April 25, 2017
- Story: DNA More commonly referred to as Dioxyribonucleic Acid. Or do I have that backward? Without it, we wouldn't have shows like CSI or Forensic Files. Most crime writers are familiar with the concept of DNA, where it's likely to be found at a crime scene or on a victim, its value as evidence, and how important it is when a Crime Lab confirms a DNA 'hit" in CODIS. Joan asked a great question this week: "Are all incarcerated inmates DNA tested?" I had to dig to find the answer, which is: it depends on the State and this PDF will tell you which State does what. The short answer is most States take DNA swabs during the jail booking process for felonies. Some states take DNA for all felonies, others for specific ones. Check out the PDF for details on the law for where your story takes place.
- Scene: DNA So now that you know when DNA samples are collected, it would probably help you paint a better picture if you knew how DNA samples are collected and what a Buccal DNA Collector looks like. Well...you're in luck. Allow me to present you with some official California DOJ Buccal DNA Collection Kit Instructions. A step-by-step guide with pictures. So easy, even a patrol cop can do it. As an aside, the word "buccal" is properly pronounced "buckle." Doctors, CSI Techs, and Homicide Detectives will pronounce this correctly. I have often heard patrol officers mispronounce it as "b-you-cal." While I'm on the topic of mispronunciation, when referring to small blood droplets or spray, the word is "spatter." There is no L. Splatter is when you splash a liquid, usually making a copious mess...like with paint, mud, or cake batter.
- Setting: Typical American Courtroom Flip through the channels on TV and you are bound to see several courtrooms fly by. Whether it's Judge Judy or re-runs of Perry Mason during the day or Law & Order of every flavor at night, we have all seen the inside of a courtroom too many times to count. But how well do you really know your way around? This chart is a pretty reasonable representation of an American Superior Court Courtroom. Some key things you might find helpful when describing a courtroom in your writing:
- The Prosecutor's Table is always the attorney table closest to the jury. So if the jury box is on the left side of the room, the Defendant's Table would be on the right.
- The space between the attorneys' tables and The Bench (where the Judge sits) is called "The Well." Historical rumor has it that The Well was designed to provide two swords length distance between the Judge and the attorneys...er...I mean the defendant. Whether that is true or not, I will leave to your own research. But that anecdote might give insight into why only the Bailiff -okay, okay...the Clerk and Stenographer too- are allowed to be in The Well, unless the Judge specifically allows it. Hence the question, "Permission to approach the Bench (or the Witness), Your Honor?" whenever an attorney wants to enter The Well.
- The stenographer (aka The Court Reporter) usually sits between the Witness Box/Stand and the attorney's tables in order to hear everyone speaking.
- Often a lectern is set up between the attorneys' tables or between the jury box and the Prosecutor's Table. (A lectern is often incorrectly referred to as a podium. A podium is a floor riser.)
- The Jury Box is obviously where the jury sits. However, if the courtroom is being used for arraignments it is common for attorneys to use it as overflow seating. This is where many plea bargains are struck in whispered voices while other arraignments are going on, so as not to interfere with the Stenographer's ability to hear the official proceedings.
April 15, 2017
- Story: Police Procedure Most of the questions I am asked start with “How would a cop really…” and most of my answers actually come straight from department policies. Riverside Police Department (in Southern California’s Inland Empire) has their entire policy manual posted online. [Before you ask....no, this is not the agency I work for.] This policy manual is indicative of what you will likely find in police policy manuals around the country, as they are based on yearly changes in case law and best practices. While not every agency will have the exact same policies, this exemplar will offer some great insight into how investigations are handled, what cops can and can’t do, and just how much working-knowledge of policy is required to navigate a workday. I really encourage you to bookmark this link and use it as a reference tool for learning how your characters will handle their investigations.
- Story & Character: Serial Killers
Who doesn’t want to write the next Silence of the Lambs? Hannibal Lecter was such an iconic character that our perception of serial killers is skewed through a Lecter-esque Lens. The truth is, statistically speaking, most Homicide Detectives will never work a serial killer. The FBI created this publication for investigators, to combat the popular culture myths about serial killers, assumptions about serial murderer psychological profiles, and to keep those misunderstandings from derailing an actual investigation. If you write about serial killers, this is a must-read for creating antagonists that aren’t a repeat of the erroneous stereotype.
- Character: Cop Psychology I first heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when it was called “Cop Shock,” based on a book of the same name. There has been a lot of media coverage in recent years about PTSD, as our troops return home from war suffering with the psychological effects of what they experienced. What isn’t as commonly reported about is Cumulative-PTSD, the type that is killing cops through suicide from the cumulative effects of police work. This story explains Cumulative-PTSD. Of particular note is the top comment at the bottom of the page (posted by Bigj78) that offers some perspective into why so few cops seek help. To read about what’s being done to combat PTSD in Law Enforcement, this article offers some examples. If you are writing a series of stories featuring the same protagonist, you might consider the long-term psychological toll the horrific scenes and high-stress incidents will take on your character. Even if you never "diagnose" your Detective with PTSD, you can add some depth of character by incorporating some of the PTSD traits listed in these articles.
March 25, 2017
- PLOT HOLES: One thing I am frequently asked about is Missing Person Investigations. Hollywood perpetuates the myth that a Reporting Party has to wait 24 hours to report someone missing. Not only is this false in the United States, there are actually laws in place that require police agencies to take Missing Person reports seriously and in a timely manner. Some specific types of cases must be entered into a national database within two or four hours of the initial report. Check out California’s exhaustive guide on missing persons investigations and don’t fall victim to one of the biggest cop story plot holes out there.
- CHARACTER: Writing in a way to convey how cops think can be challenging. The first step is understanding why the officer became one in the first place. There is a “chicken or the egg” argument in criminal justice academia as to whether cops are “values-predisposed” before coming on the job or become the way they are later in their careers via a “values-learned” phenomenon. I'd argue that it depends on the individual officer, but I believe most great cops truly feel it is “a calling.” My mother can attest that I’d wanted to be a cop since I was three years old. Nothing was going to stop me. It shaped many of my life decisions growing up. I took notice this week of the grittiest example of this kind of calling and fortitude. Not going to high school parties is one thing, but going through the police academy as a double-leg-amputee (and Marine Corps Combat Veteran) is a whole other level of commitment. I wish Officer Ferrieira a very long and rewarding career.
- RESEARCH FIELD TRIP: Last week, I wrote about my Department of Homeland Security's "Global Entry" program interview. Since a few of you inquired about the experience, I thought I would share. I arrived at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX twenty minutes early. I found the Global Entry desk wedged between the twin entrances of Terminal 4 and Terminal 5, where an Asian woman wearing a full Customs and Border Protection uniform waved me up to the counter. There was no line at this early hour. I was immediately allowed through the door to the right of the counter, which opened up into a small office, staffed with eight CBP Officers behind desks. All were armed and wearing external body armor; the kind SWAT teams wear. The officer I spoke to was polite, but efficient. After answering a handful of questions, handing over my Passport and Driver's License, and a LiveScan of my fingerprints, I was back out the door in under ten minutes.
- MOTIVATION: Finally, here’s a quick reminder that we’re on the same team and no matter how you are currently feeling about writing, keep chipping away at it because you're creating something awesome! Even if the words you're writing today don't feel awesome, they have to be written to get to the stage of creating the awesome stuff. Keep going and have a great week!
March 18, 2017
- AGENCIES: INTERPOL (www.interpol.int) is an international police organization with 190 member countries. Think of it like the U.N., but for police work. INTERPOL is also one of the more misunderstood organizations in fiction. When I was a Homicide Detective, I had a murder suspect flee the country. My local FBI office took my California arrest warrant for First Degree Murder and used it to obtain a Federal "Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution" warrant. Referred to as a UFAP Warrant - pronounced "You Fap." (NOTE: Do not google that term, because it's slang for something else as well. Just don't; you'd thank me. If you do; you'll know I was right and might listen to me next time.) By obtaining a UFAP warrant, the FBI was able to get INTERPOL to flag the suspect's passport/identity for arrest using an INTERPOL RED NOTICE around the world. Check out the links to INTERPOL to learn more about the different color notices used to catch or track international fugitives, known criminals, et cetera.
- PLOT RESEARCH: I have Lethal Weapon 2 to thank for introducing me to the concept of Diplomatic Immunity. Unfortunately, it has confused most of movie goers on the concept of Diplomatic Immunity ever since. To learn exactly who has Diplomatic Immunity and to what extent that may actually keep them out of trouble, here is a link to the U.S. Department of State's "Diplomatic and Consular Immunity: Guidance for Law Enforcement and Judicial Authorities." This downloadable PDF will answer nearly every question you may have on the topic.
- RESEARCH FIELD TRIP: The reason this week's APB is focused on travel is that I have a little field trip coming up on Monday morning. A few months ago, I enrolled in the Department of Homeland Security's "Global Entry" program. Global Entry is essentially a FastPass for International travel. Not only will it allow me into the shortest/quickest line at the Customs Desk whenever I return to the United States from travel abroad, it also includes TSA PreCheck (the program that lets "pre-screened travelers" get in the short line at airport security screening.) The final hurdle in getting my Global Entry card is completing an interview with TSA at LAX in the Tom Bradley International Terminal on Monday morning. So any of you suffering from Wanderlust or wanting a writing/research field trip to your nearest, most inconvenient, international airport, I encourage you to go through the Global Entry process. Global Entry is $100 for 5 years and includes TSA PreCheck. TSA PreCheck on its own is $85 for five years; so spend the extra $15. You'll thank me the next time you get to cut the wait time at the airport (or cruise ship terminal, or land border crossing) and you'll be feeling like Jason Bourne in no time.
March 11, 2017
- RESEARCH: With this week’s Wikileaks claims regarding CIA’s purported cyber spying techniques, I think it’s time to introduce you to Michael Bazzell. Michael was a local Police Detective assigned as a Task Force Officer on a FBI Cyber Crimes Task Force. Years later, he left law enforcement to start a very lucrative career teaching cops how to use the internet to find bad guys and teaching cops to safeguard themselves from the same aforementioned searching techniques. He was also a technical advisor for the TV show “Mr. Robot.” So yes, he's that good. This week, Michael and his podcasting partner, Justin Carroll, discuss the CIA leak. After you’ve listened to the podcast, click the “OSINT Tools” link at the top of the page and then click the “Tools” link. Try using the links in the left column of the page to find new ways to search your favorite social networks. I *may* have used these techniques to connect with writers like you ;) on Facebook. Disclaimer: I accept no responsibility if these techniques lead to you stalking your high school flame.
- PROPS: Have you ever wondered what gear your character would actually carry? One of the major providers of “duty gear” is a company called Galls, and they’ve been around for decades. If you are old enough to remember leafing through inch-thick department store catalogs looking for things to ask Santa for, nothing has changed. The Galls Catalog is the definitive cop and firefighter gift guide. As a writer, you might find a few secrets of police work like this one that hides a handcuff key inside a belt keeper. I have carried one exactly like this on my Sam Browne for twenty years. It would be a very bad day if I had my own handcuffs used against me, but it goes back to the law enforcement motto of “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” If you're writing a thriller where the protagonist finds herself/himself at the mercy of the antagonist, this little gem might prove useful.
- MUSE: Writing is tough. Being fiscally successful at writing is even more difficult. It’s natural to think your self-doubt soliloquy is speaking the truth, especially when life isn’t going the way you deserve. We all think these thoughts. The next time this feeling grips you, I want you to think of Jon Morrow. Then I want you to use Jon’s advice and find the opening for your counterpunch. Find out what I mean here, in Jon Morrow’s “7 Life Lessons from a Guy Who Can’t Move Anything but His Face.”
March 4, 2017
- RESEARCH: One of the best places to learn about what cops are currently facing and what they think about is at PoliceOne. This is a great way to research a ton of police related topics, such as the equipment your characters might carry, the training they receive, or dashcam/bodycam videos of what actually happens out on the street.
- CHARACTER: You might be familiar with comedian Whitney Cummings, but you've probably never heard her like this. In her second appearance on the Tim Ferriss Podcast, she gets deep and meaningful. This is a long podcast, but her explanation of co-dependence and the character traits that are indicative of being co-dependent are 100% worth taking the time to listen. I found it enlightening you will absolutely find it useful for character creation. Whitney begins talking about co-dependence at the [6:10] mark.
One gem I pulled from this episode was, "Perfectionism leads to procrastination, which leads to paralysis." [16:35] Sound familiar? Yeah...me too.
You can find the show notes (including discussion topics by timeline mark) for Whitney's "Return of the Money Shot" episode at tim.blog, grab the podcast on itunes, or stream it directly using these links.
- WRITING TOOLS: Many of us have streaming music. I personally have XM Radio, Pandora, and my Amazon Prime membership gives me Amazon Music. Last year, I tried yet another streaming service called Focus@Will that claimed to provide music that boosts productivity. I am definitely the type that prefers to write and read in silence, but Focus@Will changed that for me. They scientifically determine which music increases your focus to get work done and stay in the zone. When I am working, nothing irritates me more than music that pulls me out of my zen-happy-zone (or even worse: commercials.) Focus@Will does neither of those and excels in creating that focused atomosphere.
February 25, 2017
- Story: The Art of Storytelling – Pixar partnered with the Khan Academy to teach a free course on The Art of Storytelling. It’s a 30,000 foot overview of storytelling, but it’s fun to see the Creative Brains behind animated movies like Cars and Toy Story offer insight into Pixar’s storytelling practices. Did I mention that it's free?
- Setting: Stories like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest burned the mental image of what an insane asylum might look like into our collective mind’s eye. My wife and I visited Bath, England last year and stayed at the Bailbrook House. This stunning mansion looked like any number of stately homes featured in Downton Abbey. While flipping through the hotel’s Welcome Book in our room, I quickly discovered we were staying in a former 19th Century lunatic asylum known for its advances in cranial drilling. This week, I discovered the article: Human Zoos of the 19th Century which reveals how North American mental institutions in the 1800s were public attractions with complete with tours for the whole family.
- Time Management: The only way to write that book (or that APB or that blog post) is to get your butt in your seat and start typing. “But I don’t have the time!” Does that sound familiar? This NY Times article provided some insight into the benefits of tracking your time.
- Crime Writer's Mug: Crime Writer’s Miranda Admonishment coffee mug*. If you ever wanted a Miranda Admonishment card for your crime story interviews, this is it…conveniently printed on the side of a coffee mug, because you have the right to remain caffeinated.
February 18, 2017
- Character: Lost Boy of Sudan becomes an Atlanta Police Officer – An uplifting true story about perseverance and following your dream through adversity.
- Setting: A succinct description of heroin production. – If you want to accurately describe how heroin is actually manufactured, this is the most concise and accurate description I've seen.
- Story: The Soup Maker – If you write about drug cartels, this blog will introduce you to the eye opening reference source called BorderlandBeat.com WARNING: This site often shows graphic images of the real death and devastation of narcoterrorism. While I highly recommend reading the articles, think twice about joining in the commentary. The Cartels are certainly reading these posts as well. The Soup Maker link is to a real life story of what I can only describe as The Heisenberg Body-Disposal-Method. It's definitely gross, but start asking yourself how articles like these could lead to new story ideas. After you read The Soup Maker, consider this writing prompt: HOW and WHY did the Cartel know to reach out to the "Israelites" as experts in this field? WHAT does that mean is going on elsewhere in the world? Taking an analytical approach to reading any news article and then asking the right questions is a sure-fire Rx for killing writer's block.
- Writer's Reference: 5 Secrets of Story Structure: How to Write a Novel That Stands Out (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 6), by K.M. Weiland. I am a big fan of K.M. Weiland's writing tools. As I send this email today (2/18/2017), the Kindle Edition is currently FREE. Download it before the price goes back up!