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.


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.


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.


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.