03 Oct 2012 5 Comments
The first evening of Writers Police Academy, I was lucky enough to draw one of the limited spaces for the tour of Guilford County Jail. It’s a new facility, and much needed. The previous facility experienced extreme overcrowding, to the tune of two hundred-plus inmates who were bunking on the floor.
The new jail is clean, bright, state-of-the-art, but grim. That last surprised me, though I’m still not sure why. I haven’t spent much time in prisons (read “any”), and what I’ve seen in the movies and on T.V. didn’t seem to touch the reality. Hollywood builds with an eye to viewer reaction. Real jails are built with an eye to security–bottom line–and you can feel the loss of options the further you go into the facility. It’s there for only one purpose: to house potentially dangerous people securely.
One of the first things I learned–and again, it’s something I thought I should have known–is that jails are for people awaiting trial or who have been sentenced for a short duration, typically less than a year. Prisons are there to hold people with longer sentences. Jails are run by county sheriff’s departments. Prisons are run by by the Prisons and Corrections office in each respective state, or by the federal government.
Another thing I hadn’t considered is the type of work the officers handle as part of their assignment to the correctional facility. There are no “light duty” assignments, per se. You’re processing people in or out, or walking the levels, or overseeing the inmates during their “free” time. It’s a full-time, on your feet, always-on-the-alert gig. The only person who gets to sit a desk is the officer assigned to the Control Room.
From there, the entire jail is monitored, the elevators are controlled, and the cell doors can be operated. As you can see, the walls are made of security glass. It’s a fishbowl in there.
The population isn’t housed according to what they’ve been charged with. They’re housed based on behavior or need. So the candy bar thieves are cheek to jowl with the child pornographers and the murderers. Four to a room. All just waiting for their court date, or their sentencing date, or for the case to be dropped, or to be transferred to a prison.
It’s clean. Spotless, actually. It needs to be. With an enclosed population, disease spreading would be a disaster. For all of the off-white paint and bright overhead lights, it’s bleak. The sense of waiting is palpable. It’s full of the passing of time. Time weighs heavy, presses against the walls. It’s an accumulation you can feel, and not only because of the prisoners gathered in the common room, or pressed up against their cell doors watching through narrow windows, but it’s also carried in by the families and friends in the lobby, waiting for their 15 minutes of glass-partitioned visiting time.
Sheriff BJ Barnes graciously allowed us to tour the facility as part of WPA, and I’m grateful he allowed us to disrupt his exceedingly professional staff for an hour. As a writer of crime fiction, it was a invaluable experience to see the officers working on the various levels, learning the intake process, hearing an inmate hoot and holler and bang cloistered behind one of the “incident room” doors, and seeing how direct contact supervision worked in reality. As a citizen, it was even more valuable to learn the realities of correctional facilities. It’s not something we, as a general population, know anything about … outside of fiction.
I will admit to being glad when we left, relieved to step outside into the fresh, soft North Carolina night. It felt good to look up and see something other than stark white ceilings, to smell the dense green vegetation and not the faint-but-layered aroma of old gym socks, bodies and disinfectant.
The outside is a good place to be.
25 Sep 2012 Leave a Comment
What do Greensboro, human trafficking and forensic investigation have in common? The always awesome Writers Police Academy, that’s what!
Last week, I returned to the southeast to learn what it is cops, EMTs, and forensic anthropologists do. Research, research, research. And what fabulous research it was! The sun was shining, unlike this time last year when we had the fallout from a tropical storm and a veritable deluge. We couldn’t have asked for better weather, or better people.
Friday’s seminars included:
- Human Trafficking
- Cold Cases and the Realities of Investigation
- Building Searches (we got to suit up for this one)
- Interviews and Investigation
- Forensic Identification, by Dr. Elizabeth Murray
And in the evening:
All of this is on the first day.
Saturday’s seminars included:
- A re-enactment of a felony stop complete with car chase and shoot-out.
- Suicides, Hangings and Auto-Erotic Death Investigations
- Police Gunfighting
- EMS and the Crime Scene
- Crime Scene to Court: Evidence Handling and Chain of Custody
- Working the Courtroom into Your Thrillers, by Marcia Clark
20 Sep 2012 Leave a Comment
It’s been almost a year since I posted. Not quite, but close enough for government work. I’ll admit that writing life, coupled with work life, tangled up with family life sucked the blogging life right out of me.
But it’s a new dawn, a new day, and I’m ready to poke at all those topics that once drifted to the top of mind like sweet smoke of a camp fire, only to dissipate as the winds of another busy thing blew through. There are thoughts to ponder and, I hope, discussions to be had.
Let’s do the blog thing!
04 Oct 2011 2 Comments
Beginning of autumn, not that you could tell by how warm it was. Central North Carolina. Eight o’clock in the morning. Running on not much coffee. Simone and I at the Writers Police Academy: Day 1.
Kath says warm; Simone says, “The reason I would never live in North Carolina ever again.” It was only about 85 degrees. It felt like 95. The rain felt like we were standing under the place where God and the angels hang around wringing out their sweaty basketball clothes at the end of a good pick-up game.
This was a dream come true for me. I love being a writer, and I love digging into the research I get to do as part of writing. I’ve been like a sugar addict in a candy store for the last six months with all the police procedure and investigation researching we’ve done for our WIP. Just ask anyone, they’ll say I’ve been giddy with it. Giddy!
The Writers Police Academy, organized by the fabulous Lee Lofland (buy his book!!), is a combination of hands-on learning and seminars taught by active duty officers and some of the leading experts in the fields of investigation and forensics. It’s an amazing three-day opportunity to learn what’s real and what’s prime time television.
Lesson #1: The first thing we were told? Real police and CSI techs do not wear high heels or even moderate heels. Or tight skirts. Sorry, Detective Beckett.
Let’s get it right.
We watched the clouds deepen and darken as we gathered in the EMT training bay at Guilford Technical Community College and Public Safety Training Academy. The wind shifted, and our instructor for Fire Equipment, Bob Halpin, said, “Let’s keep moving, the rain’s coming in.” I shrugged. I’m from Seattle. What’s a little rain between friends, right?
We toured the firehouse set up. Got a good look at fire engines and the firefighters’ gear …
Then the heavens opened.
This was no end-of-summer shower. It was a deluge! The only other time I’ve been in rain this heavy and persistent was when Simone and I were in Florida. What is it with these southern rainstorms?
Being a stalwart and relentless researcher, not to mention a cocky Seattleite who shugs off rain as a matter of course, I chose to take the Shallow Grave Crime Scene workshop first while Simone went to her appointment with the Firearms Training Simulator (or F.A.T.S).
Okay, the Firearms Training Simulator is amazing. And yes, I wondered when I’d get to shoot the little girl carrying the chemistry book like in Men in Black (“What is she doing in this neighborhood?”). But the simulator was more sophisticated than the popup targets and laser-tag I had been expecting. We were issued real, modified Glocks, and walked through live action video. A controller (and our extraordinary support person for the training) would decide in real time if our words or actions affected the simulation and could change the video reaction on the fly–a bit like the animation from an old video arcade game. Our guns interacted with the screen, and the computer assessed whether we hit or missed, and, if we hit, whether or not the hit would affect, incapacitate, or kill the target. Sometimes no shooting was called for. Sometimes you could save everyone except the suspect. Sometimes only shooting VERY ACCURATELY could give you a better than horrible outcome.
The analyzing part of my brain loved observing how the simulations used shouting and amped up gestures to stimulate adrenaline and get us examinees more involved in what would otherwise be a “video game.” Several of the people I observed were really tense.
Lesson #2a: The trigger on the weapons we were given can only be pulled if your finger fully engages it.
Lesson #2b: Aiming meticulously and trying to fire from the side of said trigger gives your partner time to shoot several other things in the environment. Innocent, video squirrels suffered that day.
Lesson #3: If given a choice, wait for the bomb squad. If not given a choice, bemoaning your fate to the instructor only makes him giggle.
While Simone was off shooting bad guys, those of us wanting to check out dead bodies huddled in the pagoda outside the training facility in our various states of water-repellent preparedness while we waited for the storm to pass. It didn’t.
Did I mention we were stalwart?
We tromped through the grass and sticky red clay mud to get to the body of Sonja, a young female mannequin who had been dumped in a shallow grave.
If I ever wanted to know what it was like working a crime scene in pouring rain, in muddy, crappy conditions, now I know. The REI waterproof jacket failed. The hat failed. Also, iPhones take even crummier pictures when the lens is wet. The good thing? The rain kept down the smell of decomposition which in turn kept away the corpse-loving bugs. Despite the torrent, we found evidence galore.
Lesson #4: Rain screws with crime scenes, yes, but that doesn’t mean all evidence is washed away.
This is totally going into our next book.
Note to self: Next year, bring a change of clothes. And boots. Lee did warn us. He really did.
After that, I met a (completely dry) Simone at a Blood Stain Patterning seminar taught by Dave Pauly, Director of Applied Forensic Science at Methodist University, Fayetteville, NC. We learned about angles of descent, the need for presumptive testing, what methods can be used to reveal a blood stain, and just how much a blood stain can tell an investigator. The answer is ‘quite a lot.’ And that high school math you thought you’d never use? It comes in very handy when looking for the area of convergence and the angle of impact. Who knew?
Lesson #5: Scrubbing away stains with bleach won’t remove the presence of heme (as in hemoglobin). Neither will scrubbing off and painting over a spattered wall. Also, sprayed blood hides everywhere. Everywhere.
“We pulled up the baseboard, and sure enough …” –Dave Pauly
Coming up, Part 2! Fingerprinting, Impressions Evidence, and Forensic Psychology.
PS Lee Lofland is a retired police officer and one hell of a blogger. You can read his true stores, his reviews of the TV show Castle, and find out more about the Writers Police Academy at The Graveyard Shift.
08 Aug 2011 Leave a Comment
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Gone, Baby, Gone is the fourth of Dennis Lehane’s series with PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennero. Fourth, and so far, arguably, the best.
While the story took me a good 50 pages to get into, once Patrick and Angie take the case, that of a missing child, the emotional stakes skyrocket for both reader and characters. And it just never stops. There are more twists and turns to this plot than an dirt road winding through a treacherous ravine, but always the twists were logical, and always completely believable. At one point, I set the book down, thinking, “I have no idea how they’re going to make it out of this one.”
In Gone, Baby, Gone, our central characters’ strengths are given a generous hand, but so too are their flaws. Mistakes are made, good people falter, bad people triumph, and the reader is left trying to decide if justice was done; if the truth was worth holding up to the light. In fact, while he’s busy breaking his characters’ hearts, he’s breaking ours as well. The subject matter, the endemic neglect and abuse of children in America, hits everyone with the weight of a freight train, and none are left unscathed even if some are left standing. Lehane asks hard questions, and expects his reader to at least think of possibilities.
Yes, it’s a mystery. Yes, it’s a thriller. And yes, Gone, Baby, Gone is so much more. Read it. You’ll be glad you did.
Lehane just keeps getting better and better. I am in awe.
29 Jul 2011 Leave a Comment
I don’t know why it took me so long, but I’ve discovered a kind of dark storytelling magic that occurs in conflict. Bad things happening to (sometimes) good people? Yeah, that’s where the juiciness of story is created. That’s where character arcs are born and raised. That’s where it all happens.
Nestled into the folds, pinned to its edges, layered three strata deep, conflict is the story. It’s what pushes everything along. It’s the underpinning of fictional universes. Internal conflict, external conflict, both/and. My favorite recipe is a lot of both, with nicely complimenting flavors and a side of success.
The trick is to make it matter, to make it relevant. I find this is harder to do in game plotting than it is in novel plotting, because players are an unruly lot. It took me far longer than it should have to figure out that if my players/readers don’t have buy-in to the stakes, my intricate plot won’t matter. And if the individual characters don’t have buy-in, the players/readers won’t have buy-in. The central conflict has to be relevant for each and every person participating. Reader or gamer, it’s exactly the same. They have to care.
And yet we want our characters, players, and readers to be happy, and most people aren’t happy when faced with opposition. So we don’t go there. As writers/plotters/schemers we soft pedal, we make nice, we let our characters be comfortable, we don’t kick up the sandbox … and it ends up being boring. There are no stakes in “nice” except the one of losing what you have, of messing up the status quo.
That’s our job as storytellers though, to embrace the Destroyer archetype, and make the situations dire, to give them everything and to take it away, and to let them reach for something new in turn. It’s our job to push characters beyond their skills, beyond their means, beyond their comfort zones, and to not be afraid if they hate us.
Because when they succeed–in small ways in the middle or hugely at the end–that’s the payoff. That’s where the accomplishment comes in. That’s where character and player and reader say, “I made it, and I’ve grown, I built something new, and this really mattered.” That’s where the satisfying richness is born. And they can’t get there without having first been to hell-and-gone.
I was thinking of my very first “favorite” book, Jane Eyre. From the outset, Bronte placed Jane in a situation where she had nothing going for her but her indomitable spirit, and her truth to herself. She’s given friendship and support, education, true love (now I think it’s high-handed manipulation, but that’s a whole different issue), stability, money and passion. Time after time, it’s all ripped away. In the end, she’s given everything she originally thought she wanted … and has to make a choice between it (the social status quo), or who she is and what makes her happy.
It’s her struggle to get to that point which is the story. If she had everything she wanted to begin with, she’d have stayed with Mrs. Reed, John, Eliza and Georgiana. No story there!
What is it your characters have that you can take away? What makes them struggle? What makes them unhappy? What pushes them past the edge of who they think they are? And the important flip side … where can they succeed?
Do it! What’s the worst you can do? What holds you back from creating deep and meaningful conflict? I’d love to know.
01 Jun 2011 2 Comments
All right, so it’s not the balance of all things, merely certain aspects of my life.
This weekend, Simone and I finished what we call the first reader’s draft of our second MS. ::incredibly happy dance goes here:: The story has seen a fair whack of revisions already, and we’re to the point where it’s time to let other eyes peruse it, and tell us what they see. After we have some time away and feedback/crits in our emails, we can assault it with fresh brains. Which is awesome. I love this part of the process, because it’s like magic. Take a couple of weeks away from the story, add a dollop of feedback from our generous and stalwart critiquers, then see what cool things emerge. And while the MS is out having adventures, I get to dive into all the things I haven’t done for the last … well, a while.
For instance, gardening. Or, catching up on the five different TV shows I’ve missed entire seasons of. And there’s my poor family who would like some attention. And responsibilities like cleaning the fishtanks, or making sure no one starves because I’ve neglected to buy groceries for three weeks straight. Which reminds me, I need to buy groceries. Or maybe I’ll clean the house. It hasn’t had a deep and meaningful clean since September, which is, not coincidentally, when we started working on this story. And in a few days, Simone and I will start on the Phase II revisions of our first MS.
You see how it goes.
It’s true that I sometimes groan and whimper at all the things I want/need to do, and wonder why, why, why I can’t be independently wealthy so I can write 40 hours a week, instead of working outside the house (this moaning does not take into account awesome health benefits), then I’d have all that other time to do things like groceries and gardening. Which is, I believe, what most artists/writers/dancers/creation-gurus/every-day people want. Why can’t we just live the life we love??
Then it dawned on me, and I’ll be the first to admit, I’m sometimes slow on the uptake. I am living the life I love. For crying out loud, I’m writing NOVELS! Two, so far, and many more to go! I get to collaborate and create with a brilliant, insightful, delightful, wonderful friend on an almost daily basis. I get to play with words, and weave stories together, and do research, and go on site tours, and take the Seattle Police Department’s Community Academy, and dream up new and delightful ways to make my characters suffer or find redemption or fall in and out of love–or all the above!
There’s a gracious lot of AND in my life.
Do I wish I had more hours in the day? Of course. Don’t we all? But I can’t say I’m not living my dream, because I am. Every day that I sit down and work on a story, I’m living my dream. And for now, my day job pays for my real job, and that’s really much more than all right.
As for all the rest of life? It will work out. It always does. And therein lies the balance of all things.
25 Apr 2011 Leave a Comment
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I think the Boston Sunday Globe said it best, “Harsh and chilling … an absolutely terrific story.”
This is the third Dennis Lehane story I’ve tucked away and I have to say, the man can write. I only put the book down to get some sleep, and finished it as soon as I could the next day. The story is solid, his characters deep and never dull, the locations as defined as his characters. And even if I was pretty sure how the ending would come out–and I was right–I still wanted to know Kenzie and Gennaro would get there.
This was written 15 years ago, and yeah, I know, I’m behind the times. Happily, for a reader who doesn’t know much about the current Boston, the story has weathered very well. I don’t know how much has changed locally in the better part of a generation, but the topics Lehane hits go well beyond local, and well beyond our own neighborhoods, and they still seem as rampant today as they ever were.
I’m looking forward to Kenzie and Gennaro’s next case, which I’m going to start … right about now. Time for some more of Mr. Lehane’s excellent storytelling.
Has anyone else on my FL read much of Lehane? If so, what did you think of him? If you haven’t, what has stopped you from reading his work?
06 Apr 2011 1 Comment
To publish traditionally or to self-publish? That seems to be the question at the forefront of writers’ minds of late, if the writing/publishing blog-o-sphere is any indication. I’ve been ruminating on the topic for the last few weeks, and finally decided to set some thoughts down.
The big hoopla right now is, of course, over Amanda Hocking’s success. She’s the poster child for the self– or indie publishing route, having sold over 900,000 copies of her books since 2009, all via Amazon’s Kindle. For us writers not (yet) part of the Old Skool system, her success is, we’re told, our success. What she’s done, we can do. No Big Six Houses need apply. Right?
One of my favorite entrepreneurs and marketing mavens, Seth Godin, took a recent dive into the Indie Publishing fray (he swims in it regularly): “Reject the Tyranny of Being Picked: Pick Yourself.” In it he posits that the big publishers, “… the gatekeepers–the pickers–are reeling, losing power and fading away. What are you going to do about it?
“It’s a cultural instinct to wait to get picked. To seek out the permission and authority that comes from a publisher or talk show host or even a blogger saying, ‘I pick you.’ Once you reject that impulse and realize that no one is going to select you–that Prince Charming has chosen another house–then you can actually get to work.”
As much as I regularly love Mr. Godin’s insights, I’m not sure this one works for me. There are many excellent reason authors seek to be published by traditional houses, ones that go far beyond “it’s the way it’s always been done,” or having an “authority” validate their work. In fact, being chosen by an agent, an editor, a publishing house … that’s only part of the equation. Authors also choose. And that’s what turns the process into a partnership.
The world of traditional publishing is populated by people who know what has sold, what is selling, and what will probably sell in the future. They know how to sell. It’s their job to know, and it’s that acumen, that ability to spot good–or at least entertaining–stories, and get spines on shelves that completes the loop, securing them, their houses, the agencies and the authors a paycheck. That’s their CV. That’s how we choose them.
Traditional publishing brings something to the table. It seems to me that it’s up to the author to decide if what a house offers is right for them.
Ms. Hocking just signed a four-book deal with St. Martin’s Press. On her blog, she explained:
“Traditional publishing and indie publishing aren’t all that different, and I don’t think people realize that. Some books and authors are best sellers, but most aren’t. It may be easier to self-publish than it is to traditionally publish, but in all honesty, it’s harder to be a best seller self-publishing than it is with a house.”
As far as I can tell, publishing no longer has to be either traditional/or self-. It can be a both/and depending on what the author wants out of it. We’re in an age of publishing options, and those options are growing every minute. There seems to be no right answer, there seems only to be the answer that is right for you when the time is right.
What’s important to you? What draws you toward self-publishing, indie publishing or traditional houses? What makes you shy from one or the other? What do you want out of publishing? I’d really love to know.
16 Mar 2011 1 Comment
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Mo Hayder’s book, The Treatment is the second in her series with DI Jack Caffery, and shows Ms. Hayder’s growing command of the procedural thriller. Technically? This book is an incredible example of its genre. The story is tight, interwoven, complex and incredibly compelling.
It’s also incredibly brutal.
I only made it halfway through the book before I had to call it quits. I was so caught up in the story, even with tensely anticipating how much worse it could get for both present and past crimes–and yes, situations COULD get worse, and often do in her books–that Hayder’s storytelling continually sucked me back in. Eventually, though, I found the crimes depicted were so heinous and the suffering of the victims so drawn out, that I put the book down. Did I want to know if the victims made it out? Yes, because in the world of DI Caffery, there’s no guarantee that good, or even justice, prevails or that anyone makes it out alive. Even so, I didn’t want to steep my brain in the torment of the victims for another 150 pages before some sort of resolution might occur. I consider myself fairly hard-core when it comes to murder in crime novels. With this one, though, my wallowing in torment reached its limit.
The three stars reflects me having to put it down, but for sheer effectiveness in writing, for the ability to make you care for the victims–and even for the enormously flawed Caffery himself–I wish I could have given Mo Hayder’s The Treatment the full five stars. The female characters are extraordinary strong and strongly-written–victims, cops, girlfriends–and that’s always a bonus for me in the male-dominated cop-thriller genre (or any genre, for that matter). Also, Hayder’s themes of family, individual bravery, and the stranglehold of personal history are rich and compelling. They simply weren’t enough to get me through the rest of the torment-steeped pages.
The novel is phenomenally well done, and maybe someday, when I don’t find my buttons pushed, I’ll read the second half of The Treatment. I’d love to find out what happens, and how deep into the abyss Jack Caffery has to descend before he and the victims find a way out.
… unless everyone ends up dead.