Thursday, March 28, 2013

Writing Crime Novels Without Getting Busted

By Mark Young
After chasing crooks for a number of years as a cop, I forget that some writers might break out in hives trying to figure out to write about the slimy side of life—interaction and investigation of the criminal world. Some writers’ life experiences might not have afforded them the opportunity to have a gangster in their face telling them what he’d like to do “wid yo mudder.” Or what it smells like to enter a home where the deceased died days ago.

Maybe aspiring crime writers wonder what it’s like to face an antagonistic defense attorney in open court. Or how they’d weather the withering attack from an attorney trying to expose their whole life to the world so the defense can shift attention away from their law-breaking client.

For example, in California, a Pitchess motion can be filed when the defendant alleges in an affidavit that the arresting officer used excessive force, or lied about the facts concerning the defendant’s arrest. You can imagine where that might lead to. All based on the word of a criminal bent on gaining his freedom? You’ve seen it on TV.  Something like, “Yo’ Judge…that officer planted that pound of weed in my car. And the popo stashed the guns in my trunk and the blood on my shirt that matches my baby’s momma. And the ten grand stuffed in my pants…they planted that, too, yo’ Honor. I swear!”

It happens. Just picture yourself in that officer’s shoes. How would you feel? Angry? Mad? Frustrated? Just put it down on paper and you’ve got a great scene.

Now, you are writing a crime novel and—deep down—you wonder whether you will be able to pull this off. Trying to write about how a cop feels about a situation he faces and make it sound and feel like the real thing. This might be about the time you gut clinches and you think: Am I about to be busted? Are readers are going to inherently feel like I do not have a clue about what I are writing about?

Don’t throw in the towel. Let me throw some tips your way to ease your mind.  You’re more of an expert than you might think.

First, use experiences in your own life that you can draw upon to enhance your writing. Take the example of a gangster ‘getting in your face’ and how you might react. Maybe you have not had the joy of facing a prison-tatted monster, straight from the pen, threatening to tear you limb from limb. But somewhere in your past, I’d bet you've dealt with bullies or some kind of alpha-dog type of personality. Someone that tried to intimidate you. Close your eyes and remember how you felt. Fear. Anger. Helplessness. Then use those emotions to allow your character to feel these same feelings, harbor these same thoughts and fears. Remember that guy who made a vulgar remark about your girlfriend? Remember what you wanted to do to his face? Now, put those feelings down on paper.

Television and movies are another way to vicariously experience what a cop’s life might be like. One of the shows I love to watch when my wife is not in the room is Southland. Much of what the actors in Southland do is so real that I have flashbacks to the job. And the gamut of emotions they show and express are the real thing. Use these scenes to build your own.

Some of what you see on TV and the movies might work—but be careful. How many times have you seen actor/cops leading a suspect into an interview room, exposing their backside to the criminal? Or watched shooting scene after shooting scene in one day. Never happens unless a riot broke out.

What about the actual crime scene? Police procedures? Legal aspects of law enforcement?

Here is another tip. If you are too shy to ask a cop or a prosecutor, then go to secondary sources.

Use books, blogs and web sites run by former cops. I just searched Amazon for ‘police investigations’ a
moment ago and spotted this book by Lee Lofland: HowdunitBook of Police Procedure and Investigations: A Guide for Writers. An excellent handbook to add to your library. Lee also runs an great blog, The Graveyard Shift, about police work and similar topics. In addition, he runs a police academy for writers where you can get hands-on experience in traffic stops, crime scene investigations, and even firing weapons. Lee has visited my other blog, Hook’em & Book’em if you want to learn more about Lee and his work. And this is just one secondary source.

Reach out and contact these sources by email or leave comments on their web and blog sites asking for direction and information. I have found these cops-turn-writers to be very help to many writers. All you have to do is ask!

Lastly, find out if your local law enforcement agencies have a ride-along program. Make use of these services, and in the process you just might make a friend. You might be surprised. Maybe that person that you befriend might be willing to answer other questions down the road when your scene is begging for answers and none are forthcoming. I have read of other writers who joined their local police reserve unit. Excellent way to get an inside look at how law enforcement functions and helping your community to boot.

Use your own experiences to build upon the emotional drive within your writing. Taste, touch, texture, fear—everything you’ve experienced as a human being can be translated onto the page. You can imagine how a suspect feels caged in the backseat of a patrol car with prison bars in his future. You can imagine what it must feel like when someone pulls a gun on you, that oh-darn feeling when your world is about to go sideways.

First, use your imagination. And secondly, use the first and secondary sources I mentioned to help build a believable crime novel. Nowget to writing. See you on the page.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Blank Page Jitters: That In-between Time for Writers

I have fallen into what I call that ‘in-between time’ for writers. That period of uncertainty between the finished novel and the not-yet started one. It can be unsettling. A time of doubts before you starting putting words down on paper.

Pestering questions always surface as you wander through this literary morass: Can I do this again? Will my next story idea be a flop? Will readers finally see my flaws and failings that I have been hiding? How can I possibly maintain this story idea through another 112,000-word marathon? 

This will be my sixth novel and I go through this little mind game every time. You would think I’d learn. I have learned a few tricks from other authors, ways to escape this momentary mental freeze. Let me share.

I try to fill this time by staying busy. For example, this week I am waiting for my manuscript, Broken Allegiance, to come back from my editor. As I wait, I began editing a previously completed novel that will become a sequel to Broken Allegiance. I play catch up by writing articles for my two blogs like this one right now. All this time, however, my thoughts return to the next novel I want to write. All I have at this moment is a great title and a vague concept of what the story might be about. I know there are more than four-hundred blank pages waiting for me to fill. So I freeze…momentarily.

One of my dilemmas is the desire to make the next novel better than the last. Writing the same stuff just won’t cut it. I need to push myself to come up with a novel that is leaner, better, deeper, and broader in scope than my last. A novel that creates a relationship between readers and my characters closer than Bogart and Bacall when they weren’t fighting.

I came across this statement from Ernest Hemingway from his Nobel Price acceptance speech he wrote in 1954:

“For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

Just add more pressure, Papa!

Really? Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed!”  Give me a break. The word might does not promise success.

All kidding aside, I think Papa really does a good job of trying to explain what a writer should be focusing on when they start the next novel. Make it better. Push you limits.

But writers can become paralyzed by their own expectations. How can one push past this and begin to write their novel. My good friend, author James Scott Bell, in his great how-to book, The Art of War for Writers, sums it up this way:

We all reach points in our writing that are like ‘the wall’ marathon runners experience. It seems we can’t go on, and we start to wonder if we ought to just scotch the whole writing thing. (To “scotch” means either to [a] give it up; or [b] drink it into oblivion. I recommend neither).

My first wall is that blank page. Getting that first sentence down. Then a paragraph. A scene. E. L. Doctorow wrote: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

One sentence at a time. Just get something down on paper. If your mind blanks, use any trick you can think of. Jim Bell suggests that writers try opening a novel at random, look at the first complete line on the left-hand page, and put that line in your novel. Start a scene with it. When you finish, cut the first line and substitute one of your own. His list of wall-breaking suggestion goes on. He summarizes this way: Do something, anything, to help get words down on paper, to push past whatever wall you have encountered.

Lastly, let me share a few ideas from other writers:

Anton Chekhov: “If you look at anything long enough, say just that wall in front of you -- it will come out of that wall.”

William Faulkner: “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it's the only way you can do anything really good.”

William Campbell Gault: “If you haven't got an idea, start a story anyway. You can always throw it away, and maybe by the time you get to the fourth page you will have an idea, and you'll only have to throw away the first three pages.”

Somerset Maugham: “All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary -- it's just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.”

J. B. Priestly: “Perhaps it would be better not to be a writer, but if you must, then write. If all feels hopeless, if that famous 'inspiration' will not come, write. If you are a genius, you'll make your own rules, but if not - and the odds are against it - go to your desk no matter what your mood, face the icy challenge of the paper - write.”

As a bit of encouragement, I like this tongue-in-cheek advice from Sidney Sheldon: “A blank piece of paper is God's way of telling us how hard it to be God.”

I don’t know about other writers, but once I have a story in mind and I start living this fictional life with my characters—words start to flow. For me it becomes an exciting journey with a lot of highs and low before the final scene. I never know exactly what is going to happen, but like E. L. Doctorow’s analogy of driving a car at night, I take one scene at a time as we travel through this literary darkness, letting the headlights of creativity carry me further down the road until my journey ends.

How do you break through the wall?