Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wednesday Writers Tips... Crime & Punishment

I write contemporary romance. My sub genre is often called Sweet, Tender and/or Clean. So why do I have the book The Crime Writer's Reference Guide, 1001 Tips for Writing the Perfect Murder by Martin Roth in my library? Because, like all writers, I have an imagination. And I love letting my imagination go where it will.

Crime and punishment make for exciting plots. I have a trilogy in progress called Cottonwood County Sheriff's Office. It takes place in the same local as my current series, Cottonwood County Chronicles. I have another series, only the first one is done so far, called Mounties of Skagetts Rock

But what do I know of crime and punishment? I've never gotten a ticket (well, not counting the Failure to Stop when I was 20). I've never been arrested and have no close friends or relatives who have been arrested. I never set foot in a police station or sheriff's office or jail until I participated in a local TRIAD Law Enforcement Academy. (I've got the miniature sheriff's badge to prove it.) 

I've always had an interest in law enforcement. My grandfather was Captain of Detectives in Los Angeles when I was growing up. My uncle and his cousin were motorcycle officers. And my cousin's son (married to a law enforcement officer) carries on the tradition recently making Lieutenant. And Law Enforcement officers make great heroes. The desire to serve and protect are great qualities. They make great villains, too, when they go rogue. (So far, all my law enforcement characters are heroes.)

Therefore, I rely on research to build my crime and punishment worlds. The academy I attended was invaluable. The books on my shelf indispensable. The Crime Writer's Reference Guide is just that: A reference guide. It's full of lists, charts and explanations. Author Martin Roth wrote over 100 TV scripts and several best-selling books. This second edition has updated information by Rey Verdugo (Retired, Sgt.), top criminal investigator and technical consultant for film and TV. Here's bit from the beginning:

How to Avoid Common Mistakes
Even the best writers make mistakes. A recent book by an excellent mystery writer had a number of small, but sidetracking errors about guns.(...)Getting the details wrong is the most common error in crime writing.
Admit it! As writers, we often take dramatic license and convince ourselves that the reader or audience isn't going to know the difference. Not true anymore. Crime readers and TV and movie audiences are getting pretty sharp and will pick up on sloppy crime writing. It takes a little longer, but getting it right is well worth the efforts--for your sake, as well as for the people reading or watching your story. 

Then follows a list of common mistakes crime writers make. For brevity I'll just touch them.

Don't confuse ballistics with firearms identification...
Bodies are seldom outlined with chalk or tape...
Don't confuse "criminologists" with "criminalists."...
"Take him downtown for questioning" is cliché...
Use the right police codes... They differ in different locals...
Don't confuse bullets with cartridges...
If you write about a real city, find out the color of its patrol cars...
Don't have your investigator pick up a suspect weapon by inserting a pencil into the barrel...
Don't have your investigator put weapons and similar pieces of evidence into plastic bags...
Keep crime scene personnel at a minimum...
If your story needs red herrings, develop them so they are not easily dismissed by the reader...

Examples are pulled from the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. Charts show police and judicial departments' organization.

The first chapter, Crime, includes: Crime and Motive, General list of Crimes, Crimes Associated with Politics, Crimes Associated with Business, Domestic Crimes, White-Color Crimes, Means of Escape, Acts of violence and more. 

Other chapters include: Criminals, Cops, Investigations, The Courts, Prisons, and Language (slang, legal terminology). Each chapter ends with "Where to Go From Here" with a list of more research material. 

Besides LAPD, the book covers District Attorney of LA, Cincinnati Police Division, Dept. of Justice, INTERPOL U.S. National Central Bureau, FBI, Immigration, Drug Enforcement, IRS Criminal Investigations, Coast Guard, etc., etc. It's an all-in-one reference source. It would take hours on the Internet to search all the stuff in this book. 

Do you write crime novels or scripts? Do you write contemporary romance with crime elements? What's your go to reference? 

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