Adventures in India

I’ve long been interested in India and its history and, as an early ‘big’ birthday present this year, my husband organized an amazing trip to India for the whole family. We knew that given the boys’ school commitments, the only real time we could all go was in the summer, which meant facing the scorching heat, outrunning the monsoon, but also (luckily) avoiding the tourist crowds. We also discovered that, although this time of year most Indians think you’re crazy to be visiting, it’s the best time to go if you want to glimpse tigers in the wild (which has long been a dream of mine).

We tried to expose our twin boys to as many of the cultural contrasts and contradictions of India as we could – from walking through the Dharavi slums of Mumbai, visiting the historical sites via public transport in Delhi, to seeing the Taj Mahal at daybreak, going on safari in Ranthambore national park in search of tigers, and walking through Amber Fort outside Jaipur in 116 degree heat. All in all, I think we managed to pack a lot in on our two weeks away!

I can’t wait to someday incorporate what we experienced in a book (or two)…though at the moment I feel I’m still in absorption mode. But rather than rant on about all of our amazing experiences, I thought I’d share just some of the photos of our time away.

Sunset over Mumbai:

A nearly deserted Taj Mahal at dawn:

Overtaking a camel on the road to Ranthambore:

Close encounter with tiger on safari (he was about ten feet from our jeep):

‘Basking’ in the scorching heat at Amber Fort:

They say travel broadens the mind but I think this trip, more than any other we’ve taken as a family, opened our eyes to another country and culture. So fellow TKZers, has any adventure done the same for you?

 

 

6+

First Page Critique: Shadows of Leonardo

Happy Memorial Day! I want to first share my appreciation for all those who have served to defend our freedom and then turn to today’s first page critique entitled Shadows of Leonardo. Although I’ve provided my comments following the submission, I need to rely on you TKZers to help generate some further discussion and comments as I am winging my way to Mumbai, India(!) No doubt this trip will generate future posts, but for now, enjoy this submission and see my feedback  at the end.

Russia

Dosevski Railroad Station

January 1945

For the first time in his life, he hated snow. He glared at the endless white expanse and spat over the edge of the train platform, the spittle hardening into ice as he scanned the hazy blue horizon for Russian tanks.

. Standing over six feet tall, Sturmbannführer Kurt Seitz turned his back to the razor wind that piled snow over stiff straw-filled boots. A convulsive shiver racked him and he hunched inside his greatcoat, recalling skiing holidays in Austria with his younger brother before the war. Dieter had been the better skier, but he was dead now, killed at Normandy.

At least he’d been spared Russia, Seitz thought.

The abandoned station cowered like a stranded orphan in ragged clothes, half the roof collapsed, ice daggers lining the eaves. The frozen boards beneath his boots were hard as prehistoric stone, and Seitz imagined shaggy creatures stirring in ice-lined caverns below the platform. A tattered train schedule in Cyrillic script flapped in the wind until he ripped it down and let the wind carry it away.

Why, he wondered, had some witless Ivan constructed a rail line and train station in the exact center of nowhere? The entire goddam country was an endless succession of mosquito-infested marshes and impenetrable forests, scattered villages populated by beings no better than the animals they kept inside during the interminable winters.

And snow. An endless, punishing sea of snow.

Gloved hands balled in his pockets, his boots squeaked on snow as he paced the platform, scowling at the featureless landscape as though a giant hand had flung tons of bakers’ flour over the earth. Around him, only scattered bomb craters broke the monotony, the pitted earth filled with more snow. An expert in pits, he’d ordered droves of frightened Jews, Gypsies and Russians to dig countless mass graves in their final moments. An art education in Heidelberg and Berlin had promised a refined life, but his professors’ lectures hadn’t included toleration of Jews and Untermensch, and after enlistment, he was assigned to an SS einsatzgruppengroup to sweep away Europe’s dregs.

He stamped his feet and turned his back to lit his last Russian cigarette. The tip of the cardboard tube flared, his lungs convulsing at the coarse tobacco. Russian cigarettes smelled like a Turkish outhouse, but he had to hand it to the Russians: the bastards produced tanks like a bitch birthing pups.

Comments

What really stood out for me with this first page was the voice – I immediately felt a sense of the protagonist’s character and, even though he wasn’t exactly likable, it provided a compelling introduction. What also stood out for me was the immediate sense of place and of the cold – although I am on the fence as to whether there’s too much description in this first page…I like it as is, but I can imagine that some of our TKZers would argue that more action or dialogue would help ramp up the tension in this first page. For me, I was willing to wait to find out exactly what the protagonist was doing in this desolate part of Russia (apart from waiting for Russian tanks to appear!).

As far as character goes, the only thing that didn’t quite ring true to me was the art education reference in his background – Initially this protagonist sounded more hardened than that (though war will do that!) – but I would certainly be willing to read on to see how that backstory all came together. Given the title of the book, I’m assuming the art part plays a major role in the plot of this book so Seitz’s backstory will be an important component. Other than this, and some minor typographical errors (I think you need an ‘and’ before ‘scattered villages’ – or something to make this sentence complete), I thought this was a strong, compelling beginning to a historical mystery or thriller. I would definitely read on!  Bravo to our brave submitter and I look forward to seeing the feedback from some of our TKZers. Sorry in advance if I can’t contribute much to the discussion while I’m traveling.

 

 

5+

My 911 Sit Along

A couple of weeks ago I did a 911 ‘sit along’ as part of my citizen’s police academy. This came just a few days after after I’d heard presentations from our local SWAT and negotiation teams and, sadly, just a week or so before Colorado experienced yet another school shooting. Taken all together, not only do I have a renewed appreciation for the work of our local law enforcement but also a deeper understanding of the team effort that kicks into high gear when emergencies occur.

It was a relatively uneventful day when I did the 911 sit along, which meant I got the opportunity to have a more in-depth discussion with one of the operators about what it was really like to be a 911 dispatcher. First off, it is not for the faint of heart (obviously) or for those who can’t multi-task. Given the level of technology these days, dispatchers have to be able to cope with monitoring and entering data in at least three open computer screens (and that’s not including CCTV footage or maps that transmit police unit locations in real time) all while listening to to the multiple radio frequencies constantly transmitting in their ears, as well as actually fielding and dealing with the 911 calls coming in. The dispatcher I was assigned to was a veteran of the Aurora shooting (when 911 calls flooded all the local centers) as well as the many youth suicides that our community has, unfortunately, had to deal with in recent months.

Our local 911 center also fields all non-urgent calls to our local police department so I got to witness calls that ranged from the life-threatening (a driver passed out in his car in the middle of traffic) to the mundane (rabbit trapped in window well). Even on the day I was there, I saw multiple incidents being referred to our local school resource officers as well as the emails coming in to the 911 center via the local, anonymous tip line, Safe2Tell, about potential threats to local schools. It became increasingly clear that mental health calls are a huge part of our local 911 dispatcher’s lives and I got to witness the delicate balancing act local law enforcement plays in trying to mitigate against the overwhelming number of tips and calls they receive about schools and students. As the mother of two 8th graders, it was sobering indeed.

One of my key questions to the dispatcher I was assigned to, was how she dealt with the stresses of her job. Being married to a police officer, helped, she said, as he understood what she had to face and they could talk and decompress together. It was also clear that our local police department provides a supportive environment that ensures everyone receives the counseling they need, particularly after distressing events like the recent spate of teen suicides.

It’s hard not to reflect on the events of this past week, and not appreciate the role of both 911 dispatchers and law enforcement. I’m sure our local dispatchers fielded calls as local schools went on lockdown or, as my sons’ school did, secure perimeter, in response to the STEM school shooting. No doubt our local police officers rushed to the scene to provided backup before our victim advocates arrived on scene to help provide parents and teachers with the support they needed.

The police citizen’s academy has given me tremendous insight into how our local police department operates and made me realize how little I understood the complexity and role of our local 911 dispatchers. After spending just a few hours in the 911 center, my writer’s brain was whirring with possible characters and plots for a novel, but now, given the events of the past week, it feels like it’s all hitting a little too close to home…so I’m going to  put the book ideas aside and hug my teenage boys a little tighter instead.

7+

First Page Critique: Ghost Wind

Happy Monday! Today I’m critiquing the first page of a historical novel entitled Ghost Wind. My comments follow and I look forward to getting some great feedback from you, TKZers!

The Ghost Wind

This was the door the Mexican boy had pointed out to her. She stepped up onto the boardwalk, side-stepping a hole in the rotten wood, the wind pelting her with dirt and dead leaves and causing the oil lamp overhead to swing precariously back and forth. The door was solid and locked tight. Standing on her toes and reaching above her head her fingers found the iron key above the lintel, just as he’d said. The glass panes in one of the windows were shattered, their jagged edges reflecting the moonlight. She struggled with the lock, the key finally turning with a hollow click. The force of the wind slammed the door inward and knocked the few remaining shards of window glass from their panes.  She entered cautiously and looked around the room.  Just enough moonlight penetrated the darkness to reveal several pieces of furniture shrouded in dusty canvas. Lifting the coverings, she found a long leather-covered central table, a cot, a few cabinets still in serviceable condition.  The building seemed solid, but the wind still whined around the warped window sills sending leaves and twigs skittering over the floor and causing the ghostly canvas to billow and fall. She shivered and tried to rub some warmth back into her arms. Whatever made her think it was always hot here?

She continued making a slow circuit of the room, trying not to bang her shins against unseen obstacles. It was near midnight, but the night was still alive with sound. Guitar music drifted from a cantina across the street accompanied by bursts of laughter from a nearby saloon. A door banged somewhere farther down the street. Slow footsteps marched up the narrow boardwalk and then stopped, grinding the broken glass below the window. For a moment it seemed whoever was passing had moved on until a familiar sound stopped her cold. The four, slow, distinct clicks of a gun hammer being drawn back. She knew that sound.

She drew a sharp breath, inhaling the room’s lingering odors of dust, mildew, sour liquor, and stale sweat. The dry branches of a leafless tree scratched against a window making demon shadows dance on the far wall.  The lamp outside, creaking on its rusty hinges, thrashed in the gusty wind. Her hands, already cold inside her gloves, grew clammy.

“Don’t. Move.”

§

It had been a long journey across some of the ugliest, most barren wasteland imaginable. First by train to Waco, then by stage to some godforsaken place called Ben Ficklin, and finally by horseback to… here. San Angela, Texas. A hundred miles from nowhere and on the road to who the hell cares where. But here she was. Nearly fifteen hundred miles. And she felt like she had walked every one of those miles. She was dirty, cold, tired, hungry, and in no mood for an argument.

My comments

The real strength of the first page is the atmosphere it evokes and the attention to detail that allows the reader to get a strong sense of place as well as the past. That being said, these could also be considered weaknesses given the lack of action and dialogue – illustrating the delicate balancing act any author has to achieve on this all important first page!

Because I really enjoyed this first page, I’m wary of making too many recommendations (reader tastes are always subjective after all) but I do think tightening up the initial descriptive paragraphs would help pick up the pace so the reader can reach the critical moment where the gun is being drawn back a little quicker. I wouldn’t take out much, but some of the description is redundant and could be removed without impacting the atmosphere or dramatic tension in this first scene. I would also consider changing the one line of dialogue “Don’t. Move.” to something less conventional or cliched. Something unexpected here would definitely intrigue the reader especially since the next paragraph provides further background (I have to say I love the way the line ‘she was dirty, cold, tired, hungry, and in no mood for an argument’ could feed back into that one line of dialogue).

By way of suggestion only, I’ve re-pasted the first few sections, striking through some of the lines of description I feel are redundant.  See if you agree, TKZers. I think visually if the first page could end with the line of dialogue it would also seem less wordy and more appealing to readers. Otherwise, I thought this was a terrific first page. Bravo to our brave submitter!

The Ghost Wind

This was the door the Mexican boy had pointed out to her. She stepped up onto the boardwalk, side-stepping a hole in the rotten wood, the wind pelting her with dirt and dead leaves and causing the oil lamp overhead to swing precariously back and forth. The door was solid and locked tight. Standing on her toes and reaching above her headher fingers found the iron key above the lintel, just as he’d said. The glass panes in one of the windows were shattered, their jagged edges reflecting the moonlight. She struggled with the lock, the key finally turning with a hollow click. The force of the wind slammed the door inward and knocked the few remaining shards of window glass from their panes.  She entered cautiously and looked around the room. Just enough moonlight penetrated the darkness to reveal several pieces of furniture shrouded in dusty canvas. Lifting the coverings, she found a long leather-covered central table, a cot, a few cabinets still in serviceable condition.  The building seemed solid, but the wind still whined around the warped window sills sending leaves and twigs skittering over the floor and causing the ghostly canvas to billow and fall. She shivered and tried to rub some warmth back into her arms. Whatever made her think it was always hot here?

She continued making a slow circuit of the room, trying not to bang her shins against unseen obstacles.It was near midnight, but the night was still alive with sound. Guitar music drifted from a cantina across the street accompanied by bursts of laughter from a nearby saloon. A door banged somewhere farther down the street. Slow footsteps marched up the narrow boardwalk and then stopped, grinding the broken glass below the window. For a moment it seemed whoever was passing had moved on until a familiar sound stopped her cold. The four, slow, distinct clicks of a gun hammer being drawn back. She knew that sound.

She drew a sharp breath, inhaling the room’s lingering odors of dust, mildew, sour liquor, and stale sweat. The dry branches of a leafless tree scratched against a window making demon shadows dance on the far wall. The lamp outside, creaking on its rusty hinges, thrashed in the gusty wind. Her hands, already cold inside her gloves, grew clammy.

2+

First Page Critique: Unearthed

Today’s first page critique is for a mystery/thriller entitled ‘Unearthed’. My comments follow  – see you on the flip side – and I look forward to getting further feedback from the TKZ community.

UNEARTHED

The thing Rosemary said was a corpse lay against the garden wall, under the tree. Jittery from lack of sleep, Cal left her on the outside stairs leading to his flat, crossed the lawn and approached the wall, cold London air nipping at him. It wouldn’t really be a dead body, of course, whatever his landlady said. A trick, a mannequin got up in men’s clothes, or some wino passed out after wandering in off the streets, it would be. Then he saw the long coat and dirty orange hood rising out of it.

“Oh, this guy,” he said.

“What?” Rosemary was all clenched into herself, teeth at her nails. He’d never seen the old girl shaken before; he couldn’t have this.

He raised his voice. “Come on, mate. Time to go.” The man didn’t move. His hooded face was turned to the wall. Cal tapped his shoulder. His fingers met a jolting thinness under the coat. He sighed. If he gave the guy some breakfast, he’d keep coming back and Amanda’d throw a fit. Rosemary wouldn’t be any too joyful, either. “Hey. You can’t sleep here.”

“He isn’t,” Rosemary said. “I knew I shouldn’t have, but I looked. I pulled that hood up a bit. He’s bloody dead.”

Cal crouched. The man didn’t smell of alcohol. Something weird, sweetish, but not alcohol. There was no movement, either. Not even breathing. “Oh, no. Oh, God.”

Rosemary came down a few steps. “Did you say you knew him?”

“No, just saw him this morning, coming home from work. I thought he was just pissed. He must’ve been ill. I’m such a dick, I should’ve checked.”

Rosemary waved a dismissive hand. Cal saw all her sixty-three years this morning, gathered in lines on her forehead and around her mouth. “That wouldn’t have been him.”

“It was. I remember the clothes. I was coming through the park, he was headed the same direction.” Stumbling and swaying behind him as he crossed the park in winter dawn. “He was holding his head funny; maybe he was in an accident. He was quite far behind but I could’ve stopped. I should have asked if he was — Oh, shit, Rosemary, what if he was dying and I just –”

“It wasn’t the same man. Look at him.”

Cal pressed his fingers into his brow. “Didn’t see his face.”

“Just look,” she said.

MY COMMENTS

Overall, I think this first page has potential. I liked the casualness and tone of protagonist and his reaction to the possibility that the body was that of ‘wino’ he’d seen earlier (someone he’d ignored rather than helped) felt both realistic and sympathetic. For me, however, the dramatic potential of this first page is undermined by some awkward phrasing and dialogue, as well as inconsistencies in Rosemary’s character/reactions. I would also liked a bit more sense of place (more about that below). First, let’s deal with my phrasing/dialogue concerns.

Even in the first paragraph there are some awkward, clunky sentences, repetition and disjointed sentences which initially seemed jarring (at least to me). I had similar phrasing issues throughout the first page and thought the easiest way to illustrate these concerns was to mark up the page – bolding the issues/awkwardness and putting my comments in italics. While some of my comments may seem a bit petty, it is vital that this first page reads smoothly and succinctly to capture the reader’s interest. I’ve also added some comments about Rosemary’s reactions and dialogue – which I discuss in greater detail after the marked up version.

So here goes.

UNEARTHED

The thing Rosemary said was a corpse (seems a clumsy way to begin) lay against the garden wall, under the tree. Jittery from lack of sleep, Cal left her (we know it’s Rosemary but grammatically this sounds like the corpse as that’s the subject of the previous sentence) on the outside stairs leading to his flat, crossed the lawn and approached the wall (repetition), cold London air nipping at him. It wouldn’t really be a dead body, of course, whatever his landlady said (note: at this stage we don’t know Rosemary is his landlady)(Maybe a colon or dash would be better grammatically?) A trick, a mannequin got up in men’s clothes, or some wino passed out after wandering in off the streets, it would be (this is unnecessary and clunky). Then he saw the long coat and dirty orange hood rising out of it (what is it? Assume coat but sounds awkward).

“Oh, this guy,” he said.

“What?” Rosemary was all clenched into herself, teeth at her nails (sounds like she’s bent over with her teeth pushing against her nails when I think author means she has her nails in her mouth). He’d never seen the old girl shaken before; he couldn’t have this (awkward/redundant).

He raised his voice. “Come on, mate. Time to go.” The man didn’t move. His hooded face was turned to the wall. Cal tapped his shoulder. His fingers met a jolting thinness (weird description for me) under the coat. He sighed. If he gave the guy some breakfast, he’d keep coming back and Amanda’d (looks weird – I prefer Amanda would) throw a fit. Rosemary wouldn’t be any too joyful, either. “Hey. You can’t sleep here.”

He isn’t,(maybe add ‘sleeping’ to be clear – otherwise sounds a bit of an odd reply). Rosemary said. “I knew I shouldn’t have, but I looked. I pulled that hood up a bit. He’s bloody dead.”

Cal crouched. The man didn’t smell of alcohol. Something weird, sweetish, but not alcohol. There was no movement, either. Not even breathing. “Oh, no. Oh, God.”

Rosemary came down a few steps. “Did you say you knew him?” (Cal hasn’t said this…just ‘oh this guy’ – which doesn’t mean/sound like he actually knew him)

“No, just saw him this morning, coming home from work. I thought he was just pissed. He must’ve been ill. I’m such a dick, I should’ve checked.”

Rosemary waved a dismissive hand (why dismissive?? This seems inconsistent given how tense and worried she’s been). Cal saw all her sixty-three years this morning, gathered in lines on her forehead and around her mouth. “That wouldn’t have been him.” (Not sure why she says this – doesn’t make much sense as she doesn’t know who Cal saw…why would she know it wasn’t the same person?)

“It was. I remember the clothes. I was coming through the park, he was headed the same direction.” Stumbling and swaying behind him as he crossed the park in winter dawn. “He was holding his head funny; maybe he was in an accident. He was quite far behind but I could’ve stopped. I should have asked if he was — Oh, shit, Rosemary, what if he was dying and I just –”

It wasn’t the same man. Look at him.” (Again how does she know that??)

Cal pressed his fingers into his brow. “Didn’t see his face.”

Just look,” she said. (At what?? Up till now Rosemary hasn’t said she knows anything more about the corpse that Cal does…so why does it now sound like she does??)

ROSEMARY’S CHARACTER, REACTIONS AND DIALOGUE

While I was fine with Cal’s reactions and concerns, I was a little confused by Rosemary. She obviously ran to Cal to tell him she’d discovered a body and, though it was understandable that Cal didn’t believe her initially, Rosemary’s attitude then seems to shift  from tension and concern to a dismissiveness that I found very strange. First she dismisses Cal’s observations out of hand and then seems to be certain that the dead body is not the person Cal saw earlier. The rationale for this is unclear. Perhaps Rosemary saw something on the corpse’s face but, based on this first page, it seems odd that she wouldn’t have said something to Cal right away.

SENSE OF PLACE

Finally, I would have like to have got a greater sense of place in this first page. Apart from the reference to ‘London air’ nipping at him, we have only generic references to a wall, a tree, a park, and a block of flats. I would have liked a bit more specificity. For example if we knew it was an old gnarled oak tree, that Cal had been walking on Hampstead Heath, and if the block of flats was a red brick, post WWII era block – this would have all added more color/texture to the first page and helped ground the reader in time/place.

Overall, I think this page could be an interesting opening to a mystery novel set in London and the specific issues I’ve identified can easily addressed during the revision process.  So TKZers what do you think? What comments would you give to our brave submitter??

 

 

 

 

3+

Ride Along

As you all know, I’ve been doing the citizen’s academy program with my local police department and – although you might be sick of my blog posts on this – last Friday was my first opportunity to ride along with one of the officers. I chose the graveyard shift and got to experience first hand what its like to be on patrol in the middle of the night in the sleet and snow (since this is Colorado it went from 70 degrees to 30 degrees and it started snowing soon after I started the ride along). Although I’d requested to be assigned to a female police officer, it turned out that she was too junior to conduct a ride along, so I ended up with one of the male officers – a former marine and one of the K9 handlers (unfortunately his dog is currently recovering from surgery so I didn’t have the fun of having the dog with us that night – a good excuse to do another ride along!).

Within ten minutes of starting the ride along I realized that 1) I had no idea how local law enforcement worked; 2) all the questions I had planned to ask were dumb; and 3) I really had no idea how local law enforcement worked…

We started out patrolling the business and hotel district in our community which, late at night, is apparently is the place to be if you’re a criminal. Most of the crime that gets ‘imported’ into our community starts or ends up here. It’s amazing how different a place can look late at night from the vantage point of a police car, especially when you get an officer’s perspective on what looks suspicious (far more than I realized or even noticed, that’s for sure). Although we responded to a number of specific calls, the majority of the night was actually spent following up on these suspicions. License plates were run numerous times and it was impressive how many of the officer’s queries turned out to identify people with outstanding warrants, gang affiliations, or revoked licenses. I guess after years on patrol you know to trust your gut. After riding alongside him for just a few hours, I was impressed not only by his dedication (this guy loved his job) but also his proactive approach. I don’t know why I was expecting law enforcement to be simply reactive to calls…but this ride along certainly disabused me of that.

Starting out, I soon ditched most of the questions I’d intended to ask (I was like, what was I thinking?!) Luckily, the officer was willing to chat openly about his experiences both in combat and law enforcement. When we got a call to assist a veteran experiencing a mental health crisis, I witnessed first hand how, because of his experiences in Iraq, he was able to establish a personal connection with the veteran to help deescalate the situation and get her to agree to go to hospital. For him, these calls are personal. The incident also brought home to me how law enforcement increasingly have to juggle mental health calls with their other patrol duties. Sadly, the recent number of suicides, attempted suicides, and drug overdoses in our community was a sobering reminder of this.

I also learned just how random and capricious circumstances can be for law enforcement. They often have no idea what they’re going to encounter when they conduct a traffic stop or get out of the car and approach someone. They are well aware how many police shootings occur on routine traffic stops, and so, with this sobering thought in mind, the officer I was with always had (or provided) back up for every encounter, no matter the situation. Most of the incidents we attended during the ride along had at least 2-3 squad cars involved. Before every encounter, the officers ensured they had as much information as possible on the car/suspect/person they were dealing with. Technology available in their cars meant they could get access to photographs as well as background details almost immediately. Even with all this technology though, luck still come into play – sometimes an officer just had to be in the right place at the right time. My officer’s assessment of his job was basically “70% luck; 30% initiative.”

By the end of the evening, although I’d not witnessed any actual arrests, I had a renewed respect and appreciation for local law enforcement and a greater regard for the value of hands-on research (as I said, I quickly realized just how ignorant I was!). Even though I have no idea whether I’ll actually ever write a contemporary police novel, I’m sure I’ll incorporate what I’ve learned in some shape or form in my writing to come.

So amongst you TKZers who have done research on local law enforcement, what was the most surprising thing you learned or took away from the experience? If you’ve ever done a ride along, what was one or your key take aways?

 

7+

The Ordinary Detective

For today’s blog post, I thought I’d give a brief update on my police citizen’s academy program as we just completed two sessions focusing on the detectives. As far as  research goes, it was a fascinating study in contrasts. We had the hardboiled vice detective who had previously worked undercover – he was full  of colorful anecdotes, expletives and jargon, and had an almost stereotypical demeanor and backstory (a divorced Italian American with a dry sense of humor and total disdain for petty criminals). The other was one of the two female detectives on the force. She was meticulous, low-key and calm, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. When I approached her, you could tell that the other detective was surprised I wanted to ask her the questions, as he was the one that had definitely attracted the majority of interest from the group. Part of the writer in me, however, was quick to dismiss him simply because he represented exactly the type of police detective we see all the time in books, TV, and movies. The female detective in contrast, was almost dull. Her PowerPoint presentation didn’t have exciting crime scenes or drug busts but instead had detailed timelines of burgularies and credit card theft, along with an analysis of a high speed car accident. Not exactly the stuff of movies, but for me, it was far more interesting precisely because it was so…ordinary.

When I approached her to ask her what she thought was the most common mistake made by writers/TV shows about female detectives she had to take a moment to think – because she honestly didn’t have time to read crime books or watch police TV shows.  After work she went home to be with her husband, kids, pets, chickens and horses and, in her mind, did what everyone else did. Being a detective was a job she enjoyed but it didn’t consume her life. So for her the most obvious mistake (apart from female detectives wearing tight clothing and high heels) was that female detectives are often portrayed as being driven, single minded or obsessed with their job. Although it was refreshing to hear such a down to earth approach (given how tortured many female detectives appear in books and movies), she also posed  a bit of a dilemma for the writerly part of my brain – how would I create a character based on her that would be both realistic and interesting? Yet the sheer ordinariness of her world and how she approached crime solving also presented an intriguing challenge. The other, more stereotypical detective would be far easier to portray simply because he represented the kind of detective we see on the screen and page all the time…which got me wondering about writers who have successfully portrayed the ‘ordinary’ lives of local law enforcement in their books…which is why I turn now to you, TKZers for recommendations as well as advice. Who do you think successful portrays the more mundane aspects of law enforcement? Who is the most realistic female detective you’ve read about or seen in movies or on TV? What advice would you give a writer who wanted to portray an ‘ordinary’ detective?

3+

Citizen’s Police Academy

My local police department runs an annual citizen’s academy designed to provide insight into the operation of local law enforcement and (I suspect) as a way of counteracting some of the many misconceptions that abound about the police. This year, despite the fact that I don’t write contemporary mysteries or police procedurals, I decided to enroll – figuring, hey you just never know (research is research after all, and inspiration can strike anywhere, anytime!). This free program is 12 weeks long (yes, you read that correctly!) and for three hours each week we learn about the whole range of operations: from patrol procedures, evidence/crime lab and computer forensics, investigations, 911 center operations, to the K9 unit, traffic and the local jail. We also get CPR certification as well as a firearms training (which should be interesting given how gun-averse I am!) and a chance to do a ride-along as well as a 911 ‘sit-along’.

Last week we had our session with one of the current patrol team leaders and it was already an eye opener for me – both in terms of the the range of calls they handle and the amount of equipment they have on hand to deal with these. All the patrol officers in our local police department undertake their own (non-felony) investigations and have facial recognition software as well as fingerprinting and DNA kits in their patrol cars. They also all carry drug testing equipment as well as Narcan (which is a sad reflection of the opioid crisis in America today). Even in our relatively safe community they have to be prepared to respond to active shooter calls and SWAT team situations. It sounded to me like one of the greatest challenge for a patrol officer today is handling the stress/mental health challenges of dealing with such a wide range of calls – one minute you could be dealing with a teenage suicide, the next a coyote attack, then a routine traffic stop, followed by a stolen vehicle report, a drug overdose, and then a call like the Aurora theater shooting. Another key takeaway (for me) was that law enforcement is nothing like it’s depicted on TV or in the media. So if that’s the case, how do I make sure I don’t fall into the same trap (if I ever do decide to use this as research for a novel)??

I’ve already lined up a 3 hour Friday night ride-along with one of the female patrol officers which I’m pretty excited about – I specifically asked for a female patrol officer because I know I lean towards strong female protagonists in my books. However, I’m used to writing about women who lived 100 years ago…so where do I start getting into the mindset of a modern day female police officer?

This is where I want to get input from you, my knowledgable TKZers!  What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about the police in books/media today? What mistakes do you see often in mystery novels about local law enforcement? What questions would you ask a local female patrol officer if you were doing a ride-along?

 

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Using Real People in Historical Fiction

Happy President’s Day!

Today I want to talk about an issue that was raised a few weeks ago by one of our first page contributors who is proposing to use a real historical figure (namely Samuel Pepys) in his historical mystery. The brave submitter asked whether, if he did use the actual person in his novel, he had to include all that person’s flaws (which could ultimately make the character less sympathetic.) My initial answer was that my preference would be to either use the real person, warts and all, or fictionalize the character entirely…but the question got me thinking about the issue a little deeper, as it highlights the often blurred distinction between fact and fiction in many novels, not just historical fiction (although today I’m going to limit my scope to historical figures, so we don’t have to deal with defamation/libel and all the attendant risks when using real people who are still alive and well!).

Some novels become more ‘faction’ than fiction, when they use historical figures as material for their novels, especially where they try to stick to the historical record as accurately as possible. Even when novelists attempt to do this, however, they almost inevitably come under criticism for aspects that have either been omitted from the book or where the fictionalization differs from reader/reviewer expectations. While I enjoy reading well-researched historical fiction novels, I do get irritated when historical figures are used more as a hook or gimmick rather than the springboard for a truly compelling characterization or plot. I see this more in genre fiction and while I admire any writer who wants to incorporate real people in their mysteries, for me it has to be more than just a cute premise – which is perhaps why I tend not to read novels that involve real historical figures supposedly solving crimes when they obviously didn’t.

In my own novels, I use real historical figures to give historical context/texture to the story but not usually as protagonists or other main characters. I do, however, enjoy channeling real people and their stories to create my own characters. For me, it would be a far trickier proposition to use a real historical figure as I would feel constrained by the truth (or at least what the historical record/sources indicate is the truth) and would feel compelled to be as accurate as possible in my portrayal of that person. Fictional characters have no such constraints:) The only exception to this, for me, is in the realm of speculative historical fiction – where, again, the speculative/alternative nature of the history presented gives an author far more leeway to deviate from the truth. Having completed a speculative YA novel myself that incorporated a real historical figure, I did, however, feel a duty to research the real person in order to know how to create the speculative or alternative historical version (it was a lot of fun too!).

As with everything in writing, if you decide to use a real historical figure or person in your novel you have to do it well. Do your historical research, reach out to descendants if there are any (especially if you’re planning to create a less than flattering representation of the person), be mindful of how you incorporate real and fictionalized elements, and, above all, be conscious of your choices and don’t just use a historical figure as a gimmick but as a real flesh and blood character. My key take home message from all of this would be: if in doubt, fictionalize.

So TKZers, I’d love to get your feedback and opinions on this. What advice would you give a writer who is planning on using a real historical figure in their novel?

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First Page Critique: Death in London

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a historical novel entitled Death in London. My comments follow. Enjoy!

Death in London

The messenger arrived mid-morning. Sam had been at the office since dawn, trying to update and reconcile the Tangier accounts. When the young urchin coughed Sam was startled.

“God save me boy, I didn’t hear you.What do you want?”

“Beg your pardon Sir, Message from the Duke, Sir.”

Ever since the debacle with the Dutch fleet, the Duke of York had become obsessed with wanting regular updates about the provisioning of the fleet. As if Sam didn’t have enough on his plate, now he had to go to Whitehall immediately.  He knew the tide was coming in, so Sam decided to go by water. The walk from his office in Seething Lane to the wharf only took a few minutes. With the incoming tide came the smell of salt on the air, and the promise of the fine autumn days to come.

Sam was short but stocky, and had large inquisitive brown eyes.  His mouth, when it wasn’t smiling, looked as if it was going to. His full lips looked like they were made for kissing, and he used them somewhat more than he should. With autumn underway, these mornings were getting cooler, so Sam had put on his favourite cloak, he especially loved the plush lining in deepest red. His boots were shining with the silk ribbons shining in the sunlight, so he felt dressed well enough for the visit to the Royal Court.

As he sat in the back of the ferryman’s boat Sam had that feeling of sadness that still came over him on a regular basis. Not as often as it used to, but regular enough. Elizabeth’s death had been so sudden, and such a shock. He realized with a start that it had been just over a year ago. Work kept him so preoccupied that it was only these times on the river that he had time to think and mourn.

Sam had plenty of female company when he wanted to. Too much according to his closest friends Will, and Jane. But when you lose the person you married when she was only 14, and had had the tempestuous life they had shared for fourteen years, “getting over it” was easier said than done.

At the Duke of York’s chambers in Whitehall, Sam was able to put the Prince’s mind at rest. The spars coming from the Baltic would arrive in good time and be of high enough quality for His Majesty’s fleet. When it came to the detail, Sam was grateful he was able to talk numbers that befuddled the Duke. Some years before Sam has made sure he was schooled in some arithmetic, so was able to give the Prince more information about quantities than the he was able to absorb.

My Comments

Overall, I found this first page engaging and interesting. I wanted to know more about Sam and his life and would definitely have kept reading. There was good use of selective background details and a great sense of place – in fact I would have liked a little bit more about the sensory impact of traveling the river and the London streets as Sam made his way to Whitehall.

Even after just one page, Sam is an interesting protagonist which is why I think I would prefer the third paragraph not be focus on his outward appearance. The physical description didn’t really sound like one Sam would give of himself – and it took me out of the story – while the other paragraphs provide a good balance of Sam’s thoughts and feelings as well as his background, while keeping the momentum of the story going. I preferred the close POV with Sam and his inner thoughts.

Specific Comments

Historical era/period:  I wasn’t entirely sure when this story was taking place. References to the Duke of York as ‘Prince’ made me think we must be around the Georgian era (I am assuming the Duke of York is Prince Frederick, George III’s son-??)  but I wasn’t exactly sure. The costume description sounded Georgian-ish (cloak and ribbons on boots) but there weren’t enough obvious cues (wigs etc.) and the fact that Sam married a girl of 14 threw me off a bit. I’m no expert on Georgian or Regency era marriages but this seems pretty young – so then I wondered if this was set earlier than I thought. The fact that I was second guessing the time period as a reader signals to me that the writer should give some more clues to ground the reader right from the start in era/historical time period. Given how well the writer created a sense of place with the river and the trip to Whitehall, I think the writer will easily be able to do this.

Tension/Suspense: For a first page, I think I would have liked a little more ‘oomph’ and dramatic tension – perhaps something that can foreshadow the mystery to come (I’m assuming there’s a mystery given the title ‘Death in London). This foreshadowing could come anywhere in this first page (not necessarily the first paragraph as I like how it moves us straight into dialogue and acton – it provides good momentum). At the moment all the reader knows is that Sam is good at finagling the accounts for the Prince/Duke of York – which doesn’t necessarily provide a lot of dramatic tension.

Minor quibbles:  

1) A general reader may not know that the Duke of York is also a Prince so switching between these terms could be confusing.

2) Non-nautical types (like me!) might not know what ‘spars’ are:) A little more context for the fleet would be helpful.

3) I was unsure why Sam wanted to befuddle the Prince with the numbers – is he trying to swindle or cover something up?? That didn’t seem in keeping with his character (at least what we know so far)

All in all, I thought this was an engaging first page and most of my comments are pretty easy fixes. Bravo to our brave submitter!

TKZers what advice or comments would you provide?

 

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