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 …
Thump. Thump. Thump!
Turn and push.
“Drop the gun!”
Thump. Thump. Thump.
“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!