Friday, April 5, 2013

Fact Check

On this matter of accuracy about police work, I do know from a trip I took to the morgue that it ain’t like you see on any of the CSIs or Body of Proof.  Those TV morgues are bright and shiny, sleek with chrome and stainless steel fixtures.  The first thing you do in the real morgue is put on plastic booties over your shoes because the floor is gooey and slick from leaking body fluids.  No wait, the first thing you actually do when you enter the premises is take a breath due to the smell.  You’re told you’ll get used to it, but you’re better off breathing through your nose initially.  The other thing they don’t show you on those television shows is often the medical examiner is wearing a respirator as they dissect the body.  Death is a messy, smelly business.
I’ve yet to write a specific scene in the morgue in one of my stories, but the experience of seeing how it’s really done keeps me grounded.  Whether I’m writing about a defendant being brought into court or how traffic tickets get transmitted on those hand held devices parking enforcement officers use – and I’d want to know the nickname they call those things – I’d drive myself crazy until I found out the answers.  That would mean I’d go down to the courthouse and watching a few trials and call on my time spent on jury duty.  For the parking bit, I’d ring up the parking bureau to find out the technical name of the ticket device.  Then I’d want to chat up a parking enforcer out in the field.  I figure since they mostly get yelled at by irate drivers, they’d welcome someone interested in their work and equipment.  Or maybe they’d just tell me to buzz off.

But you gotta ask.  I take as my model former plainclothesman turned bestselling mystery writer Joe Wambaugh.  Here is a guy who had a gun and a shield and knows whereof he writes, but he knows he’s been retired for some time.  I had the pleasure to be on a panel with him once and he talked about how he’d take cops out for dinner, his treat of course.  After say the second glass of wine or harder libation, the conversation would flow.  Wambaugh would take his notes about the current cases they were working, how they process a crime scene and so on.  Of course being an ex-cop gives him a leg up with current detectives, but you can sign up for ride-alongs, attend citizen academies as Alan suggested, or query public information officers to make the first steps.

Because you want to establish a relationship with an officer so you can take them out for coffee or a hamburger and hear their stories.  Generally speaking, unless they’re a CIA assassin, people like to talk about their work, what they bring to the job, how they decompress and what have you.  The procedural details of police work you can get from books or watching one of these reality shows like the First 48 Hours.  But the real meat is the asides and the insights you learn once the cop gets comfortable with you.  This is the material to help you flesh out your characters so they don’t stay flat on the page but, hopefully, become realized in the minds of your readers.  


Catriona McPherson said...

Have to say, kinda glad films and telly primp up the morgues!

Gary Phillips said...