How Authors Get Police Procedures Right

Guest Post: Author John Schembra

Are you writing police mystery-thrillers? Want to get the policing details right? I do too, though I may have an advantage, having been a police officer for 30 years in Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco.

The home setting for my books is the San Francisco Police Department, but sometimes my characters must seek the help of or coordinate with other departments or federal agencies. Cross-jurisdictional situations present a challenge for writers, as not all law enforcement agencies conduct investigations the same way. General investigative protocols are roughly the same, but every department will have its own set of procedures. These differences may affect evidence collection, interrogations, interviews, use-of-force policies, and so on. The list is long.

Meanwhile, your readers have diverse backgrounds, which means there is always that person out there who will know if you make a mistake—and probably tell you so. Research is critical. Knowing how a particular agency conducts investigations, along with its personnel’s everyday duties, adds realism and actually makes the writing simpler, helping you manage the possibilities.

Getting police procedures right has other benefits too. It can make a difference in whether readers believe your story, which has a big impact on whether they like your work overall. If they do, your book could show up in a favorable review, and your fans can give it good marks in discussions with other potential readers. Unfortunately, if you get those details wrong, it could mean a less than sterling review, and none of us want that.

But how do you conduct the research you need? The best way is to talk to a police officer from the agency you are writing about. In my books, set in the SFPD, I was lucky that my best friend’s son and daughter-in-law were SFPD officers, and the wife was a forensics and crime scene technician. They were a big help whenever I needed answers to a procedural question.

In addition, I’m a member of the Public Safety Writers’ Association, whose membership is made up of people from around the country with police, fire, emergency medical service, and military backgrounds and the people who write about them. That network is unfailingly helpful to writers.

If the agency in your book is fictitious, model its procedures after an agency that resembles it. Look for one of similar size, serving a community with similar demographics, and use its procedures.

Very likely the agency you’re using as a setting will have a website, and you can contact (via email) the public information officer. I have found them to be very accommodating and willing to help. They want policing information to be correct too!

Bottom line: getting it right is satisfying and enjoyable for readers and, I believe, makes the story easier to write. It enables you to cover the all-important details that will make your readers feel they were there.

John Schembra spent a year with the 557th MP Company at Long Binh, South Vietnam, in 1970. His experiences as a combat MP contributed to his first book, M.P., A Novel of Vietnam. Upon completing his military service, John joined the Pleasant Hill (California) Police Department in Contra Costa County. In 2001, he retired from there as a Sergeant, after 30 years of service. His second novel, Retribution (2007), describes homicide detective Vince Torelli’s hunt for a serial killer. Since then, he’s published two more novels featuring Torelli—Diplomatic Immunity (2012)and Blood Debt (2019)—as well as the stand-alone, Sin Eater (2016).

A Juicy Idea

The origin stories of novels are as varied as their authors. The idea for the Harry Potter series first came to J.K. Rowling while traveling on a train delayed between Manchester and London. (No more whining about airport delays, please. Use your time wisely). Lee Child has variously attributed the creation of Jack Reacher to sheer commercial motivation and as “an antidote to the all the depressed and miserable alcoholics that peopled the genre.” The writing duo of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, authors of several crime thriller series, began by leveraging the pair’s publishing and museum experience.

In the firehose of information about authors and their books that flows across my computer screen daily, I recently noticed another intriguing origin story. A mother and son duo created a new book called The Gourmet Gangster. It combines episodes in the life of a fictional New York gangster who owns an upscale restaurant with real recipes the apocryphal restaurant serves. And the book’s roots are as quirky as the title suggests. Here’s how it came about, according to author Marcia Rosen.

“I wrote the mysteries, and my son Jory provided the recipes. Together we created some murderous titles and decided which types of food would best fit the stories.” These titles include “He’s a Dead Duck” paired with a recipe for Duck à l’Orange and a recipe for “The Quiche (Kiss) of Death.”

But the impetus for the collection goes even deeper. Marcia says in the book’s epilogue that her father was a Jewish gangster in Buffalo, New York, who owned a gambling hall and consorted with a tribe of colorful local characters. She says: “Remembering my father, and picturing him at a restaurant he owned when I was a teenager, initially inspired me to write about events set in a restaurant.

“I’m a mystery writer, so of course they had to be about murder, mayhem and, I thought, a fun bit of madness. Loving short stories, I decided to write a series of short mysteries, all involving the same criminal organization and taking place in a restaurant called Manhattan Shadow. The stories are from my vivid and sometimes frightening imagination, played out for the pleasure of mystery lovers.

“The idea of adding recipes made good sense, since my father was a chef. Level Best Books, our publisher, suggested putting a recipe before each story. ‘Great idea,’ I responded. ‘My son is a fabulous cook; he can create the recipes.’” And that’s how Marcia and Jory ended up with “The Chicken Piccata Caper,” “The Sacrificial Lamb,” and, of course, “A Deadly Delicious Dessert,” based on Marcia’s father’s recipe for donuts.

Says Marcia, “As I considered mystery stories for the book, I thought about places familiar to me. One story, ‘He’s A Dead Duck,’ was a reminder of a duck pond we lived near on Long Island, years ago. I loved the idea of creating a story beginning with a duck recipe!”

Son Jory (a marketing/advertising executive by day) adds, “In my family, today, we truly look forward to our evening meals. I have three kids (two girls, ages 9 and 7, and a boy, age 3). My grandfather would have adored them. What I cook allows my children to get know my grandfather through every bite of the cuisine he created. I hope the recipes in my mother’s book inspire good memories and experiences in others, too.”

“Really,” Marcia says, “I’m deadly serious!” Read more about Marcia’s writing and her series, The Senior Sleuths, on her website.

The Blues Are More Than a Color

peacock, bird, proud

Authors appreciate the power of color to not just describe a shade but evoke an emotion. How different is your reaction to a woman’s dress described as sky blue (flirty) versus electric blue (bold) versus navy (conservative)? The color choices tell you not just about the dress, but something about the wearer as well.

The colors of things are such distinctive characteristics that we have a full palette of clichés about them—another reason to give their descriptions careful attention in your prose.

Sherwin-Williams, the paint people who each year bring us the “color of the year” (read my take on their ironic choice of Living Coral for 2019) puts well-spent energy into trend forecasting. And there definitely are color trends. One of them may show up on the cover of your next book. Certain colors are so trendy that they age quickly and not well. The 2020 Color of the Year, by the way: Naval. Good old navy blue.

S-W’s color aces have announced the company’s colormix forecast for 2020. Their several palettes are lumped under the rubric of “wellness,” because, they say, designers are seeking colors that enhance social, spiritual, physical, and emotional factors. Go for it! Interestingly, a S-W marketing manager looks to our world in describing her goals: “Designers want color to enhance the story they are telling.” Raising my hand.

You might check whether one of the S-W palettes inspires an overall feel for a character or setting you’re working on. Scandi authors will likely stick with gray. Or, maybe you just need to repaint your office. A collection of some of my favorite books about color, described here and here too.

Photo: jpeter2 for Pixabay, creative commons license

Instant Replay

I wondered, seeing the cover for The Sleepover, if it was inspired by Adrian McKinty’s new best-seller, The Chain. or an example of the hive mind at work. The chains in McKinty’s book have nothing to do with literal chains, of course, and I didn’t warm to that book’s cover (though the book is great).

Then I saw this pairing. Though the new Through a Daughter’s Eyes is apparently nothing at all like Eimear McBride’s eye-opening The Lesser Bohemians, it sure conjures it. Cover copy for the latter says it “glows with the eddies and anxieties of growing up, and the transformative intensity of a powerful new love.” And lots of sex.

What Do Book Club Audiences Want?

Author Kathryn Kraft in Writer Unboxed says book clubs have “the potential to serve as a word-of-mouth marketing machine for novelists.” We’re all familiar with the marketing boost books have received thanks to the endorsement of Oprah’s book club and now Reese Witherspoon’s (with more than 800,000 followers), among many others.

Millions of Americans belong to book clubs—the formal kind that have regular meetings in libraries and living rooms—and the loosely organized kind that operate through social media, including GoodReads, with its 90 million members. A 2015 BookBrowse survey of people who read at least one book per month found that over half belong to at least one book club, with the percentage of readers who are book club members rising with age.

Another BookBrowse survey of more than 5000 book club members, conducted last year, found that “overwhelmingly, book club members want to read books that will promote good discussion.” In other words, they’re looking for books whose features intrigue them.

Recognizing a learning opportunity here, Kraft analyzed a number of book club reading guides to discover major topics presumed to promote book club discussions. They relate to issues writers ponder all the time, and it’s encouraging to know they get readers talking too. Here they are:

1. A protagonist with a unique perspective – Think Maggie Gee’s new book Blood, with its unforgettable narrator Monica Ludd or Rice Moore in the Appalachian noir prize-winner Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin. Characters with strong voices like these give book club members “a chance to look at life in a new way,” Kraft says.

2. A character or characters readers can relate to – I have nothing in common with manipulative New Orleans gangster Frank Guidry in Lou Berney’s November Road, but I certainly related to him. A character doesn’t have to be exactly like me (please, no!) for that to happen; the character just needs to be richly portrayed.

3. A story that reflects some larger issue – In this way, the character’s deeply personal experience can become “universal and political,” Kraft says. Gin Phillips’s thriller Fierce Kingdom begins with a mother wanting to take her toddler home, and the rest of the book is about that thwarted journey. Home is always more than an address.

4. A structure that helps set expectations and convey meaning – Denise Mina’s Conviction, with its story-within-a-story format not only engages the reader in two plots, the relevance of the second story gives the protagonist a chance to reflect on her past and motivates her current actions. Think Dov Alfon’s A Long Night in Paris or Chris Pavone’s new The Paris Diversion that puts the time of day at the head of each chapter in this fast-paced thriller that takes place over a jam-packed 11 hours. The ticking clock is one of the thriller genre’s most popular structural devices. It sure sets expectations.

5. Endings that are tidy or open-ended? I’m sure there’s lots of discussion on this point. Kraft comes down on leaving endings looser, which gives readers a chance to think about all the novel’s foregoing elements and, in an act of co-creation, what’s most likely to happen next. “Imaginations are not constrained to what occurred between the covers of the book,” Kraft says. It’s like movies that end with a “where are they now?” feature as the credits roll, which evoke that same feeling of limiting the possibilities I might prefer. I believe Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing would have been stronger without Tate’s final discoveries. Let readers puzzle it out.

Photo: Free-Photos from Pixabay   

Deadly Ink: “Everybody Wins”

draft

The annual Deadly Ink conference held in northern New Jersey last weekend was loads of fun. Guest of Honor Wendy Corsi Staub was a lively presence and toastmaster Dick Belsky charmed. I saw a number of old friends, met authors I admire, and was delighted to be included on several panels. Yesterday’s post reviewed some of the discussion about “character.”

The Dark Side
The panel on noir stories and hard-boiled characters  risked bogging down in semantics but clearly demonstrated the many shades of black actually out there. Apologies if you’ve read this here before, but I offered Dennis Lehane’s definition of noir: In a tragedy, a man falls from a great height (Macbeth, the Greeks, Chinatown); in noir, he falls from the curb. Panelist Rich Zahradnik provided another good one: “In noir, nobody wins.”

Hard-boiled stories usually involve a detective who is not emotionally involved or is struggling not to be. Humphrey Bogart’s portrayals of Sam Spade (written by Dashiell Hammett) and Philip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler) epitomize the genre. Cynical and street-smart, not reliant on the intellectual powers of Sherlock Holmes or the “little grey cells” of Hercule Poirot.

The hard-boiled character nevertheless gets the job done. Occasionally crossing my path are books that are too dark. They feature down-and-out characters living in filthy apartments who smoke and drink too much; some of them can’t think beyond their next fix. I don’t find them interesting. With four strikes against them already, whaddaya know, they make (more) bad decisions. Give me a character who at least has the opportunity to make choices.

With me on this panel were Charles Salzberg (whose Swann character operates on the fringes of society, but has plenty of agency), Al Tucher (whose work features a smart and tough prostitute), and moderator Dick Belsky.

Location, Location, Location
In the session on story setting, historical mystery author Annamaria Alfieri said she chooses her location first (British East Africa, for example), then the time period in which that place offered the most interesting fictional possibilities.  

Panelists’ strategies for establishing a strong sense of place included attention to the small details and local idiosyncrasies (lots of research here, including site visits for contemporary works), plus making sure to describe the character’s emotional reaction to the location. If you could pick a San Francisco story up and move it four hundred miles south to Los Angeles, you should end up with a different story. New Orleans isn’t New York, and South Carolina isn’t South Dakota.

Of course, panelists and audience alike thought Al Tucher is onto something with his new book set in Hawai`i. “It’s a research trip.” Yeah, right.

This and yesterday’s post about “character” are a small sample of the conference’s varied and interesting program. Whether you’re a writer or a fan, be there in person in 2020!

Photo: Sebastien Wiertz, creative commons license

Deadly Ink: Characters

Handwriting, boredom

Very possibly I made an impression on my daughter’s new in-laws last month when I said how, with most women, you can talk to them about their careers or their kids or what they’re reading, but in my case you could talk about blood spatter.

You might think this would have been a conversation-stopper, but my daughter’s new sister-in-law immediately launched into how her son had bled so profusely after knocking his head on the kitchen counter. “Oh yes,” I said knowingly, “scalp wounds. Lots of blood.” It pays to know your stuff.

I added to my trove of crime and thriller lore this past weekend at the annual Deadly Ink conference, an intimate group of crime and thriller writers and readers, mostly from New Jersey and its Manhattan suburbs. It’s a great place to expound upon crime-writing topics and to hobnob with other like-minded folk. Guest of Honor this year was energetic and down-to-earth author Wendy Corsi Staub, who participated beginning to end, and our Toastmaster was Dick Belsky.

I ended up on three panels, Character (you need them!), the Dark Side (who, me?), and Building Suspense. The only suspense was whether I could think of something useful to contribute. Regardless, the panels were all lively and fun and, since almost no one ran out screaming and demanding their money back, they may have actually been useful or, possibly, entertaining.

I had made some modest preparations for the Character panel and focused my remarks on what I’d brushed up on, character description. Sometimes writers describe characters readers only see once or twice. Not necessary.. Sometimes they give a complete height-weight-eye color (so often green, have you noticed?)-hair color-complexion rundown. Also not necessary, I said, except when these details are relevant to the story, like six-foot, full-figured Monica Ludd, who uses her size to intimidate (or seduce) in Maggie Gee’s new novel Blood, reviewed yesterday.

I cited Stephen King in On Writing, who says a character’s description begins in the writer’s imagination and ends in the reader’s imagination. No need for details. Let your readers fill in. When they do, they own the character and that’s exactly what you want! For King’s character Carrie White, all he said was that she was a high school outcast with bad skin and a fashion-victim wardrobe. What more is needed? We’ve all known and maybe sometimes been that person.

That led to a discussion of how the movie version of a character can become our indelible picture of a character—Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone, Robert Taylor as Walt Longmire—and what happens when that picture conflicts with our internal picture—Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. Total fail.

Donald Maass (Writing 21st Century Fiction) further points out the paradox that the more unique you make your characters the more universal they are. Readers can latch onto some aspect of a character and relate to it, almost no matter what. What you don’t want are bland, generalized, two-dimensional characters with no unredeeming attributes. Give them flaws! Too-perfect characters are boring and not believable.

This excellent panel was moderated by Lynn Marron and included the estimable Jane Kelly, D.W Maroney, and Dick Belsky.

(Tomorrow: More from Deadly Ink)

Prose by Any Other Name

books, bookstore

With more than 4,500 new books published every day in the U.S., the odds of coming up with a unique title would seem to evaporate by the minute. No surprise, then, that when you search for a book by title, you often have to scroll through a lot of misses to get your hit. Amazon had 10 books with the same title as a short story collection I recently reviewed!

Suitability

In Emily Temple’s recent Literary Hub encomium on the naming of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, she says, notice first “the incantatory effect of the repetition, the rush of sibilance, the plain punch of those four syllables,” not to mention, I’d add, the evocation of the sea itself: sssssss . . . sssssssss. “It just sounds good, and any great title should sound good,” she says. Beyond that is the title’s provenance, which goes back to Greek literature. While this distinguished patrimony may not resonate with most of us, she says, “It’s also, not for nothing, a band name.” More news.

We can think of any number of novels whose titles perfectly encapsulate their core: Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin) or, more recently, Below the Fold (Dick Belsky), and Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens). Way too many book titles provide no memory-jog about their contents, as a scan of your own bookshelf will prove.

Distinctiveness

I’ve reviewed almost 175 new crime/thriller novels for CrimeFictionLover.com over the past four-plus years, and occasionally need to find one on my list. Some titles recall the book immediately. Others leave me wondering, did I read this??

One strategy is to include the name of a person or place in the title: A Gentleman in Moscow, Wolf Hall, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Such a title will be distinctive, but since the prospective book buyer doesn’t yet know who Eleanor Oliphant is, it may not be memorable. Lincoln in the Bardo works because you know who Lincoln is, even if, like me, you have to look up “the bardo.”

Overfamiliarity

Gone Girl and the cover with the flying hair was suitable and distinctive. Not so the—dozens? hundreds?—of girl-titles that followed. So many the effect was lost. At least AJ Finn, whatever his other foibles, had a woman at his window. Similarly, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley (with a bullet-ridden dust-jacket), suitable, distinctive, even though we don’t know him yet, has now been followed by The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. A little too similar for my taste, but both titles contain a puzzle. Even a cat has only nine lives and one death. A little snare for your memory.

Memorability

Being suitable and distinctive are ways of making your book title memorable. Given that word of mouth is one of your most potent marketing tools, you want to make sure the title of your book springs to the tongues of your many fans. When their friends seek it out, you want them to find your book, not twelve other people’s. Those right few words on the cover are hard to come by, but worth every effort.

Navigating Oceans of Words

From time to time, my writing group has included a member whose first language is other than English. It’s only when you tackle editing the prose of such an individual that you begin to appreciate what an unwieldy beast American English is.

A stunning recent reminder of this came in Reuben Westmaas’s essay on word order. It turns out that English has a very precise requirements for stringing along adjectives. Who knew? I didn’t.

Here is Westmaas quoting Mark Forsyth: “Adjectives absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose Noun. [Really?] So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”

It’s mind-bogglingly true. Try rearranging this example: “I just bought nice new wine refrigerator” (opinion-age-purpose-Noun) These insights, which most of us have internalized since “See Spot chase the big red ball” (size-color-Noun) and not thought of again—not even thought of as reflecting a thing, like a rule–are from Mark Forsyth’s 2013 book, The Elements of Eloquence.

I’m sure glad that decades of reading and listening have imprinted that rule in my brain so that I don’t have to actually think about it. I’ve also abandoned any thought of teaching ESL.

A second problem is our language is jam-packed with idioms. To a German-born friend, I suggested a book I was currently in love with—The Big Sky, one of Pulitzer-winner A B Guthrie. Jr.’s six monumental novels about the Oregon Trail and the development of Montana. To me, it was a perfect evocation of the American sense of the limitless possibilities of “going West” (alas, fading now), of being independent and free, of the frontier.

I foolishly didn’t recognize that the idioms were thick as the forests, and not just modern (for 1947) idioms. It employed colorful uses of language that would make sense to an 1830 fur trapper and his backwoods brethren rafting on the Missouri River. And here I thought the language was absurdly simple. We won’t mention their grammar: “Ain’t nothin like whiskey to ile (oil) a rusty tongue.” He gave the book back to me in complete bafflement.

A final problem is spelling, given that dozens of languages form our crazy talk, and the “rules” created to pretend it makes sense, which are rife with exceptions. Relatedly, I’d include that bane of the self-published and indifferently edited: homophones (led, lead; bough, bow; pique, peak; great, grate; and so on and on and on).

We all remember the spelling rule “i before e except after c and in words that have the ‘a’ sound.” Sure. Westmaas points out that more American words violate that principle than follow it. In fact, the score is 900 to 40 in favor of “exceptions.” I’ll take his word for it. How I became a school spelling bee champion is one of life’s mysteries. We writers sail on, navigating our little boats through a sea of linguistic confusion. We may take the peculiarities of English for granted, but when we’re faced with a non-native’s prose, wow. There be dragons. Give those adventurers credit!

Photo: Steve Johnson, creative commons license.

Seasoning Dinner with Crime: Second Course

Forensic psychologist Louis Schlesinger of John Jay College of Criminal Law spoke to the NY chapter of Mystery Writers of America after dinner last week. Yesterday, I summarized his points about staging a homicide scene and undoing a murder—both aspects of criminality that writers may find useful in their diabolical plotting. Here’s more.

Foreign Objects

Schlesinger has written about foreign object insertions, a topic he considered not suitable to delve into in a postprandial talk, except to say that about half are not discovered until autopsy and the moths found in the throats of The Silence of the Lambs killer’s victims were not realistic. Why not? I wonder. He’s published an article on this topic, and if you’re super-curious, you can access the full article here.

Serial and Sexual Homicides

Serial and sexual homicides often involve rituals and follow a pattern—a “signature.” The murder alone is not psychologically sufficient to fulfill the killer’s intent. Creating any kind of an elaborate crime scene tableau requires time, which increases the risk of apprehension. Taking this extra risk shows how important that aspect of the crime is to him.

Recall Douglas Preston’s true-crime book, The Monster of Florence, about a series of 16 (at least) murders that took place in north Italy between 1968 and 1985. The killer’s victims often had complicated wounds that would have taken some time to inflict, yet as I recall, the bodies were found in well frequented lovers’ lanes. It was a mystery how he got away with it for so long. (Preston’s book describes the horribly botched investigation masterminded by prosecutor Giuliano Mignini. Over the course of Mignini’s “investigation,” he prosecuted some 20 individuals, all of whom were subsequently acquitted. If his name rings a bell, Mignini was also responsible for the mishandling of the case against Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito.)

But just because a serial killer has a signature, he may vary it occasionally, depending on circumstances. These variations crop up anywhere in the series of killings and can take many forms, making identification of all the victims in a challenge for your fictional investigator.

Psychopathic serial killers are typically of average intelligence, Schlesinger said, with Ted Bundy the exception that proves the rule. What they’re very smart about is masking their pathology. Maybe that’s why a killer’s neighbors and co-workers always say, “He seemed like such a normal average guy!”

Trends

Schlesinger pointed to several trends of interest to crime writers. Advances in emergency medicine that have helped save injured military personnel on the battlefield have been imported to our city hospitals. Many people whose injuries would have been fatal a few years ago now can be saved. That’s the good news, partly responsible for holding murder rates down.

The bad news is that, despite more police and better analytic techniques, only about 60 percent of murder cases are cleared by an arrest. It isn’t that the police aren’t doing a good job. Back when most murders occurred between people who knew each other, police investigations had something to go on. Today, the increases in random shootings, drive-by killings, drug killings, and gang warfare mean that, absent a confession, the responsible party is forever a question mark. And, they lack the dramatic possibilities of a 20-year feud between neighbors, a wronged lover, or jealous sibling.