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.