Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Guest Blogger Karen Pullen on Writers Police Academy. Or, Wake Up and Smell the C4

One of the best parts about Stonecoast, the MFA program I completed, was the opportunity to meet writers in other genres – fiction and poetry of course, but Stonecoast offers one of the nation's only MFA concentrations in popular fiction. Which is how a nonfiction writer like me got friendly with Karen Pullen.  Karen's debut mystery novel, Cold Feet (published by Five Star Cengage), was released in hardback in January, and in ebook format last month. She's published stories in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Spinetingler, Every Day Fiction and anthologies, and teaches occasional workshops at Central Carolina Community College.

Please welcome Karen Pullen.

The typical mystery writer is a voracious reader who made her literary way from Nancy Drew to Agatha Christie and now devours Ruth Rendell, PD James, and Sue Grafton. She’s probably an introvert, a homebody, a mild  soul. She owns cats. She’s a mom, a teacher, a social worker, a librarian.  (No kidding, this description fits me and 90 percent of the mystery writers I know.)

Her only contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system has been jury duty and her vote for a sheriff. She’s never been in a jail, known anyone who went to prison, compared fingerprints, interpreted blood spatter, or interviewed a “person of interest.”

But her readers expect and deserve authenticity, whether she’s writing about the FBI, evidence analysis, or the local police department.

So what’s a writer to do? How can she write convincingly of courtroom procedure, forensics, prison, DNA evidence, drug smuggling, human trafficking – with virtually no personal experience?

Lee Lofland – retired police investigator, author and consultant -- to the rescue. Four years ago, he organized an intensive three-day, hands-on conference held at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown NC, the site of a law enforcement, EMS, and firefighter training facility --  Writers’ Police Academy

WPA is a blast.  I’ve been twice. In 2012, I managed to squeeze in less than half the offerings, so of course I had to go back, along with about 160 other mystery writers.

 This year’s WPA began with a vehicle extrication. We watched a heavy rescue team take apart a car by prying open doors, removing its roof and lifting the dashboard. Impressive teamwork.

Heavy Rescue 1, car 0.

Kathy Bradley, a writer, smart lady, and juvenile court DA from Georgia, told us how to get it right in the courtroom – the layout, who’s there, order of business.  So many details! For example, I didn’t know that a defendant can waive a jury trial and ask for a bench trial before a judge, when the crime is so heinous that a jury won’t be sympathetic. And the most important characters in the courtroom? Lawyers, with witnesses a close second.

The chief of police of Thibodaux, Louisiana, Scott Silverii, gave an overview of law enforcement organizations and their structure, and told us fascinating anecdotes about small-town policing after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated his area. Did you know that it’s better to be stopped for speeding by a sheriff’s deputy than a policeman? Since sheriffs are elected, they court good will. Scott also shared the three most common calls to a police department: false alarms, animal complaints, and keys locked in car. Not very glamorous!

Dr. Dan Krane, a professor and DNA expert, described the science of  DNA analysis and also the potential for misuse of DNA as evidence.  DNA can be planted, old, transferred innocently, contaminated in the lab, or misinterpreted.  I’m definitely going to watch his videos. DNA misuse would make a twisty mystery plot.

When we gathered outside on Saturday morning, someone observed an abandoned backpack and summoned a bomb squad.  Reno, a beautiful German Shepard and trained bomb-sniffer alerted to explosives in the backpack.  A remote-controlled robot picked it up and carried it farther away, then a technician in a bomb suit laid a charge next to it, to be detonated remotely. Phew! We were safe, and wiser in the ways of bomb squads.

Even the bloggers among us found too much to describe – ride-alongs, firearms training simulation, underwater evidence recovery, traffic stops, new recruit training, building search, microbiology, fire scene investigation, arrest techniques, street prostitution, cold case investigation. The professionals were there to teach us what they do, the departments to bring their equipment to demonstrate, the scientists to explain the research. 

Equally important to me were the personalities. Generally speaking, I find cops to be reserved, wary. They are not selling anything, they are not trying to entertain. At WPA, they seemed to uphold my impressions -- protective of each other, skilled, committed, and preferring never to fire their weapon. They answered any number of questions honestly, fully, and carefully. They seemed to appreciate the opportunity to explain so writers could get our facts right.

My chapter of Sisters in Crime, a national organization for women mystery writers,
subsidizes members’ cost for WPA, making it very affordable for seven members of our chapter (only $100 each for the three days).

WPA sells out very quickly, and no wonder. It’s the coolest, most exciting (writing, or maybe any!) conference I’ve ever attended.

Note:  Karen will stop by the blog several times over the next few days, to answer any questions you'd like to ask her, about the WPA, mystery writing, her book, etc. Just leave it in comments.