O’Neil De Noux has been a regular contributor to EQMM for more than twenty years. He’s written both historical mysteries and contemporary police procedurals for us, and his wider work includes science fiction and mainstream historicals. His superb sense of place is often noted by critics. An example of it can be found in his December 2012 story for EQMM, “Misprision of Felony,” which was selected for that year’s volume of Best American Mystery Stories. In the course of his career, the Louisiana author has also won a Shamus Award for best short story and a Derringer Award for best novelette. He is the author of sixteen novels, many of them featuring the characters who appear in his short stories. This long list of literary accomplishments goes side by side with a full-time career as a police detective, and in this post, O’Neil discusses how his two careers come together. —Janet Hutchings
There are advantages and disadvantages to being a cop-turned-writer.
Advantages? We know the life. We know how a cop thinks, how a cop talks, what a cop will do, and we write from there. We are eyewitnesses who must learn how to write good fiction to get the stories out there. So we start a little ahead, but until we learn how to write all we have are anecdotes.
Disadvantages? It’s hard for us to cut corners, just like in real life. We have to solve the crimes as real cops do and sometimes it isn’t that interesting. That’s why learning to be a good fiction writer is paramount. We have to know how to add excitement to mundane procedures. The dean of our field, Joseph Wambaugh, taught us this lesson we should never forget.
Another disadvantage is publishing’s perception of police officers in fiction. Some agents and editors think television cops are real, that cops beat up prisoners all the time, violate people’s rights, shoot everyone they can. Real cops like that end up in the penitentiary. Then again, a good story outranks reality. We are writing fiction, so when I read about a cop who’s over the top, well that’s fiction. It’s just a little harder for us to write. We need to learn how to do this effectively. My recurring character John Raven Beau is larger than life and has shot far too many people in my fiction. It took awhile, but I learned.
The reaction of the first agent I approached when I finished my first novel Grim Reaper surprised me. The agent told me if I was going to write police novels, I needed to brush up on police procedures. I thought grammar was my problem. After all, I’d been a police officer for over a dozen years, including three hard years as a homicide detective next door to the murder capital of America at the time—New Orleans.
I wrote back and the agent told me there were no chalk marks around the bodies in my book, no descriptions of super-forensic techniques that lead the police to catch the criminal. My detectives did not even use deductive reasoning.
That’s because real police detectives do not draw chalk marks around bodies, dig bullets from walls with pen knives, or alter a crime scene at all. Super-forensic techniques are TV and movie magic and a homicide detective who uses deductive reasoning isn’t going to solve many murders. We use inductive reasoning, conclusions from observations of facts to arrive at a solution that fits all of the evidence. Amateurs, including many fictional detectives, use deductive reasoning, arriving at a specific conclusion from a general assumption. In other words, inductive reasoning involves relying on facts and only facts until only one conclusion is possible.
Now this does not mean a writer cannot have a detective use deductive reasoning or draw a chalk mark around a body. Fiction outranks reality in a short story or novel. It’s hard for writers like me to do this because, frankly, we know better. I’ve yet to find an emergency room doctor who liked ER, or a homicide detective who likes CSI.
A distinct advantage of being a cop-turned-writer is how we have witnessed human cruelty first hand. We’ve smelled gunpowder at crime scenes, along with the coppery scent of fresh blood. We’ve seen unspeakable carnage. We’ve felt that bruising of the spirit, the deadening of emotions necessary to be able to do the job. There’s no psychiatric term for the cumulative effect on those of us who work the long blue line. My buddies call it “the purple side of blue.” I wrote a story with that title once, then realized I’ve been writing about the purple side of blue in most of my novels as well. This insight is something unique we bring to the story.
We cop writers must remember the basics:
A Good Plot Is the Backbone of the Police Story. A well-plotted scenario will allow the writer to create memorable characters, unforgettable scenes, uniquely described settings—so long as the writer does not forget to follow normal police procedures. Deviation from the norm removes credibility from your story. Strive for believability.
Keep it Action Oriented. Although real police investigations include long, sometimes grueling days of unending canvasses, surveillances, and dead-end leads, you should be selective in order to keep your story moving forward. Short scenes featuring crisp dialogue can streamline the most mundane parts of an investigation. Leave out the boring parts.
Create Well-rounded Characters. As in all fiction, character is the heart of the story. Although the hero of the police procedural is usually a police officer, they are real people existing in a familiar world. What happens to them is extraordinary.
Create a Distinctive Setting. The setting is the skeleton your story is built around. It is more than just the description of a place or time period. It is the feeling of that place and time. Give the reader a distinct, well-rounded setting stressing sensory details: the sharp smell of gunpowder, the salty taste of blood, the tacky feeling of rubber grips on a .357 magnum when the hero’s hand sweats.
Accurate Language Adds Credibility. Through dialogue, you have an excellent opportunity to create emotion, from scintillating nails-on-the-blackboard passages uttered by creepy serial killers, to hard-nosed talk between overworked detectives.
Be Realistic. Make sure of your facts. Revolvers do not have safeties, nor can a silencer be used on one. Detectives take notes. How many times have you seen a movie or read a book showing a detective taking notes? I’ve been a detective for sixteen years. I never shot anyone, but I certainly killed a lot of pens. A pen is the detective’s most useful tool and mightiest weapon. Every killer on death row began his or her long trek through the criminal justice system with a homicide detective taking notes at a crime scene.
A Definite Resolution Helps. Don’t cheat the reader out of an ending to your story. Police cases end, usually with an arrest and trial, sometimes with a shootout. This is a natural climatic event. Even cases that are suspended or closed without a solution have a climatic moment, when the investigators come face to face with the nightmare of someone getting away with murder. In your resolution, you should remember that something is usually affirmed. Good triumphs over evil, or at least goes the distance.