5 Things Law Enforcement Taught Me About Writing
Most writers have day jobs, which feed into their writing. Every Friday I’ll be asking a writer what unexpected lessons their day job has taught them about the craft.
This week, I asked animal author Terry Kaye about what she learned over almost a decade working in law enforcement, and how that's shaped her writing. You can check out her latest book, "Dog Only Knows," on her website www.dogonlyknows.com.
Terry: I moved to LA for the same reason most actors do--to work in film and TV. More recently, I began writing and that has become as much of a passion for me as acting. What started out as a “survival job,” working nights as a record clerk in a police department, turned into a ten-year-long adventure. The lessons I learned there apply to acting and writing in ways I never dreamed they would.
Lesson # 1 : It’s all in the details
“Well, the guy was about 6 foot 6 inches tall, had chestnut brown hair, was wearing a sky blue shirt with stylishly torn blue jeans, and when he said “give me your purse,” his voice was so raspy it reminded me of fingernails scraping slowly down a chalkboard…” said no witness ever. But imagine if they did? How many more guys would get caught with a description like this instead of “he was kinda tall and had brown hair.”
Details are the secret sauce that makes writing interesting, gives characters depth and distinction, and allows readers to feel that they are a part of the world you have created. Writing doesn’t need to be flowery, but it does need to be specific. If you don’t know what you are seeing, no one else will see it either.
Lesson #2 : Just the facts, ma’am!
While working the front counter, I took many reports and placed tons of calls for police service. I learned to help people focus on the facts of what happened during a specific incident, rather than giving me their entire life story. I learned when to shut up and let people talk, and when (and how) to help guide their narrative into a cohesive story about why they came in and how we could help. In writing, you need a certain amount of backstory and description, but if you get bogged down too much, it can take you away from the story you are telling.
Lesson #3 : Know the rules before you break them
I have always believed that you need to know the correct rules of grammar and spelling before you try to write a character who doesn’t adhere to them. And believe me, if you’d seen some of the police reports that came across my desk, you’d be shouting about learning the basics. Just imagine sending someone’s car to the “toe yard” or describing someone with “too pierced ears.”
This rule applies to environment, too. People take liberties with law enforcement settings all the time on TV and in films, but they need to do their research first to know how the environment really works – otherwise the writing rings false. Learn as much as you can about the world you are writing about; then, when you need to bend the rules for dramatic purposes, make a conscious choice to do so.
By the way – you know how pretty much every police drama has a scene where two agencies fight over who has jurisdiction? Everybody wants it and gets really mad when it is taken away from them? This, I guarantee you, has NEVER happened in the history of law enforcement. In truth, they are more likely to measure how much of the body falls on each side of the town line and try to make the other agency take the case. But that isn’t very dramatic, so we accept the departure from reality.
Lesson #4 : Don’t lie
Lying is one of the few things in the law enforcement world that is absolutely, completely unforgivable. If you lie in your application, you won’t get hired. If you lie on the job, you will be fired. No matter what mistake you may have made, you’d better own up to it because most things can be overcome – but THOU. SHALT. NOT. LIE.
Of course you can take dramatic license (see above about jurisdiction!) but you also need to respect your audience and not mislead them. Ever had a TV show or movie suck you into a plot line and then reveal, “it was all a dream?” How much did that piss you off? If your audience has invested their time, energy and imagination reading your story, don’t repay them by going so far afield that they feel they were deceived. Plot twists are great. Plot spirals, not so much.
Lesson #5 : Always check your tail light
Working at the PD, reading one police report after another, I was always amazed by one thing: how many times someone got pulled over for something as simple as a broken tail light, only to end up in jail because they had seven pounds of cocaine in the car. It would seem that common sense would tell you, if you have seven pounds of coke in your car, FIX your tail light before setting out on a journey. But criminals tend not to be that careful. As writers, we need to put in the extra effort to check that tail light and make sure it is shining at its brightest.
So, when you have written your perfect draft, and you are certain it couldn’t be any better, take a few days off and then go through it one more time. You are bound to find fat to trim, details to add or other little things to make it better. Not to mention, the typos you and your spellcheck missed the first time around. Then, feel free to invite your audience to join you on your journey.
Thanks to Terry for this week's post! Any valuable lessons you've learned from your day job? Do share!