Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Changing Lanes

I charged ahead on my eighth book several years ago, but am still slogging my way along. You’d think that having already written seven mystery novels at the rate of one a year, I’d pretty much know how to crank out another. And relatively quickly. Let me digress . . .

In the late 1970s I slogged through a P.h.D dissertation about early American plays at the time of the revolution. I spent three years doing the research, and another year structuring a data-driven writing project through to the finish. I vowed I’d never do all that work again. Wrong.

Ransom My Soul, my mystery novel in progress, is a total change in style and perspective. I gave up writing about private investigators and decided to write a police procedural, using the Tucson Police Department as the role model of a big southwestern city PD. My many friends in TPD have been really helpful giving me interviews, tours, ride-alongs, crime scene tips, everything that TPD encounters in its daily routine. Okay, I thought (three years ago, mind you), now I can just whip this sucker out using the research materials. I never realized until a few months ago that in a major way I’m writing another P.h.D dissertation.

Before, I’d pretty much make up a lot of the plot as I wrote, twice not even knowing how the book would end until I got there. “Facts” were things I dropped in where needed, but never got in the way of writing. Plot came first, facts fit wherever I wanted.

This time, it’s totally different - the facts determine the plot!!

To be honest to my informants, I have to be honest to what they tell me. So in early chapters, when eight people get slaughtered during a home invasion gone terribly wrong, I relied heavily on the exact routines of Crime Scene Specialists and homicide detectives. I then had to follow the bodies to the Pima County morgue, follow the evidence to the brand new TPD Evidence Center, and “visit” one of the criminals in the Sheriffs Office jail. I huddled in a real-life interrogation room, where there are no one-way mirrors (eg, Law & Order style, good for drama, but so out of touch with reality), just sound-proofed walls and a video camera somewhat concealed in a ceiling fire extinguisher.

Result? I’ve re-edited my early chapters seven times because I didn’t have the procedures correct. Never again will I read T. Jefferson Parker or Henning Mankell without acknowledging the skill with which these and other police proceduralists have so carefully assimilated real-life methodologies. Which leads to . . .

. . . another result. Not only did I have to know exactly who did the murders, and why, but the “facts” forced me to continually struggle to correctly link the plot chain with my now-burdensome accumulation of information about cops and procedures. Which leads to . . .

. . . another result. My characters are cops or civilians working in the police department. So I had to “learn” what distinguishes “patrol” from “detective,” “crime scene specialist” from crime lab technician, officers from sergeants and lieutenants all the way up through captains and the higher ranks of command.

Writing with this new style is a lot more fun, but hardhardhard daily slogging. I often wonder how many other writers get so bogged down with facts and procedures to the point where they take major control of the work in progress.

Feels like I’m writing that damn dissertation again.

David Cole is overcoming five years of procrastinations and is finally attacking his eighth novel, Ransom My Soul - a somewhat bleak novel of home invasions, drug cartels and human smuggling in southern Arizona, tempered (hopefully) with a fine romance and love story. David's short story, JaneJohnDoe.com, is featured in Indian Country Noir (Akashic Press); he's also working on several non-fiction books about law enforcement, including The Blue Ceiling, a compilation of personal stories about women in law enforcement.


  1. Interesting. I understand the feeling of obligation now that people have gone out of their way to explain the procedures to you. I wonder though, if you had it to do over again would you be tempted to simply make it all up?

  2. Never, Sue - having gone into the police world i'll always be honest to it, and probably have at least enough plot material for 2 sequels - in good part, i took on this new approach because in my 7th book i had a bad Tucson cop and really never knew anything about the department

  3. Ah. A man of integrity. I like that.