Monday, September 24, 2012

The Writers Police Academy (and preemptive research)

 I just got back from an amazing four days at Lee Lofland’s Writers Police Academy, a marathon of forensics workshops; hands-on training in firearms, building searches, jail searches, handcuffing techniques; demonstrations of police/criminal shootouts; lectures in court proceedings and the life of an undercover cop – all conducted by top experts in their fields, interspersed with inspirational talks by the likes of Lee Child, Marcia Clark and Katherine Ramsland.

The WPA is a goldmine of practical story information.  My head is about to explode with scenes and clues for my new book and the real-life details I needed to make them play. It’s going to take me the whole next month to sort through even a fraction of what I learned. But there was much more more to it than that. Being a writer himself, Lee Lofland has assembled a cast of characters - instructors – every one of whom could be the star of their own series. These are brilliant, funny, dedicated, passionate professionals - the real good guys. I’m still high from the sheer crackling energy of the weekend.

I’m going to blog in detail about the WPA because I think every author and aspiring author in the genre needs to know about this incredible resource. But it’s going to take me some time to get the photos and links together, and calm down enough to do it justice, so today I wanted to start by talking a little about the process of research.

Every author is constantly doing what I think of as “preemptive research”. We all forage widely in the fields that we write in so that when we sit down with a new story we already have some general knowledge of the arena. Then we have to do specific research to get the details of each particular story right, or right enough.

So I’m constantly reading psychology, especially abnormal psychology, criminal statistics, true crime, books by police officers, federal agents, lawyers, sex workers – and interviewing all of the above every chance I get - so I don’t have to start from scratch every time I sit down with a new book.

We are really blessed in the mystery and thriller community that conferences and conventions generally have a law enforcement track, where authors can take workshops and go to panels and demonstrations with various law enforcement officials in the particular communities where the conferences take place. I try to go to every law enforcement workshop offered at any given conference.

The Writers Police Academy is the ultimate in preemptive research.

It’s a godsend for me, especially because I’m in the middle of Book 2 in the Huntress series and the forensics are killing me. Almost every day that I sit down to write I feel like what I really need is to go back to school in forensic science. Also every day I feel like even if I did I could never get it right enough to pull this story off.

And that’s the point at which I have to remind myself of what I’m actually trying to do, here. 

Thrillers are an incredibly visceral genre. The promise of a thriller is about sensation. So the research I do for a thriller is not really about getting the science of it right; it’s about getting enough details RIGHT ENOUGH for a reader to buy into the story and give themselves over to the experience. 

In my supernatural thrillers I am very scrupulous about research, constantly reading about and interviewing people about how certain supernatural phenomena present themselves, so that as much as possible I can give readers the actual experience of a haunting as people have consistently reported it.  It is that feeling of suspense, wonder, anticipation, and sometimes deliciously terrified submission that I need to create, and I need to be as detailed as possible AND as credible as possible in those details to get people to suspend their disbelief and give themselves over to the experience.

With Huntress Moon I wasn’t setting out to write an FBI story at all. I had a core premise about a woman who is killing like a serial killer, when arguably, in reality women don’t commit sexual homicide. Not on their own, anyway. That’s what I wanted to explore, and I wanted to do it with a The Fugitive type of structure, in which the pursuer of this killer comes to empathize with the killer.

And unfortunately for me, especially because I wanted to cross a lot of state lines and jurisdictions, an FBI agent was the most logical character for me to use to achieve that structure.

But it’s not a story about the FBI.  It’s a story that uses the device of the FBI to put the reader through a roller coaster of emotions, sensations, and moral dilemmas. Which meant that I had to create the illusion of a real FBI agent and bureau, with enough realism to allow a reader to suspend their disbelief and commit to the roller coaster.

Anyone with real knowledge of the FBI would probably throw the book against the wall (a more forceful image than deleting it from a Kindle...), but I think those people mostly know to avoid FBI novels, anyway, just to keep their blood pressure down. But so far so good - apparently I’ve created a true enough illusion to get a lot of readers committed to the ride.

Now I have to learn enough forensics to get enough readers committed to the ride in the second book. 

Thanks to Lee Lofland, Denene Lofland, Prof. Dave Pauly, Cpl. Dee Jackson, Robert Skiff, Andy Russell, Lee Child, Marcia Clark, Dr. Katherine Ramsland, Lt. Randy Shepherd, Retired Detective Marco Conelli, Jerry Cooper, and Dr. Elizabeth Murray, I’ve got at least a start on that process.

More later, but here are some photos on Lee's blog. 

- Alex


Unknown said...

What a great workshop resource!
With the increasingly detailed information given in crime stories and mysteries in general, this makes sense.
So glad to learn about this research asset!

jenny milchman said...

I truly hope I can get to this one before too long. So glad it was a great resource for you!

Rachael said...

Not only does that sound informative, but it also sounds interesting and fun! And I'm not even that interested in writing detective type stories!
Thanks for sharing this with us!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Patricia, that's a really good point - the CSI effect has taken over novels, too - readers expect forensics, and the WPA is a great crash course in how to deliver.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jenny, I've been saying for years that I'd go but this year I just said, "Okay, no matter what, I'm there." And that was BEFORE I knew how much I'd need it!

Noelle said...

What a great resource for writers! I just finished reading Huntress Moon this wkd and I have to tell you I really enjoyed it and greatly appreciate the research you put into it (for instance, I didn't know before reading your novel that Aileen Wuornos was diagnosed BPD, and went straight to the laptop to verify your facts!). I'll be reading some more of your work before too long, I'm sure.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Noelle, I'm thrilled you liked it! Thanks so much for saying so. Oh, yes, I've done tons of research on Wuornos, including interviewing a former profiler who had interviewed her to get his take on all of it. That's where a lot of Snyder's thoughts come from.

Interesting thing, though - I did that research before I ever had the plot idea for Huntress Moon. Exactly what I mean about preemptive research!

amy kennedy said...

Can't wait for your brain to calm down so you can share some more! And I don't even write thrillers -- but I am always tempted to take a civilian police class. Maybe that's my preemptive research.

Winona Cross said...

I've been waiting for your promise to tell us more about the WPA. My gosh, if I can ever write a thriller/murder/police procedural book I'll need this. I want to go. My dream is to write mystery/suspense. I find myself fearful of that genre and writing historical and romance. Not that there is anything wrong with those genres. I just want to write what I prefer reading. Thanks, Alex. I'm so glad I read "The Book of Shadows" as a way to familiarize myself with your work before I attended the Writers Academy in Canyon. Hope to take your class next year.

Winona Cross said...

Meant to ask--how do you make arrangements to speak to professionals for your research?

Winona Cross said...

Meant to ask--how do you make arrangements to speak to professionals for your research?