Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Breath of Life





It's easy to become so caught up in the minutia of life, that we forget to live. We put off exercising our bodies then wonder why our thoughts are muddled. Writers often struggle for balance. Staring at a keyboard for hours, struggling to meet deadlines or word counts often comes at the expense of a deep breath and the soothing calm that accompanies it.

Two weeks. I passed the last two amazing weeks exploring the depths with stingrays, turtles, eels and a rainbow of fishes. Two glorious weeks of sharing blazing sunsets, dry champagne, impromptu picnics and miles-long walks with a man who loves me. Two whole weeks to reacquaint myself with what brings me joy when I'm not tapping out letters and stringing together stories.

Two weeks to restore my equilibrium. Two weeks to gather new memories, spin new tales. Two weeks to remember that there is so much beyond the office, and that if I want to write about life honestly, I must experience it first. 

And in that time, I remembered how to breathe.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Revisions

I love revisions.  I know many writers hate them, but what other job are you allowed to go back as many times as necessary to make sure you did it right?  It's better than an open book test, there's rarely a time limit AND you can have others proofread your work!  What's not to love?

I've recently completed my novel.  I'm the kind of writer who straddles the line between getting out the first draft and revising as I go along.  I learned the value of reading the finished product aloud when errors my eyes had glossed over we're glaringly obvious when I spoke them.

I also have some amazing and honest readers who I rely on to tell me when I've veered off the rails or point out a little darling that --sadly-- must go.

So. No pithy post today. Probably not next week either.  Instead, I'm letting the "finished" product rest. I've given myself the next couple weeks off.  I intend to read, dive, engage with friends and enjoy the holidays (not to mention hone my query letter and synopsis). Then, I'm going to read it again. Decide if it needs another pass. Or two.

Because I can. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

'Tis the Season--of what?

This year, Black Friday started on Grey Thursday, formerly known as Thanksgiving.  Media reports tell the tale of shoppers graciously stepping aside to allow others to pass, sharing coveted items, and bonding with their fellow man. The crowds linked arms and sang, reveling in the true joy of the holidays, their hearts filled with sorrow for those who chose to stay home, struggling to stay warm by the fire, picking through leftover food and watching It's A Wonderful Life with Aunt Mae and Uncle John. Those poor saps.

Today is Cyber Monday. This day, people will sit at their computers, point their mouse, click their fingers and watch their bank accounts deplete. They will do this with smug satisfaction while wearing their jammies and interacting with no one. Packages will be delivered from a brown sleigh on four wheels complete with a non-denominational, generic holiday platitude personalized to the masses. (Please note, masses here is defined as a large group of common people and not celebrations of the Holy Eucharist.)

In the coming weeks, advertisers will eschew using words such as Christmas or Hanukah, Kwanza or any other label, all the while depicting homey scenes where everyone in the family is drawn together for, what? Tuesday?

Since humanity's earliest days, there have been times of celebration; successful harvests, weddings, births, deaths, the rising of the Nile, et al. And ever since man put his faith in deities to explain the inexplicable, many celebrations have a decidedly religious bent.

Non-denominational is not inclusive. Accepting other people's beliefs is.

Holidays are only meaningful when they, well, actually mean something. From childhood, the beliefs of our family helped form us, even if we adopt new belief systems later in life in response to something we rebelled against. Likewise, the characters we create have visceral emotions about holidays. What do they celebrate? How do they celebrate, and what does that reveal about them? 

There are those who will gladly fight crowds and trade elbows then celebrate their bounty. Point and click will provide some people with their roadmap to Nirvana. If you can gather the family around to celebrate Tuesday, I commend you. But those are not holidays. They are events.

Holidays are special days because of their unique rituals and the feelings they provoke in our hearts. They should do the same for your characters.



Thursday, November 22, 2012

Holiday Joy

Cops work holidays. It's written into the job description right between Court will always fall on your day off and Overtime will occur when you are most fatigued. It's just another one of the perks.

Working a holiday is a mixed bag. Sometimes it's quiet. Thanksgiving tends to be pretty benign. Maybe it's the tryptophan. It's not unusual for the officers' families to throw together a potluck- proving that it's the people, not the place that makes it special.

Christmas morning also tends to be calm. Happy children opening presents, parents sipping coffee, Santa tossing back a cold one now that his job is done for the year.  Things start to go south as the day progresses. The toys break, there's no more Baileys for the coffee, Santa's on a bender. People actually will grab onto a Christmas Tree when they are placed under arrest, they will curse in front of the children.

Halloween? Right up front, it poses the question, are you going to give me what I want or am I going to have to make you suffer?  It's sanctioned robbery. The little ones make it sound cute. They're forgiven their transgressions. The adults? Not so much. Add in alcohol and well, a party's not a party 'til the cops show up.

Superbowl Sunday is another. Don't quibble about it being a holiday. It is. It also has the dubious distinction of being the day with the highest number of domestic violence calls. 'Nuf said.

Holidays are days of extremes. The stress of trying to replicate a Courier & Ives moment can frazzle even the most bubbly among us. But holidays also bring out the best in people. I've been fortunate to have witnessed both. While I prefer the latter, it was the former that kept me in business.

Today is Thanksgiving. A day to take a step back, remember what's important, count the blessings that are all too easy to ignore. Hug your loved ones, load up on the turkey, find a couch. Out on the streets, in the hospitals, behind the fire lines, emergency service people and soldiers are there to protect you.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Tools of the Trade

Cops love their gadgets. Usually, police departments provide all the equipment an officer needs. Some departments allot a uniform allowance (paid once or twice a year).  Regardless, officers tend to spend a boatload of their own money purchasing equipment that enhances their safety, their comfort or their cool quotient.

Case(s) in point:
Body armor air conditioning.  Wearing a ballistic vest on a hot day sucks. No way around it. Imagine the layers; a wool uniform shirt on top, a ballistic vest, a sweat-soaked t-shirt next to your skin. Bonus if you're a woman-- add another layer for the bra. Now picture yourself in Albuquerque or Phoenix, or in a little old lady's home where the thermostat is set to a balmy 97 degrees. Makes you want to go right on out and sign up, no?  The patrol car becomes your sanctuary. Crank the a/c and feel the heat ripple off your body as the cool air--oh, wait. Nope. Too many layers.  So the kind folk at CoolCop devised a hose that connects to the car's air vent on one end and attaches the other end to the front of the officer's ballistic vest then funnels cool air under the vest. Reminiscent of being hooked up to a vacuum hose, it looks geekier than all get-out, but darn if it doesn't feel great.

Flashlights.  The first flashlight issued to me could have been used by Nancy Drew. Over the years I've accumulated Maglites, Streamlights, full size, pocket size, rechargeable, battery powered, lights for my guns, and even a small light that attached under the flap of my uniform pocket.  Let's face it. Cops hate being left in the dark.

Guns. This being a blog and not a dissertation, I'm skipping this. Suffice it to say, guns are the cops ultimate gadget. As such, yeah, just about every single cop has at least one personal handgun. Some could arm a small nation.

Pens. We buy them by the bagful and give them out like candy at Halloween. Some of the people we request signatures from have cooties the likes of which we just don't want. Keep the pen. Consider it our gift to you.

Handcuffs. The Peerless Handcuff Company is the go-to company for cuffs. Their swing-through arm revolutionized restraints and law enforcement has been using their products for a hundred years. Every officer is issued a set of handcuffs, but sometimes, crooks come in matching sets. Thus, it is the rare officer who only carries a single pair. For variety, Peerless has hinged cuffs, chained cuffs, leg restraints, waist restraints, oversized, and for the fashion conscious, colors. Yes, you too can own pink handcuffs.

The list goes on and presents myriad opportunities to customize your character's quirks. Maybe your character cherishes something handed down from one generation to another, eschewing the modern version. An officer's choice of equipment is personal and revealing. What tools do your characters carry?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Monday, October 22, 2012

Dare To Read

Heroes defy expectations.

I don't know when I started to read, or when that skill turned into a passion. I know that while other kids got grounded, my mom used to close my books. I remember reading Nancy Drew by flashlight when I should have been sleeping, and the next day running my fingers over every stone in our fireplace, looking for a secret latch.

But I never worried about being shot because I loved books.

It sickens me that a fourteen year old girl was shot in the head because she dared advocate for education.  Malala Yousufzai is strong. She is a survivor. Even now she battles against infection sustained during her assault and is regaining motor skills and some memory. She is able to write.

What a beautiful gift.

I am grateful to courageous women around the world, contemporary and historical. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich penned Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. The title resonates with truth. In her country, Malala is a troublemaker. Dangerous. It is because of people with the courage to speak out, speak up and dream that I was able to pursue an education, succeed in a male-dominated profession, earn equal pay, and live out my own stories and dreams.

Get well Malala. The world needs you.



Monday, October 8, 2012

Mea Culpa

Nothing like publishing a blog post professing to be a writer and several hours later discovering a blatant spelling error... um, sorry.

Solitary Confinement?

I've heard it spoken that writing is a solitary endeavor.  It is a seductive thought, replete with black turtlenecks, jaunty berets, and Gauloises cigarettes. The allure of the artist is a romantic notion that explains social dysfunction. Writers can trot out their tired tropes:  I am creative, aloof. I employ words mere mortals cannot comprehend. I am an art-teeste.

What a bunch of hooey.

Okay, writing is a solitary endeavor in the sense that only one person is usually seated in front of the computer at a given time, but it's the rare writer who creates in isolation.

Allow me to 'splain.

My creative side emerged when I was ten. I would climb the Mimosa tree in the front yard and write bad poetry amongst the boughs. I recently discovered some of my early prose and can confirm that although worthy of publication in the school anthology, I was not destined to join the pantheon of poets.

I briefly dabbled in horror and wrote a short story about a babysitter cursed with a demon child, which I penned while babysitting said child. Stephen King can sleep easy at night.

Despite my love of story, I became a cop, a profession that had no place for fiction in its "just the facts" police reports.  Being a California cop, I wrote my requisite screenplay with a partner who became the first of many (not including my mom) who encouraged me to write.

I left law enforcement briefly to complete my Medieval History degree (I know, right?) in Paris. Here began my love affair with black turtlenecks, jaunty berets and my disdain for Gauloises.

But while you can take the gal out of the station house, you can't take the cop out of the gal. I returned to police work in Colorado and as I moved up the ladder, documenting reports gave way to writing policies, position papers, a newspaper column, and an essay in a college textbook.

By this time, I had toyed with writing a novel, but a lot of words went into a novel and I didn't really have a lot to say. Then I met Mandy. She organized a critique group. Bolstered by Mandy, Jenny and others, I started to crank out chapters.  Still others stepped forward to lend encouragement and the occasional kick in the ass. I went to a writers conference and met still more people--people who were doing what I wanted to do. They shared tips, insights, perils and strategies.

Damn if I didn't write a book.

Then I started writing my second book and I recognized what didn't work in the first one. I internalized these lessons and overcame them as I drafted my second one. Enter serendipity.  I answered a comment on Miss Snark's First Victim blog and became internet critique partners with Christine and Angie. Both of these mystery writers possess a wicked sense of humor and keen perception.

I read craft books. Donald Maass changed how I looked at conflict and tension. I went to his workshop where I received validation and criticism--both equally important.

My community continues to grow. I have crit partners, established authors who answer questions and share wine, a cadre of bluntly honest readers and some who don't like what I write but like me anyway. But my biggest supporter is closer to home. In fact, we share one. He is at times sounding board, coach, counselor and cheerleader. Bonus! He has an uncanny knack for talking me off the ledge when the story gods seem to have forsaken me.

So, yeah, I guess writing is a solitary endeavor. But truth is, I've never felt less alone.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Really Good Bad Guys

I have a framed picture on my desk of a young girl looking skyward with her arms thrown wide, wearing overalls, goggles and a cape. The caption reads I am the hero of my own story.

The photograph reminds me that we are all the center of our universe. Yet too often we create characters who lack the motivation, emotional commitment, or intestinal fortitude for the actions they pursue on the page.  Imagine if those characters had their own motivations, acted in their own interest, acknowledged their conflicting emotions, disagreed with each other. How much more interesting does the story become?


I attended a week-long Breakout Novel Intensive 2.0 workshop last week taught by Donald Maass. I am only now sufficiently recovered to sort through the myriad ways a writer can delve deeper into the motivations of their characters to create a stronger emotional response from the reader. It's powerful stuff (that, of course, being the technical term). Somewhere along the line, I realized my antagonist was the hero of his very own story.

...and that, boys and girls, changed everything.


A really good bad guy is as contradictory as he (or she) sounds. How is he right? What theological, historical, political or scientific arguments support his cause? How does he believe his intentions are altruistic? Who in your story espouses his mindset, who eschews it? Can they both be right? (Hint: the answer is yes.) Why bother? Well, it's hard to be heroic against a wimpy adversary. The cop who uses a taser on a five-year-old isn't going to win a valor award, unless the kid had a cannon pointed at his classmates.

Life is messy. One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter. It just depends on which side of the conflict you're standing. Blur the lines. Let your characters be the heroes of their own story.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Prison Garb

This just in from the "Are You Flipping Serious?" file.

Bad guys end up in jail. This is good. Writing about the booking details accurately, this is even better.  Having the correctional officer remove the suspect's belt and shoelaces but leaving him his Rolex watch and eyebrow stud just makes me want to cry.

Please don't make me cry.

During the booking process, all personal property is removed until such time as the person is released. This accomplishes several things: The person with the Rolex will continue to breath (the author had his character jumped for his watch), the county or state (depending on the level of the facility) will not be responsible for damage to said property, and it cannot be used as a weapon or tool (You may be surprised and mildly appalled at what a piece of body jewelry can do).

Some things can be fudged to serve the greater good of a story. Taking 39 cent laces but leaving a several thousand dollar watch is not one of those things.

I feel better now.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Behind Bars

Twenty-two years as a cop meant I booked a lot of people into jail.  Only once have I experienced the other side of the bars and it occurred on vacation in Europe a couple years back.

Here is my tale.

I'd traveled to Germany with a friend.  She is the kind of friend who can laugh with you, cry with you, drink you under the table and keep your deepest, darkest secrets. In all, a perfect friend. She also indulged my love of medieval history and patiently toured cathedrals with me.

Thus our visit to Aachen.

Quick lesson: Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the Year of Our Lord, 800. He happened to be the first to marry the administrative side of ruling an empire with an ecclesiastical power base. Smart guy. He built a cathedral in Aachen to celebrate the union beginning the endeavor in 792 A.D., but hey, he was a visionary.

The Byzantium style building is round and consists of a nave on the ground level and an arcade level under a domed roof. It is on this elevated level that a marble throne is set to overlook the nave. The throne itself is comprised of six slabs of unadorned marble. Originally, six steps led to the chair, however, somewhere along the centuries, one fell by the wayside. A medieval tagger etched a Nine Man Morris game into one of the panels. Some things never change.

Now, the only way to see the throne is to take a tour, so tour we did. A group of twelve followed a very enthusiastic grad student around the cathedral while he explained the significance of the building. Finally, we ascended the spiral staircase and confronted the throne. The dimensions were based on the biblical rendering of King Solomon's throne. Symbolism in the medieval world is nothing if not subtle. I listened raptly, my camera poised to capture history. If only all the other tourists would clear out of the way.

Huzzah! The tour ended at the foot of the throne and the group meandered toward the steps until only my friend and I remained! Giddy, my shutter snapped, capturing the majesty of the moment. I called to my friend, my voice echoing against the pillars.

Nothing.

I turned, expecting to see her as overcome with awe as I was to be in the presence of such an historical treasure. Instead, I discovered it was all too much for her and she had left me to revel alone. Her thoughtfulness overwhelmed me. She is a true friend.

Like a bolt from the heavens, realization struck. Holy shit! I paused for the briefest passing of time and waited for the second bolt to fry me to a crisp for my ironic blasphemy. When I remained unscathed, I ran down the spiral staircase and came face to face with a gate.

Locked.

I wrapped my hands around the bars and peered into the nave, looking like the felon I had become. Where was my friend? That ungrateful cur who had abandoned me? Who did she think she was? Ha! The appellation friend would no longer cross my lips to describe her. I spied her blackened heart heading for the doors to the courtyard.

My dilemma. The space which separated us spanned a sufficient distance as to require an elevated voice. This, however was a cathedral and a house of worship. I was fairly certain elevated voices were frowned upon. In desperation, I resorted to the only thing I could think of in my panicked state.

PPPPSSSSSSSSSSSSSTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

She turned, that wonderful goddess of a woman recognized my plight and returned to the gate. She is the best friend ever! She leaned in close, her brow furrowed with confusion. "What are you doing?" she asked. "I'm locked in," I replied, then added the obvious, "Go get the docent."

She, being the most exalted friend one could have, did just that. Although, the docent was not our tour guide, and in fact a rather dour expression darkened his face. The key to my freedom was wrought iron and ornate; the kind of key that hangs from the waist of an abbess. Only one click stood between my brush with greatness and the modern world. The docent spoke German. I do not. But his words followed me as he turned the key and granted me liberty.

I suspect the rough translation to be "stupid American" but that's just a guess.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Writer Walks Into A Bar...

Q: How many copy editors does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Do you mean have intercourse or replace?  Please clarify.

Much ado has been made about how word choice impacts a writer's message. Mark Twain famously quipped that the right word was the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

In a novel, (or any story, for that matter) the wrong word can sabotage the entire scene. For example, when a gun is used as a murder weapon how it's described is critical. If early in the scene, the author tires of using the word gun, handgun and anything that rhymes with shun and substitutes the word revolver for variety, all will remain fine and dandy if the handgun is actually a revolver. Now imagine you need the detective to know the suspect of the shooting is lying.

"We were playing Russian Roulette," the boy stammered. "I went first and held it against my head.  All it did was click.  Then it was Mike's turn. He pulled the trigger. I didn't think it would really go off."
The detective studied his tear-streaked face. She grabbed the plastic bag containing the semi-automatic handgun off the interview room table and examined the evidence tag.  "This one?" she asked.
The boy nodded.

So how does she know he's lying?  Well, based solely on the statement, if the gun was actually a revolver, she couldn't.  But semi-autos get their name because they automatically feed ammunition into the chamber from a magazine that precludes skipping a shot like a partially loaded revolver could.

If the author described the gun as a revolver first, then changed it to a semi-auto, there is a continuity error.  If the author believes that the words gun and revolver are interchangeable, then there is a deeper issue that requires either more research or knowledgeable critique partners.

All writers end up penning a scene involving technology or scenarios that they have no first hand knowledge from which to draw. We create fantasy worlds and gruesome crimes.  How we describe those worlds determines who will be captivated by our stories.

I love that the world has copy editors.  When I read the above joke on Twitter, the writer in me enjoyed a hearty guffaw. (I'm sorry to say I couldn't find the tweet again to give credit to the original author) We've all been guilty of errors that would have been pretty embarrassing if they had not been caught in the editing process.

...almost as embarrassing as screwing in a lightbulb.











 




Monday, August 6, 2012

Going for Gold

I just returned from vacation--a friends and family tour that encompassed 4 states, 3 weeks, 1 wedding, and an ailing mother... I had intended to write everyday.  That didn't happen.

The best athletes incorporate rest into their training. It allows the body to heal. Writing is an endurance sport and those who practice it must occasionally rest. Revivify. Life needs to be lived before the experience can be rendered on the page.

So now I can write about the Loneliest  Road in America (Highway 50 as it traverses Nevada), the clandestine thrill of a speakeasy (Bourbon & Branch--requires a password to get in), the ever-changing scents found biking along a river path (Squaw Valley), the lush taste of wine (Santa Barbara vineyards--although truth be told, I've had this experience a couple times before...), the restless sleep that accompanies staying in a motel where the car parked next to yours has bullet holes in the trunk (Moreno Valley) and the reassuring company of people I love.

The current Olympiads remind us how commitment to their sport can lead to a place on the podium and into the annals of history. Writing a book requires commitment. For me that means a near-daily date with my computer and accepting the fact that there will be experiences I miss.

Striking the balance between living life and recreating it? Well, that's like winning gold.



Friday, July 20, 2012

Best Intentions

I'm pretending to be European and taking a month this summer to reconnect with friends and family and while I had the best intentions, my next blog will be at the end of the month.
Enjoy your summer!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Maillot What?

I am a bona fide Tour de France junkie.  I can discuss pelotons, break-away strategy, category hills, and jersey significance. I can almost keep up with the changing team names.  Commentator Bob Roll lives in the same town that I do, I secretly crush on Phil Liggett (I think it's the accent) and I'm really tired of hearing new accusations against Lance Armstrong. In short, I'm part of the spandex crowd--albeit a very slow part.

But like anything specialized (for those wondering, no pun intended*) cycling comes with its own vocabulary, lingo, and secret handshake. The first time I heard the French term maillot jaune, I was bewildered.  In the world of cycling, the yellow jersey is the premier accolade bestowed upon the Tour leader.  I was similarly mystified by a beyond category climb.  I mean, really?  If it is a quantifiable grade, a known distance and has a GPS location, how can it be beyond category? Don't even get me started on the French obsession for cycling.  I'd be blogging for days.

When writing, it is more important to get a few of the smaller details right than to expound upon the big picture ad nauseum. It is the same whether the topic is cycling, police work, or quantum mechanics. Research has the sultry voice of a Siren, and before you can lash yourself to a mast, you've written pages upon pages of incredibly boring prose that demonstrates how well you know your topic but does nothing to forward your story.

Well, maybe you don't, but I do. My solution? I'm quite chummy with my delete key.

The flip side of writing too much is to insert such an obscure reference that no one outside the elite circle of the profession will understand. Did you find it in a footnote?  Leave it there.

Detail adds realism.  The beginning writer learns that it is easier for a reader to see the white bark of a birch than the trunk of a generic tree. Research is critical, lingo is great, if you tell an inside joke, you owe it to your readers to plant enough clues that they understand the punchline.

I have a couple of wonderful readers. They are quick to point out when I get too technical or fall back on the shorthand cops use to describe events. And let me tell you, cops love lingo. Just like cyclists. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go see who's wearing the polka dots, leading the breakaway, and giving chase.

Happy Independence Day!

*for those wondering what the heck was so punny, Specialized (capital S) is a bike manufacturer.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Hose Draggers and Blue Canaries

Colorado is on fire.  As I write this, there are fires to the north, east and west of where I'm at.  I have friends who have been evacuated and others who are manning the fire lines.  There are cops going door to door with evacuation notices and those trying to mitigate the chaos of traffic.  Still others are arresting  firefighter impersonators intent on stealing equipment. (I'm not sure but I think there's a special circle of hell for those faux firefighterss and it's really, really hot...)

The relationship between firefighters and cops is an interesting study of pig-headedness, pride, one-upmanship, and respect--although sometimes, the respect is cloaked in sarcasm and ribbing.  Truth is, when the chips are down, we bail each other out.

Firefighters refer to cops as blue canaries.  They shake their heads at our impetuousness when we enter a burning building without proper protection.  We call it heroic, they call it reckless.  We call them a lot worse, but this is a family blog....

There's a saying in most of the cops shops:  God created cops because firefighters need heroes too.  We joke that they "fight" fires but that fires don't punch back or run away.  We tease them about how heavy a television remote can be when they are reclining in their lounge chairs. Truth is, cops are mighty pleased when we need firefighters and they show up.

There's a slogan in the firehouse that goes something like this:  God created firefighters because cops need heroes too.  I actually think they came up with the phrase first, but then again, they have more free time to think this stuff up.  All I know is that when someone has a gun and is threatening a firefighter, they seem might pleased when we return the favor and show up on their calls.

What almost happens in public safety is the danger that both agencies are committed to stopping.  The men and women who don turnouts or ballistic vests are dedicated to their community in a manner that defies logic.  Normal people flee danger, not charge into it headlong. The simple fact is we are family.  Like family, we are prone to squabbling and sibling rivalries, but when the call goes out, we stand shoulder to shoulder.

And sometimes we even acknowledge that they are heroes too.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Are You Qualified?

In the last twenty-two years, I've put some rounds down range. And every time I stepped foot on the range, butterflies took up residency in my gut. It wasn't that I didn't like shooting. Au contraire, nothing like blowing holes in pieces of paper to relieve stress. Nope, I hated the qualification part.

For the record, I've never failed a range qualification. Over the years that meant shooting a 9mm Smith and Wesson, Beretta 92F, Heckler and Koch .40 cal, Remington shotgun, a Glock .40 cal., a Colt AR.  And that was just the on-duty weapons.  Add in the off-duty and I qualified with James Bond's favorite Walther PPKS .380, more Glocks and the occasional Chief's Special.  For fun, I've shot a Tommy gun, Uzi, AK, revolvers, fully automatic and semi-automatic rifles, and a cannon.  That last one was at a festival, and really, I only lit the fuse, but still.  It got your attention.

The best qualification courses incorporate movement; by the officer, the target and even the scenario.  Real-life shootings are dynamic events and officers must train to adapt to ever-changing conditions.  I loved the combat shooting. It was simple. React to the threat. Done. 

On the other hand, static targets and I never really seemed to get along. I'd adopt my modified Weaver stance, feel the breeze, size up the other guys on the firing line, breathe deeply, align my sights and halfway through the exhale, I'd pause and gently squeeze the trigger. Inevitably, I'd drop my rounds low and to the right. Again, simple. I over-thought it.

Qualifications don't end with retirement.  With some limitations, retired officers can opt to maintain their credentials in compliance with the US Law Enforcement Officer's Safety Act of 2004 that allows them to carry concealed weapons--provided they qualify with a law enforcement agency with the specific guns they plan to carry.  

The right to carry a concealed weapons is a hot topic in the nation today. Writers need to understand there is a difference between the ability to own a gun, carry a gun and conceal a gun.  The last is a no-no unless licensed with the local constabulary.  Unlike state licensing for civilians, the Federal Act allows active and qualified retired officers to carry nation-wide regardless of state limitations (with a few caveats).

This afternoon, I have a date with a range master.  I will stare down paper targets and demonstrate my shooting ability with three different handguns.  I'll have butterflies fluttering in my stomach, but over the years, I've come to realize that they are there to remind me the importance of being competent with a weapon that can as easily take a life as protect one.


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Not All Cops Eat Donuts

Cops all tend to swim in the same personality pool, use the same lingo, have the same values.  So how can authors make them distinct?

Spin the stereotype.

In his book The Breakout Novelist, Donald Maass exhorts authors to mine stereotypes and then find one way in which the character turns that on its ear. (Exercise 41 for those who have the book--and if you don't, stop reading, I'll wait....)

Most stereotypes lean toward the pejorative.  The stereotypical cop, therefore, could encompass the following negatives:  Donut eater, officious, womanizer, impatient, hates people, overly suspicious, gun and gadget lover.

Drawing from the list, I describe Officer Matt Mendoza, a minor character, as seen through the eyes of my protagonist, Officer Claire Hartman.

Mendoza was a walking stereotype.  His love of donuts led to a battle with his scale, but didn't slow down his pursuit of women.  He faced every new encounter with overt suspicion and controlled it with impatient officiousness.  Despite choosing a career that professed to help people, he really didn't like them.  The only thing that flouted convention was his disdain for guns.  He hated them.  Only carried one because he had to, only fired it at the quarterly qualifications.  The brass didn't ride him too hard though.  He regularly outshot the department range junkies.  Go figure.

Or consider this:

He was the anti-cop.  It took more than a cursory glance to discern his profession.  No mustache, no string of ex-wives.  He eschewed fried dough and worked out regularly.  The only trait that outed him as a cop was his love of gadgets.  If Galls featured it in their catalogue, he had to have it.  He went on a pilgrimage each year to the Shot Show, the Mecca of law enforcement trade shows and treated the event as a religious experience; worshipping at the booths of Aimpoint and Colt, garbed in the robes of 5.11.  He had photos of himself with R. Lee Ermey and Black Hawk Down Pilot, Mike Durant.  He was the only person Claire knew who owned his own pair of night googles.

Two very different people derived from a single stereotype.

Stereotypes develop from a kernel of truth and become widely held as an oversimplified version of a particular type of person or thing. Stereotyping can be a useful tool for authors to employ as a way to shortcut the development of minor characters.  But the danger lies in relying on the stereotype to accomplish all of your characterization instead of giving the character depth and individual idiosyncrasies.

It isn't a difficult exercise, but it results in vastly improved characterization.

...oh, and I prefer scones.







Monday, May 28, 2012

We Remember

There will be no pithy blog post today, no sarcasm, no snarky asides.  Today is a day of remembrance to  honor those who fell in service to our country.  The men and women of the armed forces and law enforcement face danger on a daily basis.  Few set out to be heroes. Perhaps they set out to make a difference, do their job.  But more often than not, fate determines who becomes heroes.  A man answers a radio call, a woman witnesses a crime in progress, troops follow orders, the danger escalates.  They remain stalwart in their purpose.  Usually, they live to tell the tale. Unfortunately, not always.  Their sacrifice should not be forgotten, and their songs should be sung--even in their absence.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

When a Wizard Can't Help You...


The FBI Academy has its own version of the Yellow Brick Road.  It is an obstacle course made famous by Clarice Starling in the movie The Silence of the Lambs.  It consists of 6.1 miles of hilly, wooded trail built by Marines with walls to jump, creeks to traverse, simulated windows to enter, rock faces to climb requiring the use of ropes, mud pits covered with barbed wire to shimmy under, and a cargo net to negotiate.

In a word?  Fun.  Well, that is if you're the kinda gal who likes that stuff.

Why does one do this?  For a brick.  Yup, I am the proud owner of a yellow painted brick with my FBI session number stenciled across the front in black paint.  Truth is, I'd do it again for nothing.

Needless to say, graduates of the FBI National Academy have a soft spot in their hearts for The Wizard of Oz and its famous footpath.  A fellow graduate of my class emailed me the above movie poster.  When I stopped laughing, I thought how appropriate it was for writers too.

The caption reads: You don't really think Dorothy went through tornadoes, a forest of evil trees, dealt with flying monkeys and a witch all for a stupid pair of red shoes do you?

It begs the question:  What's at stake?

The thought of going through the FBI National Academy and coming home without a brick was enough to motivate me over hill and dale (literally, I think I stepped on Dale in the creek).  Heck, I would have gladly faced off with a flying monkey.

Characters must face obstacles.  Why do they chose to face them, overcome or abandon them?  Is the reward worth it?

Did I really want a brick, or did I want what it represents?  The brick is just a brick.  But, running the yellow brick road? Now, that's a story!

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Strength of Simplicity

I became a cop because I hate bullies.  Well, that and the opening sequence of Charlie's Angels, but I digress.

The other day, I tried to capture the angst my female protagonist suffered while she contemplated the brutalities of humanity.  I employed flowery prose, words with gravitas, heavy metaphors.

And it was crap.

In my quest to infuse the scene with meaning, I lost sight of the elemental reason my character entered law enforcement.  Simply stated, she thought she could make a difference.  Hubris?  Perhaps.  But that single reason guides her decisions and propels her into confrontations with evil.  To be successful, she has to internalize these encounters, learn from them, analyze them when necessary, but she can not forget them, or shove them aside.  It is her recognition of evil that allows her to deal with it.

In real life, people who enter law enforcement because of pay, benefits, or prestige often leave the profession before reaching retirement.  The realities of police work don't make the recruitment brochures.  I've been shot at, spit on, cursed, and fought.  I've worked holidays, birthdays, double shifts.  I've stood in rain, and slipped on ice. Not for the money. Certainly not for the prestige (Charlie's Angels aside, this is not a glamor job...). No, I became a cop because I hate bullies.  That motivation allowed me to make a difference.  I might not have moved mountains in my career, but I certainly shoved around a little dirt.

The goal of police work is that when the cops show up, things get better.  Whether a writer or cop, a person who loses sight of her goals loses her ability to be effective.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A-Muse-ing...


The weather has finally settled down in the Florida Keys and I am off diving....
Not even a gun-toting muse could keep me at my keyboard today.

Happy Monday, everyone!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Voice Recognition

Character distinction can be difficult to achieve and harder to sustain. I was reminded of the importance of individual voice when I received an email from a friend of mine. Two of his granddaughters recently wrote free verse poetry. Mind you, one is seven years old, and the other is six.  The poems are not sophisticated, but there are a multitude of lessons contained in their words.

Ponies

They have flowing manes, and long tails.  I love them.
They come in many different colors.
They feel soft.
They smell yummy.
They are so big!
They hear other horses.
They eat apples.
              Jade, age 7

Mouse Guts

Ooie Goe. Gooie Gooe.  Awsome!
The stomach looks like snot.
It smells.....Awesome!
And sounds like Jade Screaming!
The Cats would like to eat it.
               Grace, age 6

Apparently, Grace illustrated her poem, but her grandfather thought it was too "gross" to forward.

It doesn't take much imagination to envision these two little girls.  The authors reveal so much of themselves through their voice.

Do your characters speak this vividly?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Arches & Loops & Whorls--Oh My!

What the Dewey Decimal System does for books, the Henry System does for fingerprint identification.

But what, exactly, is a fingerprint?

The pads of a person's fingers display grooves and friction ridges which provide traction, allowing a person to pick things up without having everything literally slip through his or her fingers.  This is good. Forensically speaking, what's even better, is that these markings are distinct and identifiable.

As early as 1685, a Bolognese anatomy professor identified loops and whorls on a person's finger pads.  That was expanded upon by the work of Sir Edward Henry who divided fingerprints into five types as early as 1899 and whose efforts became the basis for modern classification.

No two people (yes, including otherwise identical twins) have exactly the same fingerprints.  Fingerprints are divided into three basic categories: arches, loops and whorls.  The basic categories are then further subdivided based on characteristics of the markings.  For example, only 5% of the population display arches and an arch can be either plain or tented.  Loops are encountered in 60% of the population and can be single or double. Depending on the direction the loop leans, they are described as either radial or ulnar.  The remaining population has target or spiral whorls that have four subgroups: plain, central, double or accidental.

It used to be that to compare prints one had to have a good magnifying glass and a lot of patience.  Now the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) can search over 500,000 prints in less than a second.  AFIS will provide requesting law enforcement agencies with possible results that must then be hand verified to ensure accuracy.  Returns from AFIS usually occur within an hour, making this one of the few clues that an investigator can follow up on and have almost instantaneous results.

An investigator looks for three types of prints at a crime scene: patent, plastic or latent.  A patent print is visible to the naked eye and occurs when a substance on the finger is transferred to another surface.  The most obvious example is when a person has their fingerprints rolled across an inked pad and then across a piece of paper.  It is the ink that leaves a patent print behind.

The second type of print is plastic.  This is when the finger comes in contact with a soft malleable substance. Think wax, soap or even a thick layer of dust.

The final type is latent.  This print is invisible without specialized equipment such as a laser, ultraviolet light or special processing.

Rarely can a person rid themselves of their fingerprints as the body rejuvenates itself and keeps the same pattern.  Deep gashes or other scars may obliterate a pattern, however, the damage leaves its own distinctive marks.  For story purposes, it's also handy to note that after wearing latex gloves for awhile, a person may leave prints through the material.  Leather glove also leaves impressions distinctive to the glove.

Prints can place a person at a crime scene, or in possession of a weapon.  It's pretty nifty that they can be used to positively identify a specific individual.

Monday, April 16, 2012

I'm From The Government, And I'm Here To Help...

What's wrong with this scene?


The man rapped his knuckles against the oak door and waited. A wizened woman answered the door wearing a muumuu and a confused look on her face.  
"Good afternoon, Ma'am," he said. I'm Lieutenant Mitchell with the FBI. Do you mind if we talk?"


If you keyed on the muumuu as an outdated fashion choice, please stop reading. This post will not help you. If, however, you continued writing this scene in your mind and you have the woman slam the door in the face of the impostor, congratulations, you may stop reading. You don't need this post. Lastly, if you are scratching your head, unable to answer the question, please, please, please continue reading.


The answer? The Federal Bureau of Investigations doesn't have the rank of lieutenant in its hierarchy.  


Recently, I've read several books where the hero of the tale is an FBI lieutenant. The moment I encountered the gaffe, I lost all confidence in the author. To me, this is analogous to becoming a veterinarian because you love children. 


The problem is the authors didn't know their character's background. It's not enough for characters to be a cop. What kind are they? What is their jurisdiction?  What do they do? Even within agencies, job duties can be vastly different. 


Exhibit A.


This link is a mere click away at Wikipedia. Imagine what a person can learn by going to the actual source....

Officers of the FBI are not officers, they are agents. At the beginning of their careers, they start as a Probationary Agent. From there, they can ascend as follows:

  • Special Agent
  • Senior Special Agent
  • Supervisory Special Agent
  • Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge (ASAC)
  • Special Agent-in-Charge (SAC)
  • Assistant Director
  • Associate Executive Assistant Director
  • Executive Assistant Director
  • Deputy Chief of Staff
  • Chief of Staff & Senior Counsel to the Director
  • Associate Deputy Director
  • Deputy Director
  • Director

The authority and focus of the FBI is vast. This appeals to writers who want their characters to be able to investigate a broad selection of crimes-- both against the nation and in the FBI's mission to support the efforts of state and local jurisdictions.

There is a tremendous amount of information available regarding the FBI -- more than an author will ever work into his story.  But get the basics wrong and every other detail in the novel becomes suspect.


Monday, April 9, 2012

I Hear You Knocking, But You Can't Come In....

Law enforcement is a bit of a dichotomy: Police officers operate with great latitude within strict parameters. In other words, how officers performs their job can be quite diverse as long as they stay within certain legal constraints. Cases can be won or lost because of warrants. Despite all the impromptu door busting that occurs on television, there are few situations where officers can legally force entry without a warrant.

The 4th Amendment to the US Constitution protects against unreasonable search and seizure and requires police officers to obtain a judicially reviewed and sanctioned warrant based on probable cause before they have the authority to search a place or person or seize either.

So how can so many TV shows be wrong? Well, sometimes, they're not.

Interpreting the Constitution keeps a whole slew of people employed and case law is a moving target, but there are certain exceptions to the warrant requirement that police officers routinely use.  If the person gives consent to search, the officer may. Motor vehicles have a diminished expectation of privacy. If contraband is in plain view, an officer can seize it.  Likewise, if an officer is in an area usually afforded protection (i.e. a person's house) and he sees contraband, he can seize it, and by extension, make the appropriate arrests provided the officer had a legitimate right to be there in the first place.

Starting to get a little confusing, no?

An officer can cite exigent circumstances to support a warrantless entry and search.  This involves imminent danger where the officer feels intervention is required to save life or property.  For example, officers respond to a domestic violence call.  As they near the door, they hear a scream from within the house. The door is locked, no one answers when they pound on it, and in the officers' minds, if they don't take immediate action, someone's life is in peril.  Officers kick the door, break a window, or whatever they need to do to get in. The circumstances they encounter inside, will determine how they proceed.  If they encounter a woman holding a smoking gun over her just-killed husband, they will take her into custody, but then obtain a search warrant to process the whole crime scene. Why? Because defense attorneys will argue that any evidence obtained without a warrant should be suppressed.  In this scenario, the defense would argue that since the exigency (saving a life)  no longer exists (since sadly, hubby is deceased),  it can no longer be claimed.  It becomes the State's responsibility to justify the officers' deviation from the warrant requirement, so to be safe, prudent officers err on the side of getting a warrant even if a legal loophole nullifies the need.

Easy, right?  Yeah, try waking a judge at three in the morning.

The most common result of an illegal search or seizure results in suppressed evidence. Obviously, this can be catastrophic to the prosecution.  A good defense attorney will always attack the legality of a search.

Officers must have a working knowledge of how to conduct themselves to operate within the law they have sworn to uphold.  Writers must also possess a broad understanding of the law so they can create believable scenarios and control when and if their characters step over the line.

Monday, March 26, 2012

When Your Office Is A Patrol Car

The best office I ever had was a Crown Victoria; hyped up engine, stiff suspension, and a roll bar.  Throw in a custom paint job (black and white), extra lights, and a siren, and how could a gal go wrong?  It even had a view of the Pacific Ocean.

Patrol cars are rolling offices.  Peek in any car today, and you will see many of the items contained in a traditional workplace.  Mobile computers, communication systems, a briefcase full of office supplies, the occasional lunch box, and a patrol rifle.

Okay, so maybe these offices are a tad different.

Cops inhabit their offices just like anyone else.  While it's true they don't get to hang plaques on the walls, they do bring along creature comforts to personalize their space.  Typically, the gear bag they schlep is full of forms, reference books, rain gear, extra ammo, office essentials, snacks, crime scene collection materials, aspirin, and at least one photo of a loved one. The trunk is crammed with emergency equipment.

If it's a two officer car, things get crowded in a hurry.

To really understand the efficiency of a patrol car, go on a ride-along. There is no substitute for first hand knowledge and ride-alongs are easy to arrange.  Like any setting, being able to describe the smells, sounds, feel, look and taste of the environment is essential.

Odors, for example, run the gamut from expensive perfume to feces.  In jurisdictions with a street population, the stench of unwashed clothes on a person who eschews bathing lingers in a car long after the occupant has been removed.  Transporting a college student on their twenty-first birthday provokes a different bio-hazard concern.  The back seat of many cop cars are molded plastic.  It makes it easy to hose out.

The strongest odors can be tasted--but it's best not to dwell on the fact that smells are particulate in nature.

Many patrol officers drive with their windows down.  This allows them to hear outside the car when they're coasting through commercial districts in the dark of night.  Other patrol officers hook up their iPods to listen to their own music mix.  People in the backseat often want to engage the officer in conversation--usually in an effort to protest their innocence, or to berate the officer.  That said, I've discussed opera and Chaucer, Eminem and NASCAR with people I've arrested.  The police radio adds another layer of sound to the car and officers develop a radio ear that allows them to sift through the information and digest only what is pertinent to them.  When an officer activates their siren, it fills the inside of the car even though manufacturers do their best to buffer the sound.

Working out of a car can be hot or cold depending on the season and the caliber of the climate control.   Unlike most offices, patrol cars occasionally crash or get vandalized.

It still beats being tethered to a desk.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Your Lips Are Moving

I had read the maxim before in a craft book.  I had heard it suggested in my critique group.  But really?  Read my entire manuscript aloud?

At Sleuthfest, I attended a session presented by John Gilstrap on The Power Of Pacing.  As a New York Times bestselling author who has nine thrillers under his belt, I was willing to conceded he probably had this pacing thing down.  Then he confessed that one of his best revision techniques involved reading his manuscripts aloud.  I'm sorry, what?

Gilstrap cited the first paragraph of one of his thrillers.  One of his character names created unintentional alliteration--and not in a poetic happenstance of good fortune way.  He caught grammatical errors that he had glossed over on previous reads and he identified clunky description and unrealistic dialogue.

We all become enamored with our prose.  The stalwart font lends gravitas to the words we write.  We strive to create pearls.  Read it aloud. Suddenly some of the jewels disintegrate into an annoying grain of sand. Still other shining gems reveal themselves as paste.  This, I have to remind myself, is good!

Case in point.  If you have a character named Claire, you don't want her plunking anything down.  I wrote a sentence that began "Claire plunked the first aid kit...." My eyes didn't catch it, but my ears heard kerplunk.  This did not improve the mood of the scene.

Reading a manuscript out loud is a commitment.  Savoring the words on your tongue takes considerably longer than skimming across them with your eyes.  Like any wise investment, it pays dividends.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Inspiration

Sleuthfest inspired me.  Or to be more truthful, the people I met at Sleuthfest did.

I settled into a session on character taught by Reed Farrel Coleman.  He began by flipping to a page near the end of one of his many novels and began to read.

He was a 40/40 man.  Forty years old with a forty inch waist.

Now, I may not have the exact quote, but let me tell you, I've got the gist.  He went on to describe the detective as wearing a Walmart suit and that he had achieved his life goal when he made Detective Third Grade (which in NYPD is the lowest stratum).  He concluded with the metaphor of an opera of law where someone had to sing in the choir.  In the course of a concise paragraph (with prose more sparkling than my recollection) Coleman vividly captured the essence of a character who existed in only one chapter near the end of the novel.

How?

Well, in part because Coleman is a man who practices his craft, has won the Shamus Award for Best Detective Novel of the Year three times and is a two-time Edgar Award nominee.  It probably helps that he is an adjunct professor of English.  But the crux of writing believable characters is to know their motivation.  What makes them tick?  Who are they?

Why would you care?

Coleman gave another example in his class.  One of his students had written a scene involving a bartender and a cop.  The student had the cop's persona down, but the barkeep came across as flat.  When asked how the student pictured the character, he replied that he saw the word "bartender."  The rendering of the character was nothing more than his profession.  The student went back to the drawing board.

Does every character require as much spilled ink as a major character?  Absolutely not, but imagine if the bartender had a warrant and didn't want to interact with the cop yet the officer needed information from him?  The added conflict may have been just what the student's scene needed.  How would the dynamics change if the bartender secretly wanted to be a cop?  If his girlfriend just dumped him for an officer? Suddenly, the bartender has depth and motivation.  Do you need to know if he liked Cream of Wheat better than oatmeal?  Nope.  But you better have some idea --at least in your head-- about how one person acts with another when motivations clash.

At the end of the day, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with him in an informal environment (code for the conference hotel bar).  We spoke about his class, my novel, his new one (HURT MACHINE), the lives of writers and cops.  He was incredibly generous with his time, his experience and his enthusiasm.

In a word?  Inspiring.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Happiest Place On Earth

I'm at the happiest place on earth.  It is raining.   Know what?  It doesn't matter.

Sleuthfest kicks off in a couple of days in Orlando and I will be surrounded by like-minded individuals all looking to improve their craft and enjoy the company of fellow writers. The conference is hosted by the Florida Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America.   Charlaine Harris, Jeffery Deaver, and Chris Gabenstein are keynotes and a whole slew of presentations are slated starting Thursday.  

The benefits of a conference extend far beyond the actual agenda.  An author's job requires hours upon hours of solitary effort.  It's nice to chat with others who toil in the same isolation.  I look forward to catching up with friends I've met at prior conferences and to meeting new people here.

So, that's where I'll be this week. Well, that and Epcot--the second happiest place on earth.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Fatal Errors

Most of the best crime writers have never worked in law enforcement.  What sets them apart from less skilled authors is the research they conduct and their ability to take that information and form believable characters and scenes.  Every profession is nuanced and it is often a seemingly offhand detail that brings fiction to life. Get one or more of those details wrong and your credibility as an author suffers.

Occasionally, I come across such an egregious error that it pops me out of the story altogether.

I recently encountered a novel whose hero had been recruited by the FBI straight out of high school.  Had the author merely googled "FBI job requirements" she would have been directed to the FBI home page and discovered that all agents must be at least 23 years old and possess a 4 year degree from an accredited college or university.

This same protagonist drew his knife instead of his gun when confronted by deadly force--definitely not a game plan endorsed by the FBI.   Another law enforcement officer sighted a person for a violation instead of citing him.

Authors of crime fiction tend to be a savvy lot, and their readers are even more so.  Most of the reviews of the story were scathing.  One reviewer opined that the hero should reconsider his career choice based on his stupid choices.  Another reviewer said he uploaded the book for free and still felt ripped off.  These are not the kind of comments any author wants to read.

Gaffs like these are easy to avoid.  All it takes is a little time and effort.

If you are setting your story in a real location, google the department that has jurisdiction.  If the setting is fictional, determine the level of law enforcement you want to portray then google similar real departments.  Municipal law enforcement and Federal agencies vary greatly in types of investigations and jurisdictional constraints.

Don't be afraid to contact the agency.  Most departments have someone who deals specifically with public outreach or the media.  If possible, speak to the officer in person.  Be prepared with several specific questions in order to use the officer's time appropriately.

Books and internet sites are great for static information, but try to get hands-on experience if you can.  Many departments offer Citizens' Police Academies.  Mystery writers' conferences may have field trips.

Don't give up.  The information is out there and a few snippets can go a long way in increasing the believability of your story.