Derek Pacifico conducting Homicide School for Writers
Real Cop Details in Your Fictional World
Unless you have worked in law enforcement, writing realistic cops for your mystery involves getting to know law, law enforcement procedures, and a realistic picture of how cops think, act, and work.
Reading and online research will give you a general background on how cops operate on a daily basis
Knowing a law enforcement officer who is willing to share details about procedures, daily life, worst case scenarios and the like
is gold. Connect with your local law enforcement agency to find a resource. It may take some doing because cops are busy. Perhaps someone on the team can refer you to a recently retired detective who has more available time.
You’ll be on your way to verisimilitude that engages readers and doesn’t get your book tossed because of inaccurate details.
You may love noir loners who go against all odds and the bad guys, but real cops work as a team and call in professional teams for various aspects of an investigation. You’ll need to know who does what where your fictional cop is located
Procedures vary from big city locations with many personnel
to small town cops who may call in the local sheriff’s department for crime scene details.
Teams that may interact with your fictional cop:
Wherever your detective is located, make sure he is surrounded
by the right colleagues.
Writer Resources from Real Cops
Some cops are willing to share their experience with writers. The following three cops have years of experience and the willingness toshare their knowledge with writers.
B. Adam Richardson a police detective does a lot to actively support
writers in getting their facts right from cop lingo to procedures and jurisdiction. Find him at Writer’s Detective Bureau a podcast with the same name, an email newsletter Writer's Detective APB, and a very active FaceBook group Writer's Detective Q&A community where you can join with other writers to answer questions.
Lee Lofland conducts the Writers’ Police Academy as well as
his website The Graveyard Shift. And, a group to ask specific questions Crimescenewriter2@groups.io.
Police chief and retired homicide detective Derek Pacifico taught interview and interrogation techniques to law enforcement personnel world wide. He offers a course for writers on how to do the same. Writing Fictional Police Interrogations. His book Writers’ Guide to Homicide gives background and provides insights into what cops do when faced with legal parameters.
The forums and Facebook groups are places for you to get specific answers to details you want to include in your story. Responses come from other law enforcement folks, forensic scientists, and other professionals related to solving crime.
Resources like Derek Pacifico will read chapters and passages from your story to ensure you are representing a true-to-life scenario.
First Hand Research
Real cops are the backbone of getting your details right when it comes to writing about cops. You’ll avoid mistakes like having a cop share investigative details with your cozy mystery heroine.
Every novel takes background research. Mysteries often involve cops as well as civilians. Do the background research to make your story realistic and believable. Your readers will appreciate the work you do.
Body Details to Improve Your Story
Most writers don’t think of anatomy and physiology when they are creating a story, but you can enhance reader engagement with body part details. If you find your characters all nodding in agreement or sighing in resignation, try expanding your view of the character.
Every emotion sets off physical responses in the body. You can use the details of these responses to enrich your story.
The next time a character has a response, think of their whole body from head to toe. What are their hands doing? How are they breathing? What is their body position? Use one of those responses in your story.
Many writers act out a scene to get a better feel for how characters feel. You may feel self-conscious the first time you try, but putting yourself in your characters’ roles and physically acting out a scene gives you details you wouldn’t think of typing on your computer.
Your Head-to-Toe Checklist
Think about every part of your character’s body to create detailed reactions. You be on your way to creating vibrant and complex characters. You’ll make your characters knowable to the reader and the details create empathy. They’ll know when your sleuth has a worthy opponent and when a suspect is lying. And, they’ll know your sleuth’s reactions to those characters.
Each time you need to create action between characters give each character a body review. Here’s a list to help you go from top to bottom.
The reactions you use for each character depends on the point of view (POV) in the scene. Your sleuth can’t know what’s going on internally - brain, stomach - but she can use her powers of observation to note other physical reactions.
Breathe Life Into Your Characters
Readers identify with physical reactions. They understand because they experience these reactions themselves. Tie the physical reactions to emotions bring characters alive.
Seasoned writers use this technique as they write. Beginning writers may focus on these bodily reactions during editing. In the speed of just getting it written you may write He nodded. During editing you have time to expand the physical reactions.
Two handbooks can help you work with these details:
Both books are available in both digital and print format. They are both great reference guides when writing character reactions. Add them to your library.
Realistic detail brings your characters alive for your readers. Use one or two examples for each reaction (don’t overload your reader) to keep them engaged, sympathetic, and turning pages.
Give Your Reader a Sense of Place
Setting is more than a backdrop for a story. A backdrop is a painted cloth hung at the back of the stage to create the appearance of a larger scene on stage. In a novel, you have room to bring your setting to life by placing your characters in the scene and interacting with the world around them.
Setting gives readers a sense of place. The more you integrate the setting the deeper connection you build with your reader. Your story makes them feel as if they are there. As you integrate physical details of the setting into the story, your reader empathizes with your characters, especially your sleuth.
Rather than a paragraph explaining (telling) the setting, scatter setting details throughout a scene. Use the five senses - taste, smell, touch, hearing, sight - to get your reader feeling the setting.
Here are four ways to get those details into a scene without a long descriptive passage.
How many television mysteries have you seen with a full moon at night shining through tree branches? Bang! You know it’s a mystery. This image is overused so I don’t recommend the full moon through tree branches. But, you can set the mood of threat, with dark spaces like the woods, a dank basement, or even the proverbial graveyard. A quick sentence can set the mood without slowing down your reader with a long, descriptive passage.
When your sleuth reacts to the setting, you build empathy for your reader. Get your sleuth and characters react to the physical details through sensory imagery. When you use these details, setting becomes like another character in your story influencing character actions. Jane Harper used these details effectively in her debut mystery, The Dry. And James Lee Burke’s characters interact with the Louisiana bayous and New Orleans city streets in his Dave Robicheaux series, beginning with his first mystery, The Neon Rain.
Setting can set off emotions in your characters. Frustration in the cold, lethargy in the heat, discomfort in a sterile room with no personal touches and other emotional responses to the setting can cloud your sleuth’s reasoning missing important clues that appear later as signals to the villain.
Setting is a treasure trove of obstacles for your sleuth to overcome. From tripping in a messy room just when she needs to confront the villain to fainting in the heat, your setting details mess up your sleuth’s life. They are useful in scenes that need an obstacle to raise tension.
Use Setting Details
Specifics make your story come alive. It doesn’t matter where you place your story. Your hometown, a far-away exotic location, an historical country manor, a big city all have the ingredients your need to let setting add impact. Michael Connelly sets Harry Bosch in L.A. Place names, street names, sounds, and tastes all add to making the city of Los Angeles part of each story.
Your challenge as a writer is to illustrate the details that impact your characters. Show emotional depth when your protagonist love the sunset over the mountains/plains/coastline. Place a chase scene on a crowded highway with a soccer mom with an SUV full of kids impeding your sleuth’s high-speed chase. Hide a clue in the detritus on the forest floor. When your sleuth interacts with the environment, you give your reader a sense of place.
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middle Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.