Does your latest tall tale feature a beginning, middle, and end? How about characters, setting, and dialog? Have you been really creative and inserted lots of sentences composed of various words with various meanings?
If you answered yes to each of the above questions, well, you’ve taken the appropriate first steps toward accurately writing about cops, crime, and crooks.
Sure, you conduct tons of research by visiting online websites and by participating in your local citizen’s police academy, and those are fantastic resources. But, have you considered going the extra mile by spending a bit of extra research time to develop ways to activate the senses of your readers? After all, using the senses is a huge key to the success of showing, not telling. And the use of the senses creates an emotional connection between the story and the reader.
How does a writer create scenes that ignite a reader’s senses of touch, taste, hearing, smell, and sight? Well, for starters, call on past life experiences.
For example, Patricia Cornwall didn’t invent rain, leaves, or playing fields, but she obviously drew on her memories to create the passage below. It’s a simple scene, but it’s a scene I can picture in my mind as I read. I hear the rain and I feel the cool dampness of the asphalt, grass, and tile roof. The writing also conjures up images of raindrops slaloming down windowpanes, and rushing water sweeping the streets clean of debris. The splashing and buzzing sound of car tires pushing across water-covered roadways.
“It was raining in Richmond on Friday, June 6. The relentless downpour, which began at dawn, beat the lilies to naked stalks, and blacktop and sidewalks were littered with leaves. There were small rivers in the streets, and newborn ponds on playing fields and lawns. I went to sleep to the sound of water drumming on the slate roof…” ~ Patricia Cornwell, Post Mortem.
Sandra Brown takes us on brief journey through a pasture on a hot day. We know it’s hot because of the insect activity. We also know the heat of the day increases the intensity of the odor of horse manure. And, Brown effectively makes us all want to help Jack watch where he steps.
“Jack crossed the yard and went through a gate, then walked past a large barn and a corral where several horses were eating hay from a trough and whisking flies with their tails. Beyond the corral he opened the gate into a pasture, where he kept on the lookout for cow chips as he moved through the grass.” ~ Sandra Brown, Unspeakable.
Close your eyes for a moment and picture yourself walking into a bar, or restaurant. What do you see? Can you transform those images into a few simple words? How do you choose which words to use? Which words will effectively paint the picture and take the reader with you on your visit to the bar?
Here’s a decent rule of thumb – Write the scene and then remove all of those unnecessary flowery words, especially those that end in “ly.”
Too many “ly” words are often difficult for readers to take in. Besides, they can slow the story and do nothing to further it.
Lee Child is a master when it comes to describing a scene with few words. Here’s a fun exercise. Count the number of times Child uses an “ly” word in the text below. Then consider whether or not you would have used unnecessary “ly” words had you written this scene? Think maybe it’s time to back away from them?
“The bar was a token affair built across the corner of the room. It made a neat sharp triangle about seven or eight feet on a side. It was not really a bar in the sense that anybody was going to sit there and drink anything. It was just a focal point. It was somewhere to keep the liquor bottles. They were crowded three-deep on glass shelves in front of sandblasted mirrors. The register and credit card machine were on the bottom shelf.” ~ Lee Child, Running Blind.
Another example of effectively and masterfully projecting an image into a reader’s mind comes from James Lee Burke. Short. Sweet. And tremendously effective.
“Ida wore a pink skirt and a white blouse with lace on the collar; her arms and the top of her chest were powdered with strawberry freckles.” ~ James Lee Burke, Crusader’s Cross.
Okay, what does all of this have to do with writing about cops, you ask? Well, in the passages above, the authors created a micro world by using a few, but extremely powerful and carefully chosen words. And it’s obvious to the reader that each of the writers has called upon their experiences to write those scenes. They’ve been there and done that, and their imaginations have conjured up memories of things they’ve seen, touched, tasted, heard, and smelled.
Cops live and work in a unique world that’s generally not accessible to the average person, including writers. They experience things that most only, well, read about. And that brings us full circle. How can a writer effectively write, and activate a reader’s senses, about something they’ve only read about?
I think Joseph Wambaugh, one of the best cop-writers of our time, offers a brilliant guideline to follow when writing cops. Wambaugh said, “The best crime stories are not about how cops work on cases. They’re about how cases work on cops.”
Paste Wambaugh’s quote near your computer. Glance it as you write. Keep it in mind while developing law enforcement characters and scenes.
Next, I encourage you to attend local citizen’s police academies and ride-alongs with officers Hang out with cops, interview them, listen to them, watch their mannerisms, etc. Trust me, it’s a world that’s entirely different than the life of someone outside the profession.
Naturally, I highly recommend attending the Writers’ Police Academy. The WPA is carefully and meticulously designed to offer writers the inside experience of what it’s like to be a police officer, investigator, firefighter, EMS personnel, K-9 handler, etc. We do not mix writing craft with hands-on experiences. We feel you can attend any number of excellent writers conferences to get that sort of information. Instead, our focus is on providing writers with the best hands-on academy training available anywhere.
We burn things so you can experience the heat and smoke of structure and car fires. We put you, the writer, in positions where you must make the life and death decisions faced by officers. You’ll feel the rush of adrenaline that comes with car chases and shootouts (you’ll participate in both). You’ll see and experience the emotions felt by officers during stressful situations.
You’ll smell the gunpowder and gun oil. You’ll feel the texture, weight, and recoil of an AR-15 as you fire one at the range. You’ll hear, see, and smell the inside of a state prison in the section that houses the worst of the worst inmates. You’ll see the flashing police lights, hear the sirens, see and hear helicopters landing. The yells of entry teams (you’re a member of the team, by the way) as they storm a building to search for an armed bad guy. You’ll feel your heart thumping against the inside of your chests when you’re placed in a situation where you must instantly decide whether or not to use deadly force.
This, using a real-life experience such as the WPA, or walking through a cow-chip-spattered pasture, is what breathes life into a story.
To sum up:
– Use your experiences to activate the senses of your readers. Let them enjoy tasting, touching, seeing, smelling, and hearing the words on each of your pages.
– Attend the Writers’ Police Academy. It’s the gold standard of providing writers with the absolute best hands-on training available. If attending the WPA is not possible, consider participating in a local citizen’s police academy and/or ride-alongs with on-duty police officers.
– Read books by established authors who write about police officers and investigations. See how they do it.
– Take advantage of your personal life experiences to help transform flat text into a vivid 3D picture or painting.
– Avoid the use of too many “ly” words. Editor Jodie Renner addressed this and other problem areas in an article she wrote for Doug Lyle’s blog. Jodie’s article is titled, Style Blunders in Fiction. By the way, you should follow D.P. Lyle and Jodie Renner.
– Interview and/or chat with cops. Listen to what they have to say and watch their mannerisms. Does Officer G. R. Done hitch up his pants each time he stands? Ask him if the habit is due to gravity tugging on the weight of his gun belt? Does his wince when he slides into his car seat? The slight moment of pain could be caused by a bit of skin caught between the bottom of his vest and gun belt. Yes, it happens and it hurts. But you have to watch for the little things and you have to ask. Those sorts of things are second nature to cops, so they won’t think to tell you about them.
– Finally, remember to refer to Joseph Wambaugh’s words of wisdom.
“The best crime stories are not about how cops work on cases. They’re about how cases work on cops.”