I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who has worked patrol for the past twenty years. As usual, the conversation eventually got around to my writing. He asked me if I still wrote about what writers do that really bugs cops on the street. When I said I did, he said, “Let me tell you one of the things that drives me crazy every time I see it on some cop drama or read it in some book. I hate it when they walk up to a door to talk to somebody or to check on a possible victim, and when they touch the door, it just swings open.”
I knew exactly what he was talking about. Every time I see that in a movie, I involuntarily roll my eyes. It’s like a subconscious twitch, and when it happens, I have to keep my thumb from automatically clicking the “off” button on the remote control.
Writers, hear me on this, please. In twenty years of police work, there was only one time that I pushed on a door and it squeaked open for me. And honestly, that was on a house check a neighbor had called in and when I contacted the owner to come home to check things out, we discovered that her husband just hadn’t pulled the door shut hard enough when he left that morning.
I have however had to climb through windows, bash open doors (granted they were hollow core doors) with my shoulder, crawled in through the doggy door, and rooted around in the yard until I found the secret hiding place for the key. Use your imagination. It is so cliché for your character to push on the door, throw an astonished look at their partner, and slip in an already open door. Have fun with it. Have your detective do something outlandish or even illegal. But get your character into the house any way other than through an unlocked front door.
If you do, my patrol friend will thank you from the very bottom of his heart.
Now, as promised, I’ve been searching for some great gifts for families and friends to give to the writer in their life. I told you I would add a few to each post in the days before Christmas, so…here you go!
1. I love this one. There is nothing so important to a good book as a great first line! This mug features opening lines of some of the greatest works of literature from “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” to “Call me Ishmael” and 22 more. Check it out! Great First Lines of Literature Mug
This Police Pet Peeve comes by way of a homicide detective. “Why doesn’t anyone ever show a detective buried in paperwork?”
Sure a detective gets to go to crime scenes. But what about the hours and hours it takes to bag and tag the evidence? And every single type of evidence has to be processed a certain way. Guns are processed differently than drugs which are different from blood samples which are different from samples of vomit, etc. etc. etc. Each and every piece of evidence has to be photographed, collected and identified on a property sheet.
Then once that’s done, the detective has to take the evidence and sort it, either for the crime lab, or the evidence section. Does it have to go into the crime lab refrigerator or can it just go into the storage locker?
THEN, the if the detective is lucky, he’ll have time to sit down and write a report detailing every action he took. Who did he talk to? Where did he gather the evidence? How did he gather the evidence? What about the different times the evidence was gathered. With some evidence, the detective has to note the weather, i.e., temperature, wind velocity, wind direction, cloudy or sunny. Who entered the crime scene. Why?
I realize such minutia could really bog down a good story, but what about putting in just one or two of the aforementioned details to make your story more realistic? Go to your local police records section and see if they will allow you to go through an old homicide case. They might not, but maybe they will. See exactly how much paperwork is generated by a case. Then spice up your work! How easy is that?
I recently received this one from a friend of mine who is a retired marine. He also did a stint in law enforcement in his “civilian life”.
“Hey, about what TV cops do wrong, how about the way the main guy on (TV show omitted, but you can probably guess) hunches over his 9mm when he thinks he’s sneaking up on someone? (Ahem. Looks like a monkey <aheming> a football.) He fires it like that, he’ll need stitches in the middle of his forehead.”
I receive quite a few police pet peeves about the way fictional characters, whether on T.V. or in a book, handle firearms. If you are going to write about a cop using a particular type of firearm, go to your local shooting range and take some lessons. At the very least, ask some intelligent questions.
A writer friend of mine told me about a very embarrassing chapter in his *already published* book where he actually had his character “Pull back the hammer on his Glock.” For you non-gun people, a Glock is a semi-automatic weapon that never did, doesn’t now, and never will have a hammer. He can pull back the slide, charge the weapon, or, if the weapon is already charged, shoot the bastard, but he’ll never “pull back the hammer.”
And speaking about “stitches in the middle of the forehead”, add some color to your book by having the rookie cop tear up the skin between his thumb and index finger in the slide of his Glock because he had his hand in the wrong position when firing, or have the hammer of the bad guy’s Smith and Wesson snap down on the cop’s fingers as she’s trying to disarm said bad guy.
Remember, a poorly educated writer is a great inspiration for hysterical stories at a dinner party, so if you’re writing about guns, get out there and learn from the best.
This one comes from a friend of mine who can kick a** with the best of them when necessary. “I hate it when someone is going to be arrested and a fight breaks out….one super human cop kicks ass on either some guy twice as big as he is, or several guys without anyone’s help…we all know that we always call the troops for help.”
Now granted, this is a big city cop talking where back-up is already on the scene or just minutes away. There are county cops and cops from smaller jurisdictions who don’t have a choice in the matter. Back-up might be thirty minutes away, and that’s if they’re running code three with lights and siren. But I can guarantee you, if that county mounty’s been in a real fight with a mean, angry bad guy before, he’ll be wishing he had three other cops there to help.
Sure you can have your protagonist take on a big guy twice his or her size. Just make sure the cop either fights dirty to ensure a win (there are no gentlemen’s rules when fighting for your life) or give your police character A LOT of trouble until back-up arrives.
As I said, gentlemen’s rules don’t apply when your life is at stake. You do what you have to do to survive. One of my friends ended up having to kill a man she ended up wrestling with because he was huge, deranged, and was trying to kill her. Her back-up couldn’t get there in time, and she was devastated that she had to shoot him in order to survive. No good cop enjoys having to really hurt or kill someone, but if it’s them or you, it’s gotta be them.
One police sergeant, whose hair pretty much turned a dashing shade of grey during my rookie year, can’t stand it “when the idiot officer, empty-handed, approaches the suspect and talks him out of the gun he’s been pointing at the officer’s head.”
Whoa, big no no.
Rule number one, never go to a gunfight empty-handed.
Rule number two, bad guy points gun at cop, bad guy dies.
The moral of the story is if you want your protagonist to look brave by walking up empty-handed to a loaded gun pointing at his or her chest, realize that, in this case, brave equals stupid.
Equipment issues. To any cops reading this, need I say more? For you authors, in your novel, does your main police character ever experience dangerous and often embarrassing moments in the patrol car? These examples came from a friend of mine with somewhere around thirty years of police work under his belt.
“Ever had a cop in a murder mystery where either the radio just wouldn’t work or there was an over-saturation of airtime and he can’t get on the air? I was in a chase once and couldn’t tell anyone. One time I was going Code 3 (lights and siren) while leaning out the window and banging on the light bar to keep it working. Another time a cab driver stopped traffic so I could get out of the 4th Avenue tunnel on a Code 3 run when all my equipment quit. Another time I was about to stop a drug car for MANTIS (Metropolitan Area Narcotics Trafficking Interdiction Squad) and my car died every time I hit the lights.”
If you want realism, write the most ridiculous equipment failure you can think of. I guarantee that some cop somewhere will read it and say, “Hey! That happened to me!”
I have found that this complaint is universal among police officers all over the country. I have heard this PPP (Police Pet Peeve) from California to Chicago to Virginia.
How come in books, the best cops get promoted?
While it may be true in books that the best cops get promoted, its definitely not the rule in real life police departments. In the majority of departments, officers take extremely difficult written exams in order to promote to the next rank. For my lieutenant’s promotional exam, we had to study two large textbooks on police administration plus we had a lengthy handout we had to memorize. Luckily for me, I’m good at studying and taking tests. But what about the stellar officer who simply cannot take tests?
One of the best detectives I know, bar none, had to take the detectives test three times before she finally scored high enough to make the detectives list. Her problem? Dyslexia. Another excellent patrol officer I know took the sergeant’s test four times and never scored high enough to make the list. He just never learned how to take tests.
Now let’s look at the other side. I can’t count how many times an officer with absolutely no common sense or people skills got promoted simply because they were good at taking tests. They were known by the rank and file for being a so so officer, and yet now the rank and file have to answer to the dufus simply because he or she was a good test taker.
As a writer, use this phenomenon to create interesting characters or commander to officer interactions. You’d be amazed at how many scenarios something like this will give you if you just let your imagination fly.
Female detectives wearing revealing shirts and high heels
Well, this one’s pretty self-explanatory. Can’t run, fight, or in my case, walk in high heels, not to mention the scuff and yuck factor of bloody crime scenes. And trying to walk through a muddy field without the heels sinking all the way down and getting stuck in the muck? Forget it.
Revealing shirts? Hah! I once had a Sergeant tell me to button up the second button on my uniform shirt because he thought two undone buttons were unprofessional. And really, if you have any size up there, try running after a bad guy with a low-cut bra on. Talk about bruised chins… And the lewd comments the women would get from the bad guys defies description. Nope, female detectives have to dress professionally if they want to be treated like a professional, so if you want the female cops in your murder mystery to be taken seriously, dress them accordingly.
Police Pet Peeve #3
Most detectives in cop shows lead the way on a high risk house entry.
While it does make it more exciting for your main character to lead the way on a high risk building entry, the truth of the matter is, if they work for a large enough department, SWAT will usually make the high risk entries. If time is of the essence, or if the entry is in the jurisdiction of a small town cop, then patrol officers will make the entry.
Sure, sometimes, if the detective gets to the scene in time, and if he/she can find their vest, and if they can locate their gun in the trunk, they might be on the entry team. ( Just kidding guys, I used to be a detective myself…and I love to jerk their chains)
As I said in yesterday’s post, all of these pet peeves come from real cops, most of them friends of mine. I realized the other day though that there has to be one caveat as you read this. Some of these pet peeves have to be used in fiction simply because real life police work can be pretty darn boring at times. That said, at least you will be a better educated writer if you know the “real” way police work is done.
Okay, Police Pet Peeve #2 TV cops always get the bad guy to confess
While it does allow television cop shows to wrap up the case in an hour and it helps writers “prove” their bad guy did the crime, confessions happen in real life only part of the time. As a writer, our job is to write so well that the detective can prove their case without having to rely on a confession, just like a real live cop has to do.
Try this for an exercise: If you have wrapped up your mystery by having the bad guy confess, get rid of the confession and see if your detective would have solved the crime without it. If he can’t, then you haven’t done your job as a story teller. Prove the guilt without the confession, and you’ve done some real police work.
I have asked a lot of cops over the years to tell me what bothers them the most about fictional cops portrayed either on television or within the pages of a book. I’ve managed to gather a list of quite a few complaints and I thought it would be fun to address them in my blog. So, today kicks off the Cops and Writers blog posts. Each day’s post will be short and sweet…so here goes:
Police Pet Peeve (PPV) #1
A bad guy misses his target when shooting with a shotgun from six feet away.
While it’s always wonderful to see a bad guy miss by miles when they’re shooting at a cop, the sad truth of the matter is, if you aim in the general direction of your target with a shotgun, you’re gonna hit your target and it’s not going to be pretty.
The moral of the story…If your character needs to miss what he’s shooting at, give him/her something besides a shotgun.