Last week, Pocket editor Abby Zidle stopped by to talk about the top 5 mistakes that crime writers make. So, how can a crime writer make her story sparkle, while getting those authentic details right? Here are some suggestions.
1. Talk to real-life sources.
Know a lawyer or police officer? Ask her about your scene. Don’t know one? Most police stations have a public relations branch that will put you in touch with someone who can answer your questions. Many will allow you to do a ride-along, going in the marked cruiser while a patrol officer does his shift. This is a wealth of how-to information.
Most cops and prosecutors love telling war stories. Be respectful, ask questions, follow up with thankful emails. You may find you have more stories than you can use!
2. Tour your local police facility
Many police stations offer the public the opportunity to visit the station and tour the facilities. For many years, the Baltimore City Police Department had a whole series of tours set up where you could see the coroner’s office, police station, or crime lab. You’ll see the kind of details you simply cannot get anywhere else.
3. Visit a courthouse, watch a trial.
Trials are public, and they can be good entertainment in addition to a wealth of information. Go for a specific trial, or simply poke your head into a bunch of different courtrooms. Each one will have its own ambiance. Some courtrooms are cattle calls of a dozen misdemeanor cases, while others may be holding a major homicide trial or a multi-defendant federal racketeering case. You’ll get a sense for how lawyers ask questions, how witnesses answer, and how the courtroom feels.
4. Consult books on criminal law.
An excellent book on getting the legal details right is Leslie Budewitz’s “Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure.” It won an Agatha last year and is a thoughtful, easy-to-understand how-to manual.
5. Check your terms.
In New York, the main trial court is confusingly called the Supreme Court, while highest court is called the Court of Appeals. A writer unsure of terminology can call the court, check its website, or consult the National Center for State Courts website (www.ncsconline.org) – its directory shows the structure and names of all state courts. Another trick: call a law professor in the state you’re writing about.
6. Read the local papers.
Once you’ve chosen the jurisdiction where your story is set, read the local papers for that area. You’ll quickly get a sense of the terminology for that jurisdiction. The stories also reveal local quirks that give a story a sense of place and realism.
7. Walk your city.
Go behind the scenes, beyond the parts you’d see on a bus tour. Touch the pavement and see the streets you’re writing about. Visit the real places where your scenes are set. Ask for a tour. When organizations hear that you’re a writer, they’re often happy to chat with you and get the free publicity.
8. Talk to people.
Strike up conversations with people you wouldn’t normally chat with. Have the courage to ask questions. And then really listen to their answers. Get to know them, where they’re coming from, and what makes them tick. Then use what you’ve learned to create your characters and make them real.
9. Use the Internet
There’s nothing like the experience of actually being in the real place you’re writing about. But if you just can’t make it there, you can find information online covering everything from police terminology, forensics, government sites, and guns. Here are a couple sites that have a great database listing lots of different sources:
Internet Research Resources for Mystery and Crime Writers: http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/feb99/gak12.htm
Exploring Web Resources for Crime: http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/2010/04/exploring-web-resources-for-crime.html
Good luck and have fun!