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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!

Was This Incorrect Cop-Stuff Found in Your Books?

Here’s a brief list of “not-so-accurate” cop-stuff seen in books. Were those books … um … yours?

  1. Yes, bloodstains can help tell investigators what happened at specific moments in time (suspect stood “there” when he delivered the fatal blow, etc). However, it is not unusual to find that bloodstains are too few or the volume of blood is far too great for investigators to come to any reasonable conclusions. In other words, it’s not at all uncommon to locate bloodstains that are unusable as evidence.
  2. Most laboratory scientists working in crime labs specialize in one area. Therefore, a narcotics expert wouldn’t be the scientist who examines tool-mark evidence. Nor would a DNA expert be found attempting to match fingerprints.
  3. Low-quality digital images cannot be enhanced to a point that’s better than the original image. Low resolution images are produced by capturing fewer pixels. Experts are good but they cannot magnify and clarify pixels that aren’t there.
  4. DNA science/testing is not an exact science. Accidents happen (contamination, etc.).  DNA evidence is merely the icing on an investigator’s cake. He/she should concentrate on gathering other evidence since those things are often more valuable/useful for solving a case and as proof of an offender’s involvement in the crime. Think of building a sturdy brick wall. It takes several well-made bricks to construct a strong wall. The same is true with a criminal case. It takes several pieces of good, solid evidence to build a strong case, one that’s suitable to present to a judge and jury. DNA is not a slam dunk.
  5. It’s not always possible to lift prints even in places where the suspect definitely touched the item in question. Why Not? Fingerprints are 98% water, therefore prints might not survive in extremely hot and dry climates. Or, technicians could destroy prints by improperly handling or packaging developed prints or items to be printed/processed.
  6. When someone is shot he does not fly backward. Instead, the victim merely falls to the ground.
  7. Revolvers do not automatically eject spent casings.
  8. Not all deputy sheriffs are sworn/certified police officers. Some work in jails as corrections officers. Others work as courtroom security officers and some are employed as process servers, serving jury summons, etc.
  9. There is only one sheriff in each sheriff’s office … the boss. The rest are deputy sheriffs who are appointed by the sheriff to assist in carrying out the duties of the office.
  10. Detectives typically do not maintain their rank when transferring from one agency to another. Should a detective leave one department to begin employment with another he’d need to start over as a patrol officer and work his way back up the ladder. Of course there’re exceptions to the rule, but the occurrence is rare, if at all.

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Cathy Akers-Jordan: What I Learned About My Protagonist at WPA 2017

My protagonist is former police detective turned college writing professor. (Hey, we have to have some stuff in common!) Because I share her disabling hearing loss but not her police experience, the Writer’s Police Academy is the perfect place to put myself in my character’s shoes.

I know TV is not the place to learn correct police procedure and even the best authors can make mistakes. Writers need to learn as much as they can so they write about police procedure correctly.

So what did I learn?

1. Police gear is heavy, bulky, and hot (and sometimes smelly).

Yup, it looks cool, but it’s bulky and heavy. Notice that that duty belt is mostly empty. It needs extra ammo, a night stick, extra handcuffs, extra pouches of miscellaneous stuff (like medical gloves and tourniquet), etc. These make the belt so bulky you can’t comfortably lean back in a chair or car seat – and female officers have to take the belt off to go to the bathroom. (Ask Tami Hoag about that.)

And it’s HOT. In the photo I’m comfortably dressed in shorts and t-shirt. In her patrol officer days, my protagonist would have worn long pants and a uniform shirt over that t-shirt and vest. Did I mention how hot that would be? The vest doesn’t breathe well so you sweat more. That means your t-shirt, vest, and even your uniform shirt become sweaty in no time.

Now imagine how hard it is to get in and out of a patrol car in all that gear, without snagging it on the seat belt, steering wheel, car door, etc. It impedes other movement too, like chasing bad guys and tying your shoes.

The equipment changes your stance, too. The first couple hours I wore a duty belt, I was busy trying to figure out what to do with my arms. I ended up putting my hands on my hips or resting them on the duty belt. Now I understand why some people find the cop stance threatening or intimidating.

2. But wait, there’s more!

(Photo by Angi Morgan)

In some situations, officers carry a Break Out Bag (BOB) with extra gear. That way if they’re stuck in a stand-off they have extra ammo, snacks, water, first aid stuff, cargo straps for hauling injured office to safety, and any extra equipment they might need. In this photo Matt Ninham is showing just a few things from that BOB: a mirror on a stick, a selfie stick (for looking in attics, etc.), a pry bar, first aid gear, etc. The BOB is carried on the officer’s non-weapon side. Yup, even more added weight. My protagonist definitely does her push-ups and weight lifting.

3. There’s MUCH more to training than you might think.

Need to use your night stick to get a suspect to back up? Don’t aim for the head!

(Photo by Annette Dashofy)

When searching a building for an armed suspect, can you walk quietly and safely using a roll-step? Communicate silently with your fellow officers? Go though doorways without whacking your weapon, duty belt, etc., on the doorframe? It’s a good thing my protagonist knows this stuff!

That doorframe probably has marks from my weapon and duty belt whacking it. The bad guys would definitely hear me coming.

Can you anticipate an attack?

This was an example of how fast a suspect could draw a knife and kill an armed officer.

Writers Police Academy 2017 Knife Vs. Gun

It’s one thing to read about that on The Graveyard Shift; seeing it in action is an eye-opening experience.

This was also a good example of other skills my protagonist needs, like dealing with Emotionally Disturbed Persons (EDPs) and having a basic understanding of languages used by local populations (like Spanish in Green Bay). Hmm, what language does my protagonist need to learn?

4. Practice, practice, practice.

I thought hitting a target on a shooting range meant I was a good shot. During Shoot/Don’t Shoot training I learned that hitting a moving target is NOTHING like hitting a stationary target at a range.

I also learned that If my life depended on drawing a Glock from the holster on a training duty belt, I’d probably die. Officers have to practice drawing their weapon tens of thousands of times so they can do it quickly and smoothly when their lives depend on it.

Shoot/Don’t Shoot training really gave me insight into what a shooting situation feels like. I knew it was just a training scenario and that I was completely safe but I felt my heart rate increase when the countdown started. (“Your scenario will begin in 5 seconds… 4…. 3…” Yikes!) In my second scenario I even experienced the stress-induced slow-motion effect. It was like the bad guy reaching for that revolver was moving underwater. (Too bad for him that all but one of my shots hit center mass.) I was so focused on being ready to shoot that I forgot all the other things I should have done like speak, move, and take cover. This give me a lot more to work with when I have to imagine what my protagonist is experiencing in a shooting situation.

5. So much to learn, so little time to learn it.

WPA is only four days. I’d love it if it were at least two day longer so I could take all the sessions. Here’s a smattering of what learned in the sessions I haven’t mentioned yet:

  • Handcuffing another student is much easier than handcuffing a training dummy.
  • Tasers don’t cause convulsions, drooling, or any of the other amusing affects seen on TV or in books. They do cause muscle stiffness and involuntary screaming but not permanent harm.
  • TASER stands for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle. (How cool is that?!)
  • You can leave behind touch DNA (from sweat and skin cells).
  • You can leave fingerprints behind even when using latex gloves. (Who knew?!)
  • Fingerprints can be recovered from the sticky side of duct tape, even if when two sticky sides stuck to each other.
  • Bad guys are more likely to give up when they see police dogs, even when the human cops are visibly armed.

I learned so much more about procedure, mind set of cops, interview and interrogation, etc. than I could possible describe in one short blog post.

After thinking about all I learned at WPA and how little I have in common with my protagonist, I’m now working on making her a more realistic, well-developed character. It’s working, too. For the first time, I feel like my character is telling me things I need to know about her, like what her name really is (which is not the name I chose for her).  Either I’m starting to get the hang of this writer thing or I’m becoming an EDP – and I have WPA to thank for it. I can hardly wait for next year!



Cathy is a college writing instructor at the University of Michigan-Flint. In her copious spare time she’s working on her first mystery novel and enjoys attending mystery writing conferences and the WPA. She can be reached at cathyaj@icloud or cakers@umflint.edu.

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A Savvy Writer’s Journey to Believable Make-Believe

In the world of make believe, the place that exists in the minds of writers and readers alike, THIS is how the story begins … for the savvy writer. So go full screen, crank up the volume, and hit the play button. Oh, and please do watch to the very end (after the credits). You know how I like twists and surprises!

 

For details – Writers’ Police Academy