Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Dana King on Writing Cops

Scott's Note: Dana King comes back to Do Some Damage this week, talking about his new Penns River crime novel, the fifth in the series, Pushing Water.  It's a series that focuses on police and police work, and Dana talks here about writing procedurals and what he has learned, over the years, about crafting them.  

Here he is: 

As always, thanks to Scott for giving me an opportunity to make folks aware of the new book. (Pushing Water dropped last week from Down & Out Books.)

The first thing I saw on the Down & Out site when I went for the hyperlink was Pushing Water in the position of honor on the home page. In bold letters below the title was a quote from Colin Campbell: “An extraordinary voice.”

That blurb meant a lot to me, not just because it was supremely gracious. For Pushing Water I asked for blurbs from writers who were, or still are, cops. People I can’t bullshit about the procedures or the kinds of things cops do and say among themselves. To get such enthusiastic responses from the likes of Colin, Mark Bergin, Adam Plantinga, and Frank Zafiro validates all the time I spent trying to get it right.

My proudest moment as a writer came at New Orleans Bouchercon. I was in a conversation with a few author cops, playing sponge to see what I could soak up, when one of them (I wish I remembered who; we were several drinks into the evening) turned to me and said, “Well, you were police. You know.” He was surprised when I said I never had been.

Another prime moment came in St. Petersburg, when a man I didn’t know at the time (who turned out to be Mark Bergin) told me how much he appreciated Worst Enemies because (spoiler alert) it showed that the cops don’t always get the bad guy, even when they know who it is.


People read for stories, and I work hard to get compelling tales. My guiding principle still comes from Joseph Wambaugh: a good procedural is more about how the case works on the cops then how the cops work on the case. Part of the reason I made Penns River a post-industrial mill town is so I wouldn’t have to fool with all that CSI bullshit. Penns River’s cops still solve crimes by talking to people and piecing things together and paying attention to what’s changed in the environment. Everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve talked to says that’s how it's still done the majority of the time.

It bothers me that so many people think what they “learn” in cop and courtroom novels and shows are how things really are. It creates unhealthy ideas of how law enforcement works, or doesn’t. To feel one has to choose between realism and entertainment is a door to lazy writing. There’s no reason the story can’t be both.

Actual investigations are dry, dull, tedious work. People and events are interesting. It’s more important to show what and how the cops piece everything together and imply how the sausage got made through their internal discussions. I can add a character to stand in for the audience if I feel compelled to explain something.

It’s also not like cops devote their lives to one case at a time. Wambaugh is the master (of course) of showing all the different kinds of things that can come up on (or off) a shift, from the ridiculous to the horrifying, sometimes on the same call. If more people had an idea of what goes on during a cop’s shift—admittedly condensed or it really would be boring as listening to bowling on the radio—they’d realized RoboCop was satire.

Don’t misunderstand. Cops come from the general population, so one can find all humanities’ better and worse qualities in a police department. Some cops joined up because they like to help people. Some like to tell people what to do. Some like to drive fast and chase bad guys. Some have found a way to pick up untaxable cash while still holding down a job with benefits and a pension. For some it’s getting to carry a gun, though nowadays every Tom, Dick, and Mary carries. Some are teetotalers. Some are drunks. All are people, with all the same things in their lives we have in ours, though with the added burden of having to make potentially life and death decisions—theirs and others—at any time and on a moment’s notice.

That’s what I want to write. To hear that I succeed on some level from the people I’m trying to describe is better than winning an award.

You can pick up Pushing Water here.

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