Monday, April 1, 2013

Just the facts, ma'am.

by Meredith Cole

Since I can't claim to have had a long and interesting career in law enforcement (or the law), I got a bit stuck when I had to write my first scene with cops in a mystery novel. I had never been arrested--and had only received one speeding ticket in my life. I had watched more Barney Miller then NYPD Blue or Homicide. What did I know?

In my first draft of my very first mystery novel POSED FOR MURDER, I totally faked it. I wrote what I wanted about cops and crime scenes and swore to check later. Lots of writers love to do research, but I must confess that it's my least favorite part of the writing process. I always feel like I'm checking to see what I can't do rather than getting exciting new ideas. The research feels rather stifling for me.

I managed to get away with my bravado and ignorance for a few months until an editor told me that she actually wanted to buy my book and told me my police scenes were "not realistic." Uh-oh. I tried to arrange to talk to a real New York cop, but kept getting sent to the NYPD's headquarters where they apparently try to not talk to anyone anymore. It's a post September 11th thing. Apparently other cities will let you do ride-alongs and such, but not New York. They promised they'd put me in touch with a retired police officer but never did. I guess they had something more important to do. Like solve real crimes.

I started reading books written by NYPD officers and about crime, and tried to absorb everything that I could. But I still had lots of dumb questions. I appealed to fellow writers in MWA-NY, and one of them put me in touch with a very helpful retired police officer turned mystery writer. He hadn't been in the force for awhile, but he had lots of great stories to tell me.

And then I met an actual police officer/detective (who was also a writer) who said he could answer all my questions. And he did. He also told me that I could never thank him by name because he would get into trouble at work, so I never had. He helped me get past the sticky details that were holding me back and keeping my scenes from feeling real. I was finally able to relax again and write scenes for my book that didn't make my editor cringe.

Despite everything, I still prefer to write and research later (or as needed). I always end up with some messes to clean up, but nothing major. But I know that if I researching first, I would never end up with a book at all.


Reece said...

I agree that extensive research can quickly become an excuse for not writing. I try to do just enough research while I'm writing so that I can lie convincingly.

Meredith Cole said...

I like your attitude, Reece! I certainly don't want people saying something I wrote is inconsistent, but it is fiction after all...

Catriona McPherson said...

Never apologise for your write first/research second method, Meredith. That's how Stephen king does it and some say he has a promising future if he sticks at it.