Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Straw That Stirs the Drink

Have you written about any controversial issues or created controversial characters in your books? Do you raise issues of conscience or do you steer away from moral questions?  

From Frank

I've learned to be less than detailed about works in progress, since things change during the creative process (including being canceled). But I've mentioned this one before, so I guess it's fair game.

The novel I'm working on now is called THE RIDE-ALONG. A police ride-along is something many agencies offer - a chance for a civilian to accompany a patrol officer for a shift (or part of one) to get a bird's-eye, snapshot view of the profession.

In my time as a patrol officer, I had many riders. Some were prospective police officers who were exploring if the career was right for them. Some were journalists or writers, doing research of some kind. Some were pro-police community members who were curious about what things were "really" like. And some were police critics who also wanted an inside view.

The latter-most was the least common but it happened occasionally. I sometimes wonder, given the tenor of police/community relations in today's world, if the situation occurs more frequently nowadays, or less. 

That got me thinking. But let's come back to that.

Being a retired police officer (eight years since I put down the badge now), I've watched the events of the last couple of years with a different eye than most. One might expect that to be uncompromisingly supportive of law enforcement but it isn't. Neither am I one of those former cops who are bitter critics of the profession or their former agency. Rather, I'm in the unique position of having had that insider experience by virtue of my time on the job but also the outsider viewpoint by virtue of my time away from it (it doesn't hurt that I traveled and taught extensively in law enforcement after retiring, so gained some additional national/international perspective).

As such, I see the lack of understanding about basic elements of police work that most civilians don't know or understand (yet make judgments about). I see the leaps to assign meaning (usually involving malicious intent on the part of the officer). I see all the misconceptions that breed misunderstanding that become part of the gulf between cops and the people they serve. And yet, at the same time, I see the flaws in police philosophy, the disregard (intentional or otherwise) for the public's view (informed or otherwise), and that we (I still say 'we' after eight years, which is interesting, too) suffer from our own brand of blue blindness.

More than anything, I see people screaming at each other, not listening to each other. And that was the part that bothered me the most. I wanted civilians to listen and understand policing better. I wanted cops to listen and understand the community better. And I wanted both to band together to reform law enforcement in a way that served the people best (including drumming out anyone not suited for the profession). But that wasn't happening. All that was happening was a whole lot of screaming and people refining their talking/screaming points.

And the gulf widened some more.

So I thought about that ride-along scenario. How two people are captive in that patrol car for four, six, eight, even ten hours. I thought of how many times riders said to me that they "never knew" what things were "really like." How much they learned over the course of just one evening.

These comments came from all stripes of rider, too. Those who were "pro" and those who were critics. The human connection made its mark. Even anti-police riders ended the shift with some form of "I still don't like cops but I like you" and admitting that "there are some good ones out there" and "I learned a lot."

I learned, too. For example, journalists tend to be depicted as Satan's spawn among police officers, especially in a city where the newspaper is objectively critical and acutely suspicious of the police. But stick one in the car with me for a shift and suddenly she's a person who is actually pretty okay. "I still don't like the newspaper but I like you," I admitted, adding, "There's some good journalists out there" and "I learned a lot."

Why did this happen? I think it was two obvious reasons.

One, our positions became humanized. I wasn't a badge and uniform - I was a person. She wasn't a notepad and a byline - she was a person. It's easy to demonize a symbol or a large, face-less group. It's much harder when you know the individual. Things are suddenly less simple. Nuances have to be acknowledged (which takes effort and may challenge your belief structure, two reasons people don't acknowledge them in the first place).

Two, we listened to each other. The enclosed little world of the front seat of that patrol car created a unique opportunity for that to happen. 

So what am I writing about in THE RIDE-ALONG?

Something exactly like this. Two people with very different beliefs who are thrown together for a shift, who don't listen to each other... but maybe eventually do. At least a little.

It's still in-progress. And I may fail at it. Even if I don't, will it be controversial? I think it will absolutely be, because I'm exploring different viewpoints. So if you're pro-police, I'm sure you'll get mad at the points the rider makes, whether or not they seem valid to you. The book may read as a blistering critique of the profession by a now out-of-touch retired cop. If you're anti-police, I'm sure the officer's points will irritate you even if they ring true. The book may read like an love letter to law enforcement by an apologist cop still draped in blue. 

In fact, maybe the only thing both sides will agree on will be that they'll hate the ending.

Or maybe no one will read it at all.

But I'm writing it.


No room for BSP here, at least not exactly. See, as I conceived and began work on the RIDE-ALONG, one of the many mental hurdles I have had to leap was where to set it. At first, I was vague, putting it in a general US city. The big police issues the pair debated were those coming from outside, those national events such as the George Floyd tragedy. But I quickly realized this wouldn't work for what I was trying to do. While national events from far away do impact local policing (I worked in Spokane, WA, and the Rodney King beating affected my policing experience), I knew there needed to be local points of conflict as well. And that required specificity. 

It seemed like I should stick with what I know, so I set the book in Spokane. But which Spokane? I already had the thinly veiled version known as River City. But the next RC novel will be set in 2003, so I'd either need to set THE RIDE-ALONG in the past or do a flash-forward (complete with series spoilers). I considered the possibility but decided against this route.

I could put it in the Spokane of my SpoCompton universe. But that is a series focused heavily on the other side of the badge - the criminal element. Setting it there sends a not-so-subtle message that isn't in keeping with the more balanced story I'm trying to tell. So that was out. And since a lot of my other Spokane-based books and stories are set in either River City or SpoCompton (explicitly or otherwise), I was faced with creating another multi-verse instance of my old hometown.

Then I realized the answer was staring me in the face all along. This book should be set in the Charlie-316 universe. It fit perfectly and checked all the boxes. It was specific. There were local police issues worthy of exploring. It was contemporary and could therefore include references to the recent events that got me thinking about this in the first place.

But Charlie-316 wasn't mine alone.

So I spoke with Colin Conway, my co-author for the Charlie-316 series, and reached an easy agreement with him. This would be a Charlie-316 novel. It will even be co-authored like all the others, though our process for this one is a bit different than the previous four (I'm writing the entire first draft before we start revising together).

It's a good fit, and Colin brings a lot to the table. Not just at the writing and editing level but also the experiential. He spent five years as a police officer but has much more of a critical view of some things. He'll help ensure some of the balance I'm looking for.


Dietrich Kalteis said...

An interesting post, Frank. I was on a ride-along a couple of years ago, and the sergeant who let me ride shotgun (not literally) became a friend, and we still keep in touch. He's actually working on a draft for his first novel.

Looking forward to reading The Ride-Along. The Charlie-316 novels are a great series.

Frank Zafiro said...

Thanks, Dietrich!

I'm not at all surprised to hear about that friendship. A lot can happen when people look past the uniform (of any kind - cop, activist, civilian, soldier, writer).

Brenda Chapman said...

Bringing balance to all the issues you raise from your unique perspective will make for a great book. I'm looking forward to reading it!

James W. Ziskin said...

I look forward to reading this, Frank. I find your work honest, insightful, and you never take the easy way out.


Frank Zafiro said...

Thanks, Brenda and Jim - I really appreciate it.