Five Reasons Great Horror Stories Work


Five Reasons Great Horror Stories Work

There is a fine art to scaring people, and like all art, it is the product of raw talent honed by craft and technique.  No one can teach raw talent, of course.  You either have it or you don’t.  But craft and technique can be taught, and in the following few sections I’m going to walk you through five basic characteristics that all great horror stories share.  Learn to incorporate these into your stories, and you’ll find your stories make more sense and, hopefully, sell better.

Creating Insularity

First, let’s talk about your story’s setting.

The key to good, memorable horror is much the same as it is in the business world – location, location, location.  Many beginning writers come up with potentially great settings, be it an abandoned town, or a graveyard, or a mill, or a big scary house, and then fail to carry through on its potential.  As a result, their great setting never rises above the tired old mainstays of B grade horror.

Think about all the great works of horror you’ve ever read.  My guess is that, in every single one, you can point to the setting and say, “That right there sealed the deal for me.  When the mother and child were trapped in that Pinto in Cujo, I was scared.  When the priests entered Regan’s room in The Exorcist, I felt her bedroom door close behind me.  When Pennywise the Clown spoke to the children ofDerry,Maine through the drains in their bathrooms, I wanted to escape.”

But why does Stephen King’s story about a creepy old hotel in the middle of nowhere get the scares, and Joe Schmoe’s story set in a similar creepy old hotel fail to deliver?  Well, think of some of the words I used in the previous paragraph.  “Trapped.”  “The door close behind me…”  “Escape.”  In every sense, the effect created is one of insularity.  Through the characters in the story, we get a sense that we are closed off from the rest of the world, that we are no longer free or able to run away, that we are shut in with something very bad.

This explains why old graveyards, or cabins deep in the woods, or small towns, are such common destinations for the horror story.  But it doesn’t explain why they work.  The challenge, you see, is to show, through your characters, the setting going through a change.  The way your characters perceive the setting is key.  Think about the movie Jaws for a second.  Remember when Brodie, Quint and Hooper are headed out to sea, and they get drunk and trade sea stories?  They’re laughing and having a great time.  Some might say they’re simply whispering in the dark, but the result is effective nonetheless.  The sea seems a peaceful, welcoming place.  But the next day, as they engage the shark, and it starts to wreck their boat, they begin to feel small and helpless, fighting for their lives in a hostile, brutal environment.  The sea has not changed, obviously.  It’s the same sea that seemed so comforting for them the night before.  What’s changed is their perception of the sea.  The characters in all great horror stories show this changing reaction to the settings in which they find themselves.

To achieve this in your own writing, you need to make readers feel that what was once familiar and comforting has suddenly become oppressive and menacing.  In other words, you need to change your characters’ attitude toward the setting, and you do this by showing the setting before and after the horror takes the stage.  If you’re sending your protagonist into a small town, you might start off by making that small town feel comforting, friendly, perhaps even nostalgic.  Once you’ve established this, you’re free to turn the thumbscrews.

There’s no set rule on how long you have to take to create this feeling of comfort, of normalcy, but you do need to create it.  Horror is, after all, the intrusion of the extraordinary into the ordinary, and if you’re going to make that work you have to first create normalcy.  A comfortable, familiar setting that suddenly becomes hostile and claustrophobic is the best way to do this.

Characters Who Act Scared

Remember the opening to the movie Jeepers Creepers, where the brother and sister are driving their old car across an endless plain of corn fields?  Their banter is light, their mood is easy.  The countryside seems peaceful and inviting.  Within seconds of the opening credits, we feel like we understand this situation.  But then the big black truck comes roaring into view and begins chasing them.  The kids manage to get away from it.  But then, a short distance later, they spot the driver dumping body bags into a sewage pipe, and everything changes.  The setting that once seemed so serene now seems vast and empty, and they are stranded and alone, as though at sea.

Jeepers Creepers is a perfect example of how the setting needs to change to create a sense of horror.  But there’s another side to that equation.  Your setting alone can’t create the horror.  We, the readers, need someone to show us why that change is scary.  In other words, we need viewpoint characters who get scared so that we get scared vicariously through them.  The characters are our surrogates, in other words.

That may seem obvious, but it really is a fundamental component of the horror story.  Look at The Wizard of Oz, for example.  Dorothy encounters a talking lion, a talking scarecrow, a big giant robot-looking thing with an axe, and…well, you get the idea.  The point is, any one of those things should be scary.  Personally, scarecrows creep me out.  But not Dorothy.  She starts signing, links arms with them, and goes skipping down the yellow brick road.  Her reaction informs us as to how to take all this.  If she had run away shrieking in terror, we too, would be horrified.  But she doesn’t.  She starts signing.  And we sing right along with her.

So the trick here is to have your characters tell us how the setting is changing, and why that change is terrifying.  Think about Jack Torrence’s slow slide into insanity at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining.  Gradually we realize that the hotel is possessing him, changing him.  We get some of this from Jack himself, but most of it through his wife and young son, Danny.  They witness the change, and because they are afraid of it, our sense of empathy places us right there with them, scared out of our minds.  

A Reason to Stay

While we’re on the subject of characters, let’s talk about why they don’t just up and leave the moment things start getting weird.

Here again, we need to frame our discussion in terms of the setting.

Why is your small town there, out in the middle of nowhere?  Same with your blasted ancestral manor, or your haunted motel, or your big spooky mill outside of town.  Why are they there?  I mean economically.  What is the economic reason for being for your setting?

Give that a lot of thought before you start writing your horror story.

This isn’t just one of those silly writing exercises, either.  Knowing your setting’s economic reason for being is essential to good characterization, especially when the horror gets turned up later in the story.

Consider AmityIslandin Jaws.  The little community exists primarily as a summer tourist destination for the mainlanders.  This little detail develops into a major plot point when Sheriff Brodie tries to convince the town council to shut down the beaches.  We know the shark is out there, killing, and when the council refuses to listen – because, of course, to do so would be to go contrary to their economic interests – we feel our stomachs turn with mounting dread.  We know the town council’s shortsighted greed is about to paint the beaches red with blood.

Think of the house in The Amityville Horror.  Or the house in Poltergeist.  In both cases, the family has a vested economic incentive – no, scratch that; an imperative – to stay.  They are economically tied to the setting.  They have dumped a lot of money into the house, right?  I mean, could you just walk away from your house if you were mortgaged up to your eyeballs?  Remember that Eddie Murphy stand up skit where he makes fun of The Amityville Horror.  He says, “You know, you put a black family in that situation, and the house says, ‘Get out!’ they out the motherfucking door.”  This is what he’s alluding to.  A surprising amount of good horror is built from economic necessity.  There’s a reason why the protagonists can’t, or won’t, just get up and leave.

Now, if you’re setting is a hotel room in a major city – like “1408” – or a little girl’s room – like in The Exorcist – you’re going to have an easy time of this.  Clearly, the hotel room exists for temporary habitation.  The girl’s room, well, that’s her room.

But don’t think that your job stops there.  A key element to effective settings in horror is the feeling of being cut off.  It’s that insularity I was speaking of earlier.

Try to apply that here.

Consider Regan in The Exorcist.  In the early stages of her possession, when Pazuzu is fighting for a way in, she is effectively trapped by her circumstances.  She can’t go to her mom and say, “Look, we need to move because I’m getting possessed.”  She’s powerless.  She’s a kid.  She’s cut off from escape.

The same thing applies to the little kids of Derry, Mainein Stephen King’s IT.  They know they are on Pennywise’s menu, but they can’t do a thing about it because they are economically tied to the town through their parents.

Part of rounding out your characters (that is, making them believable and giving them problems we care about) comes from identifying this economic bind that holds them to the horror.

A Logical Connection

A few years ago a young horror writer asked me to blurb a book he had just written.  I said, “Sure, I’ll take a look.”  It was this story about a guy who goes after a demon who has abducted his girlfriend.  It was well written, full of great action sequences and lots of creepy scenes in this abandoned hospital.  But there was a gaping hole in the narrative.  The hole was so big, in fact, that I couldn’t, in good conscience, blurb the book.

You see, nowhere in those 300 pages had he made a connection between the main character – or his girlfriend, for that matter – and the demon.  Basically, you just had a big ugly demon that swoops out of the blue one day and grabs this girl.  The boyfriend then marches into the ruins of the hospital and starts fighting for his beloved.

Do you see the problem?

There’s no connection between the good guy and the bad guy.  There’s no reason for this bad guy to be involved with that good guy.  Why did the demon want the girlfriend?  Where’s the fully developed connection between them?  What’s the reason for all of this?  Yeah, I realize that bad things sometimes happen seemingly without reason, but that is because we lack the appropriate perspective.  It may seem totally random for a serial killer to scoop children off the street, but that is because we are on the outside of the killer’s pathology.  Notice that the best horror stories give us a glimpse into this pathology.  And it is precisely because the young writer I told you about failed to give us that glimpse that the story felt unfocused.  It failed to resonate.  And as a result, the scares just weren’t there.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this relationship.  There has to be a connection between the protagonist and the antagonist.  If they don’t belong together, your story simply won’t make sense.  And if it doesn’t makes sense, it won’t scare anybody.

A Monster with Depth

A convincing and truly frightening villain, be he a person or a demonic force such as a ghost or a monster, is one of the most important components of a horror story because the bad guy generates most of the conflict.

Now I’m saying villain, but really the word is just a convenient catchall.  This is horror we’re writing, after all, so we could be dealing with a human bad guy, or a monster such as a werewolf, vampire, serial killer, or whatever.  Maybe your bad guy is the demonic, long dead presence that haunts your dark old hell house as a ghostly presence.  Or maybe it’s the elements, such as in Algernon Blackwood’s story “The Willows,” or maybe you’re writing about giant rats, whatever.  It doesn’t really matter, at least on the surface, who or what the actual bad guy is because what counts – what makes him, or it, scary – is the human element.  The more human, the scarier.

The best stories are those that bring the villain – the conflict, if you will – into the clearest focus.  This is especially true in horror, but it applies to all the other genres too.  If your story is going to work, your villain must be genuine.  Your monster must have depth.

But what does that mean?  Well, as I’ve already mentioned, your good guy and bad guy, protagonist and antagonist, have to fit together.  There has to be a reason they are going to lock horns.  Randomness isn’t going to scare anyone.

Secondly, your bad guy ought to have some degree of moral authority.  Even if his or her conduct is reprehensible, even unforgivable, there needs to be some logic to why they are doing the evil that they do.  Look at the creature in Frankenstein.  Victor has essentially created life from death, and in the process usurped the role of God.  He has become the creature’s God.  Now imagine yourself as the creature.  Your God stands over you and says, “You are so vile, so wretched, that I refuse to acknowledge your existence.  I turn my back on you.”  Imagine the shock at being denied by God.  The creature, in his rage, strikes out at Victor.  He begins to systematically murder Victor’s family.  He is a smart organism, fluent in seven languages, well-versed in the morality of the Bible, but he deliberately turns his back on that and engages in conduct he knows to be evil because at least that way his God will be forced to acknowledge him.  That is moral authority.  And that is why Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the cornerstone of horror fiction.

Not every monster will lend itself so easily to human moral standards, of course, but everything can be imbued with a motive, a purpose.  As a horror writer, your goal is to give your monster that purpose.

A Quick Note on Police Procedure for Writers

Last night, I was reading a novel by a highly respected horror author and I noticed a basic mistake that I see over and over again.  In this novel, which is a sequel to another very good book, a small town has been decimated by vampires.  Of the original 430 residents of this small town, only a dozen are left alive at the beginning of the sequel.  The town’s sheriff was killed in the first book, and the second book starts off with a replacement sheriff coming into the community to take over as the top law enforcement officer.  This new sheriff is of course curious about what happened to all the people, and sets out to solve the mystery.  But unfortunately for the new sheriff, the town’s vampire problem is far from over.

That sounds good, right?

I thought so.  It’s an excellent set up for a sequel.

However, for me at least, the effectiveness of the story was compromised by the glaring mistakes in police procedure.  And I’m not talking about the minutae of investigations and paperwork, either.  I’m talking about the broad brush strokes, the big picture.  And it’s all the more frustrating for me as I know this author.  I’ve had dinner with him.  We’ve talked police procedure before.  This mistake would have been easy to correct.

Well, I can’t do anything for him now, but I can help any future authors out there looking to stick a sheriff into their story.  What follows is a quick and dirty guide to sheriffs, police chiefs, and state police, and when to use them.  I hope it helps you.

I have written before on the critical role police procedure plays in horror stories, but it’s a point that profits from repeating.  Many horror stories are plotted as tales of discovery.  We generally start off with one person (or sometimes a small group) crossing from the comfort of normal existence into a strange and ominous new setting.  This can involve the protagonist traveling to a new place, such as going into the woods or breaking down in a small, weird little town, or by having their familiar world made sinister and claustrophobic by the introduction of some evil force that comes to them, such as having a bloodthirsty vampire coming to town or by having a killer stalking the babysitter.  Once the evil is introduced, a period of discovery ensues.  Here, the character, or characters, begin to realize what they’re up against.  Perhaps they learn the secret that will help them fight the monster, or perhaps they will learn how truly screwed they really are.  Either way, this is the part of the story where the protagonist starts to feel alienated.  The police are a great way to accentuate this isolation.  Consider how easily a horror story would fall apart if the protagonist could simply go to the local cops and say, “There’s a giant gelatinous blob eating the town!” and be believed.  Our protagonist could then step back and let the police do all the work.  But we know from years of reading and watching creature feature flicks that this never happens.  The police either can’t or won’t believe the protagonists, which drives the characters further into isolation and ramps up the scares.  The only thing left for our protagonists to do is resolve the matter on their own, each according to their wits.

The police generally fall into a sort of negative role in horror fiction…or, put another way, have a tendency to become lesser antagonists.  As the authority figure that refuses to provide the needed assistance, they become part of the evil, or another brick in the wall the protagonist must overcome, to borrow a Pink Floydism.  They can even be their own worst enemy, as in the novel that prompted this post.  For example, everything a cop does is a matter of public record.  As the strong arm of the law, a free and just society has every reasonable expectation to know the things the police do in their name.  Furthermore, because a police report to some degree validates an event (i.e. the murder or burglary or car crash or whatever really did happen because it’s contained in a police report), the police fall into the role of fact makers.  But what happens when the very character responsible for reporting the facts confronts something that simply can’t be?  If our protagonist is a police officer, he not only becomes alienated from authority, but from the very authority of which he is a part.  It makes for great drama.

But how do you know what type of cop to use?  Well, hopefully, the following matrix will help answer that question.  And, as always, feel free to write me in the comments section with specific questions.  I’ll try to get you the right answer.

Title How they get their job The extent of their authority Specific duties
Sheriff Elected Top law enforcement officer in the county; jurisdiction throughout their county Manages the jail; in charge of constables; manages court bailiffs and security; conducts criminal investigations; in some counties acts as head of the local militia
Police Chief Appointed by elected municipal-level officials Top law enforcement officer in the town or city where they work; jurisdiction in their municipality Enforces city, county and state laws through criminal investigations
State Police Appointed by elected state-level officials State-wide jurisdiction to include the state capital and ports Manages state crime labs; highway patrol; license and weight regulations for commercial carriers; conducts independent criminal investigations and supports local and county investigations when requested; manages licensing of drivers
Game Wardens Depends on the state, but generally appointed by elected state-level officials State-wide, though usually they are divided into regions within a state; the only law enforcement officer with the legal authority to conduct searches without a search warrant Responsible for enforcing fish and game laws; may also have full police powers of arrest, to include traffic law, depending on the state
Constables Elected Usually limited to a particular precinct or region of a county; generally affiliated with the county sheriff The only law enforcement officer with the power to enforce civil process, such as evictions; conducts independent criminal investigations

My Favorite Reads of 2010

This was one of the best years for books in a long time. There were no huge standouts, like Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road, or Dan Simmons’ 2008 novel The Terror, but even still, of the 108 books I read this year, a surprisingly large number were of outstanding quality…so much so that winnowing this list down to just ten required a lot of purely subjective hair-splitting.

My list is made up entirely of books released during 2010. That meant that some of the 108 books I read this year weren’t eligible, even if they would have otherwise earned a spot here. Jeffrey Eugenides’ serio-comic epic novel Middlesex and John M. Barry’s haunting history of the 1927 Mississippi flood, Rising Tide, are just two examples of books not included for that reason. But beyond date of release, I was fairly open-ended on format, length and genre. Novellas released as a single work, such as Norman Prentiss’ Invisible Fences and Brian James Freeman’s The Painted Darkness got equal consideration with huge epic-sized novels, multi-author anthologies, short story collections, histories and biographies. Some of the books on this list I read in PDF as advance reader’s copies, or listened to on CD, or enjoyed as just plain old dead tree editions, and in most cases I explain that in each entry.

So, here they are, in no certain order…my favorite reads for 2010. Enjoy the list!

Horns by Joe Hill

Both a very funny book and at the same time a well-crafted one, Horns is far better than Hill’s first novel, Heart-Shaped Box. Heart-Shaped Box was a good book, mind you, and his debut collection, Twentieth Century Ghosts, was a great book, but Horns is a cut above either of those. Part Kafka, part Kurt Cobain, part Gallagher, Joe Hill is rapidly becoming one of America’s best novelists, and Horns will show you why. I listened to this one on CD, which helped the humor a lot, I think.

The Caretaker of Lorne Field by Dave Zeltserman

Like Horns, an extremely funny book. Zeltserman has made a name for himself as a writer of intense psychologically-driven crime fiction, making this rural horror story a bit of a departure…but I’m so glad he made it. I hadn’t gone twenty pages into this book before I knew it was going to make this list. Good old fashioned hardcover for this one, and worth every penny.

Pariah by Bob Fingerman

Zombies are big business, so it takes a lot of talent to rise above the crowd. Between James Roy Daley’s Best New Zombie Tales #1 and 2, Peter Clines’ Ex-Heroes, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead, Ben Tripp’s Rise Again, Greg Lamberson’s Desperate Souls, Patrick D’Orazio’s Comes the Dark, Craig DiLouie’s Tooth and Nail, Stephen Jones’ The Mammoth Book of Zombie Apocalypse, Chris Golden’s The New Dead and John Joseph Adams’ The Living Dead 2, 2010 brought out some of the best zombie stuff I’ve ever read. So the competition was extra tough. But my favorite zombie release of the year was Bob Fingerman’s novel Pariah. In addition to being a great zombie book, it was also a beautiful meditation on isolation and the stark, horrifying beauty of post-apocalyptic landscapes. Another good old fashioned dead tree read here, which helped a lot. I generally listen to audio books while driving to and from work, which makes it impossible to give a narrative your full and undivided attention. Inevitably, the idiot cutting you off is going to usurp some of your mental energy, regardless of how good the book is. Bob Fingerman’s description of his characters’ complex emotional states is so finely developed though it really merits the extra attention you have to give a printed book. Listening on CD would have frustrated me here.

Mr. Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett

Mr. Shivers is one of three debut novels on this year’s list. I was on a panel with the author at ArmadilloCon in Austin earlier this year, and I was so impressed with his comments on researching that I stopped off at the Barnes & Noble on the way home and bought his book. His story of hobos looking for revenge during the Great Depression was a delicious mix of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Stephen King’s first Gunslinger novel. I flew through the mass market paperback in a single afternoon, and I can’t wait for his next novel, The Company Man.

Invisible Fences by Norman Prentiss

Besides being a genuinely classy guy, Norman Prentiss can write horror stories of such subtlety that you will find yourself going over the work three and four times just to see how he managed to do so much with so few words. He’s made a name for himself as a short story writer whose work more closely resembles the fiction found in the New Yorker than in the bulk of horror’s blood-soaked anthologies, but with his debut novel, Invisible Fences, Prentiss has written a short, but moving story that, to be honest, transcends any sort of attempt to pigeonhole it in a genre. I read this one in a limited edition trade paperback, and getting your own copy may prove difficult. Just don’t come looking for mine. You’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.

In the Mean Time by Paul Tremblay

This was a great year for single author short story collections. I loved Michael Louis Calvillo’s Blood and Gristle, Jeremy Shipp’s Fungus of the Heart, John Little’s Little Things, Laird Barron’s Occultation, Scott Edelman’s What Will Come After, Harry Shannon’s A Host of Shadows and Lisa Mannetti’s Deathwatch, but Tremblay’s In the Mean Time just left me breathless. Calvillo’s work had more energy than Tremblay’s. Shannon’s collection had far better action and variety. Edelman’s had zombies. Mannetti’s had beautifully handled historical fiction. Each of those collections did something better than Tremblay did in his book, but the overall feel of In the Mean Time sold me on this work. It reminded me of a Pink Floyd album, the way it just fit together. I read this one as an ebook and found his apocalyptic visions to be so gut-wrenching that at times I had to go hug my kids just to remind myself that things were going to be okay. A tough read, but ultimately, one you’ll be glad you made.

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

This is one of three non-horror books to make this year’s list. Marlantes’ debut was thirty years in the making, but it was worth the wait. I listened to this book on CD, and was simply blown away. I have a feeling Matterhorn will go up on the shelf next to O’Brien’s The Things They Carried as one of the best war novels ever written. Just be prepared for a very gritty, true to life description of war and all its horrors.

The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

Like Bob Fingerman, I found out about Brenna Yovanoff through the table of contents of John Joseph Adams’ The Living Dead 2. Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin would have made this a good year for YA all by itself, but Yovanoff’s modern day tale of changelings told the age old teenage drama of fitting in with such originality and beauty that The Replacement transcended its YA field. Perhaps even more impressive is that this is a debut novel. There were some great debuts this year, such as Benjamin Kane Ethridge’s Black and Orange, Lisa Morton’s Castle of Los Angeles, Gregory Hall’s At the End of Church Street, and Lucy Snyder’s Spellbent, but Yovanoff’s book connected with me personally because I have two daughters about to enter that age where they will be trying to define their place in this world. Your mileage may differ, but this one is still highly recommended for anybody in the middle teens and older.

Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields by Charles Bowdon

I’ve been reading an awful lot about the Texas-Mexico border recently as research for an upcoming novel, and Bowdon’s book is one of the best on the subject. He doesn’t go into a great deal of depth about the political reasons behind Mexico’s drug war, but focuses instead on the personal stories of those caught up in the violence and tragedy that defines life in today’s Northern Mexico. After reading this book, I suspect that you, like me, will be furious with the U.S. government and the American media for directing so much attention on the other side of the globe, while one of the most immediate and verifiable threats to U.S. security is at a full boil right next door.

Selected Stories by William Trevor

William Trevor’s stories have been growing discernibly darker in tone over the years, and this volume, which brings together the Irish author’s last four short story collections, goes a long ways toward demonstrating that trend. But Trevor is also capable of writing intensely funny stuff, and you can still find that trademark humor here. William Trevor may very well be the best writer in English working today. His stories, which are always so full of sharp insights into love and ambition and power of major events, such as weddings or the end of an affair, to change many lives, never disappoint. This list isn’t in any sort of order, but if it was, this book would own the top rung. Well worth investing in the hardcover.

And finally, because I’m such a fan of Spinal Tap, I’m turning this list up to eleven and giving you one that almost made it.

Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue

Remember Plato’s Parable of the Cave? In the story, Socrates (pronounced So-Crates, according to Bill and Ted) relates the tale of a group of people who spend their entire lives chained to posts, facing a blank wall. There is a fire behind them that projects shadows on the wall. Because these people lack any other frame of reference, the shadows become their entire world, and their only idea of reality. If you’re familiar with the story, you must have wondered what would happen if those people suddenly got loose and joined the rest of us. Imagine the horror of that much reality crashing in on their minds at once. Well, Emma Donoghue did just that. She tells her story from the point of view of five year old Jack, who lives with his Ma in a single room, with the routine broken only by nighttime visits from a man named Old Nick. The prose is tricky, as it is meant to be that of a five year old, but nonetheless effective, and very frightening.

Police References for Writers

A while back I gave a talk at the San Antonio Writer’s Guild on incorporating real life police procedural techniques into your fiction. The talk went well. When I started to write my speech, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to turn them into Joseph Wambaugh in the few minutes I had available, so I decided to give them some broad brushstrokes instead. Basically what I did was to condense an awful lot of information into ten handy rules for writing about cops. You can read those rules here.

But I also wanted to include some references for them as well, so I made up a list of some nonfiction books that I thought might prove useful. I also came up with a second list of some examples of popular fiction writers whose books give a more or less true to reality view of police procedure. With that in mind I thought I would elaborate on those references here. What follows is the first of a two part post on writing references for police procedural writers. Today’s post is the non-fiction reference section. This is by no means a comprehensive list. Instead, I tried to give a sample of what’s out there, both the good and the bad. I hope this list helps some of you. Good luck.

Forensics for Dummies by Douglas A. Lyle.

Inexpensive, easily available, and offering a reasonably good overview of the many different disciplines involved in forensic study, this book is a great place to go to learn the language, so to speak. However, it will definitely not be enough on its own to make you conversant in forensics. Recommended.

Every Contact Leaves a Trace: Crime Scene Experts Talk About Their Work From Discovery Through Verdict by Connie Fletcher.

Again, this book will not make you an expert, but Connie Fletcher does a wonderful job with everything she writes. She collects a huge number of interviews with people actively working in the field, and many of those interviews provide great, personal perspectives on the job’s joys and frustrations. Highly Recommended.

Crime Scene: Inside the World of the Real CSIs by Connie Fletcher.

Once again, Connie Fletcher repeats her winning formula of stringing together numerous interviews from experts in the field. If I had any complaint with this book at all it would be that it focuses too narrowly on violent crimes, ignoring many of the less glamorous areas of forensic study, such as crash investigations and information gathering. The result is a slightly distorted view of the crime laboratory, and might lead people to think that there is little or no overlap between disciplines. For example, the time, distance, and speed calculations a crash investigator uses to investigate car wrecks can also be used by the murder detective to recreate a suspect’s movements through a shooting scene. A rule of thumb is to think of forensics as tools: they can do any number of jobs. What really matters is the person using those tools. Despite that objection, this book, like everything Connie Fletcher writes, is highly recommended.

What Cops Know by Connie Fletcher.

This is my favorite Connie Fletcher book. Compiled from more than 80 interviews with patrol officers, this book gives you one of the best pictures of police life from the street officer’s point of view. The best stories come from where the rubber meets the road, and this book is loaded with them.

Practical Homicide Investigation by Vernon J. Geberth.

This book will set you back a little financially, but if you’re going to be writing crime fiction to any degree at all, go ahead and resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to have to get this book. By far, the best single source textbook for crime scene investigations out there. It will take you step by step from the first officer on scene to testifying in court.

Criminal Investigations by James N. Gilbert.

Of all the many textbooks in the field, this one is probably the worst. Poorly written and loaded with typos, it does offer a certain amount of usable information, but there are far better choices out there. Avoid it like the plague.

Police Field Operations by Thomas F. Adams.

This is another book that fails to live up to its promise. It is too vague to use as a reference. Like many textbooks of this sort, it tries to be applicable to a wide range of potential readers, and as a result it fails to address anybody’s needs in any sort of depth. Not recommended.

Blue Blood by Edward Conlon.

I’m mad at this guy for writing the book I should have written. Conlon is a genuinely talented writer. His observations of life on the job are spot on. The book is not an apology for the profession, either. He tells you the good and the bad. It is a bit long, but there is so much valuable information in there that the added length is perfectly excusable.

The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook: A Guide to Documents, Databases and Techniques by Brant Houston.

An amazing book. While not exclusively about cops and police techniques, this book illustrates the direct relationship between the media and law enforcement. Many of the techniques outlined in this book to aid the investigative reporter are in fact identical to the ones used by modern police detectives.

Ten Rules for Writing about Cops


Here are some rules that I’ve figured out along the way to help me write about cops.  Now I am a cop, so some of these are based on my own experience.  Others are based on what I’ve seen work well on the page.  Keep these in mind even if you don’t write mysteries, because cops turn up in the strangest places.


1.  Keep the lingo to a minimum.


Every job has its own special language.  Your first few days on any job are going to be spent giving your new coworkers blank looks every time they use this new jobspeak.  The police are no exception.  In fact, cops are some of the worst offenders when it comes to having their own peculiar language.  For example, cops were texting on their in-car Mobile Data Terminals, or MDTs, long before there was a word for it among cell phone users.  But when you’re writing about cops, don’t try to introduce the reader to a whole new language.  Anthony Burgess did this in A Clockwork Orange and it worked, but chances are all you’re going to end up doing is making the reader skip ahead to the part they can understand.  Plus, a lot of copspeak is agency specific, so what they say in the LAPD won’t work for the NYPD.  I recommend picking one or two bits of lingo and sticking to that.  It’ll give your story the authenticity you’re looking for without confusing the reader.  A good example of this is Michael Connelly’s novel Echo Park, where we’re introduced to the LAPD’s “51 sheets.”  Not only does Connelly keep the lingo to a minimum, but he makes the lingo that he does use a key plot point, which is very effective.


2.  The police are paramilitary in nature.


Rank is everything; or, as my dad used to say, everybody rises to their highest level of incompetence.  Most agencies–but by no means all–promote their personnel through civil service tests.  This means that just about any fool can get promoted as long as he or she tests well.  Conversely, you might have a Harvard grad stuck in the patrolman rank his whole career.  But regardless of the promotional system used, be it tests or the good ole boy network, rank is everything.  Make sure you understand the rank structure of the department you’re writing about.  A detective may be a supervisor in one department, but a peon in another.  You don’t want to get that wrong.  Also, remember that people hold grudges.  The person you mock today may be your lieutenant in ten years, and petty people tend to have long memories.  See Edward Conlon’s Blue Blood for some great examples of this.


3.  Bigger equals more specialization.


As a general rule, the bigger the police department, the more specialized their personnel become.  For example, the NYPD, with over 55,000 officers in its ranks, has got a 23 man detail assigned to investigate nothing but fine art forgery and theft.  Meanwhile, down in Podunksville, they have ten officers in their whole department, and usually just one of those officers will have detective responsibilities.  He’ll be the poor shmuck tasked with doing the follow up investigation on every crime the agency handles, be it a murder or a rash of graffiti.  Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and the novels of J.A. Jance are good examples of how this principle applies to smaller agencies.


4.  All cops are jugglers.


If I could give you one metaphor for police work, it would be this.  Imagine standing in the middle of a huge river and being told you have to drink every drop of water that comes by.  Every drop that does get by is a case that goes unsolved.  The reasons for this are legion, but it all boils down to one significant point.  Namely, that cops have to keep a whole bunch of balls in the air at any one given time.  We’ve all seen these shows about the cops who get one case a week and they work it through to the end, hopefully with dramatic, tear-jerking results.  We’ve all read the books about the detective who becomes obsessed with an old murder case, usually at the expense of everything else in his life.  Cops definitely obsess, as we’ll see, but that doesn’t mean his supervisor is going to stop assigning him new cases.  Criminals rarely make appointments to commit their crimes.  Juries may wonder how a detective could possibly forget the details of a case in which a victim has been carved into a canoe with a hatchet, but for a large city homicide detective, that’s just the thing that happened before lunch on any given Tuesday.  The novels and stories of Raymond Chandler, especially where Philip Marlow interacts with the police, are great examples of this.  See also the private eye stories of Loren D. Estleman and Joseph Wambaugh’s The New Centurions for a glimpse of the overworked policeman.


5.  Cops become their jobs.


Earlier I said that cops do obsess about certain cases.  That’s true.  I once knew a detective who handled a twelve year old girl’s murder.  He told me there are times when he looks into a crowd of people, and everybody in that crowd has got that little girl’s face.  He said there are days he wakes up crying.  We hear stories of cops like that and it’s natural to wonder if the line between the cop and the man hasn’t gotten a little blurry.  Is it so strange then that cops find it difficult to shrug off their hard edge of weariness when they’re off duty?  This is where the thin blue line comes from.  If you’re inside the line, you have a map to the emotional wasteland that is the internal landscape of quite a few policemen.  If you’re outside, you’re just part of the problem.  That doesn’t mean that outsiders can’t write believably about cops.  John Updike, for instance, wrote with great empathy about the physical ailments and frustrations of aging women in his recent novel The Widows of Eastwick, and he’s obviously never been an aging woman.  The same can be said about cops.  If you want a handy, less threatening way than the thin blue line to write about cops, think about parenting.  Cops are a lot like parents.  Some are good parents, some are bad parents.  Some of them are nurturers, some of them are abusers.  None of them are perfect.


6.  There are no magic bullets.


Despite what you see on the cop shows, video cameras rarely pick up the crime.  And even if they do, the images are of such poor quality as to be next to useless.  Fancy CSI-style stuff like picking up license plates off ATM machine cameras or getting somebody’s DNA off the rim of a coffee cup are so rare that, should we actually get something like that in real life, we would immediately call the Discovery Channel and have them do a Forensic Files show on us.  It’s true that computers and the Internet and a whole slew of advances in forensic science have opened up a new universe of possibilities for investigators, but you have to remember the way evidence gets deposited in crime scenes.  Burglars are rarely so considerate as to roll out a perfect thumb print on a smooth, non-porous material.  DNA is readily available off an air bag, or in blood left at the scene, but it doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have a master sample to compare it to.  The same would be true of dental records or ballistics.  The key to good police work remains the low tech art of talking to people.  Far more cases get solved this way than in the laboratory.  Fortunately, this works out for the fiction writer, because the only way to bring your detective to life is to have him talk to people.


7.  Police work is done on the cheap.


While we’re on the subject of CSI stuff, we’d do well to talk about an ugly reality of police work.  Everything is done on a budget.  Remember the famous Arlo Guthrie song, “Alice’s Restaurant?”  You hear it every Thanksgiving Day on the radio.  It’s the one with the twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was.  Well, Arlo Guthrie was making a lot of points in that song–mainly about the draft–but one point I don’t think he intended on making was that police resources are rarely deployed in the way we think they should be.  Consider the case load of the average big city police department.  Every crime can and should be investigated and the evidence collected should be processed through an official crime lab.  Well, every test costs money.  That takes time and equipment and people, and all three of those things mean more money.  Police departments have finite budgets.  So, in reality, while you can do soil samples and shoe print impressions on a burglary, chances are you won’t.  You can run paint samples through a gas chromatograph in a hit and run case, but chances are you won’t.  When your detective heads to lab to see what nifty CSI stuff is getting done, just remember, there’s only so much money available, and it has a lot of ground to cover.


8.  One bullet equals three pounds of paperwork.


This one almost goes without saying.  Do you have any idea how many reports Dirty Harry would have had to write?  One thing I can tell you though is that real police officers live by the creed that you can do anything you want out there, just as long as you can explain why you did it on paper.  A former police chief once told me that he was passed on the highway by two patrolmen driving 95 miles per hour with the windows down and their arms hanging out the open windows.  They saw him as they passed him, recognized him, and immediately cut down the next exit ramp.  When he confronted them with an Internal Affairs investigation, both officers claimed they were experiencing terrible diarrhea and had to get to a bathroom right away to keep from soiling city property.  I leave you to make your own conclusions.


9.  Don’t overexplain how things work.


A famous science fiction writer and editor (I believe it was Hugo Gernsback, but I’m not sure about that) once said, “Don’t tell me how the Farkle Drive works.  Tell me what it feels like to sit behind the controls.”  This is not quite the same thing as the old fiction writer’s adage, show, don’t tell.  The difference is that when you’re writing about technology, you need to make it invisible.  Otherwise you come across like somebody paraphrasing a technical manual.  If you’d like a good example of how not to do this, read Dean Koontz’ Midnight.  In that book, he describes at length the operation of a patrol car’s on-board computer, called an MDT.  The information is all correct, but it sounds like he read a couple of textbooks on police procedure and simply regurgitated it into his own book.  There are better of ways of doing it, such as the three way interview room scene in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential.


10.  Cops are brilliant; cops are morons.


This is the one rule that sums up all the others.


When I was a young patrolman, I knew an officer with quite a few years experience.  I looked up to this guy because he seemed to really know the streets.  One day, he’s driving through a small neighborhood on the shallow west side and this old woman comes running out of a house, waving her arms in the air, screaming in rapid fire Spanish about something going on inside her house.  The officer doesn’t speak Spanish, but he figures he needs to check it out.  In he goes.  He finds the living room crowded with frantic people.  On the couch is a fourteen year old girl about to give birth.  Well, with all these people screaming and panicking, my friend calms the girl and delivers her baby.  Mother and daughter are fine by the time EMS arrives.  My friend was so cool and collected that he even got on the radio and requested an official time check for the birth of the baby.  He became a god in my eyes.


A few years go by.  Now I’m a detective.  My friend the god is still a patrolman.  One day I’m reviewing a report for lewd conduct written by my friend the god.  In that report, my friend the god wrote, without a trace of irony, “The suspect made sexual in your windows to the complainant.”  It made me think of what Robert Penn Warren said about the giants of our youth becoming the small minded fools of our middle age.


Larry Niven has a famous essay for science fiction writers on building believable ecosystems.  The main trap most beginning writers fall into, he says, is not giving enough detail to their ecosystems, which we all know are diverse, complex things.  He calls the problem the “It was raining on the planet Mongo syndrome.”  I think the same reasoning can be applied on the microscopic scale to individual police officers.  Or anybody for that matter.

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