There is nothing so annoying as reading a book or watching a movie and finding inaccuracies in things like police and courtroom procedures. I am not a pedant but I prefer accuracy in my own writing and that of others, whether the result is within the pages or up on the screen.
As a former UK detective and a barrister, trial counsel to Americans but we got to wear those wigs and gowns, I have an advantage in my own writing to portray accuracy.
So how does a crime writer without the same advantage set about achieving accuracy?
Let me assume you know nothing. My first advice would be to talk to your local detectives. Make an informal approach and tell them you are a writer and write fiction about crime. Buy that detective a coffee or beer! Initially, there will be wariness on the part of the detective, but as time goes by he/she will warm to the task and become your buddy, with a bit of luck.
Do not ask for, or expect to be provided with case details; keep it generic. For example, don’t raise the name of a specific case. Instead, ask general questions about say the modus operandii of home invasions or burglary as it is known in the UK.
Before you ever reach that stage, I suggest you read. Read newspaper archives, court files and the like. Add non-fiction books to your book shelf. For example, if you want to know about serial killers read Zodiac: Settling the Score by Kimberly McGath, a former US detective turned author.
The more you are conversant with the “culture of crime,” the likelier it is that the detective will warm to you. But never be tempted to become “the expert.” A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
It’s never a bad idea to visit your local court house to watch a criminal trial in action. You will immerse yourself in the parlance of crime and criminals in addition to gaining first-hand experience of courtroom procedures.
If you are writing about legal courtroom procedures, don’t forget the behind the scenes stuff. Both in the United States and in the UK, meetings do take place behind closed doors between trial lawyers and judge. There are also private conversations between the respective lawyers, defense counsel and prosecutor. They can be vital to a crime mystery thriller and open up opportunities for dialogue.
Once again, cozy up to a lawyer who specializes in crime. He or she will not discuss a specific case with you for ethical reasons but the same points apply here as they do with the detective. Be friendly with both detective or lawyer. Offer them an opportunity for a “credit” in your book but always obtain permission before you do so.
There are some detectives and lawyers who will not help. Don’t be put off by a rebuff – ask another, especially if they seem to have a friendly disposition.
Finally, use common sense. I recently saw a post in a writers’ forum asking for advice on writing about a heist – a bank robbery. The writer wished to focus on the planning stage of the crime. I was amazed to see how many respondents suggested to the writer that he plan a heist himself. Not the brightest of ideas.
Stephen Bentley www.stephenbentley.info
Former UK Detective Sergeant, undercover cop, barrister. Now a writer, author, blogs at HuffPost UK.
Author of Amazon UK #1 Best Seller Undercover: Operation Julie – The Inside Story