Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Cop Talk with Lee Lofland

I asked Lee Lofland if he'd have time to write a guest post for Suspense Novelist. He really didn't, but he made the time anyway. That's just the kind of guy he is. (Plus, he says nice things about my all-time favorite cop, Sheriff Andy Taylor. Of Mayberry. Gotta love it.)

I'm putting his bio up-front, just in case you haven't heard of this guy. Oh. You'll probably also want to buy his book. I got mine through Amazon.


Lee Lofland is the author of Police Procedure and Investigation, A Guide For Writers and the co-author of the forthcoming children’s book Everything Kids: I Want To Be A Police Officer. He is a nationally acclaimed expert on police procedure and crime-scene investigation, a popular conference and workshop speaker, and he writes freelance articles for publications, such as The Writer magazine.

Lee is also a consultant for many bestselling authors and television and film writers and he recently appeared as an expert on a BBC television documentary called How To Commit The Perfect Murder. He’s a member of Sisters in Crime and he’s on the board of directors for the New England chapter of Mystery Writers of America.

You can learn more about Lee at www.leelofland.com.

Writing About Cops – It’s Not That Difficult by Lee Lofland

How important is it for writers to be accurate about the cops in their stories? The answer to that question is simple. Be accurate, but don’t go overboard trying to feed unnecessary facts to your readers. They’re not buying your book as a study guide for the police academy.

A good way to judge how much fact is enough is to consider your own profession, writing. How much would you tell your fans about the equipment you use to produce a manuscript? Would you bore them with the details of the inner workings of your laptop? How about the dye lot of the ink in your pens? No, of course not, but that’s what many writers think they need to do to bring their detectives to life.

We, as readers of fiction and suspense, don’t always need to know that a Beretta 9mm is manufactured in Italy, but it is nice to read that the pistol is large and heavy – bigger than the LadySmith your female detective is used to firing—a fact that could be important. If a pistol is too large for her hands it could make her pull the weapon to one side, causing an inaccurate shot.

Fans want to experience the action, the rollercoaster ride of your hero’s struggle to make it to the final page. They want to feel what it’s like to step into a crime scene and smell death. Touching cold, firm flesh and hearing the yelps and wails of approaching sirens in the reader’s mind rings much truer than reading about 147grain plus P ammunition.

Cops are real people with real emotions and real families. They go to the grocery store and they go to their kid’s softball games. They’re not all drunks with poor eating habits, and it gets a bit tiresome reading that they are in nearly every police procedural. I say this as I complete the final pages of a novel featuring a troubled detective. However; there’s quite a bit of realism in this story. Still, I promise, my next protagonist is quite different.

It’s such an easy thing for writers to get their police facts straight. The first rule is to never, ever use television as a research tool. I can’t stress this point enough. Also, don’t use another work of fiction as a reference. The author may have used TV CSI as their main source of information, a double whammy.

The best thing a writer can do when conducting research about cops is to contact a local police department. They’re usually more than willing to help us out. Next, try using use online assistance, like my new blog The Graveyard Shift. But always verify the source of your online help. Ask fellow writers if they know the expert. Have you heard them speak at writer’s conferences, etc? There are many, many people out there who are offering advice and information and they’ve never set foot in a crime scene.

And for goodness sake, lay off the donut puns. Cops today are very health conscious. They eat well, exercise regularly, and drink bottled water.

Enough ranting and raving, it’s time to watch The Andy Griffith Show, the only realistic cop show on television. That’s why I named the last chapter in my book on police procedure CS I Don’t Think So.

Lee, my personal thanks to you for being such a stand-up guy and getting me this column.

For you suspense novelists out there, his book needs to be on your reference shelf.

Lee invites you to send him any of your questions to
lee@leelofland.com.

It's all better with friends.

17 comments:

Jess said...

Thanks for having Lee as a guest blogger, Peg. His new site will come in real handy and I can't wait to get my hands on his book.

Great stuff here!
jess

Terry Odell said...

I highly recommend Lee's blog, The Graveyard Shift. Friendly and informative. And he's always around to answer posted questions--I don't know where he finds the time.

I agree that using fiction and television as research won't add accuracy to a novel--BUT--what happens when that's where your readers get all their information and assume if they do it on CSI, it's got to be true? Similar to the CSI Effect in court.

If you're accurate, cops reading the book will know it, but "lay" readers will think you got it all wrong, or wonder why the cop can't get a picture of the suspect when they submit his prints -- heck, not just a picture, but everything about him, including what he ate for breakfast.

Having to deal with reality and reader perception is a definite challenge to a writer whose audience might fall outside the LEO circles.

Peg Brantley said...

Here's where I come down on the accuracy issue:

I don't want anyone, ever, to throw my book against the wall in frustration because I didn't do my research.

As far as the public perceptions are concerned, I think most people are starting to get the drift (that CSI-type shows are a fantasy world), but that's almost beside the point.

It's up to me to write a compelling and exciting story. The entertainment factor doesn't need to match the entertainment they can get on television. I think it needs to be better.

Terry, you're published. Have you been "nit-picked" by readers?

Terry Odell said...

Peg, to answer your question about being nit-picked. Honesty, no. But more honestly, I don't get a lot of feedback, and since I don't usually give it to authors when I catch errors, that doesn't mean I don't have 'wrong' stuff in my books. I try like crazy not to, but sometimes it's a matter of not knowing what you don't know. I was unaware my local sheriff's office has a chaplain program where an officer would never make a death notification without a chaplain present, or that there would always be someone with him in the hospital. Or that Highlander SUVs don't come with manual transmissions. Sometimes these things get caught before the book is publisher, but some of them slide right by.

I can't tell you how many 'big name' authors have characters thumbing the safety off their Glocks.

I get irked when I read something wrong, so I hate to do it myself.

But yeah, I'll suspend a lot of disbelief if it's a good story. Or I'll snicker to myself that I know more than the author. That can be fun, too.

Lee Lofland said...

Terry. I have to slightly, but respectfully, disagree with your comment (we're still friends, right?).

Actually, you've kind of reinforced my point. Too many writers try to make their works of fiction a police procedure manual.

Really, if a book is well-written, the police facts shouldn't stand out like sore thumbs. That's where I have the problem, not because I'm a former detective and see so much information that's wrong.

I just don't get why writers find it so necessary to over-write the police and forensic stuff. They don't do it when they write about any other profession.

Ed McBain's books are great examples of how not to over-write the police stuff. It's there, and it's very believable, but it just seems to flow along with the rest of the story.

Terry Odell said...

Lee, I'm not sure we're really disagreeing at all. Just making the same points from different directions.

The point is making the story a good one, but believability is important. If procedures are important to the story, then they should be right. But they shouldn't be the story (unless it's a story about 'how I used forensics and solve the case' kind of thing.

Michael Connelly does a great job of showing a cop at work and the cop stuff doesn't intrude; it's part of the story.

Writing is getting readers into the heads of the characters. What can be even harder is having to explain something to a reader that a cop wouldn't think twice about because it's second nature. My editors will say I should explain jargon the first time it's used, but honestly -- is there a cop anywhere who wouldn't simply say "CODIS" when talking to another cop?

Readers are funny. I wrote a scene where my character cooked pancakes for the heroine. Only she'd just moved into town and hadn't really stocked her pantry, so she didn't have baking powder, a key ingredient in pancakes. Crit partners called me to task on that, and I had to devise a baking-powder free recipe. Luckily, my brother is a chef, so he bailed me out,a nd the book was published with that detail correctly in place.

Lee Lofland said...

Well, Terry, all I can say is Aunt Jamima Buttermilk Pancake Mix. Just add water.

Terry Odell said...

LOL, Lee -- yes, that option was considered, but the heroine hadn't bought pancake mix, either (and the fact that my hero could manage pancakes from scratch without baking powder was a great show of his character. :-)

The absolute BEST mix, although very tough to get, is New Hope Mills from central New York. It's still a functioning stone mill, as a matter of fact.

Lee Lofland said...

Sounds good. My wife and I have blueberry pancakes every Sunday morning. It's a fun tradition we started years ago.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Great choice of guest blogger, Peg! Lee's book has now become one of the absolute necessities of writing...and he's such a wealth of amazing info.

Another great thing about the book--or, a great distraction, if you are trying to get something done--it's just fun to read, like a novel.

(On the other hand, when I was a kid, I read the entire World Book, aardvarks to gosh, whatever is after zebra. Zygote?)

Did any of you?

Chris said...

Lee is very generous with his knowledge. His blog is a must-read!

C.J. Darlington said...

This is incredibly encouraging info. One of my main characters in my WIP is a cop (though for most of the book she's off duty). It's really beneficial for me to read this info that it is possible for non-cops to write about them. :) I'm off to check out your blog, Lee. And I've added your book to my Wish List at Amazon!

Terry Odell said...

LOL! Yes, I read the entire World Book, too. We had the red edition. What about you?

Lee Lofland said...

Hi Hank. Thanks for comparing my book to reading a boring encyclopedia! Could have been worse, I suppose. You could have compared it to the phone book. :)

Good to see you, again.

Hey, you guys know that Hank's book was just nominated for an Agatha Award, right. Talk about good reading!

Chris - I'm really glad you're enjoying my blog.

C.J. - Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I'll be happy to help, if I can.

Wilfred the Author said...

Hey, Lee. Great stuff. I've noticed that many authors try to put too many details or too much of that research into their work. The right touch brings a familiar realism to the work, but it's easy to overload the work.

Mary Connealy said...

Interesting post. I especially liked the part about, "They’re not all drunks with poor eating habits."

Honestly from watching TV sometimes you wonder. Or even sober, they're 'at work' even when they're home. It would be a shame if being a policeman was that hard on a person's life.

Lee Lofland said...

Wilfred - You're correct. It's the right touch that keeps me turning pages and going back to the book stores for more.

Mary - I wouldn't take anything for the experience I gained as a police officer. It was a wonderful career, with many good memories and great friendships. However, there's no way I'd ever do it again. I really feel as if I've lived three lifetimes - one good one and two filled with brain-twisting, gut-wrenching nightmares.