Thursday, October 2, 2008

Plausible Police

by Raelene Gorlinsky

Do you write mysteries or suspense or romantic suspense? Anything with police in it? So, how do you research your police officer characters or police procedures? Uh, you DO research that, right? And NOT by watching CSI and such on TV! You do know the difference between reality and TV (even supposed reality shows), I hope.

One of the biggest - and completely unacceptable - flaws we see in mystery and romantic suspense submissions is incorrect and unbelievable behavior by law enforcement. It's also an all-too-common error in published books, indicating poor quality work by author and editor. Such problems really jar a lot of readers. If you are writing about real professions or agencies, then you MUST make every effort to get it right.

Yes, there are many sources of information, you should be using a lot of them. But one of the best to help you get a real "feel" for what your police characters should be doing and not doing is the hands-on approach. Contact your local police department. Many will arrange tours of their facility, complete with talkative officer who will tell you funny and touching and informative stories about cop actions and attitudes. (And you'll end up amazed that every cop doesn't burn out in less than a year.) My local RWA chapter did such a tour a few weeks ago, and it was fantastic. You know, I always assumed bullet-proof vests were stiff and hard -- nope, now I've actually held one, put it on, and know what it's really like. And I've seen the intake area (fingerprinting, photo, etc) of the jail, the massive file cabinets of information, the juvenile detention office, the firing range, the property room... I've learned about the different types of backseats in police cars, the requirements for prisoner meals, the ways to restrain a violent drunk. All sorts of tidbits that can help an author make a character or scene come alive with believable detail. Or at least keep you from getting it all wrong.

Some police departments offer ride-along programs. You can go on patrol with real on-duty cops, see what it is actually like, feel the emotions and the stress. The police may also offer citizen-education classes about law enforcement and laws. The local cops are often the teachers at firearm classes - and if you have characters in your book using guns, you have actually shot a gun, right? You do know how the recoil feels, what it takes to hit a target, before you have your character do it, right?

Keep in mind that police departments vary a great deal. One in a wealthy suburb is not going to have the same pattern or staffing or attitude as the inner-city department. Not that one is better or "nicer" than the other - but consider what type of police department you are depicting in your book and try to learn about the inner workings of a similar real one.

So if you are going to write about cops, get out there and find out what it is like to be one!


Francesca Hawley said...

This is a great post! I'm currently attending a Citizen's Police Academy and I'm learning a ton of stuff which will help my writing. It's also providing useful contacts of whom I may ask questions. The police are great to work with and appreciate having advocates for the department.

PS. Shooting a semi-automatic pistol and a shotgun was WAY cool. LOL

Dawn Montgomery said...

I know that there are countries that don't allow you to own weapons, much less fire them.

The UK, for instance. What do you recommend for those in a limiting situation?

Terry Odell said...

I went through the Civilian Police Academy. Am now a member of their Alumni. I've done a ridealong (and I THINK it will be an article in the Cerridwen newsletter in an upcoming month.) I've gone to a shooting range. Joined on-line groups made up of law-enforcement authors. However, I still think my 'best' research in getting the cop stuff right was buying beer for 3 homicide detectives and sitting back and watching them interact as they answered my plot related questions. I've had comments that my 'brainstorming' scene in Hidden Fire is a favorite, and a lot of it is virtually verbatim transcription of cop banter.

I do have one other comment: At RWA, an FBI agent speaker warned against fighting too hard to make something "right" if the general reading population would think it was wrong. She said pulling people out of the book, and having them think you were wrong wasn't really worth it. Nor was 'lecturing' to prove you were right, which is another major slowdown.

WindLegends said...

Great advice. When I was writing Ghost Wind, I needed to research how our local county police would handle a dead body. I phoned a friend who is a deputy sheriff in another county and he told me things varied county by county on who would show up, when, what they would do and the end result of the investigation. He gave me some invaluable information that I was able to use in Dancing On The Wind as well.

ECPI Editors said...

Hi, Dawn,

If a story is clearly set in an identifiable real place, then the legal and law enforcement elements need to reflect that. If setting a story in the UK, check to find out the actual gun control laws for the locality. I think in the UK many of the police do not even carry guns? Are normal citizens allowed to have hunting rifles (registered? unregistered?) but not handguns? How available are illegal firearms? You'd need to know all that before putting a gun in someone's hands in that country.


Anonymous said...

I second Francesca's suggestion to attend your local Citizen's Police Academy. I'm currently enrolled in mine and just got a great tour of the SWAT vehicle, the bomb squad vehicle, and the Mobile Command Center. Next week we're touring the mounted patrol barn and meeting the canine unit lieutenant! It's fun, if nothing else, and great research!

Anonymous said...

I've been researching this topic for my story as well. Police departments and Sheriff's department's--especially in smaller counties are constructed differently in each county and city within a state. I did go to my local Sheriff's department and got a list of the job positions that deputies perform and how they work with the small city police forces nearby and the Medical Examiner or coroner. If I may suggest, a reference book by D.P. Lyle, M.D. Forensics, A Guide for Writers; ISBN 978-1-58297-474-3 he suggests our books should reflect the TV "fantasy" of crime labs and detectives. Since Raelene has put out more books for publication--I think she makes more sense. The book is good for "how to" details. I love this blog!