Writing Police Interviews Right

police-station

photo: Jelm6, creative commons license

As in real life, in movies, television, and stories, police interviews—whether of witnesses or perpetrators—are vital to figuring out what has occurred. Interviews reveal facts (maybe) and impressions of everyone involved (for sure). Experts at several recent crime-writing conferences talked about how writers can get this aspect of police work right (also see this post), specifically when it comes to interviewing witnesses and in officer-involved shootings.

Witness Interviews

Police detectives working today in the United States, UK, Canada, Australia, and other countries are likely to have been trained in cognitive interviewing. These techniques, developed and tested over the past 30 years, improve the amount of information witnesses recall, avoid the creation of false memories, and reveal discrepancies in testimony.

The detective may ask open-ended questions that walk the person through the hours before the event, encouraging as many details as possible. Such careful establishment of the context of the crime helps the interviewee recall it in greater detail. Similarly, the interviewer may suggest reconstructing events backwards. In all cases, interviewers encourage reporting even the smallest detail, which may be hooked, in memory, to something significant. And, buried in there may be an important clue.

This academic video from the University of Queensland describes the scientific underpinnings of cognitive interviewing and the tests that have been used to demonstrate its greater effectiveness, in terms of amount and accuracy of information recalled, compared to traditional question-and-answer interviews.

Police-involved Shootings

Police officers involved in a shooting are generally not immediately taken away for an extensive debrief. When their stress levels are too high, they may be unable to provide coherent descriptions of what occurred and may not recall key information. A delayed interview

24 to 48 hours (ideally, two sleep cycles) later produces more cogent details. From a writer’s perspective, this delay gives the media and community time to speculate on the events and to be concerned “nothing’s being done.”

Additional considerations in writing about officer-involved shootings are covered in this interesting article about how the police react to such events and move toward investigation.

Miranda and the Police Interview

streaker

No Miranda for you!? photo: Jonas Bengtsson, creative commons license

When Ernesto Miranda was arrested by the Phoenix Police Department in 1963, accused of kidnapping and rape, it’s a cinch that of all the things he thought might happen to him, the likelihood his name would become a verb was probably nowhere on the list.

In crime fiction, cops “Mirandize” suspects all the time. Too often, perhaps. Leslie Budewitz, a lawyer and president of Sisters in Crime, says that giving every character a Miranda warning is “one of the 12 common mistake fiction writers make about the law.”

Writers of crime novels and screenplays often don’t get their Miranda facts straight. The Miranda warning is based on the Fifth Amendments self-incrimination clause and the Sixth Amendment’s right to an attorney, in words familiar to any consumer of U.S. popular culture:

  • You have the right to remain silent;
  • Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law;
  • You have the right to consult with a lawyer and have that lawyer present during the interrogation;
  • If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you

As John Schembra points out in the comments below, some states have slight variations on the core Miranda rights, cited above, particularly as they apply to juveniles. Some of those interstate differences are described in this Wikipedia article (and subject to change).

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court decided (in Berghuis v. Thompkins) a controversial case involving the right to remain silent, which some scholars believe weakened Miranda protections.

At last month’s Writers’ Police Academy in Green Bay, Wisconsin, police training officer Mike Knetzger agrees that fiction provides Miranda warnings far more often than actually appropriate or used in practice. He outlined the three essential elements that must be present for a Miranda warning to be necessary.

Crime + Custody + Questioning

The occurrence of an actual crime seems an obvious prerequisite, but in many situations, police may simply want to talk to a person—for background or as a witness, not yet a suspect. Violations and infractions (civil offenses) are not “crimes.” Examples are traffic tickets and the one Knetzger gave—just possibly from on-the-job experience—running out of the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field stark naked.

Individuals must be “in custody.” Even if they are at the police station, if they are free to leave, they are not in custody and, therefore, receive no warning. However, if they make “spontaneous statements” there—“He trashed my cooking one time too many and I hit him over the head with the frying pan”—those statements can be used in court.

The questioning of the individual must be intended to elicit incriminating evidence, not just make general inquiries. After a crime is committed, the police may ask a great many people about the events and the people involved. None of these are necessarily suspects—yet.

Next time you see, read—or write—that a fictional character receives a Miranda warning, ask yourself whether all three of the above conditions are met.

“In a Surprise Move, God . . .”

Inverted Pyramid, Louvre

photo: Derek Key, creative commons license

Is the inverted pyramid dead? That trusty journalistic technique that crams all the basic information about an event—the who, what, when, where, why and how—into the fewest possible words at the top of the story, then proceeds to fill in decreasingly important details?

Award-winning hard-boiled crime novelist Bruce DeSilva thinks so, and said as much during a panel at the recent Deadly Ink conference in New Jersey. DeSilva was a prize-winning journalist before becoming a novelist seven years ago and worked on stories winning nearly every journalism prize, including the Pulitzer.

DeSilva apparently was warming up for a turn on the Writer’s Forensics Blog, where he goes into the flaws in the pyramid in more detail, repeating this “what the Bible would have been like if a journalist wrote it” example:

In a series of surprise moves intended to bring all of creation into existence out of what leading scientists call the ‘singularity,’ before energy, matter or even time existed, God yesterday said, ‘Let there be light,’ according to reliable sources close to the project.

His point was that the transition from the artificiality of journalese to writing fiction is difficult. The two require a completely different voice. In fiction, the depiction of events is more realistic in that they generally unfold chronologically, with the wwwwwh answers coming near the very end, not in the first sentence or two.

Needless to say, other former journalists on DeSilva’s panel—including author Dick Belsky—pushed back. Belsky thinks the techniques of journalism, such as digging in and getting the story and grabbing the reader’s interest up front, do translate well. And, the profession provides a believable background for his character, investigative reporter Gil Malloy.

Fellow panelist E.F. Watkins said the hardest thing about her transition from busy newsroom to chair in a quiet office, alone, was learning not “to give things away too fast.” But, she knows how to meet a deadline and how to get her facts right.

According to DeSilva, the main lesson he learned from his journalistic career is that “writing is a job.”  A job you go to daily, in the mood or not, in the company of the muse or not. “You put your butt in your desk chair every day and write.”

Praise for a Writing Group

Room at the Table, Writing, Writers

The “Room at the Table” Table

Each year, our local Chamber of Commerce newspaper publishes a summer fiction issue, and this week nine members of my writing group had our work published—every one of us who submitted, as far as I know!

For some time I’ve felt the many rewards of having this close-knit writing group, which we call Room at the Table, in acknowledgement of our welcoming spirit. The irony is, there isn’t any more room at my dining table, where we meet, because we’ve gradually grown to 15 loyal members. The group is about equally divided between men and women, all of us “over 35,” and the genres we write in are diverse.

Each month we spend two hours critiquing about eight submissions by fellow group members, sticking more or less to our rule of thumb of 1500 words apiece. Some members say they come for the snacks, but they all come with carefully reviewed submissions, ready to discuss. We laugh a lot.

Group members provide enthusiasm, help people get unstuck, ask the occasional big question (Where Is This Going?) and generously share our ideas, grammatical obsessions, candid feedback, and praise.

Occasionally, we do a group exercise, and one such, which involved imagining the characters of a ghost story, created such enthusiasm among three of us that we all wrote the story and were all published. This past spring we each wrote a short story on the theme of “being stuck,” and are thinking of turning the result into a story collection.

I’ve heard woeful tales of critique groups that like to eviscerate the author. That isn’t us. Our members recognize that serious writing is a lonely task and publishing is hard. We go out of our way to be supportive even when delivering the message: “needs work.” We’re supportive outside our meetings too. One of our number recently had a short play read by professional actors, and four of us trekked into Manhattan to see it; another, a Brit, appears in local pantos, and we go see him.

In March and October, we do readings of our fiction at the local library. We’ve done this five times now, and attendance is growing! It’s great to hear applause and laughter (in the right spots). And, of course, we serve snacks.

Fueling Creativity with—YES!—Boredom

Handwriting, boredom

photo: David Hall, creative commons license

In her faculty days, President of the Rhode Island School of Design Rosanne Somerson used an unexpected teaching tool: boredom. In a recent Metropolis essay, she says,

When I used to teach graduate students in furniture design, I would assign them an abstract problem that required them to sit in the studio and draw through free association over a long period of time without getting up from their seats.

 

After about 45 minutes, most students would start to squirm and get uncomfortable . . . I encouraged them to push through the discomfort because . . . right after the “squiggly” stage, something incredible happens.

Often, she said, students would stumble upon a completely new direction for their work, “something completely new and unexpected.” So, no getting up for a drink of water, no texting, no checking email, no snacks.

Somerson thinks of this purposeful elimination of distraction as creating time and space for the imagination to reawaken. Her drawing through free association sounds much like the freewriting practice writing gurus recommend for authors, with much the same motivation behind it–breakthrough.

Constant connectivity has made de-distracting our lives increasingly difficult. By filling our mindspace with constant and, let’s admit it, often mindless media consumption—yes, I watched the video of the cat playing the piano—we don’t clear the mental field for “creativity and discovery.” As Joshua Rothman said in a New Yorker essay last year, “Like typing, Googling, and driving, distraction is now a universal competency. We’re all experts.” Well, maybe not driving, not here in New Jersey.

If we set aside some distraction-free time, and, as Somerson suggests “bring back boredom,” we may find ourselves both more creative and more appreciative of today’s limitless fount of stimulating, intelligent, and entertaining distraction.

 

“Hush Now, Don’t Explain”–Part 2

Billie HolidayFiction editor Beth Hill has written excellent advice to authors in her Editor’s Blog essay, “Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain.” I covered four of her points here on Friday.

Here are two more and an example from Cormac McCarthy:

  • It isn’t necessary to stop the story’s action to define what something is or how it works, Hill says. These are digressions and most readers don’t like them. Many authors enjoy doing the research for a book (I do!). They aren’t just making stuff up, they’ve grounded their work in reality. They want to share. And probably shouldn’t. That said, readers of some types of sci-fi and techno-thrillers expect to be given an understanding of the science and mechanics behind the story. Authors who write in those genres get a little slack on the “how stuff works” front. I read a terrific military novel lately (The Empty Quarter), where Amazon reviewers criticized it for not explaining every acronym and term. I wasn’t bothered, thinking I’d figured most of it out, but reader frustration was great. So it may be that a careful balance is needed.
  • Hill says if a character speaks several languages, she doesn’t need to repeat her words or thoughts in more than one of them. Writers should pick phrases or opportunities to use the second language when the meaning will be obvious by word form or context. Cormac McCarthy uses a lot of Spanish in The Crossing, and even though a not-to-be-specified number of decades have elapsed since I had high school Spanish–which certainly never touched the topics McCarthy writes about–I had no trouble following. This exchange between several Mexican men and two young Americans takes place after an old man has drawn them a map of where they want to go and walked away (McCarthy does not use quotation marks):

When he was gone, the men on the bench began to laugh. One of them rose to better see the map.

Es un fantasma, he said.

Fantasma?

Sí, sí, Claro.

Cómo?

Cómo? Porque el viejo está loco es cómo.

Loco?

Completamente.

In this and in many different and subtle ways, McCarthy confirms the reader’s understanding of what is said without a mechanical translation of every phrase (or, by extension, technical term). By the time I finished this book, I was following so well, I thought I could actually speak Spanish!

Again, I encourage you to take a good look at Hill’s full essay. Avoiding overexplaining will help keep you in step with your readers, which is what every writer wants!

“Hush Now, Don’t Explain”

Billie Holiday

Click photo for “Hush Now, Don’t Explain”

When I read a vivid description of a particular disease or condition, I confess I start feeling a slight pain in the target spot, an itch, a touch of malaise, a sink of nausea. (All the while being perfectly healthy.) Face it, lots of us suffer from–to put a positive spin on it–this kind of excessive empathy.

That tendency seems remote kin to the feeling I have when I read “advice for writers.” No matter how awful the writing habit is, “I do that!” “My writing is full of it!” But when I ran across fiction editor Beth Hill’s terrific essay, this time, I really, really think she’s diagnosed something important to me. Her brilliant Editor’s Blog essay is “Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain.” Let me explain.

Hill says the problem of overexplaining comes up repeatedly in fiction manuscripts. Fundamentally, her common sense advice requires us, as authors, to trust our readers to understand what we’re writing about, without banging them over the head with a 2×4 of explanation. Hill says:

  • Inherent in our characters and the events they experience are (or should be) the reasons they respond to situations as they do. If responses aren’t clear, fix the set-up or the characterizations, don’t take the easy way out and just tell the reader why they responded as they did.
  • Sometimes we do a good job of showing a character’s response, then wimp out, feeling the need to reiterate why the character responded as he did–showing AND telling. No, no, no. Trust the reader.
  • Whenever we explain, there we are (voice of God), elbowing our way into the story. When we do that, Hill says, we are “using real-world explanations for fictional-world events.” That destroys the story’s fictional reality. As John Gardner would say, it jolts the reader awake from “the fictional dream.”
  • Unnecessary explanations need not be page-length, paragraph-length, or even sentence-length. They can be one or two insidious words. Hill’s examples include “Timothy hollered in pain.” Unless the point-of-view character is Timothy or unless she has ESP, she doesn’t know that Timothy hollered in pain. We can just say a character hollered or frowned or wept and trust the reader to figure out why, given the circumstances. (No “Angela wept as if the tragedy of the situation just settled on her” either. That’s still point-of-view character speculation.)

The second part of this summary will appear Monday, June 27.

Who Writes the Best Crime Novels: Men or Women?

unmade bed

photo: Peter Lee, creative commons license

In the current issue of The Atlantic, author Terrence Rafferty has an intriguing piece titled “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels” (in the “Culture” column, no less). Hmm. For real cultural insights, skim the article and read the comments.

Rafferty attributes women authors’ strength in this genre to the growing popularity of “domestic thrillers,” the kind where your enemy sleeps next to you. Gone Girl catapulted this resurgent genre to public attention. Theirs “is not a world Raymond Chandler would have recognized,” Rafferty says. His characters’ motives were more basic (sex and greed) and their methods more direct. “Take that, you punk!” bang, bang.

Rafferty thinks Chandler’s lone detective genre is almost as dead as the corpse in the dining room, though plenty of popular books are clear heirs to that tradition. The Jack Reacher series by Lee Child, the Tess Monaghan series by Laura Lippman, and the Strike/Ellacott books of J.K. Rawlings (writing as Robert Galbraith) feature investigators working outside official channels. Their investigations are a bit hard to pull off in these technology-reliant days, but they can usually find a friendly cop to snag certain kinds of information for them. Cell phone logs and whatnot.

As a person who reads a large number of books in the crime/mystery/thriller genre—reviewing 46 in the past year for CrimeFictionLover.com—I can tell you there are some really tired tropes out there—heroes with arcane martial arts skills, who know thirty-two ways to kill a person in two seconds flat, who get beat up but bounce back in record time, and who never met a woman they couldn’t bed. A few of them also have a sense of humor.

The “girl” novels discard all that. Instead, they rely on astonishing levels of manipulation and the workings of the characters’ minds, which Rafferty says often dwell on unresolved adolescent angst. A few years hence, those features will likely seem just as tiresome and overworked as the boy wonders. I laughed out loud reading this from one of the commenters on Rafferty’s article: “I think that after a certain number of introspective life years, the Self as object d’art is too debunked to stand much further scrutiny.”

Rafferty cites a bunch of female authors he admires, including Laura Lippman, Denise Mina, Tana French. Their type of storytelling, he says, doesn’t depend so strongly on heroes, making it “perhaps a better fit for these cynical times.” Less gunplay, more emotional violence. I’d add to his list Becky Masterson, Meghan Tifft, and Cecilia Ekbäck.

But here’s where his argument gets tricky. By conflating crime fiction, mystery, and thriller genres, he makes his argument a bit difficult to follow, because they have different foundational premises and conventions, and their readers have greatly different expectations. There isn’t a lot of overlap between the audiences for John Sanford and Agatha Christie.

Yet he says today’s women writers have “come a long way from the golden age, from Christie and Sayers, from the least-likely-suspect sort of mystery in which, proverbially, the butler did it” (emphasis added). In today’s psychological thrillers, authors “know better. The girl did it, and she had her reasons.”

Reviewing my own reading of some 60 books in the broad crime/mystery/thriller category over the past 18 months, I find that whether a book is interesting, well-written, genre-stretching, and good entertainment does not depend on the author’s gender. Women and men were equally likely to write a book I liked. Great books are simply great books.

Jane Austen’s Dark Side

birdcages

photo: Kirk Maddison, creative commons license

Mikita Brottman recently wrote in The American Scholar about the virtues of going deeply into a narrow subject, such as Jane Austen did in her fictional world. How often do we feel that in the sweep of novels that cover centuries and generations we have lost the particular that made the years and the individuals vivid and unique? How much more can be revealed by Austen and her magnifying glass for social mores? Stuff that’s not so pretty, Brottman thinks.

Austen is a popular fan fiction subject, with 1,266 entries, pastiches, and spinoffs on the Archive of Our Own fanfic website. The author, dead almost 200 years, is on coffee mugs, and board books, coloring books, air fresheners, iPhone covers, and teapot cookies. (This may be the place to recall that when I showed up at the local post office wearing my “I ♥ Mr. Darcy” t-shirt, the clerk said, “Oh, that must be your husband!” “No, Pride and Prejudice.” “Is that a tv show?”) All these commercial incarnations underscore the bright, romantic view of Janeworld.

What was Jane really saying?

Brottman’s favorite novel Austen novel these days is Mansfield Park, with its self-effacing heroine, Fanny Price. MP has long been thought Austen’s “problem novel” and “difficult” (interesting critique from another fan here). Over time, the other, better-known novels have become less romantic for Brottman because their heroines’ world was so small—an accurate portrayal for the times. Austen herself likened her writing to “painting with a ‘fine brush’ on ‘a little bit—two inches—of ivory.’” I’ll be interested to see what Whit Stillman does with Austen in his recently released movie, Love and Friendship.

While we may remember with deep nostalgia the innocence of our adolescent ideas about love and destiny, our visions of a rich and handsome partner, and our longing to move in a refined, elegant world (“someday, my prince will come”), maybe it’s “time to give up on childhood fantasies,” says the fanfic author heleanna, who writes as The Butterfly Dreamer and has her own take on overcoming Mansfield Park’s constraints.

Below the surface of balls and calling cards, Austen is not romantic at all, Brottman believes, but rather “a very dark writer.” Under the taffeta and lace, “these well-bred young women are trapped like rats,” prisoners of rigid social rules and expectations. As some 150 years later poet Maya Angelou wrote about a different set of social constraints, “I know why the caged bird sings.”

(Brottman is a prolific author and cultural commentator. I’d like to read her brand new book The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison, published June 7.)

What a Character!

typewriter, writing

(photo: c1.staticflickr.com)

This guest post by writer Robert Hebditch is excerpted from a workshop he recently conducted on developing characters for fiction. I’ve added a few examples in italics.

My way of creating character is pretty wasteful and I don’t recommend it to anyone, particularly beginners. My method leads to a lot of re-writes, restarts and a lot of cut and pasting. I often end up throwing it all away. But maybe some pieces of it will work for you!

Following Flannery O’Connor’s famous dictum that you’ve gotta “Write it down, then see what you’ve got,” I tend to write my ideas for the story first, maybe including vaguely defined characters. Then I start writing, fleshing out the characters as each new situation demands.

I draw on my own experience more than any other source. In a lifetime we are exposed to an awful lot of people—friends, lovers, neighbors, people on the street, at the club, at social gatherings, and yes, even in libraries. Most of us already know many more character types than we can invent. I take bits and pieces from these different sources and lace them together with a strong dose of imagination.

Experienced writer or not, asking yourself questions about your characters is certainly necessary, but there’s no need to have all the answers before you start. For me, the old journalistic maxim “Who, what, when, where, how and why” works well. You can selectively apply this where the situation dictates until you’ve filled out your character sufficiently to fulfill the demands of the story.

Ten Basic Points in Developing Characters in Fiction

  1. A character, especially a main character, should be “believably real,” so that the reader will suspend disbelief (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1817).
  2. Some information about how characters look, and not just significant physical attributes, like body type and face, scars, tattoos, but also how they walk, dance, run or scratch their face.
  3. Robert pointed out that a great many contemporary writers prefer not to provide much physical description, following Stephen King’s advice to let the readers supply it. “If I describe mine, it freezes out yours,” King says.
  4. Similarly, Ian Rankin, in Knots and Crosses, also prefers to leave the physical appearance of his main character to the reader’s imagination. Detective John Rebus is described as having “brown hair and green eyes, like his brother.” And that’s it.
  5. What characters say, how they say it, how their speech differs from other characters, and whom they talk to. Also, what other characters say about them—a device that works best when it reveals as much about the observer as the observed. Because Robert’s insight about observer and observed  prepared me to appreciate it, I found this perfect example, in which a son is talking about his tyrannical father: “My mom had to lay [my homework] out for him next to his breakfast plate, to the left of the juice but not touching the fork, so he could scan through it with those gray eyes of his, searching for mistakes, tapping his long finger against the papers like a clock-tick.” From those few lines, you know the father’s horrible and mom and son are terrified. (from The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott). “To the left of the juice but not touching the fork”—brilliant!
  6. What characters do (their actions.) This is the key element, of course, because this is how they move through the plot.
  7. How characters act, which can be at odds with what they do, sometimes helping to create mystery or tension. For example, a man whose appearance is quiet and calm may suddenly reveal his true self by a violent action, such as knocking someone’s teeth out or kicking a cat.
  8. How character live—where they live, where they go, their history and habits, friends, relatives, work associates, hangouts and whom they hang out with.
  9. How and what they feel—emotions, moods and perceptions. At the extreme, writers have shown the emotions and perceptions of people who are insane—think of Chief Bromden’s belief in the black machinery behind the walls in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Or cognitively impaired Benjy Compson’s stream of consciousness in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Or Dr. Jennifer White, narrator of Alice LaPlante’s masterful murder mystery Turn of Mind, who suffers from progressive dementia.
  10. Minor characters are not unimportant characters. They should always serve the story by helping the protagonist move through the plot in some way, no matter how small. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the little we know about the man Thursby is from the established liar Brigid O’Shaughnessy. He makes no real appearance in the novel, yet without his death early on, the whole mystery of the black bird could not unfold.

A final thought. There are so many ways to create character and no one way is the right way. What works for us is what we must go with, with the proviso that there is always something new to learn. What matters most is how our characters make a good story better.

Guest poster Robert Hebditch is a writer of short stories, a local author and is published in US 1, The Kelsey Review and Genesis. He is a member of Princeton Public Library Writers Room and Room at the Table writing groups and a retired staff member of Princeton University.