We’re Not Making This Up

Miramichi 018Kate Flora: Of course, as fiction writers, we are making some of it up. You all know that. What many readers don’t realize, though, is how, even in midst of creating fictional characters and fictional crimes, we’re constantly doing research to try and make it realistic.

I was thinking about research and reality this morning as I’m preparing to do a workshop for aspiring crime writers next weekend on guns and violence. As a desk-bound suburban woman well into her middle years, I have to work hard at writing realistic police procedurals featuring male cops. Along the way, I’ve taken a citizen’s police academy and a police taught RAD self-defense class. During the part of our police academy where the students were the cops and the cops played bad guys, I got a ton of insight into a rookie’s first days when I tried to do a traffic stop, caught my baton on the door handle, and slammed face first into my own car window in front of my entire class.

img_0995I’ve attended the Writers’ Police Academy http://www.writerspoliceacademy.com (described as Disneyland for Crime Writers) started by the wonderful Lee Lofland http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/ and wish I could go back every year. I’ve hung around with evidence techs apparently instructed to show me the worst pictures they could, just to see how I’d handle it. At a national writer’s conference, I’ve played at being an evidence tech myself, learning to lift fingerprints off a glass.

I’ve done a lot of riding around in police cars, late at night, talking quietly with officers about what they’re seeing, trying to see the streets through their eyes. Had those fascinating conversations as they read the streets and houses like a roadmap of crime and interpersonal violence. The body in that basement, the murdered girlfriend, the killer who ran down that alley and shot himself right there. I’ve sat through traffic stops where I watched the officer’s wary body language, and later debriefed about the process and why it is so important to see the person’s hands. I’ve gone on a stakeout where I spotted the bad guy. Interviewed a witnesses’ husband and got a detail the police didn’t know.

I see police officers and stories about the police through different eyes now.

And then there are the books. In Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine there was img_0997fascinating entomological evidence, which led me M. Lee Goff’s book, A Fly for the Prosecution. Working on a story about an excavation where bones are found led me to a whole host of books about bones and forensic analysis. Trying to make my cops feel authentic was helped by Lee Lofland’s book, Police Procedure and Investigation. Trying to make the crime scenes feel authentic led me D. P. Lyle’s Forensics.

Since we can’t make our bad guys obvious or one-dimensional, understanding human psychology becomes surprisingly important. Yes, much of what we write we know from observing the people around us. Deviants, psychopaths, and sociopaths can be found anytime we drive on the highway or stand in a airport line. But books can be helpful in developing them and understanding how bad guys are shaped by their families and childhoods. There’s no better dark reading than any of the books by FBI profiler John Douglas and cowriter Mark Olshaker.

img_0996I even have two criminalistics textbooks, scored at library yard sales, and my own copy of Vernon Geberth’s Practical Homicide Investigation. That last comes with this story: I decided to preview investigation textbooks, and so I borrowed a copy of this through my local library. When the book arrived, the male librarian was reluctant to give it to me. “Are you sure you want to see this?” he said. “It’s pretty graphic.” I said I did and he reluctantly handed it over. It is pretty graphic. It also have fabulous checklists which help make my fictional investigator better at his job.

Our mystery reading audience can be a pretty tough crowd. And we sometimes have to do some tough work to be sure we meet their standards.