running ’round the place. You can’t miss it. Oh, whatever you do, blow the horn three times when you drive up so he’ll know you’re okay, not some of those pesky Joe Ho’vers Witnessers. I ‘spect he’ll come on out peaceful.”

This bit of dialog may sound a bit overwritten, however, it’s a fair representation of what I’ve encountered on more than one occasion throughout the years. Anyway, the point I’m so poorly trying to communicate is that no detail is too small to store in your memory banks. You never know when those intricate pieces of information are the things needed to take your work to the next level.

James Lee Burke, one of my all time favorite writers, is a master of detail and he often utilizes simple things to enhance his stories. To open the cover of one of Burke’s books is to release the scents of swamp water and crab boils. The smell of meat cooking on open fires greets you warmly as you turn the pages.

In short, Burke makes us feel the words he’s written.

For example, here’s a brief passage from The Jealous Kind, one of his recent books.

“I drove her into the same neighborhood where I bought the switchblade knife. It was Sunday morning, and a few people were on the streets. A blind woman of color was playing bottleneck guitar under s canopy in front of a liquor store.”

In three short sentences Burke takes us by the hand to guide us through this neighborhood. I’m there. I see the blind woman sitting in the shade of well-weathered canvas awning. I hear the twangy sounds she makes while pushing and pulling a metal slide across the steel strings of her guitar. I hear the notes faintly echo from the sides of brick and glass storefronts. I picture her seated on an overturned plastic milk crate, wearing layers of tattered clothing. In the windows behind and beside her, a few tubular neon lights advertise beer and cigarettes.

I see people strolling along sidewalks littered with faded, discarded lottery tickets and scraps of fast food wrappers. The men and women looking down at their feet. They have nowhere particular in mind to go. It’s Sunday morning when families are generally at home having breakfast or attending church. The neighborhood is a rough one, meaning the folks walking the streets are out simply because they can be since the undesirables are most likely in bed asleep after hanging out on the street corners for most of the night. The fact that the character purchased a switchblade there indicates it’s a dangerous area, especially after the sun slips behind the skyline.

I’m thinking Burke has visited this place at some point in his life, and at the time he needed the information he pulled it from that place in his mind where he stores such vivid detail. And this spot, a place we all have inside our minds, is where the dialog I posted remained in limbo until I dug it up.

So yes, details, even the tiniest of them all, can be used to bring life to an otherwise unremarkable three sentences. Imagine if Burke had written the passage without detail.

I drove her through a place I’d been before, where I once bought a knife. We saw some people, including an old blind woman. She was playing a guitar.

See what I mean? Same information, but absolutely no life.

So yes, details. Look for them. Store them. Write them. They are the heartbeat of a good book.

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