Kate Flora, "Writing Cops Right"
Writing Cops Right: What writers do when they leave their desks and go into the field
When it comes to police procedure, mystery readers are a sophisticated bunch. Meeting their expectations means we can’t just make it up. We have to do research. My own efforts to “get cops right” led me to the Portland, Maine police department, where my relationship with my “go to guy,” Deputy Chief Joe Loughlin, led to a 2 ½ year collaboration writing the true story of one of his murder cases, Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine. The Maine Game Wardens who helped find Amy’s body sent me to talk with another police department about another body they found. For years now, I’ve been deep into writing crime, both real and imagined.
Research into law enforcement has led me into some interesting situations. I took my local department’s RAD course. Shot a handgun in a police department basement with bullets in my ears for protection because all the ear protectors were missing. I flagged down an unsuspecting police sergeant at my local gym to ask some questions, which led to a citizen’s police academy. I took an interview and interrogation course along with a bunch of local cops and store security officers. And once, because I wanted to make my character’s experience feel really authentic, I asked my local police chief to arrest me. He did it by the book. So much so that later he e-mailed to ask if I was okay. I was. Shaken but okay. And I got nine pages of notes from the experience.
I’m probably the only suburban housewife on my block with her own bullet-proof vest and handcuffs. And likely the only one with a police officer’s hat hanging on a hook in the entry. I’m sure I’m the only person in my state with her own toy replica of a Miramichi, New Brunswick police car.
It’s always a learning process, and it can be daunting. But I try to get it right for my readers. Here are some of the ways I’ve educated myself about writing cops.
Read. Read. Read. Read Lee Lofland’s book, Police Procedure & Investigation.Read Connie Fletcher’s books, What Cops Know and Breaking and Entering: Women Cops Talk about Life in the Ultimate Men’s Club.Read Lt. Albert Joseph’s book, We Get Confessions.Read David Simon’s Homicide. Cops read it. Cops like it. Cops quote it.If you can stomach it, read, Practical Homicide Investigation.Get yourself a criminalistics textbook.And even though civilians love the stuff, don’t get your forensics or your procedure from CSI.
Hang Around with Cops.You can read books ‘til the cows come home, but there’s no substitute for the real thing. If you’re going to write cops, you’ll want to know how they talk to each other, how they pick real information out of what sounds like radio squawk to you. What kind of guns they carry. What all the rest of that stuff on their belt is and what it’s for. Try to see the world through their eyes. Ask what they’re looking at that made them conduct a traffic stop and what they’re looking for once that car is stopped. And an observant writer is always looking for the small details. What kind of stuff is on the desk? The Three Stooges. What’s on the office bulletin boards? Pictures of cute puppies. What do they have in the trunk? Everything.
Take a Citizen’s Police Academy. You’ll get real cops telling you the rules they work by--criminal and Constitutional Law, the “use of force continuum,” when you can stop someone, search someone, search a car, etc. Learn how 911 works. The incredible dangers of traffic stops. You may even get to shoot a gun. You’ll also establish police contacts to answer your questions. If your department doesn’t offer one, find another that does, explain your interest, and ask if you can attend.
Go on a ride-along. Many police departments will allow citizens to ride with their officers on patrol. This is a wonderful opportunity to see their world from the inside and to ask your questions. Don’t be a pest. Don’t be a bore. Take your cues from the officer you’re riding with. Often the person you’re riding with considers it a burden to have you along. But if you show interest, most cops are pleased to have someone genuinely curious about what they do and are great at answering questions. You may find yourself seeing your town or city in a completely different light as you learn the history of the buildings on your route—as one officer told me, “that’s where we found the guy hanging in the basement, and over there is where the guy shot his girlfriend and then ran down that alley and shot himself.” And the people you pass on corners and stoops may also come with a history. You never know what you’ll encounter. Once I got to go on a stake-out and actually spotted the bad guys.
Develop your own police source. Most writers say they don’t know anyone in law enforcement. I tell them—use those six degrees of separation. Ask friends, relatives and co-workers if they know any police officers who will to talk to you. If this doesn’t work, try calling the information officer at your local police department. Sometimes you may meet resistance, but usually, if you explain who you are and that you’re just trying to “get it right,” they are very helpful. And one contact often leads to another, so you can find the detective, drug investigator, ballistician or computer forensics expert you need.
Using it all wisely: Once you’ve done your research, you face the biggest challenge of all—weaving what you’ve learned into your book without the dreaded “data dump.” But remember how you learned it. In small bits. Through conversation. In a quick description as you rolled down the street, got a succinct history of that suspicious guy on the sidewalk. Noticed that wall poster in passing. That’s what your characters will do, too. Weave it into their observations, their inner narrative, their conversations with each other. Make it feel like an organic part of their world, and you’ll feed it seamlessly to your reader.
Get out of your chair. Go into the world and observe. Then come back and spin a better tale for your reader.
Scene from Kate Flora's Redemption
(Author’s note: Detective Burgess drives to his deceased friend Reggie’s brother’s house, to talk about what has happened to Reggie, who was found floating in Portland harbor. The ME has just told him it looks like a suspicious death, but his boss says don’t waste resources on a drunk who fell in the water.)
Today, though he was an appetite-driven man, he had no appetite. He longed for anesthesia—the kind that came in a bottle and had ruined Reggie’s life. The kind that had destroyed his own father and caused his mother so much pain. He knew better. He rarely drank during a work day, even when that day became night became day again, and a quick shot offered tempting relief. The exception was those times he’d drink with someone to get information. If sitting down with a bottle was going to lower someone’s guard and loosen their tongue, he might do it.
Willpower only negated the action, though, not the urge. Sometimes, when the urge was strong, he could almost taste bourbon’s sweet heat and bite, feel the way a thin slick of it would coat his mood like an antacid, spreading out along his nerves, soothing as silk. Like now, when his weekend, his mood, his relationship—hell, his whole life was so fucked up.
The general public might not know it, but this, too, was a big part of the cop’s reality. Asked to live with these crazy hours, horrific sights, screwed up family life, and never exhibit any emotion. Cops were expected to have self-control. Right now, a corrosive mix of anger at Cote’s dismissive “nothing but an old wino,” the pain of seeing Reggie carved up, and the ugly possibility that someone had taken Reggie’s life was eroding his self-control, filling him with seeping black rage.
He jerked the wheel suddenly, pulling off onto a side road and bumping to a stop in an abandoned gravel pit. He slammed the Explorer into park, grabbed two big orange traffic cones from the back, duct-taped two of Cote’s glossy black and white official photographs to the cones, and set them up against a high gravel embankment. Then he backed off and emptied a clip into the first one, stenciling a perfect cross on his boss’s face. Probably as close as that asshole would ever come to religion.
He wondered if anything in Cote’s miserable, paper-pushing life had ever sent him into a church to pray. Whether Cote had ever asked for anything for someone else. Maybe a heartworm cure for his dog? Cote was very attached to something allegedly canine that resembled a fluffy rat. CID had had a photo of him kissing said canine up on the wall until Melia made them take it down.
He shoved another clip in the gun, backed up farther, and shot again. Only half done, he walked back to the truck, reloaded the clip, and finished the job. There wasn’t much left of Cote’s face under the peace sign, but Burgess felt better. He threw the massacred cones into the back, shredded Cote into confetti and let the breeze take him. Then he drove to Clay’s.
Attorney Kate Flora’s twelve books include seven Thea Kozak mysteries, three gritty police procedurals including The Angel of Knowlton Park, a suspense thriller, Steal Away, written as Katharine Clark, and a true crime, Finding Amy, which was a 2007 Edgar nominee and has been optioned for a movie. Her current projects include Death Dealer, a true crime involving a Canadian serial killer, co-writing two memoirs, a screenplay, and a novel in linked stories. Flora’s short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, including the Sara Paretsky edited collection, Sisters on the Case. She is a former editor and publisher at Level Best books, former international president of Sisters in Crime, and a founding member of the New England Crime Bake conference. Her story, “All that Glitters” appears in Dead Calm, and her story, “Bone China” in the crime story anthology Dead of Winter. Her third Joe Burgess police procedural, Redemption, was published in March 2012.