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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Call the Cops!

Most of us mystery/suspense writers aren’t law enforcement professionals. When we’re writing, there comes that moment when we need professional advice. Some ways we can get the facts we need include books (we all love the Writers Digest Book Club!), personal interviews, and Websites.

There’s usually no substitute for talking to a walking, breathing police officer, especially if your story involves local, county, or state officers. Because laws, customs, and traditions vary so widely from area to area, it’s best to get the scoop from officers working in the venue where your story is set.

So how do you do that if you don’t know any cops?

Over the years, I’ve cultivated several officers and other people engaged in the legal process in my area, including two state troopers, a sheriff’s deputy, a local police officer, a court service officer, a police dispatcher, and several attorneys. This takes time, but every writer in this genre needs to network and find reliable sources.

Recently I needed information about a particular unit within the state police. None of my sources seemed adequate for that. I called the number for the public information officer at the Maine Public Safety Department. I got to talk to the guy we Mainers always see on the TV news saying things like, “We can’t release anything more at this time.” He was actually very helpful to me.

I stumbled a little at first, trying to explain who I was. I’m a writer. I’m writing a story that includes state police officers in a special unit. Yes, I have published books. I won’t make Maine’s Finest look like idiots.

Then it hit me: Give him my web address. I told him my url and I’m sure he immediately typed it in on his computer, because our conversation went quite smoothly after that. Sending him to my site where he could see my beautiful, serious-looking book covers was something I should have thought of immediately.

Of course, he gave me a lot of “no comments” and “can’t tell you that’s” when I started digging about that special unit. But he gave me enough information to get going on the story.

I told him up front, “My main purpose in calling you is to not make glaring mistakes.” And when we ended the conversation, I thanked him and told him I assumed that if I took reasonable guesses at some of my unanswered questions, the department would understand.

My other source is Websites for crime writers. I’ll give you a few here. There are lots of others out there.

Crimescenewriter, a yahoo group for writers of mysteries, gives this description of itself: A forum for asking and answering crime scene investigation, applied forensics, and police procedure questions for fiction or non-fiction writers. Writers are invited to ask and crime scene investigators, forensic scientists, and medical practioners are invited to answer. Of course, experienced writers are invited to help the newer ones and each other.

The Medical Forensics Lab is the project of D.P. Lyle, M.D., and is found at www.dplylemd.com. This site is “a place where fiction writers can learn, ask questions, and exchange ideas.” It links to The Writers’ Forensic Community, “where writers and readers can ask questions...” and also has an experts list.

I also like Police Magazine’s site, www.policemag.com, for info on equipment and many other law enforcement topics.

Looseleaf Law (www.looseleaflaw.com) specializes in publications about all aspects of law enforcement.

So now you have no excuse. Get out there and call (or email) the cops!

Susan (www.susanpagedavis.com)


Blogger Beth Goddard said...

Great article! I wrote Seasons of Love before I knew about all those terrific websites so I relied on the chief of police of the small town where my story took place. He was VERY helpful and shared that he helped writers all the time:)


1:37 PM  
Blogger NancyMehl said...

Thanks for all the links! Very helpful and interesting article.

Nancy Mehl

2:50 PM  
Blogger Cara Putman said...

Great tips, Susan. thanks for the links, too!

10:07 PM  

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