Writers' Police Academy

One of the trickiest things about being a mystery writer is getting the police procedural facts right. Given that my protagonist, Maggie Dove, is a 62-year-old Sunday School teacher, I don’t imagine anyone expects her to know how to set up a perimeter. But she does come into contact with people who should know such things, and it’s crucial to get those facts right. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and reading and watching Criminal Minds, but when I got a notice about the Writers’ Police Academy, I jumped. The Writers’ Police Academy is a four-day workshop, located in Green Bay, Wisconsin, designed to teach writers how police work. The conference is run by former detective Lee Lofland and all the instructors have direct experience with law enforcement. In other words, they know what they’re talking about. I spent last weekend at the conference, and my mind is still spinning, but I want to share some of the things I learned. At the beginning of each day, there was a surprise scenario to give us the feeling of what it would be like to be caught in the midst of some disaster. On the first morning we were presented with a gruesome car accident. A drunk driver had plowed head-on into a car, and the body of one of the drivers was flung through the window. (Subsequently the body got up to take selfies.) As we watched, the police interviewed the DWI suspect and arrested her. The EMTs attended to the inured. A helicopter arrived to cart away one of the victims. (Helicopters are much noisier and windier than I realized.) When the scenario was over, all the participants came over to answer our questions about what happened.   The next day we had an even scarier scenario. We were all sitting in a lecture hall, listening to a presentation about the history of terrorism, and all of a sudden we heard shouting from the hallway. A man burst in saying he’d been stabbed. Then, other people in the lecture hall began crying out that they’d been stabbed. Then the police burst in, guns drawn, and shouted at everyone to put our hands over our heads (which turns out to be a hard thing to do for a long period of time.) After all that was over, they explained what they did.    So, as you can see, every day began with my heart pounding. And then there were the classes. Each day you had 20 or classes to choose from. I tried to pick classes that would be useful for Maggie Dove to know. So one of my first classes was on “Mashed Potatoes of Death: Are You Going to Eat That?” The instructor, Dr. Denene Lofland, told us about weapons made from natural sources that could be easily placed in food and drink. Easily! A treasure trove of information for Maggie Dove. The most unnerving class I took was on Death Scene Investigation. There, former police officer John Flannery showed us pictures of actual crime scenes and explained how they were handled. One thing I feel fairly sure of is that Maggie Dove will (probably) not come across dismembered body parts in Darby-on-Hudson. But if she does, I can describe them. One of the most entertaining classes was by David Corbett and titled, “Private Investigation: Or How to be a Dick for Fun and Profit.” Given that Maggie Dove is embarking on a career as a private detective, I was heartened to hear  Corbett say that being a PI is a career designed for women. They tend to be better listeners and people are usually less intimidated by them.  Another great class titled “Why They Were Bad” was taught by forensic psychology professor Katherine Ramsland, who has a new book out about the BTK murderer. She had each of us draw a picture of a person, and then she looked at some of the pictures and it was just amazing what she could deduce from what the person had drawn. (Let’s just say it was a bad sign that I drew a stick figure without hands.) This would be a fascinating exercise to try out with your character. How does your character view the world? On the last night of the workshop, there was a banquet and best-selling author Tami Hoag spoke. She spoke so passionately about character and how it’s impossible to know what a person is really like by just a cursory look at them, though we are all guilty of judging people that way. I was so inspired I bought her new book, The 9th Girl, and read it on the way home, along with fellow Miss Demeanor Cate Holahan’s new book, The Widower’s Wife. So would I go back? Absolutely! But next time I’d like to get in the class where you do high speed chases.   

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