Editor’s Note: Crime fiction writers, listen up if you want some real writing tips to improve your police stories. Academy is now in session thanks to retired police officer and author Quintin Peterson. He’s ready to school us with some truly fascinating insights into what it takes to be convincing as crime fiction writers. How many of these 5 writing tips did you not know?
There are many crime fiction subcategories. And crime fiction writers will be well-served by sampling at least some of them. Whether your concentration is cozies, hard-boiled noir mysteries or suspense thrillers, that kind of exposure will improve your work.
So will the information below, particularly for crime fiction writers who are new to creating police procedurals. If you want to improve your police stories – as well as your fiction writing in general – consider these 5 writing tips:
Research the actual police department of the fictional officer(s) you’ll be portraying. Learn its history, and the ethnic and gender breakdown of its workforce – making sure that your fictionalized version reflects its diversity, or lack thereof – as well as ranks and promotional processes. The same goes for its police academy training curriculum, the make(s) and model(s) of the motor vehicles in its fleet, and the same for its standard issue sidearm. This should also include doing research on the weapon itself. Familiarize yourself with local police jargon, and listen to police dispatches via a scanner. Reach out to real police officers of that department, and ask questions about police work as it pertains to your story. And finally, if feasible, try to find out what it feels like to be on patrol, especially at night, by participating in your chosen police department’s ride-along program (e.g., https://mpdc.dc.gov/page/ride-along). This kind of in-depth look goes a long way in terms of making your police stories seem realistic and you more legitimate as a crime fiction writer.
Avoid depicting clichés regarding any animosity between local cops and the Feds. Police department personnel are working within local law enforcement/federal law enforcement agency task forces as we speak. It’s a tried and true arrangement that is mutually beneficial. Build tension by other means (e.g., personal conflict between a Fed and local cop) rather than making it about Feds “pulling rank.” That would be refreshing.
If you are not telling your story via the literary device of the unreliable narrator, give every major character a mole. In other words, give them a flaw or wound that hasn’t yet healed: some traumatic incident that made them who they are now and distinguishes them from the other characters. Also keep in mind that character arcs must coincide with the story arc, since the characters only exist to serve the plot.
Consider your main characters as just being opposing forces working to achieve their own goals. Remember, in real life the villain never believes he’s the bad guy. For example, the drug dealer or hitman might love his wife and children, and is just trying to provide for and protect them. Therefore, give the antagonist at least one admirable trait. By the same token, the protagonist should be just a little bit bad. This is the best way to make your story gray, not just black and white. Keeping your story closer to a representation of the world we live in will help make your work ring true.
Learn the fine art of writing dialogue, and incorporate light touches of police jargon into it. Dialogue is nothing like ordinary conversation, which typically leads nowhere. It’s designed to help move the story forward, but it has to seem like informal exchanges of ideas. Read not only your dialogue, but your entire story aloud. Whatever sounds like writing, rewrite it until it doesn’t. The fine art of editing is essential to good writing.
About the Author: Native Washingtonian Quintin Peterson is a retired D.C. police officer who served the public for three decades. Aside from traditional police work, his duties included assignment as the official liaison between the Metropolitan Police Department, D.C., and the motion picture and television industries, acting as script consultant and technical adviser for scores of movies and TV shows. As a byproduct of being liaison, he was also assigned to assist several major crime fiction authors with their D.C.-based novels. He himself is a critically acclaimed crime fiction author who has penned four D.C.-based crime novels and has contributed short hard-boiled police procedurals to several magazines, as well as eight anthologies, including D.C. Noir, edited by George Pelecanos. You can learn more about Peterson at his Amazon Author Page or on social media at: