Author Interview: Lee Lofland
In the popular television series, Castle, a well-known mystery writer Rick Castle connives his way onto a
homicide team run by a beautiful and tough detective, Kate Beckett. Romantic tension vies with gritty homicides as these two opposites solve one murder after another. As usual, drama and story take precedent over police procedures and investigations and no one is called to task. Right? New York
Lee Lofland and his popular blog, The Graveyard Shift, cast a critical eye on the sometimes unrealistic police procedures in Castle and other televisions series when story gets in the way of facts. Lee points out the good and the bad. He uses these reviews to teach mystery writers the difference between reality and
’s perception of reality. Here is an example from one Castle episode: Hollywood
“A pretend spy is shot five times in the chest. His body is discovered lying on its back in a small creek-type body of water. The queen of Voodoo Medicine, Lanie Parish, says the wounds are all through-and-through’s, meaning all the bullet holes had exit wounds. Well, how the heck could she possibly know this without rolling the guy over to examine the places where the rounds were likely to have left the body? She couldn’t have done that because the guy’s arms were stretched out straight to each side like he’d been attempting to take flight at the precise moment he was killed. Besides, the front of his clothes were dry, as were his face and hair.” (excerpt of The Graveyard Shift last May of the last Castle episode of the season).
Lee’s blog is just one tool he uses to help mystery writers. In 2008, his book Police Procedural and Investigation: A Guide for Writers hit the shelves with good reviews and became a Mystery Readers International nominee for the 2008 Macavity Award. Well-known writers—New York Times bestselling authors Tess Gerritsen, Jeffery Deaver, and J.A. Jance—praised Lee’s hands-on book as “a masterpiece” (Deaver), “this book belongs in the library of every crime writer” (Gerritsen), and “ … is an invaluable tool for writers of mystery fiction” (Jance).
Another writer’s tool can be found in Lee’s toolbox with the help of other cops and authors. Next month a number of mystery writers will be traveling to
Jamestown, N.C. for the 2010 Writer’s . That’s right. A police academy for writers. Police Academy
Lee is all about helping writers make their story authentic as well as entertaining.
MARK: Lee, last week we learned a little about your police experience. Today, readers learned how you’ve use this experiences to help writers. Tell us a little more about these services and how you got started.
LEE: Actually, I don't provide a service. At least not in the business sense of the terminology. I simply help fellow writers with their police, CSI, and forensics research. This all started several years ago when a friend asked me to speak to her writers' critique group. It was an informal session at a book store, but one of the members just happened to be the director for a large writers conference. So...one thing led to another and here we are. Besides, that's what writers do. Either we make it, or we sink. But we're basically a team, so there's always somebody paddling. It's just my turn at the oars.
MARK: How did The Graveyard Shift blog come to be? Why the name? What were you trying to create?
LEE: A while back I suddenly began receiving an overwhelming number of questions from people, all at the same time, and all about the same subjects. And week after week I found myself writing the same answers over and over again. Eventually, I started a file so I could simply copy and paste my answers just to save a little time. But the questions really began to roll in, and the more times I spoke at conferences and other events the more the questions piled up in my inbox. At one point, I was finding an average of 1,000 emails every single morning. Yes, that's one-thousand.
I soon learned that it was sometimes easier to send a photo along with a brief reply (a picture is worth a thousand words, right?). The images saved me a ton of time. People could see a Taser, or a PR-24, which greatly reduced the number of words I had to type. But I was still receiving that crazy amount of emails each day. That's when it hit me to combine pictures and text and post them together in a central location where everybody could see everything at once. So I started the blog, and it has been a huge success. In the beginning it saved me all kinds of time. Not so anymore. Now I'm spending more time on the blog than I did answering all those original emails. And I'm still receiving the messages. But I really enjoy it. And it keeps me on my toes. So please keep them coming!
The name of the blog was a no-brainer. When I started the GYS I was writing it late at night (the only time I had to do it). Besides, I like to do my creative writing at night. So The Graveyard Shift it was. Oddly, I've always despised working midnight shifts. So there's a bit of irony there, I suppose.
Also, since I normally write the blog when I'm very sleepy it's always full of errors. I tried to proofread in the beginning, but I just couldn't keep my eyes open, so I quit. Therefore, what you see everyday is a first draft, and it's been kind of fun to do it this way. Sometimes the errors are hilarious. But I figured I'd better start doing a little editing since some pretty important people read the thing. However, one day someone wrote me a really nasty note about a mistake he/she read in an article. I mean the note rambled on and on about what a lowlife hack I was, and that I had no business writing blogs, books, articles...etc, etc. Well, that single email drove the nail in the editing coffin. Nevermore would I put a red pen to my blog. It is what it is and that's the reason why. And it's fun. So any mistakes you see, please blame them on the persun hoo hates my writting and the meestakes I mak.
MARK: What do you find to be the most common chasm between reality and fiction for writers? Is it a lack of understanding of police procedure at crime scenes? Officer safety issues? Discrepancies between actual police and
Hollywood’s version procedures (i.e. officer-involved shootings)?
LEE: For the most part, writers try very hard to get things right. They research. They attend conferences. Participate in ride-a-longs with police officers. They email their questions to experts. They attend citizens’ academies. And some have even tackled the FBI's citizen academy. I know they try, and they try hard. However, and I hear this all the time, the problems begin when they send their work to an editor, or to their agents.
It seems that many editors (and agents) use TV as their primary source for police information. And, sadly, many simply refuse to budge from that stance. As a result, they tell their authors to change what they've written to match some silly thing they'd seen in a CSI repeat. So, to help out, I've offered my services (for free) to many agents and editors, but not a single one has taken me up on the offer. Not one. Funny thing, my own editor questioned me on a couple of points when she was going through my book on police procedure. She even called me one morning and said, "Are you sure that's right? That's not how they did it on Law and Order last night." Grrr...
MARK: Tell us about this Writer’s
. How did you come up with the idea? What can writers expect to gain from this academy? How many writers’ academies have you taught? Police Academy
LEE: The Writers'
Police Academy idea came to me a few years ago while speaking at a Sisters In Crime event called . My good friend, ATF Special Agent Rick McMahan, and I were chatting after the workshops and sort of knocked around the idea of putting together a similar event, but one that was more of a hands-on cop-type thing. And the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. After all, there's no better way to learn about cops than to train like cops, right? So I talked it over with a few well-known authors and they loved the idea. Forensic University
The idea was the easy part. The hard part was finding a location that was realistic and would let me bring 100's of eager writers along for the ride. The venue also had to accommodate police equipment, like cars and guns and snarling, barking and biting dogs. So I turned to a police chief who'd generously provided some information for my book. I sat down in his office and laid out my thoughts. He was on board in a matter of seconds. He said he'd love to contribute if it would help writers stop making the mistakes he'd read so often in mystery and crime novels. Then I approached some friends in the same area who run a superb writers conference. They agreed to let me piggy-back the academy in conjunction with their event.
Next, I visited the local prosecutor, a defense attorney, and the coroner. The conference director made some calls. Police officers volunteered to speak. And, well, you get the idea. The snowball was rolling and there was no stopping it. My next calls were to Rick McMahan, literary agent/former CHP officer Verna Dreisbach, Mike Black, and Lt,.Dave Swords. I called each of them because they're writers with lots of law enforcement experience under their belts. And that's the combination I wanted to teach other writers about our world. Long story short...the event was a huge success. Which brings us to the extravaganza we're putting on this year. And it's a whopper, especially when compared to the earlier event. We're offering everything from arrest techniques and FATS training to jail searches and firefighting. And nearly every workshop is a hands-on workshop. Attendees will be training just like real cops (within reason). Certainly no one be expected to perform any physical training. Everything is designed especially for writers. And our keynote speaker is international bestselling author Jeffery Deaver. Also in the lineup is Jonathan Hayes, a senior medical examiner from New York City. Jonathan is a wonderful writer who also enjoys international success.
Rounding out our team of instructors are actual police academy instructors, fire academy instructors, EMS instructors, crime lab instructors, sheriff's deputies, police officers, and highway patrol officers from North Carolina. We also plan to include someone from Secret Service. And, we even have a singer/songwriter who'll entertain everyone during the Friday night reception. This event is a one of a kind event. There is nothing else like it anywhere!
MARK: Do you have to be an Arnold Schwarzenegger to survive this academy or can anyone attend?
LEE: Not at all. We've made sure each workshop can be safely attended by anyone and everyone.
MARK: What kind of feedback have you received from surviving alumni of the academy?
LEE: I believe this young woman's comment sums it up quite nicely. She wrote me a day after last year's event to say, "I had a BLAST at the conference! It was a dream come true."
MARK: Writer’s Digest published your book Police Procedural and Investigation: A Guide for Writers in 2008. How can writers use this book to improve their writing?
LEE: I combined 20+ years of experience, a lot of help from a lot of friends and family(check out the acknowledgement pages), advice and information from top experts, and then applied it all to the questions I'd been hearing writers ask. Then I crammed it all between two covers. Seriously, almost everything in that book was based on something a writer had asked me.
MARK: Aside from services you provide for writers, what other sources of information are available to mystery writers? For example, would you advise them to make contact with other police on the job for information?
LEE: Definitely. I always advise writers to contact the agencies within the area where their stories are set. No two departments operate in the same way. Laws are different and procedures vary. You and I can offer generic information, but when it comes down to the differences in west coast policing and east coast policing...well, there are many. Shoot, there are plenty of differences from one county to the next.
MARK: What kind of writing have you pursued since leaving law enforcement? Where do you want to go with your own writing?
LEE: I've been very eclectic—nonfiction, a childrens book that hasn't been released yet, the blog, newspapers, magazines, etc. But, my passion is fiction, and I'm finally finishing up a thriller. I expect to have the rewrites complete very soon. My agent is very excited about the book, which sounds promising. We'll soon see just how promising.
MARK: What is a normal writing day for you? Up at dawn and work until midnight?
LEE: I'm up at 6:30 to make sure all is well with the blog. Sometimes I see a headline or interesting subject and write the blog article of the day at that time. Then I answer the onslaught of email questions which takes a couple of hours. Next is business—Writers' Police Academy, meetings, etc. By now it's lunch time, or later, and I normally grab a quick bite while standing at the kitchen counter. After lunch it's time for the Honey-Do list and other chores, like lawn mowing or other meetings, etc. I'm back in front of the computer by late afternoon and finish up around 5 p.m. It is now time for a glass of wine and quality time with my wife. I normally cook dinner, so I take care of that while she watches TV or attends to work-related business on her laptop. We eat, relax for a bit, have dessert, watch a little TV (maybe), and then it's bed time, for her. But for me, it's usually time to go back to work, which I do until 2 or 3 a.m. I like to do my creative writing late a night when the house is totally quiet. Nothing but ticking clocks and creaking boards. No street noises. And no interruptions. I usually sleep for only 3 or 4 hours each night. I guess I'm afraid I'll miss something important. Even when I do finally slide beneath the sheets, I usually read for a while.
MARK: Can we expect any other books in the near future?
LEE: I certainly hope so.
MARK: Among many novelists you’ve read, can you name a few who come close to the real thing in terms of police procedures and crime scene investigations? Which authors stand out in your mind?
LEE: There are several, but to name a few—Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard, Judy (J.A. Jance), Joseph Wambaugh, and Jeffery Deaver. They stand out in the crowd, but there are many more. Too many to list, like everyone who's attending the Writers' Police Academy. Those writers go the extra mile to get it right.
MARK: What books are on your shelf to read in the near future?
LEE: I do have a stack. Let's see, I'm currently reading a Michael Connelly book. Just finished an Elmore Leonard book. Re-read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a few days ago (Why? Who knows?). And waiting in the wings is a James Lee Burke (I'm a fan) and a Jonathan Kellerman.
MARK: Any last words of advice for struggling mystery writers?
LEE: Write something every day. No excuses why you couldn't.
Read something every day. No excuses why you didn't.
More information about Lee Lofland is available at his website at http://www.leelofland.com/books.html or his blog, The Graveyard Shift at http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/.