Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Writing Believable Cops

Robin Burcell, an FBI-trained forensic artist, has worked as a police officer, detective and hostage negotiator. THE BONE CHAMBER is her latest international thriller about an FBI forensic artist. Her first thriller, FACE OF A KILLER, received a starred review from Library Journal. She is the author of four previous novels. View the video trailer at her website at: Or on Facebook and Twitter.

I'm back! Day three and they haven't booted me off yet!

Sophie writes:

"I recently heard a detective and CSI agent discussing what turned out to be very different methods for dealing with the demands of their jobs. One of them said he leaves the job at the door, and does not allow it into his thoughts when he is off the job. The other said the stories of "her" victims are with her always. My question: given the huge range of human response to violence and cruelty, how can authors create convincing investigators? How do lay people guess at the responses a character will have to situations most of us will never encounter?"

Good questions. The truth is that the job affects us all differently, and that we will handle those stressors differently based on our own life experiences in the past as well as what we are going through during that time period. In other words, there is no correct answer. The same holds true for victims. Cops had to learn this the hard way, especially in rape cases. Some victims handle their emotional trauma by bottling it up, and might look emotionally okay, perhaps even leading the cop to believe the rape didn’t really occur. Others are so emotionally distraught that it’s difficult to get a statement from them, which can also hinder a case. When it comes to writing believable investigators, the “trick” would be to draw from your own life experiences and how you or others you have known have felt in those instances, and write it from that perspective. Of course, if you are lucky enough to have never experienced anything bad, you will have to imagine what it must feel like.

The majority of us (cops included) have never killed anyone with a gun, and so we can’t begin to imagine what those stressors would be like. But there is much more to the job than the killing bad guys that we see on TV shows. Writing believable cops is really more about the accumulated day-to-day stressors of the job. No one ever calls the cops to their house to tell them they’re doing a Good Job. (As much as we’d like that to happen, what a waste of tax dollars if it did occur!) Everyone wants their problems solved. Now. Never mind that you’ve been to that house five times in the past month for the same stupid problem, you better fix it, and with a smile on your face—heaven forbid they complain that you were rude, because they were too embroiled to figure out that listening to you when you tried to handle it politely would have been the better option. They can be fighting about money, while you are wondering how you are going to afford to pay for your kid’s braces, and send your other kid to college. Your problems don’t matter. Theirs do.

That is what makes it hard. You have to put your life on hold to help others with theirs. Yes, it can be rewarding, but it can be hard, and if a cop doesn’t find a good release, this can weigh on him. When it begins to affect your home life and work life, it’s time to take steps. It’s probably a good reason why many cops fail at marriage.

I was lucky. While some cops drown their troubles in a bottle, I write mine away. Writing fictional cops who could save the world (or at least a small segment of their city, depending on which series of mine you are talking about) turned out to be very cathartic. Other cops take up fishing, or motorcycle riding or other pursuits that allow them to put their job from their mind, relax, and get away even mentally if not physically. Cops are real people, not superhuman. They are people like me, or maybe even your next door neighbor, or the person sitting next to you at the pediatrician’s office with the kid’s fifth ear infection of the season. You can’t go wrong writing about the real human emotions that you go through yourself. Only difference between you and them is the training and the gun, and hopefully a psych evaluation so they can carry that gun.

The other thing to keep in mind is that when a difficult case comes up, or a traumatic incident occurs, the effects linger for days, and sometimes crop up even years later. Case in point. I was witness to the shooting death of an officer about two years before I became a cop, and went to assist him, once the danger was past. While there were immediate effects, as most traumas go, the memories faded with time (a good thing). Years later, they resurfaced, first, when I was on a similar traffic stop, and I didn’t want to pull over any more cars, and several years later again, when a fellow officer shot himself in the hand, and I was first on scene to assist, reminding me of one of the wounds on the fallen officer. Two days after my fellow officer shot his hand, I remember being in the grocery store pharmacy, trying to get antibiotics for my infant twins for their ear infections, and having a meltdown (as in standing there, bursting into tears) when the pharmacist told me that they didn’t have any in stock. (All I could think was, “Do you know how hard it was to get these two damn car seats out of my car and into this grocery cart when it’s raining outside?”) We have a name for this now, post traumatic stress disorder. Back then, no one ever heard of PTSD. I can tell you it is real, and your cops will suffer from it, somewhere, whether days, weeks, months or years later.


Jen Forbus said...

This is so perfect, Robin. I know personally when I read a book, I'm just looking for a connection with the characters. Of course, if a cop seems especially incompetent or overly super-hero-ish I tend to squirm, but again...I'm not able to make connections in those cases. But I'm also looking for real humans. If a character is likely to bottle things inside, then the author needs to give me a chance to see the "inside" because if it appears that the character isn't affected at all, that will turn me off. The character doesn't have to be affected the same way I would, just affected.

Shane Gericke said...

The hard part for a cop writer, it would seem, is balancing the tedium that is much of real policing with the genuine white-hot-adrenaline moments that are real policing AND the majority of one's cop novel. I find myself constantly trying to balance those two in my own work--too much paperwork vs. too many gunfights. But having read your works, Robin, I think you balance them very nicely.

I still can't believe you're a cop 27 years, Robin. My dad retired after 30 years, and he's old and gray , and you're FAR from that. Course, he worked 1950-1980, but I don't picture him in my head as anything but 30 in a snazzy blue sergeant's uniform. Forever a cop's adoring kid, I guess ...

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks, Robin for another wonderful post!

I know it's past, but I want to email you some antibiotic drops and walk the twins around a bit so you can get a break. The compassion and generosity that shines through your posts makes me very grateful that you are a cop. Thank you also for that.

Kelli Stanley said...

Jen, Shane, I know--Robin surely started working as an undercover police officer in elementary school. She always looks a gorgeous 29! :)

And Robin, thank you for this amazing post and glimpse into the psychology of hard-working men and women who may not be super-heroes, but surely are human heroes--as you are. :)



Anonymous said...

Well, actually it wasn't elementary school when I started, it was junior high. Thirteen is a rough age to become a cop...

Shane, good point about the balancing. I always try to throw in a line there referring to the paperwork, because no one wants to read about the tedium of the stuff that happens day in and day out, or the boring stuff of an investigation that is so very common, but makes for poor reading or TV shows, etc.

A cop I used to work with was parked under a tree one afternoon, writing reports. A citizen stopped his car beside him and chewed him out for not doing his job, and by the way, wasn't he feeling a bit guilty for all the money he earned from this guy's taxes? Especially when he is just sitting there doing nothing?

My friend told the man, "I don't get paid these wages for the 75 percent of the time when nothing happens. I get paid for the 25 percent when the $#!+ hits the fan."

I always loved that statement.

In truth, I think that people buy our books to read about that 25 percent portion of our job, not the 75 percent. (A percentage that can probably vary, depending on jurisdiction!) But it's important to let them know that there's still the mundane stuff that needs to get done.

sophie Littlefield said...

Robin, I love how your explanations personalize the job. The things you describe make me feel like I was there with you...especially the crying in the pharmacy thing. I really get that. And what a way to build a character, taking their experiences from the external conflict and letting them bleed into the internal. As I think about it, all my favorite authors do that.