Tuesday, May 5, 2020

How Much Is True?

Most of us - most writers everywhere - do something else first, or do something else alongside. What bits of your other career(s) have you found useful in the business of writing and what bits have you had to ditch?

-From Frank

I used to be a cop. It's all over my bio, if you're more interested than what's conveyed in that single sentence. But there's a lot that comes in just those six words, right? A lot of pre-conceived ideas, emotions, philosophies...and from all across the social and political spectrum, too.

There are a number for former/current law enforcement officers who are also writers. In fact, there's enough of us that we have our own little sub-group at conferences, and they even have the same panel for us each and every time. You know the panel. It's either "Getting Cop Stuff right - By the Experts" or more often the "Cops Who Write" version.

I'm not complaining. I love being on those panels. I was even set to moderate one at Left Coast Crime before Covid-19 forced the event to be cut short. I'm just pointing out that there's enough of us that those panels always happen at every conference. And that we all owe a debt of gratitude to Joseph Wambaugh, who was one of the first to show that a cop could write compelling crime fiction.

I'm a little different than many of my colleagues in one respect, though. A lot of them are cops who became writers. By that, I mean they discovered writing after their career has ended, or perhaps late in their career. That's understandable - law enforcement is a challenging career that demands your attention. It's rare that you see someone in their first decade of law enforcement who is also writing fiction prolifically. I didn't. I'd been on a good decade before my short stories were getting regularly published and was thirteen years on the job when my first novel was published.

But....I was always a writer. Every since I was very young, I knew that was what I wanted to be, to do, and it was how I identified myself. I started writing stories in junior high (that's middle school for you young'uns out there), and while there were times when I wasn't writing much fiction, I never stopped entirely. My first story was published in 1989, four years before I ever became a cop.

So I was always a writer - what's that mean? Well, it means that I always saw the job through a writer's eyes, from day one. I purposefully let myself be suffused in every part of it, knowing that someday I'd write about it. It took a decade, like I said. I was focused on the challenges of my career, which were many and often changed. First, the academy and training, then learning patrol, then corporal, then detective, then sergeant...plus I went back to school full time to get my degree in History (which luckily had me reading and writing a ton). And I'm not even mentioning family here, but you can see I was busy. Even so, I spent that first decade soaking in the experience, and started writing about it around 2004.

Since I was a cop and since I set a lot of my books either in Spokane (where I worked) or it's thinly veiled fictional version, River City, people frequently ask how much of it is true. And the answer is none of it and all of it.

Here's what I mean.

There are hardly any real events depicted in my books, at least not in a one-to-one ratio. Same thing with characters. I felt like I had to be careful about that while I was on the job. I still do, though mostly out of respect at this point, since I'm retired.

That said, there are certainly moments that I've used. There are exchanges. Quirks. Comments. Behaviors and traits. Just like any author, I've used those true things to create a fiction for the reader to enjoy. A fiction that, conversely, I also hope rings true.

That's the last thing I'll say on this - my goal, in my River City books in particular, is to show realistic, human police officers in an ultimately positive light. That's one thing from my previous career that I never want to ditch. Despite events out there that speak to the contrary, in my own experience, I was proud to work with dedicated, imperfect, noble people. When I can depict that in a way that can connect with a reader - be s/he a cop or civilian - I feel pretty good about the result.


Blatant Self-Promotion Brought to You By Me

Speaking of Spokane...Never the Crime, the second book in the Charlie-316 series, will be released on June 22. 

This book continues the saga of Officer Tyler Garrett, as he moves past the events of Charlie-316

Detective Wardell Clint is still trying to crack the biggest case of his career. 

Meanwhile, a series of city hall scandals draw in different members of the police department, forcing some difficult ethical decisions. Before all is said and done, people will learn that it is never the crime that does you in, but the cover up that follows. Will anyone come through unscathed?

Available for pre-order now. And check out the trailer:


Anonymous said...

Frank - insightful post about your early love of writing. Did you always lean toward crime fiction?

catriona said...

That's so interesting that it went the other way for you - writer first!

Frank Zafiro said...

@Catriona, thanks!

@Anonymous, actually no. I leaned more toward fantasy and science fiction, which was what I read most heavily until my 20s. So that is one thing that the job definitely changed. Most of the stories that started percolating out were crime stories, and to this day, probably 85% are.

Susan C Shea said...

A writer becomes a cop and then writes about it. I like that!