Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Controlling Conflict With Words: A Cop's Perspective

Law enforcement officers often interact with people who don’t want to participate in polite conversation. It’s part of the job. Officers are trained to react to resistance and redirect it when it is encountered. Writers are quick to portray an officer jumping to a physical confrontation, but what if the resistance is only verbal? Officers can’t shoot every person who disagrees with them. The easiest way to achieve voluntary compliance is often overlooked in novels, but the truth is that an officer’s most effective weapon is his mouth and it’s loaded with attitude.

Bottom line? If it felt good to say, it was probably the wrong thing.

I know the importance of words. I spent twelve years as a crisis negotiator, I’m certified as a Tactical Communications instructor, now I’m a writer. Cops tend to be a sarcastic lot. It’s in our DNA. Fortunately, there’s a five-step program to help us cope.

Let’s look at a traffic stop. While assessing the scene for safety concerns, the officer greets the driver, identifies himself and his agency and informs the driver why he was stopped. Now the officer needs something from the driver—his license. So begins the five steps.
1.  Ask
The vast majority of people cooperate with law enforcement officers. When asked for a driver’s license, most individuals will produce it with a smile.
But if he doesn’t…

2.  Educate
People want to know why. Why should I give you my license? This is where cocky officers go off the rails. “Because I said so” rarely produces the desired result. Instead, explain that driving is a privilege and not a right, and the law requires drivers to present their license to a peace offer upon demand.
But if he doesn’t care…

3.  Present Options
This is the fun part.  Think of the worst-case scenario and present it. A simple driving infraction has escalated to a misdemeanor. The driver will be arrested, his car towed, he’ll accrue tow yard fees, not to mention he’s going to miss dinner. Let your inner rhetorician run amuck!
But if he remains unmoved…

4.  Confirm Their Response
This is critical for court. The officer reiterates that the driver would rather be subjected to the stated options than simply provide his license. Common sense normally prevails by this point.
But if he lacks common sense…

5.  Act.
Cops don’t bluff. Knucklehead is going to jail.

What does this mean for writers?

Only 7-10 percent of communication is accomplished by the actual words that are spoken. Need proof?  Read the following sentence aloud and emphasize “I.”

I never said he stole the money.

Now read it out loud five more times, each time stressing another word (you can skip “the”). Hear how that changes the dynamic of the sentence. Voice intonation communicates 33-40 percent of the message.

Body language communicates meaning—even when it contradicts the words being spoken. A whopping 50-60 percent of communication occurs by recognizing non-verbal cues. These cues are what writers use to convey what’s really happening between two people. Imagine how your character stands, her facial expressions, eye contact, what he does with his hands. These are all clues to your reader about how open or disingenuous your character is being at that moment.

We’ve all said things in anger. Cops can’t afford to do that. Controlling situations with words that are defensible in court coupled with command presence means not having to fight someone into handcuffs. In real life this is good. For your fiction? Maybe not. You may be writing a character who reacts badly toward anyone who challenges his or her authority. Or just maybe you want to give that character the skills to stay on track, remain unruffled, and get the job done. 

If so, you’re only five easy steps away.

Controlling Conflict With Words was first published in The Florida Writer.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Law and Disorder

Cops and counselors form a special bond with each other, but that doesn't mean they always play well together. Check out my guest blog Conflict in the Courtroom at Law and Fiction, the Blog.

Special thanks to Agatha award-winning author, Leslie Budewitz, for extending the invite!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Crash and Burn

So. I crashed my computer. The hard drive spun out of control, and when the dust settled, I sat slack-jawed and reeling as I stared at a black screen of death that used to be my desktop.

Amid my wailing and gnashing of teeth, I had an epiphany. Okay, that last part was a lie. I just wanted to say that something good came from the experience. The truth? Life sucks without a computer. Which, I suppose if you want to be technical, is an epiphany of sort. Not on the level of a manifestation of Christ, but still a coming to Jesus moment.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am a multi-device wielding person. So while my desktop languished in the emergency room hooked up to diagnostic machines, I read email on my iPhone, composed work documents on my MacBook, and listened to music on my iPod. Some people drink Kool-Aid. Me? I ate the apple.

But it wasn't the same.

I didn't know the extent of my loss. Was it superficial? Or did that black screen hide internal injuries that would lead to a full system failure? Waiting truly is the hardest part.

To keep busy, I jotted notes about the scenes I had written before the crash. It had been a stellar day of writing. My external hard drive held a backup of my files from the six days prior, so even at worst, I'd only lose about five (gulp) thousand words (the BEST damn five thousand words I'd ever crafted, I'm certain). I picked up my pencil--a blue mechanical Pentel, with 0.7mm lead and a squishy finger rest--and started writing. Plus, I had a whole package of lead that didn't require an electrical outlet for power, which, in light of recent events, struck me as particularly prudent.

Writing longhand taps a different part of a person's brain. In some ways it's similar to how fear activates one's limbic system. Everything is simplified. Fight or flight. Write or don't. There's no solitaire, no Facebook, no tweets, no distractions. Just a white page awaiting little marks that eventually coalesce into words.

And the words came, and the sentences flowed, and the stories formed. Ye, even without a desktop, life was good.

Which in retrospect, I suppose is the real epiphany.

Here endeth the lesson.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The First Step for Wreckage

The Cover Reveal

New York Times & USA Today bestselling novelist Mary Burton selected her top ten picks from the sixty short stories slated for inclusion in the Florida Writers Association's annual anthology.  I'm proud to announce that my story "Wreckage" placed third!

The book will be available for purchase later this year.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

First Place for The Watchman!

The results are in!

I'm pleased to announce that my novel, The Watchman, took first in the Thriller/ Suspense/ Mystery category of the Sandy Writing Contest sponsored by the Crested Butte Writers.  Stephany Evans, of Fine Print Literary, judged the final round.

Congrats to all the finalists!  To see the awards, go to the Sandy Contest.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Frogfish Ugly, Jack Reacher Strong

Does your character stand out?

First a couple of facts:

1.  Oceans cover nearly 70 percent of the earth's surface.
2.  Humans are terrestrial beings unable to survive underwater for longer than they can hold their breath unless they use specialized equipment.
3.  Humans are not at the top of the food chain in the marine environment.

What better place to stage a crime?

My current work-in-progress includes a marine biologist in the cast of characters.  Scientists tend to be focused, fact-driven, data junkies. Cops tend to be focused, evidence-driven, adrenaline junkies. So far so good. Biologists also tend to know A LOT of biology. Cops, not so much. Therein lies a problem. My solution to the conundrum was a research trip* to the island of Kauai. I'm still a bit dodgy on the science, but the sea taught me an unexpected lesson on characterization.

Hiding in plain sight

Writers struggle to find the perfect words to describe their characters. When it's done well, readers can see the character's physicality and intuit a deeper emotional layer.  Our words are chosen with specificity in order to spark recognition of a virtue or vice found within themselves. A frogfish may be mistaken for coral, but no one who has ever seen a frogfish will confuse it with another fish.

Sometimes characters blend with the crowd

Not all characters are deserving of special recognition. Too much description of a secondary character leads readers to believe that the waitress / neighbor / UPS delivery person will play a more important role than the writer intends. Individually, these Spanish Grunts are hard to distinguish, but collectively, they form schools that create a larger profile and confuse prey.

Not all villains look dangerous

Antagonists shouldn't have a scar, a maniacal laugh, wear a black cloak, and kick kittens. The most chilling villain is the one readers understand. The Crown of Thorns starfish is an invasive species with venomous spines, few natural predators, and a voracious appetite for coral polyps. It leaves a swath of dead coral reefs in its wake and has threatened the stability of many ecosystems.  

Not all heroes look heroic

The Trident Trumpet Conch looks like Stephanie Plum, but acts like Jack Reacher. It is one of the few critters (scientific technical term) capable of getting the drop on the Crown of Thorns starfish. It grips its prey, saws through the starfish's armored skin, injects a paralyzing saliva, then feeds at its own pace. 

Wait, this is a hero? 
Depends on how I write it-- and whether you are the starfish or the coral.

That's the beauty of characterization.

*I love my job.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


My father died this week. We had a difficult and complicated relationship and his death has provoked difficult, complicated emotions.

I have written hundreds of words since his passing; private words of anger and grief. It is said that a person can choose their friends, but not their family. In either case, a person must want to nurture the relationship. My father and I chose to let ours go. Over the years, we attempted reconciliation, until one day, we just stopped trying. It was a decision we both agreed was best.

But death changed the game. What might have been has been recast as what was. And it is final.  

Now I'm pissed. It is a surprising emotion. One that will somehow work its way into my writing alongside the grief, alongside the sadness, overshadowing the guilt. Because, that's life. It's messy and complicated and difficult. All of which act as foils to the beauty and bounty we reap from living it.

My father died this week, and with his passing, he reminded me to live. For that, I am grateful.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Spring Forward, Fall Back

I've never been accused of being a morning person. While a cop, I usually saw dawn from the dark side. That's how I like it. Don't get me wrong, I think sunrises are beautiful. I just wish they happened later in the day.

April's Daylight Savings program is particularly problematic for me. In fact, I loathe it.

Day 1: The alarm on my iPhone trills. I throw it. The power cord keeps it from going far, but it swings back and hits my head. I'm awake.

Day 2: Having fully charged the phone the night before, I leave it unplugged. The alarm disorients me. It is dark, I can't find the damn thing to throw. I stumble to the kitchen for coffee, and trip on the charging cord. The floor is cool, I fall asleep.

Day 3: I go to bed early the night before. In a virtuous haze, I neglect to set the alarm.  Daylight wakes me as it was meant to do. I am two hours behind. No time for coffee. I forget the phone when I leave the house.

Day 4: I plug the phone into a different outlet, far from my bed, and increase the decibels. I turn off the switch, severing power to the outlet. The phone battery dies. I awake to sunshine and birdsong. I become self-employed.

Day 5: Anyone's guess, but if someone shouts "Pull!" and you hear a gunshot. Don't worry. I'm playing a new game called iSleep.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How To Feed Your Muse

Some people write to Mozart, others to soundtracks. I write to chocolate.

Non pareils are my favorite: dark chocolate smothered with white thingies (because seriously, does anyone know what those confection dots really are?). For years, I thought their name meant unparalleled.  After all, a delicacy this rapturous must hold some profound meaning. A play on their black and white duality? Yin and Yang? Mayhap something mysterious known only to Templars and handed down to the Founding Fathers and Nicholas Cage.

Because they are my favorite, I rarely buy them. I like to think my restraint is motivated by the desire to keep them special, and if I indulged whenever the whim struck, they would lose their allure. In quieter moments of reflection, I know this is a lie. Sadly, I would eat them. All of them. At once. 

It is the same reason why I avoid Oreo cookies.

Because double-stuffed is just silly

Alas, while shopping amongst the festive hordes at BJ’s  this past holiday season (for you Left Coasties, think Costco or Sam’s Club), I encountered an entire display of Non Pareils conveniently packaged by the pound. The heavens parted, the angels sang and like a frog snatching a fly from the air, my hand latched onto the chocolate goodness before my lips could even form the word “Oooooh.” 

Once home, I calculated the exact location where they would be accessible from the most locations and settled them into their place of honor on the kitchen island.

I am ashamed to relate the carnage that followed. This is a family blog, and I will refrain from detailing the gory details. Let me assure you all, it was mercifully quick.

Perhaps my affinity for the black and white bits of bliss is related to their color combination. Ask a cop their favorite color scheme and you'd be hard pressed to find something other than the obvious.

I find it ironic, if not oddly comforting that pareil auto-corrects to parole. While the word means something different to felons, its original definition meant to give one’s word.  

I prefer to believe it gives me words.

That's my story, anyway.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Do Floridians Own Socks?

In light of the Polar Express that's chugging down the Eastern Seaboard right now, I thought I'd resurrect this post from March...

I know this post isn't going to generate a whole lot of sympathy. I'm okay with that.  What I'm not okay with is the Schmoe who didn't pay the heating bill and now Florida is freezing. Maybe not literally, but within a couple of degrees. Bottom line? The Keys are cold and I'm not sure we have enough rum to soldier through.

Now, to put it in perspective, when I say cold, I mean mid-forties. Before you get all worked up (Yes, I'm talking to you, Wisconsin), for South Florida, this is brisk. The average temperature ranges between a low of 66 degrees to a high of 79. So yeah. Waking up to a 51 degree morning requires an extra cup of coffee to ward off the chill.  Heck, even the water temperature is averaging 75.

Before anyone starts lobbing snowballs my way (Minnesota, you're up), let me confess I spent many a year in Colorado. I remember working accident scenes practically hugging the engine block of my patrol car to stay warm. That's exactly why I'm not there anymore. I think I shaved several years off my training officer's life when I arrived in Colorado via California and had to learn to drive in that nasty white **(Hint: it's a four letter word that starts with S...).

Yes, cops (especially ones recently relocated from California) have gotten their patrol cars stuck in the snow. No, their shift mates will never let them forget it.

Lest ye think I'm a winterphobe, let me assure you I am not. I just like to be prepared for it.  In Colorado, I've had to work in double-digit negatives.  Makes one long for a balmy mid-forty day. I also wore base-layer long johns (Big shout-out to Patagonia and UnderArmor--you warmed my heart), double socks, wool pants, turtleneck, ballistic vest, wool uniform shirt, jacket, gloves, beanie, and whenever possible, a patrol car--preferably with heat blasting through the vents.  In Florida, on the other hand, I wear shorts, tees, and wetsuits. This week, I had to break out my jeans and a sweatshirt. The locals are bundled in parkas and furs (Laugh it off, New Hampshire).

Cops will always find ways to keep warm, even in the worst elements.
I'm currently considering arson.

* Snow! This is a family-rated blog!