I have thrown books, slammed the cover shut on my Kindle, and cussed so profusely that it alarmed the dog. I once boycotted an entire genre for over a year because I was so fed up.
So what makes me so frustrated and angry? Authors who don’t research or only do it half-way.
Nothing ruins my trust as a reader faster than a faulty action scene, inaccurate firearm portrayal, careless crime scene processing, or shoddy police procedure (unless your character is a dirty cop then by means cut those corners, plant evidence, and line their pockets with the bank heist money).
I’ll admit I’m far more critical than the average reader when it comes to crime and police-related stuff. Yes, I too have watched my fair share of NYPD Blue, Dexter, and CSI. But I have also worked as a street cop, processed crime scenes, attended autopsies, and gone to the Colorado Bureau of Investigations’ Crime Scene Approach and Investigation School.
Obviously I’m not an expert on every topic that appears in my writing, but I learn enough so that I can realistically tell my story. And I expect other writers to do the same.
As authors, we have to know enough to get our readers to buy into what we’re telling them. It’s about trust, and trust is earned in the details. Every time I pick up a book, I trust the author to hook me, keep me interested and entertained throughout, and not leave me feeling gypped when I reach the final line. Readers have to trust that we’ve taken the time to learn about our subject matter. If they utterly trust us, they will be fully sucked into our story, and we will have earned a fan. They’ll stick with us, and repeat business helps keep the lights on.
So how do you learn, especially if it’s police procedure, criminal law, uncovering dead bodies, and processing crime scenes? I’d highly recommend a ride along with your local police agency. Most departments have instructions and the requirements on how to set up one online. Another thing to do is read. Read the law (the Colorado Revised Statutes are available online through Lexis Nexus). Read non-fictional texts and text books, the National Criminal Justice Reference Service has thousands of downloadable PDFs available ranging from drugs and the justice system to processing a death scene.
I also just so happen to be teaching a class at Colorado Gold. How convenient is that? This particular class, Homicide for Writers Not Criminals, will be focusing on well, you guessed it, homicide. It’ll be a nitty-gritty and graphic look at the basic characteristics of gunshot wounds, stabbings, and blunt force trauma. But before I dive into the gore, I’ll be talking statistics, motives, and scene investigation.
The first time I taught this class it gave one guy nightmares and made two other attendees ill. So for those of you not interested in looking at a ton of pictures of bloody injuries, violence, and death…I’d skip the second hour. It might save your lunch. And I promise I won’t think less of you. Not everyone loves this stuff as much as I do.
Retired Lt. Cmdr. Vernon Geberth of the New York City Police Department once said, “Death investigation constitutes a heavy responsibility, and as such, let no person deter you from the truth and your personal commitment to see justice done.” He was speaking to law enforcement personnel, but it could apply to any character (fictional or otherwise) involved in the solving of a crime. Death and the bodies it leaves in its wake lead people to want the truth, and as authors we have the ability to make it a colorful, exciting, and satisfying.
As the schedule current stands, I’ll be teaching Friday at 1 pm. I hope to see all of you at Colorado Gold! If you can’t catch my class but have a question you think I might be able to answer message me on Facebook or Twitter. I love talking about this stuff.
Tracy Brisendine’s invisible pet dinosaur landed her in the principal's office in second grade, and it was downhill from there. To protect her mental health, she allows some of her ideas to bleed out onto the page. Her short story Ghostly Attraction appeared in RMFW’s 2014 Anthology, Crossing Colfax. When Tracy isn’t battling demons of deviance, she lives happily in Denver with her husband and snaggle tooth dog. She has seven years of experience working in law enforcement and a degree in criminal justice from Colorado State University.