Friday, April 26, 2013

Who Can You Trust?


A mystery novel is populated with all types of characters: victims, heroes, villains, witnesses, bit players, annoying siblings, love interests and ... joggers.

Witnesses are a mixed bag. There's the earnest, I just want to help good Samaritan, the I can't be  bothered to talk to the police can I go now? big shot , the if I bat my eyes maybe the officer won't realize I'm drunk socialite, the I just happened to be passing through this deserted commercial building at 3 a.m. parolee, the overly curious Wow, those flames sure are pretty, even if they are at a nursing home bystander, and my personal favorite, the ubiquitous I just barely got here, I didn't see nuttin.

What do they have in common? All witnesses have their own agenda. It's your sleuth's job to figure out what  it is.

Yes, sometimes a jogger is just a jogger. Sometimes people really are in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a writer, you need to know what circumstances unfolded to identify your character as a witness.  More importantly, you need to know how this impacts your character.

Allow me to explain.

A married woman in a hotel room with someone other than her avowed hubby may not gush with information regarding what she heard three hours earlier while she was -ahem- indisposed. She might admit hearing an argument, but not want to give her real name. She might flee the scene, be identified after the fact and be questioned at her home... in front of said hubby. Think she'll talk? She had nothing to do with the crime, but she's got plenty to hide.

But sometimes, a witness is really the perpetrator. Perhaps he thinks he can feed the investigator false information to frame someone else. Maybe he didn't get away in time. It could be that the suspect returned to the scene of the crime to watch the drama unfold and was questioned as a matter of routine.

Often witnesses don't know the worth of the information they have.  A jogger who stumbles across a body may know nothing about the person, the crime or the suspect, but can tell officers about the scene at the time of discovery. That gunmetal grey SUV that swerved at the jogger then sped away may be a critical clue for investigators.

Then there are people who think they're witnesses but aren't.  These are the people who heard the collision, ran over to investigate and saw two drivers standing beside their dented cars arguing about who ran the stop sign. Yes, they can draw the conclusion that a collision occurred, but they don't know the sequence of events that caused it.

Mindset comes into play with all witnesses. It is a sad day when officers realize that eye-witnesses aren't as reliable as the officers want them to be.  The more traumatic the event, the likelier it is that the statement will be flawed. Stress does strange things to the human brain. Severe stress reverts us all to lizards. Our system is programmed to take care of the necessities. Survival. Everything else is gravy--including memory.

In their quest for fitness, joggers really do find dead bodies. But whether or not your reader trusts them is up to you.

Just saying.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Back to School

I was feeling pretty guilty about not having a post up and running when the lovely folks over at Sisters In Crime published my experience with the Gotham Writers Workshop.

Head on over!
Sisters In Crime Blogspot - Back to school with Micki Browning

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Cop Walks Into A Bar...

Heard that one?

Comedians are masters of dialogue.  Their words are playful, multi-layered and often unexpected. Everything leads to the punchline.

Too often, a story goes off the rails when characters state the obvious without any subtext. The punchline--that crucial reveal of something significant--is exposed prematurely.  Conversely, dialogue can also be so oblique that it confuses the reader and the punchline is lost. When I'm stuck, crafting dialogue often helps me find what is really at the heart of a scene emotionally. I write a staccato exchange; no tags, no description, not even attributions. Then I trim it down, tidy it up, fill in the background, decide what tags serve the exchange, what attributions ground the reader.

More often than not, the characters deliver their own punchline. All I have to do is listen.

At the beginning of the year, I took a Gotham Writing Workshop. Each week, the instructor assigned a writing prompt to concentrate on a key storytelling element. When it came time to explore dialogue, students were told to minimize description and let the character's words tell their tale. This prompt required a character to walk into a bar and need something from the barkeep.  In less than 500 words, the writer also had to suggest an underlying attraction between the two.  Pretty vague instructions...

Mary stood in the doorway of the Copper Hart Pub, waiting for the dim interior to beat the sunshine from her eyes. 
     “Well, look what the cat dragged in.” The whiskey-gruff voice came from behind the bar. Frank turned his back to her and reached for the Jameson’s bottle on the upper shelf, then placed it on the bar.
  Mary shook her head. “Business.”
“Always is with you.” He poured a shot and slid it in front of her.
“How’s the knee?” she asked.
“Told me a storm was coming and here you are.”
“Here I am.”
Frank stashed the bottle. “You ever gonna get to the point?”
“I need to know if a woman was in the bar last night.”
“Lots of them.”
“I’m only interested in one.”
“What makes you think I’d remember her?”
Mary slid a photo in front of him. “She’s your type.”
“Mouthy, obstinate and infuriating?”
“Tall, blond, and ready to tip over.”
“Everything you’re not.”
"Pretty much.”
“What’s it worth?”
“Seriously?”
His shoulders jerked. “Business has been slow.”
“Maybe you should consider coming back.”
He brandished the bar towel in a grand arc. “And give up all this?”
“Do you ever wonder what it’d be like?”
“What? If we were still partners?”
She nodded.
“No.” He wiped the spotless bar. “Business and pleasure didn’t work out so well for us.”
“So. Was she here?”
He arched his brow. 
     Mary pulled a twenty from her pocket.
“Keep it.” He threw the cloth into the sink. “I just wanted to see how low we’d fallen.”
She slapped the bill on the bar. “That’s the difference between us, Frank. I never bluff.”
“All business.”
“You want me gone? Answer my question.”
“No.”
Mary sighed. “No, you won’t answer my question?”
“No, she wasn’t here. I’d remember her.”
Unlike me.  She gathered the photo and slipped it back into her pocket. They stared at each other. A game of chicken with their eyes. Mary lifted the glass and tossed the shot then slammed it upside down on the twenty and shoved them both toward Frank. 
     “You were never business.”

What would your punchline reveal?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Football...or as the Americans say, Soccer

March madness has slid into April and sport junkies have to look further afield for their high.  May I present Football.

No, not that one. Soccer.

Several years back, I spent time in Paris. When it comes to civil disobedience, no one does it better than the French. One Saturday, a friend of mine invited me to accompany him to the Marseille/Paris soccer match. He was a high-ranking official for the Paris police and was working as the Security Operations Commander for the event.  He promised it would be a memorable afternoon. I should have realized what I was in for when I asked him about the dress code.  "Jeans are fine. Oh, and shoes you can run in...."

The perimeter set around the stadium stretched several blocks. Cars and pedestrians were denied access, residential vehicles had been towed, barricades erected, and everyone held at bay by a contingency of intimidating officers wearing full riot gear and scowls.  The stadium holds 45,000 spectators of which 2,000 were Marseille fans.  Not good odds for the visiting team.

The Marseille fans arrived on buses and were escorted into the stade in groups of about 400.  My friend and I assisted on the second wave after watching the first mob pass.  Most wore team jerseys and blue Marseille scarves. They all arrived fully stocked with attitude.  Hand signals embellished their full-volume chants and I learned a bunch of new vocabulary—but nothing I could say in front of Mom. 

Before moving this hoard of seething testosterone, (very few women attended the match) officers took them off the buses one by one, searched them for weapons, contraband, and fireworks, then placed them in a holding area.  Think cattle and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the setup.  From there, the fans were walked the several blocks to the stadium completely surrounded by officers with shields and batons.

The Marseille section reminded me of the Western Front. Only it wasn’t quiet.  Fences and barricades prevented objects from being thrown into or out of the area.  Once the Marseille fans reached their seats, police lifted the outer perimeter to allow the Parisians into the area. Marseille had their own concessions, toilets and seats.  This was to prevent mingling between the two warring factions.  It did not, however, prevent interaction…au contraire.

Police lobbed the first teargas canisters before the opening kick after rowdy Parisians pushed through an entrance barricade.  The plumes of smoke wafted into the Marseille section which only increased their fervor.  I understand the water canon was maneuvered into range, but alas, I didn’t witness its effectiveness. Further afield, a police car had a window smashed out.  Considering it was occupied at the time by four annoyed flics, I think I can safely opine that if the suspect had drowned in the gene pool, France’s median IQ would be higher. 

Much like their US counterparts, French police agencies often rely on mutual aid. Parisian police, the gendarmes, (sporting flames on their patches to symbolize their love of deploying gas) a neighboring city: Boulogne Corre, and several platoons of mobile forces, affectionately known as goon squads all helped manage this feisty crowd.  To round things off, ferociously mean looking dogs with hungry looks in their eyes dragged around their handlers. They all sported muzzles and although I don’t know what breed they were, none of them answered to Lassie.  If they ran up to Timmy it wasn’t to tell him that someone fell into the well, it was to eat him.

When the games started, so did the fire torches. Evidently French frisking methods leave something to be desired. 

By this time, I was ensconced in the command post on the middle of the three stadium levels.  Inside, a bank of 60 full-size, high-resolution monitors displayed the action outside. Each camera is controlled independently with 360 degree rotation and zoom capability. A subject can be tracked from two blocks away and followed without interruption until he takes his seat. The backbone of the system is a Linnus mainframe. Fiber optics capture images that can be fed to digital recognition software. At the time, sound was being hardwired under the seats, capable of giving isolated commands or blanket announcements.  The cost? Lets just say there were a bunch of zeroes and a couple commas.

Paris scored the first goal, prompting a new round of torches, jeers and banners.  Stadium security and I descended into the labyrinth of passages that run behind the scenes of the arena.  We came out by the seats adjacent to the Marseille section when Parisian logged their second goal.  The noise was deafening.  Parisians stood on the backs of their seats to taunt Marseille over the barriers by waving. 

Darnedest thing, French soccer fans only use one finger.  

Back into the warren of tunnels, we moved to the pelouse—lawn.  (Fields are for battles, although I must confess, the distinction was lost on me)  The event had been sold out for months and both teams were tied in the national championship.  I stood amongst TV cameras, coaches, water boys, medics and fans confined to wheelchairs.  The energy vibrated throughout my body.

Then demi-temps. Half-time.  Only the Marseille fans were in lock down.  Literally. 

When the game resumed, Marseille began throwing things onto the game. Theoretically, they had nothing to throw. But fans are nothing if not resourceful and they augmented their arsenals with anything they could break off in their section. Lit on fire, the scuds arced onto the field like fireworks. 

Pretty. The police, however, were not impressed. 

Feeling neglected, the Parisians unbolted their seats in anticipation of joining the fray. A couple skirmish lines later and the fans settled down like petulant children grounded by their parents.  

The third and final goal was kicked into the Marseille net and the game concluded 3-0 Paris.  The Parisians hoisted anti-Marseille scarves and stretched them sideways until the entire stadium resembled undulating linguini.  The Marseille sulked in their section until they were allowed to return to their buses, once again surrounded by their police escort.

This was my first live soccer match that didn't involve AYSO.  Fouls were frequent, and I’ve discovered that soccer players are really, really bad actors.  They fall writhing to the ground hoping to have a foul called on the other team, but then they can’t just hop up as if they weren’t hurt, so a teammate has to run over to pour some water on them.  I bet Gatorade would love to know what’s in those bottles, because POOF! Magic!  Away they go.  My personal high point came when two guys collided in mid-air then crashed to the green. One jumped up, not realizing his opponent’s cleats still pinned his shorts to the ground….   

They could certainly diversify their audience if they had more moments like this.  

But in the end the only score that really mattered wasn’t from the game, it was from the men and women who controlled the chaos:  Bad guys 1,  Police 26.