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When I crack the covers of a James Lee Burke novel, the words on the page begin to dance and sing. The odor of swamp water oozes out into the air. I feel the humidity and I smell the delicious odors of meat cooking on open fires. I see the mist on the bayou. More importantly, though, I’m there, in that book following along with Dave and Clete and Alafair as they go about their journey to the final page.

In The New Iberia Blues, Burke described a young deputy sheriff who’d grown up in a small town on the Louisiana-Arkansas line as having an accept that sound like “someone twanging a bobby pin.” Well, y’all, I instantly heard the officer’s voice ring as clear as a bell from that point forward.

The author described this fictional deputy, Sean McClain, as “slender, over six feet, his shoulders as rectangular as a coat-hanger wire inside his shirt, his stomach as flat as a plank.”

In that brief passage, readers had a mental picture of the lawman. He was fit and strong and tall.

Burke also, within just a few lines, brilliantly gives the reader a look inside the mind of Deputy McClain, describing his sincere innocence, and how he views life and approaches it from day to day. And he used his lead character, Dave Robicheaux, to introduce us to the man.

Robicheaux said to the reader, ” … I drove down to the tip of Cypremort Point with a young uniformed deputy named Sean McClain, who had seven months experience in law enforcement and still believed in the human race and woke up each day with birdsong in his head.”

Sean McClain was now a person I knew—how he walked, talked, and how he would confront criminals and witnesses. I knew his approach to investigations—reserved and with a glass half-full mindset. His lack of experience would cause him to first give the benefit of the doubt before looking at someone’s dark side. Rookie innocence. I’ve seen a hundreds of times.

So yes, words are the key to making a story come alive. But only when they’re assembled in the correct order and only if the selected words used are absolutely necessary to advance a scene. Too much is, well, too much.

So, without further ado, here are your …

Crime Writers’ Words of the Day

 

Incised Wound – A wound caused by a sharp weapon and is typically longer than it is deep. These types of wounds usually bleed quite readily.

Infanticide – The killing of an infant shortly after the child is born.

Infarct – An area of dead tissue (necrosis) caused by a lack of blood supply. A Myocardial infarction (MI) refers to the myocardium, the heart muscle itself, and the changes that occur in it when the muscle is suddenly deprived of fresh blood. When blood ceases to flow to the heart muscle it causes necrosis, the death of myocardial tissue. This is a heart attack.

 

K.

Klismaphillia – The use of enemas for sexual arousal/pleasure.

 

L.

Latent Prints – Fingerprints that are NOT visible to the human eye. (Patent prints are visible).

Ligature – Any string, rope, material that’s used to bind or tie, such as a household extension cord used by a killer to strangle his victim.

The post-autopsy photo below/right shows a deep ligature mark on the neck (upper left). Note the post-autopsy stitching of the “Y” incision.

The murder weapon was an extension cord, the typical cord (left) found in many homes.

Thanging autopsyo help orient – the head is to the left, just outside the upper edge of the photo. The Y-stitching begins at the bottom left  (upper right shoulder area) and continues to the mid chest area where it’s met by a like incision that began at the upper left shoulder area (upper area of the image) and continued to the chest center. The incision continued down to the area below the navel (bypassing the bellybutton).

 

Livor Mortis (lividity) can help investigators determine the time of death. The staining of tissue normally begins within the first two hours after death. The process reaches it’s full peak in eight to twelve hours.

If the victim is moved during the first six hours after death the purplish discoloration can shift, causing the new, lowest portion of the body to exhibit lividity.

After a period of six to eight hours after death, lividity becomes totally fixed. Moving the body after eight hours will not change the patterns of discoloration. Therefore, investigators know a body found lying face down with lividity on the back, has been moved.

Rookie officers have often confused lividity with bruising caused by fighting.

Remember, ambient air temperature is always a factor in determining the TOD (time of death). A hot climate can accelerate lividity, while a colder air temperature can slow it down considerably.

 

M.

Marbling – Not to be confused with the desirable tenderness caused by the intermixing of fat and muscle fibers in good beef, marbling, as it relates to a dead body, is the result of damaged blood cells that leak from deteriorating vessels. Bacteria converts haemoglobin molecules, the molecules that once carried oxygen around the body, into sulfhaemoglobin.

When the sulfhaemoglobin molecules present in settled blood (once the heart stops beating) it causes the skin to display a marbled, greenish-black appearance. this is a characteristic of a body that undergoing decomposition. These vessels, mostly the veins, often have the appearance of the squiggly lines of a roadmap. Marbling generally appears on the skin in early stages of decomposition, approximately 3 to 5 days, or so.

Marbling

Midline – The center of the head, chest, and abdomen, as if an imaginary line is drawn from top to bottom.

Midline

Mysophilia – Sexual attraction to filthy, dirty people, animals, clothing, etc.

 

Sometimes it’s the tiniest detail that makes a setting pop, zing, and sizzle. They’re the little things that cause readers to sit up and take notice. They evoke emotion and stir memories of real life experiences. They’re the things that make readers leave everything behind and step into the worlds you’ve created. After all, a well-written and well-crafted setting can be a character in its own right, and it’s equally as important as the fictional people who live within the covers of your books.

A great example of a writer who’s mastered the art of setting is superstar author James Lee Burke. Burke, whose settings are incredibly detailed, are written from the heart and the details he creates shine through in every letter of every word. His scenes and characters are deeply layered and this is so because he often relies on personal life experiences.

Burke often talks about having worked in the Texas oilfields, and as a surveyor. He taught school and was employed once as a social worker. As a reporter, he wrote for a  newspaper. Like many of us in our early years, and even later in life, money was tight back in the day for Burke and his family. They’d lived in a garage, motels, and a trailer. Thirty years ago, Burke was an alcoholic.

It is the combination of Burke’s experiences that offers inspiration for his writings. He’s also adamant that writers should be aware of the people around them.

During a 2015 interview with Publishers Weekly, Burke said, “A good writer is a good listener. The great dialog of the world is all around us, if we’ll only listen. In similar fashion, the great stories are in situations we see everyday, just as the great heroes, the real gladiators, are usually standing next to us in the grocery checkout.”

I’vr often heard writers speaking about adding to their next book a bit of information they heard while at a writers conference. Last year, for example, at the Writers’ Poilce Academy,  Tod and Lee Goldberg saw a sign featuring a unique business name. Both authors claimed “dibs” at using the name in a future book.

Lee Child once asked me about the typical items stored in the trunk of a patrol car. He needed a speck of detail for a Reacher book. J.A. Jance once asked me about driving and skidding on icy roads. The scant bit of information was vital to an opening scene of a book that, as usual with Judy, quickly turned into a bestseller.

Donald and Renee Bain used to contact me often when they needed information for their Murder She Wrote series. Stuart Kaminsky called on both Denene and me for material. Lee Golderg … more of the same—tiny details for a Monk book. James Lee Burke asked about fingerprints, a very specific but small detail and, like the others who contact various experts, much of the information was needed to “perk-up’ a scene, paragraph, sentence, or dialog. Sometimes all that’s needed is a single word … proper terminology.

So … when writing about cops and when you really want to insert something special into your twisted and thrilling tales of mystery, suspense, and/or romance, ask an expert for unique behind the scenes details that will surprise the reader.  Show your fans that you’ve done your homework. After all, your goal is to entertain and please the people who spend their hard-earned money to purchase the books you’ve labored over for the past nine months, creating something special just for them.

Unique Cop Stuff

To help out, here are a few tiny specks of information you might find intriguing.

  1. A kevlar vest typically doesn’t quite reach the waistband of the wearer, which leaves a gap of a couple of inches between the bottom of the vest and the belt area of the pants. Nothing there but shirt material and flesh. Therefore, when sliding in and out of a police car, the hard and dense material of the vest sometimes catches and pinches a bit of “love handle,” and it feels like you’d imagine. It hurts and causes the officer to wince. Although, if people are around at the time, the officer will suck it up and pretend it didn’t happen. Still, that tiny tear in the corner of the eye is a dead giveaway. OUCH!
  2. While wearing a Kevlar vest, officers typically wear an undershirt of some type. The problem, though, is that the undershirt often “rides up” with all of the climbing in-and-out of patrol cars and scuffling with bad guys that officers do all shift long. So, to avoid the uncomfortable bunching-up of material that you can’t get to without stripping down, some officers tuck the tail of their undershirt into their underwear. The elastic band of the “Fruit of the Looms” holds the t-shirt firmly in place.
  3. Officers sometimes store an extra set of cuffs on the spotlight control arm.

    While driving along, especially on bumpy and curvy roads, etc., there’s a constant “click” of metal tapping metal as the handcuffs hanging from the spotlight arm sway with the motions of the car. After a while, though, the noise is “tuned out” and simply becomes a part of the cacophony of sounds inside the patrol vehicle—constant police radio chatter, FM radio station, the drunk yelling and singing from the backseat, and even a partner going on and on about his kids or the big fish he caught, or the mangled dead body they’d discovered at a crash scene earlier in the night.

4. Police departments use many symbols of rank designation. Some department supervisors wear white shirts (some departments issue white shirts to all officers), while others issue gold badges to their higher-ranking officers. But the easiest way to tell an officer’s rank is to look at their collar insignia. Each pin is a representation of the officer’s rank.

Collar insignias, beginning with the top ranking officer (chief)

Colonel, or Chief (some chiefs prefer to be addressed as Colonel) – An eagle (birds) on each collar

Sheriffs and chiefs may also wear a series of stars to indicate their rank.

Major – Oak leaf on each collar

Captain – Two bars on each collar (the two bars are often called “railroad tracks,” a great detail to include in a story)

Lieutenant – One bar on each collar

Sergeant hree stripes on the collar and/or the sleeve (photo below)

Sometimes rank is indicated on the badge.

Corporal – Two stripes on the collar and/or the sleeve

Officer – Chevron, or single stripe

 

Hash marks on the sleeve indicate length of service.

For example, each hash mark normally represents five years on the job. Sometimes, to avoid a sleeve fully-covered in long row of hash marks, stars are often used to represent each five years served. In the case of the officer/police chief above, each star in the circle represents five years of service, plus four hash marks, each of which, in this case, indicate a single year. So, 5 stars and 4 hash marks = a total of 29 years on the job.

Other pins and medals worn by officers may include …

Copy (2) of 20150713_092344

Here’s a closer look at the bling.

(from top to bottom):

– Name tag.

– Award ribbons – Community service award, length of service, expert marksman, lifesaving award, medal of valor.

– Pistol expert (to earn this award the officer must consistently shoot an average of 95% or better on the range).

– FTO pin worn by field training officers.

– K9 pin worn by K9 officers.

– Indicates outstanding service, above and beyond.

*Remember, ribbons and pins and other do-dads will vary by individual departments and agencies.

Pins

Pins on the back of name tags, ribbons, etc. are used to attach the insignias to an officer’s uniform. A small clasp (similar to an ear ring backing) is pressed over the pin tips to hold them in place.

Unfortunately, the clasps often fall off during scuffles with rowdy bad guys and, if the officer is not wearing a bullet-resistant vest, which was typical “back in the day,” could result in the pin tips puncturing the officer’s skin.

For a quick fix in the field, lost clasps can be temporarily replaced with pencil erasers.

Okay, that’s the tip of the detail iceberg. Questions?


“The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand.” ~ Robert Lewis Stevenson