Saturday, September 29, 2012

Getting Real - the Writers Police Academy

I love the smell of cordite in the morning.  

Okay, someone just had to scrape Lee Lofland off the ceiling. NO. You DO NOT smell cordite after gunfire. Not since WW II, anyway. I know that now because last weekend I attended Lee's Writers Police Academy.


Lee Lofland, a former police detective and author of the Writers Digest bestselling book Police Procedure and Investigation (a must-have!) is not only a law enforcement professional who knows the job inside and out, but a writer who understands what other writers need to learn from law enforcement professionals in order to do OUR best work. And knowing that, he's assembled a cast of characters any one of whom could easily be the star of their own series. Because it's not about the facts, it's about the people. And wow, the people.  (Photos by Patti Phillips and Julie Goyette.).


 

So I walk into my first forensics investigation workshop and the incarnation of my agent from Huntress Moon turns from the whiteboard.  I thought I was hallucinating, or having one of those dreams where... well, never mind that.  Dave Pauly, forensics professor at Methodist University in NC, has a resume that’s half Indiana Jones, half Jack Reacher. He team-taught with Robert Skiff – two of these for the price of one! (When I first arrived at the conference I wondered why 90 percent of the attendees were women. That got cleared up for me in the first hour. Testosterone was rolling down those corridors in waves...)



Skiff is more of a scientist, the training manager at Sirchie, a leading manufacturer of fingerprinting and forensics supplies. I may not know every single detail I need to know about blood spatter, print impressions, cold cases, and alternative light sources to finish my sequel - but let me tell you, after a day of forensics classes and demos with these two instructors, I am a lot closer than I was a week ago.

Then there was Corporal Dee Jackson, of the Guilford County Sheriff's Department. A former Marine, one of the very first women to go into combat in the Gulf War, and if anyone ever thought a woman isn't capable of the most intensive combat duty? Look no further than Dee, here playing a bad guy in a simulated shootout.




She is hilarious, profound, such a great comic and physical actor it floors me she hasn't been scooped up by Hollywood, and committed to her mission in a way that literally halts your breath. The whole room - male, female, animal, vegetable, mineral - just stops when she walks in.
Katherine Ramsland. My first time meeting this powerhouse after reading a half-dozen of her forensics psychology books (and her brilliant biography of Anne Rice, Prism of the Night).  This woman has LIVED with death in a way most of us will never comprehend, and she is deep, funny, philosophical and mesmerizing.

And talk about powerhouse women.... I lived in L.A. during the Simpson trials and meeting Marcia Clark was like meeting a movie star. Her lecture on putting a case together for the prosecution was stellar, and she is a warm, witty, encompassingly charismatic human being. Thrilled to know her!

Andy Russell, one of the main organizers of the conference, was one of our Firearms Training Simulator (FATS) instructors. Somehow he managed not to break into hysterical laughter at my first attempts to heft a handgun, and in fact gave me some useful tips ("Try not to drop the magazine") with a straight face. 



On a later panel he kicked off a series of stories that made me understand that people go into law enforcement mainly because every other call or traffic stop turns out to involve a naked perp.
Marco Conelli, a retired NYC undercover cop (now YA mystery author) is such a doll I was in total fear for him just listening to his buy and bust stories (narrated in a voice just like Woody Allen's). You could see him slipping back into his junkie persona as he described the scenes. Fascinating. 

This was my schedule:

Thursday night: Jail Tour (a post in itself)

Friday: Impressions Evidence, Cold Case Investigation, Building Searches, Blood Spatter Analysis, Forensic Anthropology.

Saturday: Anatomy of an Undercover Detective, FATS Training, Arrest and Handcuffing Techniques, Personal Survival Training for Women, Building a Case for the Prosecution.

The only frustration was not being able to take absolutely every workshop on offer. 

Probably halfway into the second day, a lovely and radiant EMS technician, one that I can tell you for sure you would want there with you if you were, you know, dying, turned to me in the elevator between classes and said, "How can you possibly describe any of this?"

And I really wanted to answer her, and it's a hard answer.  What I said was something like - "You have to put across enough of the science for a reader to kind of understand but it's not ABOUT the science.  It's about making the science real enough that readers will give themselves over to the EXPERIENCE you're trying to create for them, which is about the searing passion of wanting to help people and the live wire adrenaline rush of fear and danger and commitment, and the intimacy of doing this job with people who are as skilled and committed as you are and who understand good and evil and pure life force the way you do and the way that no one who hasn't done the job will ever know. It's not about the science practically at all, it's about the way you guys move, and the way ninhydrin crystals look in the light, and the things you say to each other and your twisted sense of humor and your absolute radiant love for all of it."

I said some of that, not enough of it, because you can't possibly say enough.

Some of these courses redefine the concept of adrenaline rush.  Lt. Randy Shepherd (aka Honeybuns, and yes, the moniker is accurate) put a squad of fifteen of us through our paces during Building Searches.  We've all seen this on a million TV shows, but now I have some grasp of the choreography and the constantly changing, split-second decision/dynamics of a bust like this - I have the flow of it in my BODY, and because it's my own particular job as a writer to do so, I know I can put the experience of it onto the page for someone else to live through. I have been menaced and I have been shot at and I know the exact weight of the shield and the vest and the gun and I know the paralyzing fear of having to grasp ALL possible dangers behind ALL doors and windows and fireplace screens (even when there was no real danger there for me) and I know for damn sure that I am hopelessly inadequate and yet that I may still somehow survive... somehow... if I can manage not to kill anyone on MY OWN SIDE.

That is a hell of a lot to learn in a two-hour class.  And that's just two hours of a non-stop marathon of police academy training.

There's a saying in Hollywood that "Nobody knows anything." Well, I'll tell you what you don't know.  You don't know how you or anyone you know is going to react in life-threatening situations, even simulations of them, until you're right there.

My five-foot tall (and that's on a good hair day) roommate earned the title of "Killer" from the Firearms Training Simulator instructors when she put down every bad guy in the training DVD without even breathing hard.

While I seem incapable of shooting at anyone under twenty years old (although I also managed never to get killed or to kill a fellow officer). But - I was the only person in the Handcuffs Techniques workshop flexible enough to slip my body through my handcuffs back to front, putting me in a prime position to choke my arresting officer to death before she realized I was relatively loose (all right, so I'm more experienced with handcuffs than guns...)

And in Women's Personal Survival Training, it was pretty clear how many women in the room had never actually let themselves think about what would happen to them if they LET a stranger force them into a car, or van, and why it is essential to make the choice to fight BEFORE anyone ever gets you into the car. Or at least understand the consequences of not fighting. Not many people in that class slept that night, I'd wager.

In fact, it's five days later and I'm still not sleeping all the way through the night. The adrenaline is that powerful.


You cannot research those things by READING about them, or interviewing people who have lived it. I'm not saying it's at all the same to go through simulations, compared to the actual experience.  But compared to reading about it?  No contest.

Do we want to be better mystery and thriller writers?  Or what?


If you do, you owe it to yourself, your books and your readers to make the WPA a MUST DO event in your year. 

I've written more about it here, and plan to do more posts as I'm processing everything I learned for myself, but here's a better taste of the weekend on Lee's blog.

My deepest thanks to Lee, all our superb instructors (ALL of whom volunteered their time) and to Sisters in Crime, who generously underwrote a large portion of the event to keep the tuition at rock-bottom.

And the question of the day is about research. Authors, how do you do the research that you need to do to write your books? Tell us some stories! And readers, how detailed do you like your police procedure? Who do you really think gets it right, in fiction?

- Alex

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Huntress Moon, an Amazon bestseller

15 comments:

Sarah W said...

I've subscribed to the WPA newsletter so I won't miss the details for next year.

I just wish I didn't have to choose between this one and Bouchercon . . . Such a tough choice!

Handy Man, Crafty Woman said...

Wow! Thanks for sharing with us. I don't write thrillers, but I find this fascinating. Love your blog, by the way. I just found it a few months ago, but I've learned so much. Thank you!

Laura Libricz said...

I don't write thrillers either, but I think readers can 'feel' the amount of research that goes into a book or a film, making it believable. I've read Huntress Moon and I'm reading a pseudo-thriller right now and can 'feel' the difference <3. I want concrete situations, don't need to be bogged down with technical jargon, but I want to know that the author has done some homework. Thanks to your books and blogs, I have finally finished my first novel, a historical novel, not your thing, but BTW, it's free this weekend for Kindle!

Jolene Navarro said...

Exciting post. Now I have one more MUST do on my writer's list. I don't write thrillers, but who doesn't love a good romance with a Marine, Texas Ranger or Sheriff as the hero. Thanks for sharing.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sarah, the WPA is so very low-cost that you can squeak by doing both. Triple up in your hotel rooms, is what I say (you know you're never in them anyway!) and watch for Southwest's wonderful deep discounts (I got my flight to Cleveland half price this year).

Authors need to learn to travel down and dirty.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Handy/Crafty, glad to have you here! As Jolene just pointed out below your post, you don't NEED to be a thriller writer to get something out of it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Laura, thanks so much for reading, and YAY!!! on the book! That's what we like to hear! Good for you!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jolene, you are one hundred percent right - and romance writers (and readers) would LOVE this conference. Oh my God, the men....

Noelle said...

Really does sound like a great workshop. And let me just say, I laughed out loud when I read that you were more experienced with handcuffs than guns. ;)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Noelle, this is why the 50 Shades thing kind of mystifies me. Like handcuffs are new? Really?

Sarah W said...

It's not just the cost, it's the vacation time--I've still got the day job--and the family.

Anne Buzzini said...

My husband is a cop and when we met he was already in his second decade of service. His department offers a course called the Citizens' Police Academy that teaches civilians about the various functions of the different divisions. Since he already knew it all, I signed up for the course to improve our communication then realized it would help my writing. Honestly. It was a blast! Once a week for twelve weeks we met for a lecture or demonstration. The class is always full and hard to get into, but I know people... We had two extra days, Saturdays: one at the gun range and training facility; the second at the POST academy vehicle training track. I kept a low profile (my professional last name is different than my husband's) and had many memorable moments as instructors who didn't know me were glad to find out I was on their side!

I have friends who have attended WPA and I wish I could have gone this time. At least two were there with you.

Anne Buzzini said...

My husband is a cop and when we met he was already in his second decade of service. His department offers a course called the Citizens' Police Academy that teaches civilians about the various functions of the different divisions. Since he already knew it all, I signed up for the course to improve our communication then realized it would help my writing. Honestly. It was a blast! Once a week for twelve weeks we met for a lecture or demonstration. The class is always full and hard to get into, but I know people... We had two extra days, Saturdays: one at the gun range and training facility; the second at the POST academy vehicle training track. I kept a low profile (my professional last name is different than my husband's) and had many memorable moments as instructors who didn't know me were glad to find out I was on their side!

I have friends who have attended WPA and I wish I could have gone this time. At least two were there with you.

Patti Phillips said...

Great post. Glad we connected. Congratulations on the ITW award! Looking forward to checking out your work. :-)

Misty said...

I *just* heard of this fantastic event...apparently happening right NOW (sniff!). Since registration is closed for this year, can I ask what the usual cost for a WPA weekend is. Thanks!