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Common Sense Works for Lee Child: Writing Believable Make-Believe

Today, as your keystrokes guide your police officer/detective/protagonist through the perils that go hand-in-hand with saving the day, pause for just a moment to consider the lives of real-life officers. Do your characters measure up to a human officer’s abilities? Have you over-written the character? Are they mindless, superheroes? Have you given them human emotions? Is the danger level realistic? Are they believable?

Think about what you’ve seen on this site for the past few years—cordite (NO!), uniforms, handcuffs, Miranda, Glocks, Sig Sauers, edged weapons, defensive tactics, etc. Where do I get the ideas for blog topics? Well, I read a lot. A whole lot. Book after book after book. I read tons of books including books penned by readers of this blog. Therefore, and unfortunately so, I have a near endless supply of fodder for articles—the mistakes writers make in their books (smelling cordite, thumbing off safeties when there aren’t any, etc.).

For example, while pouring over the pages of a wonderfully written book, a paragraph stopped me dead in my tracks.

Wonderfully Written Book

So I backed up to re-read the last few lines to make certain that what I’d read was actually on the page and not my mind playing tricks on my tired eyes. Nope, there it was as plain as day, one of the most impossible, unbelievable means to kill ever written (I won’t go into detail because the book is very new). Then, to make matters even worse, the scene was followed by a few more paragraphs containing incorrect information about the weapons and materials involved in the goofy slaying. Not even close to realism.

Now I have a problem. I really liked this author’s voice. It was fresh, new, and exciting. However, I doubt that I’ll have the courage to pick up another book written by this particular author. Why? Because he/she didn’t bother to check facts. The writer didn’t attempt even the slightest effort to use common sense. Actually, I wondered if they’d ever seen a real-life cop.

Common Sense Works for Lee Child: Writing Believable Make-Believe

One of the best thriller writers of our time, Lee Child, writes a ton of over the top action, but he does so in a way that makes you believe it, even though some of it probably couldn’t happen in real life.

Lee Child – Writers’ Police Academy

I once asked Lee how much research he conducts before writing his books. His answer was (click here to read the entire interview), “Better to ask if I do any research before I write the last word! I don’t do any general research. I depend on things I have already read or seen or internalized, maybe years before.

I ask people about specific details … like I asked you what a rural police chief might have in his trunk.  But in terms of large themes I think it’s difficult to research too close to the time of writing … research is like an iceberg—90% of it needs to be discarded, and it’s hard to do that without perspective.”

So how does Lee make all that wacky action work? He uses common sense. Well, that and more talent in his little finger than I have in my dreams.

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4 Rules of Writing Cops: How to Avoid The WRIAMY Pile

Have you done the unthinkable? Are there words in your latest tale that could send your book straight to someone’s “Wouldn’t Read In A Million Years” pile? How can you avoid such disaster, you ask? Fortunately, following these four simple rules could save the day.

1. Use caution when writing cop slang. What you hear on TV may not be the language used by real police officers. And, what is proper terminology and/or slang in one area may be totally unheard of in another. A great example are the slang terms Vic (Victim), Wit (Witness), and Perp (Perpetrator). These shortened words are NOT universally spoken by all cops. In fact, I think I’m fairly safe in saying the use of these is not typical across the U.S., if at all.

2. Simply because a law enforcement officer wears a shiny star-shaped badge and drives a car bearing a “Sheriff” logo does not mean they are all “sheriffs.” Please, please, please stop writing this in your stories. A sheriff is an elected official who is in charge of the department, and there’s only one per sheriff’s office. The head honcho. The Boss. All others working there are appointed by the sheriff to assist him/her with their duties. Those appointees are called DEPUTY SHERIFFS. Therefore, unless the boss himself shows up at your door to serve you with a jury summons, which is highly unlikely unless you live in a county populated by only three residents, two dogs, and a mule, the LEO’s you see driving around your county are deputies. Andy was the sheriff (the boss) and Barney was his deputy.

3. The rogue detective who’s pulled from a case yet sets out on his own to solve it anyway. I know, it sounds cool, but it’s highly unlikely that an already overworked detective would drop all other cases (and there are many) to embark on some bizarre singlehanded quest to take down the infamous serial killer/cannibal I.B. Cookinppl.

Believe me, most investigators would gladly lighten their case loads by one, or more. Besides, to disobey orders from a superior officer is an excellent means of landing a fun assignment (back in uniform on the graveyard shift ) directing traffic at the intersection of Dumbass and Mistake.

4. Those of you who’ve written scenes where a cocky FBI agent speeds into town to tell the local chief or sheriff to step aside because she’s taking over the murder case du jour…well, get out the bottle of white-out because it doesn’t happen. The same for those scenes where the FBI agent forces the sheriff out of his office so she can set up shop. No. No. And No. The agent would quickly find herself being escorted back to her guvment vehicle.

The FBI does not investigate local murder cases. I’ll say that again. The FBI does not investigate local murder cases. And, in case you misunderstood … the FBI does not investigate local murder cases. Nor do they have the authority to order a sheriff or chief out of their offices. Yeah, right … that would happen in real life (in case you can’t see me right now, I’m giving a big roll of my eyes).

Believable Make-Believe

Okay, I understand you’re writing fiction, which means you get to make up stuff. And that’s cool. However, the stuff you make up must be believable. Not necessarily fact, just believable. Write it so your readers can suspend reality, even if only for a short time Your fans want to trust you, and they’ll go out of their way to give you the benefit of the doubt. Really, they will. But, for goodness sake, give them something to work with—without an info dump, give readers a reason to believe/understand what they’ve just seen on your pages. A tiny morsel of believability goes a long way.

But if you’re going for realism, then please do some real homework. I say this because I recently began reading a book and I’d barely made it halfway through the first chapter when I tossed it into my WRIAMY pile (Wouldn’t Read In A Million Years). This was a ARC a publisher sent me to review, by the way.

It was obvious the author was going for realism, and it was also painfully obvious the writer’s method of research was a couple of quick visits to the internet and maybe a viewing of one or two of the old Police Academy (comedy) movies.

So, is there a WRIAMY pile in your house? Worse … have you written something that could land one of your tales in someone’s “Wouldn’t Read In A Million Years” pile of unreadable books? If so, perhaps it’s time to change your research methods.

A great means to assist in adding realism to your work is to, of course, attend the Writers’ Police Academy! Registration for the 2018 WPA, our 10th anniversary blowout, opens on February 18, 2018. You will not want to miss this thrilling experience. It is THE event of the year!

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Don’t Fear the Reacher: Are You Writing Your Hero Into the Dreaded Cliche’ Corner?

Good action scenes—car chases, gunfights, and exploding cars and buildings—are great at keeping readers busy turning pages. But, how does your hero survive the barrage of bullets, flames, and KABOOMS?

Are you giving the star of your book a realistic way out of all the tough jams you’ve tossed her way? Is what you’ve written a true tactical maneuver or, did you write yourself into a tired old cliche’ corner? You know what I mean—the karate chop to the wrist that forces the bad guy to drop his weapon. How about this doozy … shooting the gun out of the villain’s hand. Yeah, those things, the things that are not only far-fetched, they’re downright silly.

As writers of fiction it is your job and sworn duty to deliver believable make-believe, and having your character(s) shoot the gun out of someone’s hand is far from achieving that goal. So, you ask, how do real-life heroes avoid meeting untimely ends when confronted with deadly situations? Well, for starters, they should …

– When confronting a long-gun-wielding suspect (shotguns and rifles are long guns) it’s best to have the hero approach from the side. By doing so, your protagonist has forced the crook to turn his entire body toward the approaching hero in order to continue the threat/potential shootout. Otherwise, the thug has no option other than to flee or surrender. And, that movement allows the hero the time needed to react to the threat.

– If possible, place your hero in a good light. By that, I mean to make use of bright lights, such as a setting sun or bright early morning sunlight. The bright light should be at the hero’s back, which makes it extremely difficult for the bad guy to see. Yet, the hero will be able to clearly see the bad guy and his movements. However, don’t allow your protagonist to stand in a position where she/he is backlit, making their silhouette a perfect target.

– It’s okay to have your hero experience a bit of fear because fear heightens our sense of awareness, which in turn increases the likelihood that we’ll do whatever is necessary to survive. However, fear can have a negative effect if allowed to overtake the situation. In short, a little fear is good, but too much fear combined with gunfire is the recipe for a badge-wearing babbling idiot.

– If possible, take a moment to focus on breathing. Yes, breathing properly during a tense situation can help bring things into perspective. It can also help lower the heart rate, and it can prevent fear from morphing into blind rage (sudden bursts of anger could turn into a deadly mistake—not thinking clearly and perhaps rush into a no-win situation). So, by taking a moment to focus on “combat breathing—” breathe in slowly for a count of four, hold your breath for another count of four, and then exhale to a third four-count. Count to four and then start all over again. The heart rate should be noticeably lower after a few repetitions. Of course, I don’t recommend taking the time to perform these deep-breathing exercises during a gunfight with bullets zinging by your ears. It’s been my personal experience that “timeouts” are not allowed during gun battles.

Okay, there you have it. So no more silly karate-chop scenes or shooting guns from bad guy’s hands, right? Good. Then you’re all set.

Don’t Write Your Hero Into the Dreaded Cliche’ Corner!

But, you know, I can’t recall ever seeing an extremely scared, deep-breathing Jack Reacher standing with bright sunlight to his back while walking sideways like crab toward a guy holding an AK-47.

I suppose an occasional fist to the throat, or a boot to the head is permissible, but only if you’re the hero in a Lee Child book. The trouble is, there’s only one Jack Reacher, and there’s definitely only one Lee Child.

The Ultimate Crime Writer’s Mini Dictionary

Allele – The characteristics of a single copy of a specific gene, or of a single copy of a specific place on a chromosome.

Alternate light source – Special lighting device that help investigators locate and visually enhance items of evidence—body fluids, fingerprints, fibers).

Angle of Impact – The angle at which a drop of blood strikes a surface.

Area of Convergence – The area where, when lines are drawn (or through use of string) through the long axes of blood stains, all points intersect. This point of intersection  indicates the location of the blood source.

Area of Origin – The location from which blood spatter originated.

Backspatter Pattern – A bloodstain pattern resulting from blood drops that traveled in the opposite direction of the external force applied.

Ballistics – Scientific study of the motion of projectiles.

Biological evidence – Physical evidence that originated from a human, plant, or animal.

Blood Clot – A gelatinous mass formed by a combination of red blood cells, fibrinogen, platelets, and other clotting factors.

Bloodstain – An area where blood contacts a surface.

Bloodstain Pattern – A grouping of bloodstains that indicates the manner in which the pattern was distributed.

Bubble Ring – An outline within a bloodstain caused by air in the blood.

Cast-off Pattern – A bloodstain pattern resulting from blood drops released from an object in motion (a bloody hammer or ax, for example).

Chain of custody – The process used to maintain and document the chronological history of the evidence. It is a written record of each person who handled a particular piece of evidence.

Cross-contamination – The unwanted transfer of material between two or more objects. For example, touching an object containing blood and then using the same hand to handle a different item. DNA, blood, etc. could transfer from the original object to the other.

Drip Pattern – A bloodstain pattern resulting from a liquid that dripped onto a surface or into another liquid.

Drip Stain – A bloodstain resulting from a falling drop.

Drip Trail – A bloodstain pattern resulting from the movement of its source.

Edge Characteristic – The physical characteristics of the periphery of a bloodstain.

Electrostatic dust print lifter − A system that applies a high-voltage electrostatic charge on a piece of lifting film, causing dust or residue particles from a print to transfer to the underside of the lifting film. Some of you may remember seeing this in use at the Writers’ Police Academy. (Picture at right – author Donna Andrews – Writers’ Police Academy)

Expiration Pattern – A bloodstain pattern resulting from blood forced by airflow out of the nose, mouth, or a wound. (Expiration – exhalation of breath).

Firing pin/striker – The component/part of a firearm that contacts the ammunition causing it to fire.

Forward Spatter Pattern – A bloodstain pattern resulting from blood drops that traveled in the same direction as the the item causing the force (A baseball bat in motion).

Homogenization – process of preparing tissue for analysis by grinding tissue in amount of water (precisely measured, of course).

Impact Pattern – A bloodstain pattern resulting from an object striking liquid blood.

Impression evidence – Materials that keep the characteristics of other objects that have been pressed against them, such as a footprint in mud.

Latent print – A print that is not visible under normal lighting.

Locard’s Exchange Principle – The theory that every person who enters or leaves an area will deposit or remove physical items from the scene.

Locus – The specific location of a gene on a chromosome; the plural form is loci.

Luminol  – A chemical that exhibits chemiluminescence, a blue glow, when mixed with an oxidizing agent. Luminol is used detect trace amounts of blood left at crime scenes as it reacts with iron found in hemoglobin. Horseradish can leave a flash positive, but its glow is not as bright as the glow produced by blood. Other items could also produce false positives, but they, too, do not glow as brightly as blood.

Magazine – A container that feeds cartridges into the chamber of a firearm.

Mist Pattern – A bloodstain pattern resulting from blood reduced to a fine spray as a result of an applied force.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) – DNA located in the mitochondria found in each cell of a body. Can be used to link a common female ancestor.

Nuclear DNA – DNA located in the nucleus of a cell.

Parent Stain – A bloodstain from which a satellite stain originated.

Post-mortem redistribution – Toxicological phenomenon of an increase in drug concentration after death.

Primer – The chemical composition that, when struck by a firing pin, ignites smokeless powder., NOT CORDITE!

Pistol – A handgun which uses a magazine and ejects fired cartridge cases automatically.

Plasma – The clear, yellowish fluid portion of blood.

Plastic − A type of print that is three-dimensional.

Platelet – An irregularly shaped cell-like particle in the blood that is an important part of blood clotting. Platelets are activated when an injury breaches a blood vessel to break. Platelets then change shape and begin adhering to the broken vessel wall and to each other. This is the start of the clotting process.

Pool – An accumulation of liquid blood on a surface.

Bloodstain pattern investigation workshop #2017WPA

Projected Pattern – A bloodstain pattern resulting from liquid blood that’s leaking while under pressure, such as a spurt or spray.

Revolver – A handgun that has a rotating cylinder. Cartridge casings are not automatically ejected when fired.

Saturation Stain – A bloodstain resulting from the accumulation of liquid blood in an absorbent material, such as clothing or bedding.

Serum Stain – The stain resulting from the liquid portion of blood (serum) that separates during coagulation.

Spatter Stain – A bloodstain resulting from a blood drop dispersed through the air due to an external force (a bullet, bat, hammer, rock, etc.).

Spines – A bloodstain feature resembling rays/lines emanating out from the edge of a blood drop.

Splash Pattern – A bloodstain pattern resulting from a volume of liquid blood that falls and or spills onto a surface.

Swipe Pattern – A bloodstain pattern resulting from the transfer of blood from a blood-stained surface onto another surface, such as the swipe/wipe of a rag or cloth through a bloody area.

Transfer Stain – A bloodstain resulting from contact between a bloodstained surface and another area/item.

Crime Scenes … Watch Your Step!

Transient evidence – Evidence that could lose its evidentiary value if not protected, such as blood, semen, fingerprints exposed to the rain.

Void – An absence of blood in an otherwise continuous bloodstain pattern.

Wipe Pattern – An altered bloodstain pattern caused when an object passes through a wet bloodstain.

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Biff Steele: Have You Created A Rocky Hardplace?

Between a rock and a hard place

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. And the cordite … puhleeze!

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.

Yes, 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 ten different martial arts styles/systems. I have only super intelligent girlfriends. My work partner is smart, but remains at one level below me. 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 only I could convince her to change my name. Biff Steele … yuck.

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Building Characters Using Everyday Items Found Around the House

The Professor is here today to share a few tips on developing well-rounded and layered characters. As in his last tip, Interviewing Your Characters, The Professor believes that police investigators have what it takes to concoct believable fictional characters, and here’s why you should add a few of these suggestions to your writers’ toolkit.

When officers search a suspect’s apartment or a murder victim’s home, they’re not only looking for physical evidence of the crime, they’re also seeking information about the current resident. Therefore, they take a good hard look at the possessions in the home, because those personal objects tell a vivid story.

While conducting the in-depth search, detectives are essentially reading an autobiography. They’ll learn things such as the person’s favorite color, their favorite authors, the extent of their wealth (if any), secrets (a diary or journal), left- or right-handed, natural hair color, travels, family history, etc.

The Professor suggests that writers may want to build a list of the personal possessions of the character-in-progress. Doing so will greatly assist them in developing a character’s personality, and how the character goes about his/her daily affairs.

Lets say you’re developing a female protagonist—a woman who’s known for her superb crime-solving abilities. You might want the reader to see the sleuth’s home as a place crammed full of mystery novels and forensics manuals, magnifying glasses of all sizes, and a fully-functional DNA lab in the basement. However, her most prized-possessions are, oddly, a large assortment of big, floppy straw hats.

As the readers step into your character’s kitchen they see weight loss products lining the counter (has she struggled with weight issues?). The cabinets are filled with canned goods, pots, pans, dishes, and an assortment of tea blends from all over the world. Everything is arranged by size and they’re placed in alphabetical order. The kitchen is spotless. Like the rest of the house, not a thing is out of place, and you couldn’t find a dust bunny if you tried. A tour of her bedroom closet exposes only comfortable, flat shoes and print dresses in various hues of red. Her medicine cabinet contains denture cream, Ibuprofen, and hair dye.

Have you started to develop a mental picture of the character yet? Do you have some sort of idea of her mannerisms? If you close your eyes are you beginning to see someone who maybe looks a little like this …

So, now that we have an outline of our character, and we know a bit of her personality (she’s a neat freak who prefers comfort over style, and she loves, loves, loves, tea), we can start to add some color between the lines. To do so, writers should take a look at their character’s possessions and then ask why they possess each of those items.

The denture cream. Does she own it because she actually has dentures, or, is there a gentleman caller with detachable upper and lower plates who often spends the night? How about the assortment of exotic teas? Does she drink the stuff, or is she merely an eccentric collector? Are the tea packets souvenirs from extensive travel? Maybe her gentleman caller is an airline pilot who picks up the various blends during his extensive travels.

So, you see, building a character can be fun. All you have to do is unlock your imagination and travel to where your warped little writer-minds take you, no matter how goofy the place may be …

Twisted Endings and Plot Tips: When You Hear Hoofbeats, Don’t Expect a Zebra

The story begins with North Carolina farmer Paul A. Plow, and his wife, standing on the well-weathered front porch of their clapboard-sided home—the house they’ve lived in for the past forty-seven years, the dwelling that saw its last coat of whitewash just prior to the birth of Emma Jean, the oldest of four grown daughters, the one who now teaches third grade at Blue Skies Elementary.

Paul Plow and his missus stood watching a faint cloud of orange-tinted dust gently rise on the horizon past the last row of tobacco, the line of head-high plants standing precisely one mile from the edge of the side yard where green grass met hard-packed Carolina clay.

They weren’t expecting anyone, especially anyone who was so obviously in a hurry to reach their destination. To top off the mystery, the width of the dust cloud indicated the approach of several hard-riding someones or somethings. He’d seen a similar occurrence when the rodeo was in town and their horses busted (his word, not mine) out of their corral. He’d also seen a dust cloud like this one on one of those Nat Geo shows where a pride of lions, while hunting for dinner, chased a herd of wild animals across the plain.

Didn’t matter. The rodeo was not in town nor was he watching television. This was real and it was happening right then.

Too far away to hear hoofbeats or the chatter of riders.

Growing closer and closer and larger and larger, the dust cloud showed no signs of slowing.

This was serious. And to top it off, since childhood he’d been plagued with a serious case of Equinophobia, the fear of horses.

The situation was dour. Times ten.

The farmer went for his rifle. Told the wife to go inside.

“Grab the pistol and a few extra rounds. Just in case,” he said. Then he told her to hide in the cellar until he called for her.

It started as a light tapping but quickly grew into a thunderous roar as the dust cloud doubled then tripled in size. From inside the roiling and boiling and billowing floating pillow of airborne soil, the farmer heard snorts and the hard-breathing of hard-running large beasts.

Quarter horses, Paints, or Appaloosa, probably. Maybe some of each. Killers, rapists, and robbers rode a variety. Whatever they could steal.

One thing was certain … if they didn’t soon slow down they’d most surely run smack dab over the house. He wanted to yell or fire a warning shot. Wave. Something.

Anything to get their attention, but onward they came … and hard, hard, hard.

Hoofbeats.

Fast.

Churning.

And so close now the farmer felt the hard-packed earth trembling beneath the stone foundation that held the house high enough off the ground to allow Roofus, the family’s three-legged dog, to sleep out of the weather.

Maybe the animals were even larger than he first thought. Morgans, Percherons, Drafts. Hell, the way the earth was shaking … well, it was a crazy idea, but the picture of a large team of angry Clydesdales came to mind.

Whatever and whomever, somebody meant business. Time to take cover and prepare for the inevitable.

Suddenly the hoofbeats silenced and the cloud stopped. Its leftovers slowly drifted up and onto the porch. Then the dust settled and standing there before the farmer were … three zebras. No riders. Just three totally and unexpectedly out of place black and white striped zebras.

Needless to say, there are no zebras in North Carolina. Well, except for the three escapees normally kept at the petting zoo in the next town over.

So what the heck do zebras have to do with writing? Well, let’s first examine what zebras have to do with medicine, especially medicine in the U.S.

Chest pains could indicate cardiac issues. Likewise, those same pains could indicate trouble with the gall bladder, blood clots, etc.

Therefore, the general rule of thumb is to assess patients for the more obvious (cardiac, in this case) before moving on to other issues. In other words, if you hear hoofbeats don’t expect a zebra. Instead, expect the obvious. Then, when all else fails, the trouble could be the unexpected … a zebra on the lam.

In writing fiction, especially a tale with a twisted ending, writers often achieve successful scenes by concocting scenarios that seem typical on the surface (the approaching hoofbeats bring to mind galloping horses). However, when the dust settles, the hero and readers are faced with a surprise, or twist. In the case above … three zebras.

What we’re talking about is another gadget for the writers’ tool kit—base-rate neglect: a disregard of fundamental distribution levels. For example, when a detailed description of something entices us to overlook the statistical reality of a given situation. In our case, the chances of the approaching hoofbeats coming from a group of zebras is practically nonexistent. So …

As they say in medical school …

When You Hear Hoofbeats, Don’t Expect a Zebra

Unless, of course, the cloud of dust you’ve just written into your story does indeed contain three zebras—The Unexpected!

Then, well, we’ll want to hear more about your striped horses and why they’re now standing at the front door of Paul D. Plow’s ramshackle farmhouse.

What does Paul Plow know that we don’t?

One thing is for certain, though, we’ll want to turn the page to learn more about the zebras and if the missus will leave the cellar or decide to move her things down there to escape Paul and his weird phobias. Rumor has it that he’s also afraid of dust and sunlight and moonlight and work and women and artichokes and insects and ….

Plot Tips 

  1. Devise ways to make your hero NOT succeed. However, when she does come out on top your reader should be caught off guard as to how the success was achieved.
  2. You want your readers to say, “I should’ve seen seen that coming but didn’t and doggone it, it makes perfect sense. But wow!
  3. Do not trick readers. Give them a reason to believe your twists.
  4. No stereotypes. Be original.
  5. If your hero has a problem, and he should, make it worse so your reader will worry about him/her.
  6. Got to have secrets to help develop suspense.
  7. Use reversals to break the expectations of your readers. Changing directions keeps ’em guessing!
  8. Increase tension by leaving issues unresolved at the end of breaks and chapters.
  9. Place your hero in danger. Send him/her to a bad location where trouble is certain to occur. If the job is too dangerous to accomplish in the rain, then have the scene take place during a hurricane.
  10. Conflict around every corner. Everything’s an issue to overcome—family, friends, the job, that stupid hurricane and … three crazy zebras!

 

Three Zebras

 

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How to Write Micro-Fiction: The 200-Word Short Story

Writing a complete story in exactly 200 words can be a bit of a challenge, especially when the stories must contain a beginning, middle, and end. After all, that’s sort of what makes a story out of a grouping of individual words, right?

The trick is to arrange those 200 words into an order that makes them pleasing to our eyes, ears, brains, emotions, and our hearts. In other “words” (pun intended), readers want to feel what they read.

So what’s the best way to get started on these micro creations? Easy answer. You need a subject/topic/story.

Small ideas

Keep the idea small. A BIG story can be far too convoluted to cut to a maximum goal of, say, 200 words, such as the word count for the wildly popular Golden Donut Short Story Contest.

You’ve often heard me speak of police officers needing to avoid tunnel vision and that need is for a few reasons, safety being number one. Number two is to avoid missing any and all details, including details that may later prove to be unnecessary to the case.

The opposite is true when writing flash fiction. Writers need a dose of tunnel vision to help them complete their word-challenged stories. Keeping on the blinders, focusing mostly on the end, helps to avoid the use of unneeded words.

The inspiration

No inspiration? No ideas? Brain as empty as a California lake in the summertime? Easy answer.

Use a photo prompt

For inspiration, pick a photo from your last vacation. Maybe you saw a cool image on someone’s website, the newspaper, a blog.

Okay, you have an idea for a story. What’s next? Again, easy answer.

Where to start?

What about starting in the middle of the story, where the character’s conflict begins, avoiding the use of backstory, flashbacks, prologues, and other filler. Why do this? You don’t have the space for it for one thing. Every single word must count when writing flash fiction. This is even more crucial with writing micro-flash fiction. Shorter paragraphs helps when editing.

Write

This, however, is not the time to worry about the word count. Simply write the story and let the words flow. You can trim later.

Emotion

You absolutely must make your readers feel … something. It is up to you to decide what that something truly is. But whatever you select, be sure to keep it simple. There is not enough space to branch out too far, so pick a couple of focus areas and perhaps start out having your readers experience one feeling at the onset but end with a different emotion altogether. Their rollercoaster ride will be worth your effort. But DO NOT go overboard. This is not the place for emotion that doesn’t remain within the boundaries of your tunnel vision-esque story.

Characters

One or two are all that’s needed. Any more and the dialog could become confusing. Besides, too many names eats up word count like watching videos on a crappy wireless data plan chews up precious minutes. The same is true with dialog. A family of twelve all talking to a homicide detective who’s barking out orders to a 10-person CSI team along with four other detectives could wipe out the entire word count in a single, unimportant scene.

Keep in mind that your story and/or characters may develop a different appearance than the one in your mind when you first sat down to write.

Character Arc

Sure, your tale is only 200 words in length (or 50 or 1,000), but your character absolutely must grow within that confined space.

Subplots

Skip them. there’s no room. Stick to a main theme.

SHOW, SHOW, SHOW!

This goes without saying. SHOW the action in your story. Don’t tell us. For example:

“They jumped until they quit.”

The line is a bit vague. It tells us something, but it’s extremely uninteresting. How about …

“Tom and Nancy played a game, seeing who could hop up and down the longest. Tom lost.”

I know. Not the best writing in the world, but you get the idea.

Beginning, Middle, End, and CONFLICT!

Writing flash fiction is not an excuse to cut corners. Each story must have a beginning, middle, and end (a twisted ending is sometimes a nice surprise). And there must be conflict and story resolution. We must feel the struggle (be it internal or external) and then we must see relief (emotional or physical) from that conflict.

Title

The title of a work of flash fiction is extremely important (especially if it’s also part of the word count). It’s the hook. It must cause the reader to stop in their tracks to read your story. It must be THAT compelling. But do not allow it to be so doggone good that it gives away the entire story.

Okay, you’ve finished your masterpiece. What next?

Edit

Now’s the time to break out the carving knives and go to work trimming all the fat. Why? Because your 200 word tale comes in somewhere the other side of 100,000 words. Why? Because you love to hear yourself write. You love your fancy-smancy words and you love your voice and your story was absolutely far too good to tell in only … 200 words???

Okay, with red pen sharpened it’s time to cut all the “LY” words and the other stuff you don’t need.

For example, Billy needs to let his mother know he’ll be late coming home after school. That’s all she needs to know to help our story advance. So we, a group of unapologetic flowery writers, write.

Billy picked up the black phone, the one with the blue buttons and the $200 screen protector, and used it to call his mom, a server at Pete’s Possum Gut Gourmet Diner and Horse-Shoeing Parlor, to tell her that he’d be late coming home after school because he wanted to play ball with 12 or 15 of his friends at the church lot over on Elm. 

Well, we know a lot about Billy, his mom and his friends and the area. But how much information do we really need to get the point across? How’s this?

Billy called his mom to say he’d be late for dinner.

69 words in the first sentence. 12 in the latter.

Words to lose – the space wasters.

These words are very nice words. I like them a lot. They’re amazing, good, incredible, and just plain uniquely and totally and pleasantly perfect. But avoid them if at all possible. You don’t need them. They’re space wasters.

Say NO to:

a lot
absolutely
actually
amazing
basically
essentially
funny
given the fact that
good
hopefully
incredible
just
kind of
literally
many
nice
perfect
perhaps
pleasant
pretty
probably
quite
really
so
sort of
suddenly
totally
truly unique
usually
very

And other words ending in “LY.”

Now You’re Ready …

to enter the Golden Donut Short Story Contest and win the Golden Donut Award and FREE registration to the 2018 Writers’ Police Academy (prize value is well over $400). Submission deadline is July 2, 2017. This is a FUN contest!!

Here are some of the stories (and a photo prompt) from past contests.

Golden Donut 200-Word stories

Use Common Sense: Avoid Mindless Superheroes

Mindless Super Hero

Today, when your keystrokes guide your protagonists through the perils that go hand-in-hand with saving the day, pause for just a moment and consider the lives of real-life officers. Do your characters measure up to a human officer’s abilities? Have you over-written the character? Are they mindless superheroes like the one in the photo above? Have you given them human emotions? Is the danger level realistic? Are they believable?

Think about what you’ve seen on this site for the past few years—cordite, uniforms, handcuffs, Miranda, Glocks, SIG Sauers, edged weapons, defensive tactics, etc. Where do I get my ideas? Well … mostly from the mistakes I see in those books I read (smelling cordite, thumbing off safeties when there aren’t any, etc.).

I read a lot. A whole lot. Book after book after book, including tons of books written by readers of this blog. Just this past weekend I was pouring over the pages of a wonderfully written book when suddenly a paragraph stopped me dead in my tracks. So I backed up to re-read the last few lines to make certain that what I’d read was actually on the page and not my mind playing tricks on my tired eyes.

Nope, there it was as plain as day. One of the most impossible, unbelievable ways to kill ever written (I won’t go into detail because the book is very new). Then, to make matters even worse, the scene was followed by a few more paragraphs containing incorrect information about the weapons and materials involved in the goofy slaying. Not even close to realism.

Now I have a problem. I really liked this author’s voice. It was fresh, new, and exciting. However, I doubt that I’ll have the courage to pick up another book written by this particular author. Why? Because he/she didn’t bother to check facts. The author didn’t even make an effort to use common sense. I wondered if they’d ever seen a real-life cop.

Mindless Superhero

One of the best thriller writers of our time, Lee Child, writes some pretty over the top action, but he does so in a way that makes us believe every word, even though some of it probably couldn’t happen in real life.

I once asked Lee how much research he conducts before writing his books. His answer … “Better to ask if I do any research before I write the last word! I don’t do any general research. I depend on things I have already read or seen or internalized, maybe years before. I ask people about specific details … like I asked you what a rural police chief might have in his trunk.  But in terms of large themes I think it’s difficult to research too close to the time of writing … research is like an iceberg – 90% of it needs to be discarded, and it’s hard to do that without perspective.”

So how does Lee make all that wacky action work? He uses common sense. Well, that and more talent in his little finger than I have in my dreams.

So yeah … common sense.

Please don’t write mindless supercops.

,

10 Ways to Stop Embarrassing the Hero of Your Story

Using common sense when writing about cops

Detective I. M. Manly here, and I’ve stopped by today to tell you about a serious situation concerning today’s protagonists.

We, the heroes of your stories, have been meeting in secret, trying to figure out ways to put an end to the torture you force us to endure. For example, and this is indeed a sad, sad, case. I ran into Biff Steele a few days ago and within a matter of seconds, I knew I’d caught him at a weak moment.

He’d barely spoken two sentences when his emotions came spilling out. Right there on the sidewalk in front of the Piggly Wiggly, where everyone, including Pastor Ben Theredunthat who went inside to purchase a tin of foot powder for his wife. On the way out he offered a quick blessing, an act Biff sorely needed at that moment. Pit T. Full is what he was, I’m here to tell you.

Attack of the Killer Typewriters

I. M. Manly looking especially tough on the set of his new film, “Attack of the Killer Typewriters,” a gripping thriller based on the book of the same title.

Biff is typically a tough-as-nails protagonist. He rolls with the punches and quite often delivers a few hay-makers of his own. But on this day, Biff was pretty down in the dumps. He was feeling lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut. Feeling blu… Well, you get the idea.

I asked him why he was sporting such a long face. His response was stunning.

He said he’d had about all he could take from his writer. She’d stopped conducting any real research and turned to the internet for every scrap of crappy information. Then he paused a second before delivering the really big bombshell. He said he was thinking about leaving, maybe even killing himself off in the final pages of the next book.

I couldn’t believe it. Not Biff Steele! I asked what, if anything, could be done to make things right again. That’s when he told me everything. Then he drove straight home to confront his writer. One of his co-characters was there, sitting on the typewriter, when Biff burst through the front door and started his rant.

This, she said, is what Biff told yelled at their writer.

1. Quit having me smell the odor of cordite at crime scenes. For goodness sake, I’m not that old. Actually, even my parents hadn’t been born when they stopped making that stuff. No. More. Cordite!

2. I love tense moments in stories as much as the next character, but having me kidnapped in every other book? Come on, you know me better than that. Having me abducted so often makes me look weak. And, quite frankly, a bit stupid.

3. Don’t you remember the discussion we had the last time you had me draw a chalk outline around a dead body? Oh, it’s coming back to you now … That’s right, they don’t do that anymore! Yep, doing so could destroy or alter evidence. Geez … pay attention.

4. For the last time, the FBI does not have the authority to take over my murder cases, my office, or my entire department. Stop sending them into my scenes!

5. Speaking of the FBI … NO, they don’t investigate all kidnapping incidents. So please let me solve my own cases. Your friends stopped writing that garbage years ago and their heroes are looking pretty sharp because of it.

6. So you insist upon writing me as a stupid, bumbling, idiotic clown who can barely find my way home at night, huh? Well, you’re showing a lack of knowledge there, Sunshine. You are aware that I had to pass a ton of tests and show an outstanding ability to solve crimes in order to land the promotion to detective, right? It’s not a job for dummies. Tell me, what are your qualifications that make you an expert on my career?

7. Let’s do this one more time. My sidearm is a Glock semi-automatic. It does NOT have any type of safety that I can “thumb-off.” No Way. No How.

8. Remember book three, back when I carried a revolver, a Chief’s Special? Think hard. Yes, that’s the one. Now think about the scene on page 87 where you MADE me say, “The sunlight reflected hotly from the brass casings as they automatically ejected from my revolver?” Remember that? Well, to this day I’ve never lived it down. Reacher and Bosch and the other guys bring it up all the time, and it’s embarrassing. Why, just the other day I overheard sweet little Kinsey Millhone cracking a joke about it. For the last time, revolvers do NOT automatically eject spent cartridges. I have to push them out manually, using the extractor rod.

9. While we’re on the subject of Kinsey, why can’t I have a steady girlfriend? You know, someone nice, like her? I’m pretty tired of living alone and drinking by myself in dark, dreary bars. I want to have some fun for a change. What don’t you ever let me go dancing, or to a movie? Anywhere where I don’t end up fighting or blasting someone’s brains all over the ceiling. That’s no way to live.

10. You never take me anywhere. I’m tired of living on dusty bookshelves. So I have an idea. I heard there are still a few spots available at the 2017 Writers’ Police Academy. Why don’t you do us, and your readers, a favor and sign up today while there’s still time. Then you’ll see first-hand all the things you’ve been writing WRONG all these years.

Yes, they’ll let you shoot, drive, handcuff, investigate, participate in a police pursuit, interrogate and, well, have a ton of fun while learning how this stuff really works. Yes, it’s totally a hands-on event. Yep, lots of bangs, booms, and excitement. All the other writers will be there.

tami-hoag-writers-police-academy

Tami Hoag at the Writers’ Police Academy

Reacher has been to the WPA. So has Bosch, D.D. Warren, Dance, Rhyme, Jordan, Brennan, and, well, the whole gang has been. It’s where all the cool kids go to learn how to “get it right.” Oh, guess who’s going this year?. Yep, Sheriff Longmire is on his way to Green Bay.

So I’m going. How about you? And you? And you?

You You You

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