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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's all better with friends.