Want to Make Your Scenes Come Alive?
Here’s a Cop’s-Eye View

By PJ Parrish

It’s a weird — but illuminating — exercise to go back and read your early works. My sister Kelly and I have been doing this lately as we prep our backlist for re-issue with new covers and better editing (Click here to read James’s salient and funny post on typos from Sunday.)

Sometimes, when you read your early stuff, you get this hard little nub in your gut and you think, “Good grief, what was I thinking?”  Kelly and I sort of feel this way about our first published Louis Kincaid thriller Dark of the Moon. It’s a solid freshman effort, but could have been better. But our second book Dead of Winter was where we began to digest the lessons of craft and find our stylistic stride.

In Dead of Winter, we began to recognize the power of description and mood. We knew the setting — the deep dark of the northern Michigan winter — was critical as a backdrop for the plot of a sniper picking off the cops in a small town. When I was editing the other day, I got to the scene where Louis and his partner Ollie are called out on New Year’s Eve to check out a trash can fire some kids set in the woods. But of course, it’s a trap set by the killer.  Kelly wrote this chapter, and to this day, I think it contains some of the best descriptive writing she has ever done.  She managed to capture not just the dark, cold loneliness of the setting but the visceral terror Louis feels in it.

In an stroke of synchronicity, that same day she also happened to send me a link to a blog post by our friend Lee Lofland.  Lee is a cop who wrote the Writers Digest bestselling book Police Procedure and Investigation. He’s a Macavity Award nominee for best non-fiction mystery, an Edgar Award judge, and is a nationally acclaimed expert on police procedure and crime-scene investigation, working as a writer’s consultant on TV and film. He runs a terrific conference for writers who want a total immersion in the grit of cop work. (Kelly’s going this year for the first time. Click here for more info about The Writer’s Police Academy.) Lee’s motto for writers is “Just Say No to Cordite.” (If you don’t get that, you really need to go read Lee’s posts and a few of John Gilstraps’)

But Lee’s is also a damn good writer in his own right. I’m a regular at his blog The Graveyard Shift. Recently, he had a post that was so compelling I asked him if I could print it for you here. It is about cops, but it is a master class in the power of using your senses, and finding the telling details, to make any scene or character come to life.

Take it away, Lee:

A Cop’s Nighttime Melody: The Sounds of the Graveyard Shift

Many writers have never, not once, set foot inside a police car, nor have they climbed out of bed at 11 p.m. to swap pajamas for a police uniform, Kevlar vest, gun belt, sidearm, and spit-shined shoes. And they’ve not headed out into the night to spend the next eight to twelve hours dealing with the city’s “worst of the worst,” and worse.

Most people have not left home with their family saying, “Be careful, see you when you get home,” and know they’re saying it because they worry the next time they see their loved one will be at their funeral service. “Killed in the line of duty” is what the bloggers and reporters will say.

Sure, you all know what goes on during a police officer’s shift—fights, domestic calls, shootings, stabbings, drug dealers, rapists, and killers of all shapes and sizes.

But what those of you who’ve never “been there, done that” cannot honestly and accurately know are the sounds heard when someone take a shot at you. No, not the actual gunshot. It’s the other noises that help bring super-cool details to your stories.

To learn about those sounds, let’s pretend we’re the officer who’s just been the target of a bad guy’s gunfire. We’re chasing the suspect through alleys and paths that wind through dark wooded areas, all while knowing the guy has a gun and he’s definitely not afraid to use it.

You can’t see your hand in front of your face, so you stop and listen. And then it happens…

That eerie calm.

It causes the hairs on the back of your neck to stand tall and straight. Goose bumps come to attention on your arms. A lone pea-sized bead of sweat worms its way down your spine, easing through the space between your pants and the bare skin of your waistline. It feels oddly cool against your fear-warmed flesh.

10-4, I’LL TAKE THIS ONE …

The call came in as “Shots Fired. Suspect is armed with a handgun and caller advises he is still at the residence and is threatening to kill responding officers.”

I was working the county alone, so I asked the dispatcher to request backup from a nearby city and from the state police. The trooper in our county was also working alone. Our roles differed, though. He was out on the interstate writing traffic tickets while I responded to the usual plethora of calls. Either way, we were alone when we approached whatever situation was before us, be it stopping a stolen car with dark tinted windows or heading toward a house where I knew a man was waiting to kill me.

The sound of a police radio is far different when it’s heard late at night as opposed to the same radio traffic during daylight hours. Its an unexplained phenomenon. It could be that dark skies and night air create different acoustics. Or that working the graveyard shift forces dispatchers to work really hard to battle “the thing” that comes out at night to squeeze their emotions into submission. They typically lose the fight which results in a manner of speech that’s without feeling, inflection, and dynamics.

Nighttime radio traffic echoes and travels far. It’s weird and out of place among the stars and creamy moonlight. Dispatchers drone on like robots … “Robbery at …” “Wife says husband hit her …” “Lost child …” “Possible drug overdose at …” “Loud music at …” “Peeping Tom at …” “Customer refuses to pay at …” Shoplifter at …” “Dead body in river …” Dead body in park …” “Shots fired …” “Shots fired …” “Man stabbed at …” Shots fired …”

Back to the man who wanted to kill me.

I acknowledged the call with a “10-4, I’m en route.” Then I hooked the radio mic back into the metal “U-shaped” clip on the dashboard. Next, I pushed one of the many red toggle switches mounted into the center console.

With the push of the button, a faint click occurred simultaneously with the eruption of pulsating blue light. I stepped on the gas and heard the engine come to life. Since I was miles out in the country there was no need for the siren. Not yet.

I pushed the pedal toward the floor until I was cruising along at 70 mph. Believe me, that was pretty fast considering the curvy, hilly road that was before me.

There are no streetlights in the country. It’s super dark. Blue light reflects from trees, shrubbery, houses, mailboxes, passing cars, and telephone poles. It also reflects from the white lines painted on the pavement.

Meanwhile, the radio traffic continues with updates for me and with traffic from city officers and the trooper out on the interstate … “Use caution. Driver of the vehicle is wanted for a homicide in …”

My car radio played in the background. The Oak Ridge Boys went on and on about Bobbie Sue and Elvira while I attempted to straighten the curves by hitting my marks—drive low in the curves, on both sides of the road. Never at the apex. Unless a car is coming in the opposite direction or you cannot see far enough ahead to safely do so.

The blue strobes mounted on top of the car make a clicking sound with the start of each flash. The wig-wag headlamps did the same. The roadway is very uneven with a few cracks and potholes scattered about. They cause the patrol car to dip and roll. The extra pair of handcuffs I and many other cops keep handy by hanging them from the spotlight handle that protrudes from the post between the windshield and driver’s door, sway back and forth and bang together causing a constant click, click, click noise. The sounds are out of sync.

I switched off my lights a ways before reaching the scene—didn’t want to shooter to know I was there—and stopped my car on the shoulder, a bit down the road from the driveway. I called the dispatcher on the phone to let her know I’d arrived. The use of the phone was in case the bad guy was listening to a scanner. I turned down the volume on my police radio. Way down. Remember, the sound travels far. I wished backup didn’t have to do the same (travel far).

I opened my car door slowly to avoid making any noise. The interior light was not operational—disconnected in police cars to prevent illuminating the officer and/or blinding them to goings-on outside the vehicle.

As I slid from the seat my leather gun belt creaked and squeaked and groaned, as leather does when rubbed against other leather or similar material. To me, the sound was as loud as Fourth of July fireworks. My car keys (in my pants pocket) jingled slightly with each step. So I used a hand to hold them against my leg. The other hand was on my pistol.

I walked up to the house to peek into a window before knocking on the door. I wanted to see if I could, well, see anything. But, as I closed in on the side the house a large mixed breed dog stepped into view, showing its teeth and upper gums. The animal with matted-hair and a crooked tail growled one of those slow, easy rumbles that comes from somewhere deep inside. I held out a hand for it to sniff. It backed into the shadows.

A quick peek inside revealed a family of five. A woman with two black eyes and three crying children. Two girls, not quite teenagers, but close, probably, and a wiggling and squirming baby. A man stood near a tattered recliner and tall floor lamp. He held a pump shotgun in his right hand. At the moment, the barrel was aimed toward the floor. He yelled a few obscenities and started to pace. Then he looked straight at me, or at least it seemed like he looked at me.

My heart pounded against the inside of my chest. It bumped so hard I could hear the sound it made with each beat.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

From somewhere deep in the shadows.

Grrrr ……..Growl …..

From inside the home.

A baby crying.

A woman pleads and sobs.

A young girl. “Please, Daddy. No more!”

Sirens wail in the distance, beyond the black tree line that connects sky with earth. Sounds travel further at night, right?

The air-conditioning unit beneath the window snaps on. Its compressor humming and fan whirring. The metal casing rattles slightly. Probably missing a screw or two.

I knew what I had to do and started toward the door with my leather shoes and gun belt squeaking and keys jingling and heart thumping. As I reached for the knob I took a deep breath.

The expansion of my chest pulled at the Velcro that held my vest tightly against my torso.

Crackle. Crackle. Crackle.

Right behind me now.

Grrr …. Growl …

Crying.

Screaming.

Whir.

Thump. Thump. Thump!

Jingle

Squeak.

The door.

Turn and push.

“Drop the gun!”

BANG!

BANG!

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Crying.

And crying.

“10-4. Send the coroner.”

So, my friends, those are the sounds of working the graveyard shift …A Cop’s Nighttime Melody.

Me again. Note Lee’s use of the telling details here: the out of sync jangle of the extra cuffs. The sweep of blue lights on a mailbox in the night. How acoustics seem different in the dark swirl of lethal fear. And notice how he switches his narrative style — slow and legato when the cop is merely driving through the night then moving to a sharp staccato style during the action of t he shooting and take-down. All these are markers of a good novelist. Lee isn’t telling you how much terror a cop feels. He’s showing it to you and making you experience it through your senses.

I’ve never worn a badge, carried a gun or had to go through a door not knowing if I’d make back out alive. But I write about cops every day, so I can only hope to try to live vicariously in the skin of those who do. And then try to make the reader see what I am trying to see. It’s what writers do. It’s what we have to do to make readers feel.

Thanks, Lee. We’re all still learning here.

Postscript: I am traveling to NYC today for Edgar duties, so might be delayed in responding here. Talk amongst yourselves!

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

17 thoughts on “Want to Make Your Scenes Come Alive?
Here’s a Cop’s-Eye View

    • Thanks for the kind words, everyone. I’m pleased you’ve found the article to be somewhat helpful.

      I’m also pleased to see that some of you have attended your local citizen’s academies. I believe it’s important for writers to experience those sorts of things at least once. The Writers’ Police Academy is a bit different, though, in that attendees actually train at a real police academy, and they participate in actual police, fire, EMS, and forensic training. There’s fire and bangs and booms, attendees drive in pursuits, they perform PIT maneuvers, shoot rifles and pistols, they breach doors and enter buildings searching for armed bad guys (yes, there’s gunfire), homicide investigations, underwater evidence recovery, K-9s, and much, much more. Actually, there’s nothing like it, anywhere. It’s a hands-on event designed to activate and stimulate the senses. I do hope some of you will consider joining us this year. It’s our 10th anniversary and we’ve gone all out.

  1. There is no substitution for living it, but we can sure come close with good research. Thank you for filling us in on Lee’s blog. I’ve signed up for emails. Never can have too much research available. ***Big Grin***

    I’ve heard similar stories from my husband. He too spent many graveyard shifts during his 34 year career as a patrol officer patrolling an area alone, backup hours away. (It was a huge rural county that took several hours to drive across.)Somethings he encountered were funny, others bone chilling just like Lee describes. He always told me nothing was as adrenaline inducing as being shot at – and missed.

    I’ve asked him to allow me to write some of his stories, but he refuses. Maybe someday he will give me permission.

    Great post!

    • My sister was married to a cop. He had stories as well but wouldn’t, or couldn’t, share. It’s a strange life they lead. Spouses as well.

  2. I love this post, Kris. Lee Lofland is always an interesting guest.

    In my local community when I lived in Oklahoma & had started writing, I attended the police Citizen Police Academy, over 45 hrs of invaluable experiences. The lieutenant who held it became my technical adviser on my first suspense novel. We heard presentations from every police department, toured facilities, heard dispatch recordings, watched traffic stop video (very gripping/changed my life stuff), spent time at firing range & with bomb squad. I also rode along with an on-duty officer in the wee hours. I highly recommend that experience.

    One of the truly impressive experience the academy did was to have each of us pretend to be a responding officer in various scenarios, where there’s limited dispatch info & on a simulated situation (is walking into a break-in or onto a situation with an armed drunk). My heart was pumping & my respect for the dangers grew. I’ll never forget it.

    • This is something I have always wanted to do, esp the ride-along. I was getting a tour of the Michigan State Police main facility once by a captain friend. It included a “tour” on the obstacle course. At over 100 mpd. I almost puked. Don’t want to do that again.

      • In a small town like Edmond OK, you’d think that you wouldn’t see much, but the Chief of the department was a JTTF national figure who wanted to retire in OK. He was involved in investigating the OKC bombing & had aggressive & innovative policing programs. On my ride along, we were looking for a suspected terrorist & made a stop to search for him, we had a death threat investigation & scary traffic stops, all at night. I got to see how the officer operated behind the wheel & on his laptop. His car was like a tight, highly-equipped cockpit. Plus it was helpful to ask him questions about his career & his life. He was reticent to share at first but really opened up by shift end. A great experience. Whether your local dept has a Citizen’s Academy or not, you may be able to request a ride along after they get you.

        I’m interested in seeing an autopsy but may need more time to think about it.

  3. Like Jordan recommends, I attended my local police academy (13 sessions x 3 hours) for a town of 40,000 adjacent to a city of a one million in CA. I did a ride along with an officer from 8p-midnight that told the class he likes ride alongs. We chased down suspected DM that turned out to be nothing when we arrived at the hotel. I remember being uneasy that someone could take a shot at me as I sat inside the police cruiser, while he and another officer went inside. Just before he left, he showed me how to call dispatch if help was needed. During his shift, we cruised a neighborhood with his infrared light to see if anyone was hiding around homes. We pulled over vehicles whose registration expired and we searched a dark park for a suspicious character. We also picked up a 30 something addict, missing his teeth, and paranoid and took him to the border of the next city as that’s where he said he wanted to go. He planned to sleep in the field which I found doubtful given the chill of the night, but with such an adult screw-up what else could the cop do? It was an engaging 4 hours and at the end, I knew I’d made the right career choice in avoiding law enforcement, and was grateful for those that have. I don’t write police procedurals, but I remember my worry for the officer and myself during a few moments of the shift. I also viewed first hand the underbelly of the city I live in.

    • I’m with you, Alec. Law enforcement, esp out on the street, is something I know I could have never done. My hat is off to them. It’s always been a tough job, but even worse today, I think. Like teaching. Not enough pay or respect.

  4. Fantastic post! Graveyard Shift has a new fan. The scene made my heart pound. It is a great example of blending external tension (the family and the man with the shotgun) and internal tension. It is also a great example of taking a common situation (for cops) and making it live. Love it all.

  5. Talk about immersing yourself in a scene! I could hear and feel Lee’s heart pounding when the guy looked toward the window. All the gritty details engaging each of our senses–that’s what readers love.

    And Lee’s blog is a treasury of knowledge.

  6. I went to college with a number of police officers.

    Two strange stories from a couple of them that I still, nearly 50 years later, cannot share or comment on.

    I mean, I’m glad I didn’t live them.

  7. Fantastic post, Kris and Lee. I love the Graveyard Shift. The Writer’s Police Academy is a conference that every crime writer should attend at least once. I went last year and learned a ton.

  8. Wow, Lee Lofland. The narrative is tremendously powerful. Thanks for writing it, and PJ, thanks for sharing it. I’ll be saving this one.

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