What It's About
The Story Behind the Story
20 Pet Peeves
What Really Happens
Table of Contents
What It's About
The world of law enforcement is a subculture unto itself, with different codes of conduct, jargon, body language, and social mores. In True Blue, Lynda Sue Cooper answers the question, "What's It Like?" for those of you who are dedicated enough to the craft of fiction writing to want to get it right. Though outsiders are not usually embraced amongst the blue brotherhood, True Blue jimmies the door a bit so you may gain entrance into this closed society, step over that line, and get a feel for what it's like:
** Being a cop
** Working the streets, responding to calls, investigating crimes
** Going through the academy and field training
** Wearing a badge, handcuffing someone, losing a case, helping a child
** When you-know-what hits the fan out there
True Blue: An Insider's Guide to Street Cops—For Writers
By Lynda Sandoval, writing as Lynda Sue Cooper
Genre: How-To Book for Fiction Writers
Gryphon Books for Writers/Release Date: March 1999
The Story Behind the Story
I have written a lot about being a cop. I wrote True Blue, which is a writers guide, and a lot of articles, which I may add to the site in the future.
In the meantime, check out three featuresan article: Lynda's Top 20 Pet Peeves when Reading Fictional Cops; a "memoir:" What Really Happens; and a short Q&A from my online cop class below.
20 Pet Peeves
Lynda's Top 20 Pet Peeves When Reading Fictional Cops
Almost all the cops I know grouse about the way they are portrayed in books, short stories, and on television and the big screen. I've thought about this quite a bit, and after having been asked about it repeatedly during speaking engagements and on-line classes, I came up with a list of my top 20 pet peeves about the cop inaccuracies I encounter time and again in the books I read. (I've given up on Hollywood.) Here they are, for your reading pleasure.
This first set mostly deals with CHARACTER issues:
1. Cops Portrayed as Fearless Superheroes
When I read a book like this, it completely distances me from the characters. I personally KNOW they aren't realistic, and I find I cannot suspend my disbelief enough to appreciate the story. Like I've said in previous lectures, cops are not heroic because they're fearless superheroes, but because they are regular fear-filled people who act DESPITE the fear. Don't cheat your readers by eliminating this very important layer in your characterization of cops.
2. Cops Portrayed as Goody-Two-Shoes
Most cops have a bit of the street in them. It's what makes them good cops. If they don't bring this street wisdom with them to the job, they learn it in the first few years on patrol. Making cop characters almost saintly in their goodness eliminates this realism that is SO interesting to read about. Remember, good characters have flaws. Don't deprive your cop characters from this just because they're LAW MEN.
3. Street Cops Portrayed as Bumbling, Ignorant "Keystone Cop" Flatfoots
ALL cops start in patrol, and these days, most departments require their cops to have a minimum of two years of college, if not a college degree. Cops aren't issued a brain when they make detective or sergeant, and most cops I know who work a beat resent their fictional portrayal as bottom feeders. If you want to make a CHARACTER bumbling, ignorant, and stupid, go ahead, but base it on the person he is. Don't make him so just because he's assigned to patrol. That's insulting, not to mention untrue, and it'll make me (and most of my cop or cop's wife friends) put down your book quicker than anything.
4. Female Cops Portrayed As (1) Weak, (2) Provocative Manhunters, or (3) Cold, Tight-Lipped B**ches With Chips on Their Shoulders and Out to Prove Something
Gosh, can we stereotype any more??? Don't even go there. Weakness is a human trait, not a gender trait. Most of the female cops out there PRIDE themselves on doing an excellent job, and they do. Not to prove a point or act like a man. The point is you don't have to BE a man to work in law enforcement. And female cops aren't cut breaks or given concessions. They go out and do the same job the men do, maybe differently in *some* cases (again, based on the individual, not the gender), but just as efficiently.
Don't automatically make the male cops rescue the female cops. Don't make the female cops the ones who break down on scenes or can't handle blood—remember, WE HAVE BABIES. Also, believe me, the male cops are much bigger hos than the females. Many male cops pride themselves on "spreading themselves around," while most female cops avoid it. There is usually one or two female cops known as the easy ones, but they're not respected much in a work capacity by either the men or the women. Also, you don't have to be cold, rigid, and mannish to be a good cop. In fact, just the fact of BEING a woman can help you in many situations. Women make damn good cops and deserve the respect of being portrayed in fiction as rich characters first, women second, and cops last.
5. Cops Acting Overly Heroic and/or Ignoring Basic Officer Safety Issues
This DOES NOT happen with good cops. Good cops have a healthy amount of fear, a lot of smarts, a healthy does of caution, and they eschew that whole Must-Save-World-Singlehandedly complex that absolutely PLAGUES cops in fiction, especially romance fiction. If you want your readers to respect your cop character, don't have him act like an idiot, i.e. without cover and dangerously. If he does act without cover and dangerously, at least be realistic and have the other cops completely disrespect him as a loose cannon, because they would. ("But, that's not heroic!" Exactly my point.)
6. (related to #5) Cops Acting Without Back-up
Again, this doesn't happen with good, smart cops. I'm assuming you all want to write good, smart cops?
7. (related to #5 and #6) Cops Out Singlehandedly Solving Crimes
Police work is TEAMWORK. A cop never does all the work on his own. He just doesn't. Neither does a detective, or an undercover narc—none of them. I see so many books with the cop character out making witness/suspect contacts alone, running surveillance alone, basically working the whole case by himself. It doesn't happen, and when cops read this in fiction, they roll their eyes.
8. (related to #7 ) An Average City Cop Portrayed as a Bodyguard or in an Undercover Capacity, Long-term and/or Without Cover
Another couple of popular but completely unrealistic clichés in fiction, namely romance fiction. Municipal cops are *never* assigned as long term body guards. And, although longer-term undercover assignments do occur on occasion, it is far more rare than is portrayed in fiction. I mean if you want to write about super-secret agent men and deep- deep-cover cops, I guess they are popular in some circles. But don't fool yourself that they have much basis in reality.
9. A Cop Portrayed as Too Serious
For the most part, cops are the biggest bunch of wisecracking smartasses I've ever been around, and the humor is some of the most politically incorrect I've ever encountered. It's AWESOME! Sure, when a situation calls for it, even the biggest jokester is all business— but only until the situation ends. Most cops don't take themselves too seriously, and practical jokes abound. Don't lose that chance to chararacterize in a richer way.
10. A Cop Character Whose Whole Life is Police Work
Yes, it happens, and quite frequently. But trust me, these cops do NOT make interesting friends (or characters). They're DULL. They're one-dimensional. And, if you're writing one as the hero (or heroine) of a romance, trust me when I tell you a person would have to be pretty darn desperate to fall in love with one of these cardboard cutouts. HAR! Give your characters a life outside police work. Of course, make him keep his basic cop characteristics whether on the job or off—observant, wary, suspicious, keeps his distant, all the stuff we've talked about—but give him a LIFE.
11. Patrol Cops Out Solving Major Crimes
Patrol cops respond on and do the initial investigation of major crimes all the time, but that's just the beginning of the case. It has to be built, and that isn't a patrol cop's job. If he's doing that job, who's going to be doing his job...? EVERY link in the chain is important.
12. Police "Brass" Out On Scenes, Making Crime-Solving Decisions
The upper echelon of the police department is ADMINISTRATIVE. For the most part, they don't come out on crime scenes, and when they DO come out, it is usually for ego reasons and they almost always end up screwing everything up. Unless you're writing about a small town in which the chief is one of five total cops, he's not going to come out on crime scenes ever. It Just Doesn't Happen.
13. Cop Characters Compromising a Case for the Sake of the Plot
This happens in romance a lot, and I've discussed it in some of the answers I've posted, so I won't belabor it. Just know that a good cop won't compromise a case, ESPECIALLY not for a date/romance/love. Once you blow your credibility with the department, the DA's office, the judges, it's gone. Good cops just don't take these risks. There are lots of other fish in the sea besides (1) suspects, (2) witnesses, and (3) victims.
Now, for some PLOT ISSUES:
14. When a Case is Solved Without Sufficient Evidence, or on the Basis of Flukes, Coincidences, or Other Plot Gyrations
If you are writing a book about a CRIME, be sure to make the crime and the solving thereof realistic and legally sound. Mind you, some NYT Bestselling Authors have preposterous solutions to their crimes, and they're laughing all the way to the bank. It's up to you, but if you want cops to read and respect your work, get it right.
15. Books Whose Authors Obviously Did All Their Research By Watching Cop Shows on TV
Everyone? Repeat after me: Television Cops Are Not Realistic. Television Cop Situations Are Not Realistic. Hollywood Cops Are Not Realistic. Hollywood Cop Situations Are Not Realistic. Books are a different medium than TV or movies. Don't forget that! They might be entertaining as heck, and I for one will never miss NYPD Blue, but they aren't very realistic and don't translate well in fiction. Probably the biggest sinner of all on television right now, in relation to portraying police work accurately, is CSI. Man, don't get me started....
16. Books Whose Cop Characters Have Unrealistic Job Duties
This goes back to #8 and #11. Make sure your cop plot is one that would actually happen in real life. All it takes is a little research.
17. Fictional Cops Who See More Action Than is Realistic
The average cop doesn't ever become involved in a shooting—not in his entire 20-30 year career. Having a cop character in two or three or ten shootings in the course of the book is unrealistic. Also annoying. Cops generally don't get shot a bunch of times, nor do they get taken hostage much. Nor do they get in weekly or daily car chases, bomb situations, nor do they take on the mob or large drug syndicates on a regular basis.
18. Scenes that Minimize the Chaos of a Major Scene
The reason I hate this is because it gives the general public the misconception that once the cops arrive on a scene, everything runs like clockwork. Look at the backlash in the papers on some of the major scenes we've had in this country lately. Some citizens were outraged that the cops didn't "control things." Well, gosh, last I heard, cops are still human, and disasters happen. These outraged citizens don't understand rule one about police operations, yet they had the audacity to Monday Morning Quarterback the officers who responded to the scenes. Bottom line is, major scenes ARE chaotic. Inherently chaotic, at least until things are under control, and often that takes a long time. They aren't pretty. They aren't military drills. They aren't Jackie Chan movies. When the sh** hits the fan in your book, make it realistically hit the fan. Show the chaos.
19. A Plot That Doesn't Follow Proper Criminal Procedure
This is basic, basic stuff. You don't have to learn everything there is to know about criminal procedure, but you darn well better learn the criminal procedure that pertains to YOUR story inside and out. Doing otherwise will weaken your story and cheat your reader.
20. Failure to Check Basic Facts
I continually urge writers to contact the cops in the jurisdiction they are writing about. Although the basic cop stuff I provide in my book and my lectures is pretty universal, each department is its own culture. If you're writing about a specific department, you better be sure you're getting it right.
And, my bonus pet peeve, that comes to us THANKS TO HOLLYWOOD...
21. Scenes in which the Cop Reads the Arrestee his Miranda Rights as he's Cuffing Him Up
ARGH! This bothers every cop I know. The ONLY time you read someone his Miranda Rights is (1) when he's in custody AND—not or—AND (2) you are preparing to interview him about the crime. Period. Cops don't Mirandize as they're taking someone into custody. That's Hollywood's little bit of fantasy.
What Really Happens
Street cops have a love/hate relationship with food. Try using your dashboard for a dining table for a while and you'll know what I mean. First, here are some of the food rules for cops:
1. Even if you are only going into Winchell's to buy coffee or a muffin, no one will believe you. Just get the doughnut.
2. White powdered doughnuts and navy blue starched uniforms don't mix.
3. Immediately after buying hot coffee you will get a call that will tie you up until the coffee has transformed into cold sludge. Then you will spill it in your patrol car.
4. Related to number three above, when sitting in a restaurant for your code seven, the big call in your district will come just as soon as your food arrives at the table.
5. Onions and garlic can haunt you and those around you.
6. Green Jolly Rancher candies result in green tongues and teeth, which, according to one of my old sergeants, are not professional.
7. Yogurt is not a car food. (Lynda-ism)
8. Cream puffs are definitely not a car food. Not now, not ever. The cream filling also has the adhesive qualities of cement. (Another Lynda-ism)
The thing with food when you're working patrol is, it's never convenient. You have a couple of stellar choices:
a. You can sit in a restaurant and have people stare at you with those,"Well, holy banjos, Jethro! Did you know them cops eat ACTUAL food in public?" looks on their faces. (This is related to how we all felt when we saw our teacher in the grocery store at night: "Hey!"look of horror,"What are you doing out of school?")
b. You can choose to eat in your car for privacy and risk Uniform Disaster. Which brings me to the cream puff incident.
We used to have a yummy Italian bakery in our city that was known for its amazing cream puffs. One day, I decided to try one. I'm not generally a cream puff fan, but what the heck? I bought one, then hunkered down in the parking lot and ate it, savoring every fat-free (not) bite. As I popped the final morsel into my mouth, I reflected, with a twinge of sadness, that there hadn't been much CREAM in the puff. Eh, well. I wrote it off to bad luck.
Moments thereafter, I was dispatched to a call. When I arrived on scene, the male reporting party started telling me his story, but his eyes kept wandering to my chest. Pervert, I thought, my righteous female indignation flaring. This yutz is staring at my RACK while I stand here in front of him ARMED. Definitely not a brain surgeon! But then it struck me,I was wearing a Kevlar vest, which left nothing remotely rack-esque to draw a man's admiration. Curious, I glanced down, and to my horror, I found about half a cup of cream puff filling meandering down my starched blue uniform shirt like slow-moving white lava. It looked, for all intents and purposes, like a very large baby had gacked down my front. Mortifying.
I finished up the call as quickly as possible, then set about trying in vain to clean my uniform. That slime got so imbedded in my gunbelt, I never got it all out. In fact, as I turned in the ol' gunbelt for the last time, I glanced wistfully at the cream puff remnants that had endured for years.
Of all the foods I spilled on my uniform over the years, the cream puff incident stands out as particularly humiliating...
I teach a month-long class on...well, police stuff, which consists of about nine lectures and reams of Q&A information. Over time, I will share what is essentially the best of those Q&A sessions here on the website! If you have any other questions, feel free to drop me an email. While I won't be able to answer all the questions directly (sorry, but I gotta write those books), you may find your question answered here on my site in the future.
TWO-PART QUESTION FOR LYNDA:
Lynda, you stated that cops are suspicious of everyone and that everyone lies to cops. So here's my scenarioin my work-in-progress, one of the villains is my hero's mother. They haven't seen each other for 17 years. What are some of the things he will detect to suggest that she is lying? He's going to struggle against their past conflicts influencing his judgment. There are some obvious ones I can think ofthe nervous twitch, fidgeting, avoiding eye contact. But what are some subtle things that only an experienced officer would notice? Is it just instinct and experience on the part of the officer? That gut feeling? And as a writer, is it good enough to simply state that the hero had a "feeling" that a character wasn't exactly telling the truth?
My next question may come under the heading of pet peeves or things that don't happen...so feel free to postpone the answers until lecture 7.
Regarding the blue wall of silence... My hero is an officer in LA that returns to his small Mississippi hometown. While there, the sheriff dies and he is appointed to fill in the position until the election. Would you say that blue wall is just as strong against an "outsider" on the force or would a cop be accepted just because he is a cop? I realize I can make the situation any way I want but I'm looking for general attitudes towards "outsiders" within the department.
Cool scenario. To help answer, I'm going to refer to an article I wrote about this very subject: "I Cannot Tell A Lie." A lot of this I learned in criminal interrogation school. (This article is still being reprinted in various writers' newsletters, so if you happen to pass it on to anyone, I hope you'll credit it to me and tell them to contact me for permission to reprint. Thanks.)
Ok, that addressed part one of the question. On to part two: "Is it just instinct and experience on the part of the officer? That gut feeling? And as a writer, is it good enough to simply state that the hero had a "feeling" that a character wasn't exactly telling the truth?"
Cops rely on gut feeling a LOT, however just as a motivator to dig deeper and investigate further. What I mean is, "I just had a gut feeling," would never stand up in court, even if it panned out. As a writer, of course, it would be perfectly fine to write that your cop character had a feeling something wasn't right. That's how it happens. I had an assault case once where the victim, a man, told me he and his brother-in-law had argued about money and his brother-in-law ended up assaulting him. Victim's wife backed him up. All the signs were there they were giving me the straight scoop, but I just DIDN'T believe it. My inner cop alarm bells were going off. And, it ended up I was right, but it took four more hours of intense investigation and double-teaming the wife to finally get to the truth.
ANOTHER RELATED QUESTION:
Another thing that indicates lying is when the story stays consistently the same each and every time. Supposedly in real life, little details are remembered or forgotten, so the story can vary a little bit. But a rehearsed lie will stay the same. I know these "tips" sound backward. Lynda, have I been reading the wrong books?
These are very good points, and you have not been reading the wrong books. One thing we writers have to take into consideration, however, are cultural differences. In many Latin cultures, direct eye contact with those in authority is considered disrespectful, for example. Cops learn (or should learn) about all these nuances to make their jobs easier. Another one—if we ever had to go into a traditional Asian household, we were taught to address the eldest male only, even if the questions pertained to another family member. It many traditional Asian cultures, apparently, to do otherwise is a sign of extreme disrespect. As a cop, you don't want to piss off your witnesses or victims, because it will harm your case.
These are the kinds of interesting little details to ferret out and use in your WIPs to make them richer and more real.
ANOTHER RELATED QUESTION:
I've read in a couple different places on body language that one of the signs of lying is giving constant direct contact, not avoiding eye contact as most people think. Apparently, when someone is speaking about important matters, the natural tendency is for eye contact to fluctuate. At least that's what the books say...
Very, very true. Another misconception is that liars will be very adamant. Initially, yes, they're full of bluster. But the wrongly accused are much more likely to continue to be adamant throughout an interrogation. I have tons of info about this in the Interview/Interrogation chapter of True Blue.
A NEW QUESTION FOR LYNDA:
Regarding the blue wall of silence... my hero is an officer in LA that returns to his small Mississippi hometown. While there, the sheriff dies and he is appointed to fill in the position until the election. Would you say that blue wall is just as strong against an "outsider" on the force or would a cop be accepted just because he is a cop? I realize I can make the situation any way I want but I'm looking for general attitudes towards "outsiders" within the department.
If an outsider *cop* comes in at the command staff level, there will be resentment from the officers inside who believe in working up through the ranks from the outside. However, if he's a good, decent cop who works hard, odds are he'll eventually be accepted. Or at least, the possibility exists.
Let me address one other issue with this situation. A sheriff is an elected position, and there aren't many county jurisdictions who wouldn't also have an undersheriff. In a case of the sheriff having to be replaced, the undersheriff would be the one to fill his shoes. You need to understand the difference between sheriffs and police officers. Here's a quick rundown:
The Sheriff is an elected, political position. Some have prior law enforcement experience, some don't. The Sheriff's (and his deputies') jurisdiction is a COUNTY (or whatever a county is called in your neck of the woods). The primary duty of the Sheriff's Office is to provide and man county jail facilities. In counties which include unincorporated areas, road deputies would also provide police services.
The Police Chief is an appointed position. Usually all have extensive law enforcement experience. The Chief's (and his officers') jurisdiction is an incorporated municipality within county boundaries. The primary duty of the PD is to provide police services within the city.
So, for example, I worked for the municipality of Wheat Ridge within the county of Jefferson. Our department had complete criminal jurisdiction within the city. If a crime happened, it was ours. The Jeffco deputies could stop cars and perform other traffic related enforcement within Wheat Ridge, but if anything *criminal,* above and beyond traffic occurred during one of those stops, Jeffco had to call us. Does that make sense? Criminal matters were not within their jurisdiction INSIDE our city limits. On the other hand, I reside in unincorporated Jefferson County. If my house was burglarized (God forbid), the Jeffco road deputies would respond to take the report, and it would be investigated by Jeffco criminal detectives. Because we're unincorporated. Does that clear things up?
Now, in Denver, for example, the city and county boundaries are one in the same. Hence, DPD handles everything criminal, and DSO is strictly a county jail proposition.
To take this further, Colorado State Patrol is our state police agency. Their jurisdiction is restricted to traffic ONLY, and only on state highways. We called them "Triple-A with a badge." Awww, we were only kidding. All cops pick on other cops—it's part of the subculture. However, some state police agencies have complete major crime jurisdiction in the state. The local PD officers are what we call "Thumpers." Go to a fight, thump people, leave and go to the next call. They don't investigate anything. If you are in doubt of the state police's jurisdiction in your state, call and find out how they operate for sure.
"Anyone who wants some insight into the work life of a policeman/woman—or who wants to write police procedurals (that includes about at least a million people, it seems) will enjoy Cooper's analysis of the daily grind for those on the front lines between us and the bad guys. It's a fun and interesting book and will prepare readers to watch and critique NYPD Blue and other favorite television shows and novels."
"This specialty book by former suburban Denver police officer, Cooper, is a treasure."
"I started reading this book thinking it would be little different than any of the other police procedurals I own (and I own A LOT). I was pleasantly surprised. This was written in layman's terms, from a street cop's point of view...this is as accurate as it can possibly be. If you ever plan on having a street cop for a character, whether it be the hero, heroine, whatever, you'll want this book to get it right." FIVE STARS.
Lisa Ramaglia, Scribes World Reviews
Phyllis Williams, former police reporter from Florida: "Reading True Blue is like a ride-a-long in the backseat of a cop car. It's a must have for anyone writing about police!"
Virginia Kantra, Golden Heart winner and multiple RITA-finalist: "Lynda Cooper's step-by-step explanations of police procedure and her lively writing style make this one of the most accessible writers' guides to cops I've read."
Carole Bellacera, award-winning author, and screenwriter from Virginia: "A must read for writers who want to produce realistic fiction about police officers and their procedures. Eye-opening and immensely readable, written with wit and authority by a talented author. A gem of a book!"
G. Miki Hayden, the author of By Reason of Insanity and How to Write the Mystery, from New York: "As a mystery writer who often includes cop characters, I can see this will be a terrific resource for me. All the details of the everyday life of the police officer are included here, so there's no need to guess or make stupid mistakes in describing police action. In fact, just looking the book over has given me several ideas for stories."
Debby Mayne/Deborah Tisdale, romance and mystery author from Florida: "True Blue is the best and most thorough police procedural book for writers I've ever seen. Not only does it have factual information, it's entertaining and filled with the lively personality of the author. "
L.M. Heet, freelance writer/author from St. Louis, Missouri: "True Blue is a must-have for fiction writers! Rather than the monotonous, dry, typical non-fiction book, True Blue is not only informative, it's also interesting and fun to read. The true life cop anecdotes are particularly entertaining, and give fiction writers a true glimpse into the world behind the badgewhich is vital to making your own writing true-to-life!"
Cynthia Sterling, award-winning romance author from Colorado: "Writers and readers alike will enjoy Lynda Sue Cooper's True Blue. Her insider's view of cops—what they do and what makes them tick—will help writers give their work that all-important ring of authenticity, while mystery and suspense fans will appreciate the chance to look behind the scenes at the fascinating world of police work. Told in an engaging, often humorous fashion, True Blue reads like a fast-paced novel, making it one of the most enjoyable research books on my shelf."
Pam McCutcheon, author of Writing the Fiction Synopsis: "True Blue is chock-full of intricate details about the day-to-day life of a patrolman, the real scoop on police department procedures, and intriguing anecdotes guaranteed to generate a myriad of story ideas. Lynda Sue Cooper has done an excellent job of taking us into the complex mind of a police officer and showing us what lurks in the corners. If you've ever wondered if your police characters are true to life-or what it's really like wearing the blue uniform-don't miss this book!"
Kris Neri, award winning mystery author: "Wow! This book is outstanding. It's full of real insider information, but written in a nice, friendly style with a touch of humor where appropriate. Each of the chapters also end with anecdotes other cops share, some dark, some funny, but all authentic. Way to go, Lynda!"
True Blue was a bestselling title in the bookfair at the 2000 Colorado Gold Conference, sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.
Table of Contents
Chapter One—Making the Cut
Chapter Two—A Day in the Life
Chapter Three—Getting the Collar
Chapter Four—Specific Patrol Functions
Chapter Five—Crime Scene Investigation Basics
Chapter Six—Search Warrants and Interrogations
Chapter Seven—The Police World
Chapter Eight—Hazardous Duty
Appendix A—Gang Slang
Appendix B—Ten-Code System
Appendix C—Radio Codes, Language, and a Phonetic Alphabet
Appendix D—Use of Force
Appendix E—Recommended Resources