Getting it Right: Technical Advice for Novelists

Police and detective stories have withstood the test of time, and they are not going away anytime soon. If you’re writing crime novels but have no law enforcement experience, how do you get it right?

Most crime writers have no personal experience with the crimes about which they write, nor with the resulting investigative processes and procedures. If you don’t know the subject matter of which you write, you somehow need to learn it.

It is not enough to rely on what you have read or watched for entertainment as your main source of expertise. If you do, you will inevitably get it wrong. Maybe you’ll be close, but for me, personally, close doesn’t cut it.

Authors Who Get it Right

One of my favorite authors has always been Elmore Leonard. Unlike most, the “King of Dialogue” had the remarkable ability to write as a twenty-year veteran cop, and as a twenty-year convict, though he was never either one. Clearly, he spent a tremendous amount of time studying both, and he probably had great technical advisors along the way.

Joseph Wambaugh is a cop-turned-author, the trailblazer of authentic police procedure novels. Now, as decades have passed since he worked a beat himself, Wambaugh consults today’s cops so that his writing is authentic and true to the time.

Michael Connelly has a host of LAPD technical advisors, and he gets the details right most of the time. (He could use an advisor from the sheriff’s department because he has made glaring mistakes when speaking of my former department.) As a former cop-beat reporter, Connelly knows the importance of being technically correct in characters and scenes, and I give him credit for that.

How to Find Experts

One great resource for crime writers who have no police experience is Writer’s Detective, a website and blog hosted by a California police officer named Adam. (He uses the pen name B.A. Richardson, as he is still an active duty law enforcement officer.) He also has a Facebook group where he and other experts will answer questions. If you join the group, you will learn who has true expertise and learn to rely upon them and ignore some of the others who love to answer every question, though they have no experience themselves.

Many writers use Adam’s services, and I can personally tell you that his advising is always spot on. He also now hosts a podcast, and it is my understanding he will be releasing a book that will offer even more technical advice for writers.

Another great resource is a recently-retired Milwaukee PD sergeant named Patrick O’Donnell. He published a book on the topic as well: Cops and Writers. Though I haven’t read the book, it has good reviews, and I contributed to some of the material he used to write it.

Along the lines of Facebook groups, there are other great resources for writers. Legal Fiction, which is hosted by an attorney, and Trauma Fiction, a group hosted and attended by medical experts, are both worth joining for writers who need direction in those areas.

Lee Lofland’s book Police Procedure and Investigation: A Guide for Writers is another great resource for writers. Lofland is the founder of Writers’ Police Academy-MurderCon, “a special training event for writers of all genres, with a specific focus on solving the crime of murder,” and is a highly regarded consultant for writers.

My Experience

I have personally served as a consultant on several books. I’ve been mentioned in a couple, including one by a best-selling romance author. She had found me through a friend and asked if I would be willing to answer questions and provide some guidance while she wrote her book. I made myself available to her for several months as she worked on her novel.

Some consultants charge for their work, which is completely appropriate. However, many authors don’t make enough (or any) money on their books and do not have a budget that would allow them to pay for technical advisors. My technical advising thus far has been without compensation, but I wouldn’t do it again unless the person asking for help was a friend or associate, and the commitment was minimal.

Are All Cops Experts?

If you do find a cop or someone retired from law enforcement who is willing to help, make sure he/she has expertise in the area you seek. Not all cops are investigators. (In fact, most are not.) Not all cops are experts in traffic enforcement, or gang enforcement, or arson investigation. If you want an expert, find someone who could qualify in a court of law as an expert in the field of whatever it is you are seeking information.

A word of caution: There are those who have “supervised” and claim expertise in the field to which they were assigned. In some cases, this may be true. But most often, at least in the field of homicide investigation, supervisors do not conduct investigations themselves; rather, they oversee the work of their staff. That does not necessarily make one an expert. Many of the supervisors who were selected to go to the homicide bureau at LASD had no investigative experience because it was not necessary that they did. Their roles as supervisors had nothing to do with being investigators.

What Does it Cost?

The aforementioned Facebook groups are examples of where to find free advice. Just make sure the person offering the advice has some level of expertise and didn’t Google the answer to your question. (You could have done that yourself.) Books can be inexpensive, and of course, podcasts and blogs are free.

If you do find someone with expertise who is willing to help you without compensation, you should be very appreciative of his/her help. The knowledge they share with you was hard-earned, and likely has a greater value than even they know. The romance author I mentioned thanked me in her book. I didn’t expect anything more than that, but you might consider sending a gift certificate for a coffeehouse or maybe a steakhouse as a way of showing your appreciation. Most importantly, don’t use them and move on. I reached out to that author I had helped when I published my first book, and she never responded to me.

Writing Advice for the Cops

Conversely, if you are a cop who is determined to tell your story, you, too, should get it right — the writing part of it. Learn to write so that your prose is enjoyable to read. Writing to entertain is far different than writing police reports and affidavits. I learned that valuable lesson the hard way, having submitted some of my early work to an editor and an agent at a writer’s conference only to have it returned peppered with red ink. The harsh reality was that I had a lot to learn (and still do) about writing. Since I didn’t take college courses on creative writing, there was much I didn’t know, such as identifying and slaying as much passive voice as possible and paying attention to proper sentence structure.

Hire an Editor

Lastly, I have an editor. She is invaluable to me. Every published author has at least one. If you are self-publishing, you need to find a qualified editor (or two) and submit everything you write to her for review. Doing so has freed me to write more and worry less about commas and trying to figure out that whole lay, lie, lain, and laid thing (my greatest grammatical nemeses).

Best of luck to all of my fellow writers, authors, novelists, dramatists, bloggers, scribblers, and other assorted and glorious wordsmiths.

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Thank you for reading my blog. I hope you will share it with your family and friends.


14 thoughts on “Getting it Right: Technical Advice for Novelists

  1. As a LE veteran, it galls me to find gross inaccuracies in the novel I’m reading. Some errors I can put down to the author using a municipal agency procedure applied to a state agency. They can be vastly different. Here in NorCal, I never heard “vic” or “perp” except on TV. A cop character’s language can speak volumes to their make-up. Dennis’ list goes a long way to helping the author with resources. Another is Citizen Academies. My local police and sheriff’s office do academies (including one in Spanish) which help introduce the cop culture to the public.
    Also an agency Public Information Officer may be able to help. If nothing else he/she could point you to a department or individual who may be able to answer your questions. Authors can make contacts via these two above avenues.
    One last thought: cops are suspicious by nature. Cold-calling seldom bears fruit. If you need assistance, do your research first. Find out what you can from the internet, etc. about the organization. Cops also hate wasting their time. If you are professional (make an appointment, business cards, etc.) they are more likely to help. The trick is simple: build a relationship. As Danny said earlier, the romance author he helped didn’t return the “favor” when he reached out. He probably won’t help her again.

  2. I never knew your greatest grammatical nemesis is/was the lay, lie, lain, or laid thing. I might’ve been able to help a little in that area.
    You know me. I’ll lay down whenever possible….and sometimes I’ll lie about why I like to lay.
    If I explain why I’m laying down, I might be lying about why I’m laying. Mostly it’s just because I’m lazy.
    I laid down at your place once in the middle of the day and you laid a guilt trip on me that a Baptist preacher would be proud of.

    Sound about right?

    You’re on your own with “lain”.

      1. Ha! Danny, don’t trust all that’s written ^ here. The key thing that everyone gets wrong is that “lay” is the past tense of the verb “to lie,” meaning “to recline.” It seems incorrect because everyone speaks incorrectly. Practice using it correctly. E.g., “I lay down to nap at 1:00 p.m. I have lain here for two hours. Now, I will be lying here at Midnight, unable to sleep.” —> 2) “Lay” is the active or present tense of the verb “to lay,” meaning to place or set down something—lay on a table, for example. “Laid” is the past tense. E.g., ”Lay your keys on the hall table where I laid mine last night. I will be laying the good china on the dining table for Thanksgiving dinner. Could you help by laying the silverware? I’m making deviled eggs from the eggs the hens laid all week. They are happy hens; they have been laying three a day for weeks.” —> 3) Third verb is “to lie,” meaning to tell an untruth; it is simpler to get right. E.g., “Okay, I lied about my age. I am not lying when I admit I am 76.”
        Here they are: present, past, past participle.
        1) to recline or assume a horizontal position:
        Verb: lie \ lay \ lain \ lying
        2) to place something on a table:
        Verb: lay \ laid \ laying
        3) to tell an untruth:
        verb: lie \ lied \ lying
        Hope you appreciate the fundamentals lhere. I was lucky; I had great teachers back when they actually taught us this stuff.
        [R.I.P. Mr. Gus Hanges ~ I appreciate all you taught me many decades ago. You’re still teaching. Paying it forward.]

    1. 1) I was ready to go look for Dennis’s list.
      2) Superb post in general, Danny.
      3) Everyone should also read what Danny has to say about Raising Daughters. Really.
      Thanks, Danny.

  3. Always enjoy when you put your thoughts into print my friend… in an ever changing world, it is always good to just read something.

    Thanks for your trust in me to provide some measure of expertise when needed. Means a lot to me.

    Back when, taking the kids to get their Library Cards was a big deal. I hope people still do that.

    1. Thanks, Mike. Perfect example — I should have mentioned it — how I didn’t just guess about the flying parts since I’d been up in a bird several times; rather, when I wrote that scene in THE COLOR DEAD involving the helicopter, I went to an expert — YOU — someone who has spent thousands of hours at the helm. And in doing so I not only got the technical stuff, but the great backstory stuff too, like the bird being blown off SCT station. Good stuff, sir. Thank you!

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