Chasing Down Facts: Tips for Novelists about Police Procedure

Today’s post is part of a series on professionals sharing tips and expertise in order to help novelists convey accuracy in their fiction. If you are writing any scenes that include doctors, lawyers, investigators, or law enforcement officials, be sure to study these posts (and print them out for reference).

The following guest post is from novelist and former police officer Janice Cantore:

“Write what you know,” a phrase every writer has heard. Some think it’s hooey and some think it’s gospel. When I first began writing, I thought that it was gospel. I wanted to write suspense novels, and I’d lived through a lot of action. I’d been in car chases, foot pursuits, arrested murderers, stopped rapes—I even dodged bottles and spit during the Rodney King riots, so surely I could write an exciting, compelling book. Sadly, all of my early manuscripts were rejected. The common complaint: they read too much like a police report.

I share that simply because all the rejections, while painful, taught me something about writing what I know. My expertise at the time I began writing fiction was arrest reports, crime reports, and court-speak because we had to write every thing with the expectation we might be called to testify about it in court one day. I was “writing what I knew,” but in the wrong way for a fiction audience. The stories were facts only for a law enforcement audience.

Consider Your Audience

So, when people ask me about police work and realistic scenes in novels, the first question I ask is, “What kind of novel are you writing?” Before you get into the details of the book, ask,  who is the audience?

If you’re writing a police procedural, details are extremely important because the people who like those types of books pay attention to details. If you’re writing a romantic suspense novel, people who pick those up are not that interested in the procedural details; they want romance. Are you writing something gritty or something cozy? Know your audience.

I write romantic suspense, and my main characters are always cops. While realism is important to me, gory details are not. In fact, I stretch the truth a bit. I do write fiction, after all, because I want my reader to keep turning pages. I don’t want them slowed by procedure or terminology they might find boring.

 What You Need to Know about Agencies

If you want to be specific and detailed about law enforcement, remember city police, county sheriff, and state police are all law enforcement agencies with the same police powers but slightly different responsibilities.

In states with large populations the differences are probably greater than in small, less populated states with smaller agencies. A large agency will have a lot of specialized details and personnel (DARE, narcotics, vice, SWAT, etc.), while in a smaller agency individual officers would probably wear many hats.  Where I worked, jurisdiction battles between neighboring agencies happened, but they weren’t major. In some places jurisdiction and rivalry might be a huge issue. Know what type of agency/cops you’re writing about.

Get Real

When I read fiction what throws me out of the story is anything implausible and/or details written as if they came from a police show on TV. NCIS may be entertaining television, but it is not real life.

I have put down books, never to read that author again, because of implausible police dialog (one book hooked me in the first chapter because the man wrote okay, but lost me in the second because the relationship between his patrol officer character and rookie officer was completely wrong) and wrong procedure (a suspect in a murder investigation is dragged down to an interview room after he invokes his Miranda right to silence—waste of time, even if you force a suspect to talk to you after he invokes Miranda, nothing he says would be admissible in court).

In the first instance, if the author had spoken even briefly to a training officer about the training of a rookie officer he could have avoided his error, and in the second, any bit of research into the Miranda ruling would have told the author that all questioning stops when Miranda is invoked.

Helpful Resources

There are a lot of resources out there for people who write novels with police activity in them.  What you are writing and who your audience is will determine what resources make the best sense for you.

  1. Your local police can be a great resource, depending on where you live. I always recommend writers take a ride along with their local agency, if it’s available. Most agencies do have programs that allow people to ride along with an officer for a shift. I took many people with me when I worked patrol, and everyone thought it was a great experience. Some agencies also have citizen academies, one- or two-day programs in which they offer a variety of learning experiences.
  2. The FBI offers a citizens’ academy in some places. It’s usually run over the course of several nights, and people learn about all kinds of law enforcement activity from counterterrorism to firearms training. What does your novel need? A one-night exposure to police on patrol, or several nights of in-depth FBI instruction on how federal law enforcement works?
  3. The Writer’s Police Academy is a great resource, I’ve spoken to many writers who have attended and thought that it was worth the time and money. It’s a four-day intensive, and they do firearms training, crisis scenarios, and forensics. It’s very in depth. Lee Lofland has written a book for writers that comes highly recommended.
  4. And then there is Writer’s Digest. This is a resource for all types of writing, and they have books for every genre and every discipline. You should also read people who write the kind of books you want to write. Michael Connelly, Tess Gerritson, Robert Crais, Elizabeth George, Laura Lippman, and early Joseph Wambaugh, are some of my favorites.

My frame of reference is narrow in one respect—I worked for one department (Long Beach PD, Long Beach, California)—but broad in another: being safe conducting police investigations is universal, all cops want to go home alive and unharmed at the end of their shift.

Research is wonderful. I believe in it, and I do it, but in the end, if your story is well written, the book will sell, so perfect the craft.

I’m happy to answer any questions, and I respond to every e-mail I get. Got questions? Share them in the comments.

Janice Cantore headshotJanice Cantore worked for the Long Beach Police Department, Long Beach, California for twenty-two years: sixteen in uniform, and six as a non-career employee. She worked a variety of assignments: patrol, background investigation, administrative, juvenile investigation, and training. She is now retired and out of the big city, enjoying Southern Oregon. Visit Janice or contact her through her website here. Follow Janice on Facebook.

Feature Photo Credit: Big Whiskey via Compfight cc

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  1. Loved this article! It applies to the concerns I have about my first novel. The story is based in Texas and I am Irish. I find US law enforcement multi agencies confusing and would love to hook up online with someone who has some info. It doesn’t have to be expert, even US citizen level. Ideally someone from a city. The city in my book is San Antonio. In return I would very happily take on proof reading or advise in any area I can.


    1. Thanks John, you live in Ireland and want to write about Texas? Sounds like some fun research! I’d be happy to answer any questions I can, but I’m not at all familiar with specifics in Texas. Try googling a writer’s group in the area, they may be able to help.


  2. Hi Janice and CS! Great article! (And CS, I told my writer friends on Facebook about the series.) Janice, if I’m writing about a small town sheriff based loosely on the small town where I lived in the country in Michigan, does it still help to ask law enforcement friends from California to read over scenes? Or would it be too different? I worked at the sheriff department for the summer when I was 16. It was very laid back, and a minimum of really bad things happened. Is it naive to think I could still write those characters like that? What are your thoughts on this?

    1. Hi Kitty, it could help with the general function…but talk to a Sheriff’s deputy, not a city cop. I worked with a guy who first worked for a city PD, then transferred to a small Sheriff’s office in Colorado. He came back to Calif and said there was a vast difference, especially in the politics. So it depends on how specific and into detail your story is…Hope that helps!


      1. Janice, thanks so much for the post and sharing your expertise! I wonder if you have any favorite TV show that you feel are accurate portrayals of police procedure. I’m a big fan of Longmire and The Closer, but I wonder if those shows stretch the limits of truth at times. Any thoughts on that?

        1. I hate to say I think they all stretch the limits of truth, I’ve never seen Longmire, but I found the Closer entertaining but not really close to reality. Early Law and Order was close, but as the show went on, in my opinion, it became more agenda driven and less realistic. I like shows that are reality based, The First 48, Watching the Detectives. My favorite fictional shows are Castle and Rizzoli and Isles, not realistic but certainly entertaining, IMHO.
          Thanks for having me!


  3. So true, Janice. It’s possible to know “too much,” especially if we’ve fallen in love with what we know, so to speak. Another example of killing our darlings… Thanks for sharing!

  4. Great piece, Janice. The part about understanding the difference between police agencies was something in particular I hadn’t thought of before. Your post reminded me that there is plenty of room for detailed research when writing in any genre.

  5. Thank you for this great article. It would have helped me on my first two projects. I do have a question, but it may lean more toward criminal law than toward police procedure. In my current work in progress, the protagonist *thinks* he knows who was responsible for the school shooting when he was a kid. His own father is in prison, serving a life sentence. As the story unfolds and childhood memories (triggered by a brain tumor) return after being long suppressed (due to trauma of the event), he realizes who really was responsible. What would be the 1-2-3 procedure for a policeman in this situation? How hard is it to overturn a murder conviction? Would the newly suspected “killer” be arrested right away? Or merely be invited in for questioning? What if there’s not enough evidence (because the shooting was so long ago) to make an arrest? These are questions I’ve been wrestling with as I approach the “big reveal” at the end. Thanks.

    1. Adam, It’s extremely difficult to reverse a conviction, recovered memories by themselves would never do it. You would need physical evidence to back up the memories and a tenacious group of attorneys working on behalf of the convicted man. The police have a conviction, they would consider the case closed. I’ve read about cases where an eyewitness to the crime, a person who testified at the original trial, recanted their testimony and that is not enough to even get a new trial. It would be more of an attorney battle than a police battle..check out the Innocence Project, they work on overturning convictions, but with DNA testing.
      Hope that helps, Janice

      1. Thank you for the feedback. But I’m still wondering: so if someone came forward with new information, what would be the procedural steps? Much appreciated.

  6. Live Write Thrive – 3/27/15


    Thank you for post. Your words about “writing what you know” are a particularly helpful reminder.

    I have never believed that, when I begin a story based upon an actual experience or area of expertise, I will be writing only about what I know. Though we writers often need to begin there, at that moment we have an opportunity to explore aspects of experience we may not fully understand…hence, what we do not know. It is particularly true when the story focuses upon the characters’ interiors and their relationships with each other. That is a place where we can create tension for our stories, hold our readers’ attention, and have our own experience in discovery. Like you have shown so well, the procedural details are important, but they can get in the way of a story worth telling. As I am dealing with the law again in a second novel-length story, thank you for the reminder.

    Jim Steinberg

  7. I am a retired, thirty year, veteran but from the other side of the pond where everything is rather different. The only firearms I touched belonged to suspects and I was booking them in as exhibits.

    Thank you for the very useful advice, I have met a few US officers during my career, vacationing in London and coming out with us as ride-alongs, and two excellent and very knowledgeable DEA agents lecturing on Crack, back in the 80s, before we had that problem in the UK.

    You think and speak differently from us because your situation is entirely different. NYPD seem to have a siege mentality, whilst the Oregon officer was more laid back, but I think the risk of physical danger is greater out your way.
    Your laws and procedures are also vastly different.
    In short, I think I would have to forget Hills Street Blues and spend some time over there, following your good advice on research.

    About the only thing I have seen of late that does relate well on both sides is the undercover techniques, except I had a bus pass and not a mustang.

    Thank you again for taking the time to share.

    Andy Farman

  8. Thanks for the great article, Janice. My story is a child kidnapping in Boston. I have had different answers on whether or not the police would stop working the case once the FBI was involved (after 24 hours no matter what). Local police wouldn’t answer and their communications dept.told me the detective in the precinct where the kidnapping took place would handle the investigation. Later, the children’s division. HELP! Thanks!

    1. Gerri,
      Perhaps this link will assist.
      According to TV and Film fiction (that font of many popular misconceptions), the FBI has jurisdiction over all kidnappings, however that is not correct if I am reading this link correctly. ‘Lindbergh Law’ gives them jurisdiction over children aged 12 and under.

      I am sure Janice can best describe how the machinery of kidnappings involving teenagers and adults would work in the US.

  9. Janice,
    Thanks to you and all the folks who responded to your post; it’s good practical advice. I do have a particular question. I’m writing about small-town Georgia in the early 1980’s. I’m aware that police investigative procedures were really different, not only because this was before DNA testing, etc, but also because small towns are usually behind the urban centers in budget and tech resources. Do you have any recommendations for material from such a place and time period?

  10. Hi. I’m writing a cozy and want to be as realistic as possible, but also know many cozies are not! I have a few specific questions I wonder if you can address for me.

    The story is set in a fictional small town near Santa Cruz, CA, with a small local Sheriff’s station—a sheriff and three deputies.

    — Would a suspect be able to get out on bail fairly quickly, or realistically, would they need to wait for an arraignment date? Obviously, I want my character out fast!

    — How would visitors be screened?

    — Would they be able to go into the cell with them, or is that too Mayberry to be real?

    — If a suspect were being accused for a second crime, would the sheriff ask his/her attorney to “surrender” his client, or would they go pick up the suspect themselves?

    — If small town law enforcement needed help, could they get it from a nearby town? In this case, could my small town sheriff get help from the Santa Cruz Police Dept.?

    Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Dee, I didn’t write the post (not sure if the author will reply), but since you are setting this in Santa Cruz, you might want to use a real substation and call them and ask these questions of them, to be accurate. When I’ve written scenes involving professionals (police or other law-enforcement agencies, lawyers, doctors, etc.), I always make calls and ask for help. Usually every agency has someone happy to help writers with questions.

  11. While it’s not taking up the entire book nor a major plot point, what I’d like help with is for a turning point.

    I’m writing a book in the far future and have these two protagonists who are officers. I want them to get erroneously kicked out due to corruption in the system.

    I’m thinking something along the lines of them arresting the equivalent of a bureau officer after seeing them commit a crime since I do want to keep it short instead of letting it linger (save for maybe some aftermath down the line).

    Might you have any tips there?

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