Looking at the World
By Dave Butler
Unlike Pam and Greg, I don’t have any specific experiences with private investigators. I haven’t worked as a PI, nor have I written about them. If a PI has ever followed me, he/she was skilled enough that I didn’t notice them doing so. However, if one has ever watched me, I guarantee they would’ve been bored and disappointed. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
But considering my background as an auxiliary RCMP officer and as a national park warden here in Canada, Pam and Greg’s recent perceptive PI posts encouraged me to think about the ways in which writing crime fiction compares to working in law enforcement.
I can think of at least eight similarities:
1. You view the world with very different eyes than does the average person.
Both law enforcement officers and fiction writers (particularly in the crime, mystery and thriller genres) watch people closely. They ponder what people are doing, what they’re thinking, why they’re acting the way they are, what their motivations are. Neither can help it; it’s a constant in their day-to-day lives. It’s what allows them to better understand the world around them. They watch for patterns and for abnormal actions or events that might make for either a juicy plot point or an opportunity to proactively stop something unlawful from happening.
2. You pay attention to things around you that others might not.
Details are critical in both jobs. Writers -- in a constant search for authentic details that pull readers into their stories -- need to describe the make of a car, its colour, its direction of travel, the sound it makes as it moves away, the number and gender of people in the vehicle, the time of day, the visibility. They must create believable dialogue, so they analyze the way people speak, the types of words they use, their accent, the way they pause between words or sentences.
In law enforcement, those same details can make the difference between a successful prosecution, or an embarrassing and unsuccessful appearance in front of a judge, defense lawyer and jury. Did they say: “I wasn’t there that night,” or did they say: “I don’t remember being there that night.”
In both professions, it’s about veracity, credibility, authenticity. Success in crime fiction and in law enforcement means sweating the details, getting them right.
3. You ask questions, lots of questions.
Writers call them research. Law enforcement officials call them investigations, interviews, or even interrogations. In all cases, it’s about peeling back layers, probing and pushing and cajoling for answers, about digging for details, searching for the truth.
4. People want to talk about their experiences, or about the fact that they always wanted to do what you do.
People seem fascinated by the work of writers and law enforcement officers. For example, it seems that almost everyone has a deep-seated desire to create the great North American novel. We writers constantly hear people say that they’ve always wanted to write a book. “But it seems like such hard work” (and it is!). Or we learn that they could write a novel if they only had the time. Immediately after that, they then launch into their book pitch. “Here’s my idea. It could be a best-seller!” they say. How many times have I heard that? Often, they want you to write it. My standard response has become: “I don’t want to steal your idea. I encourage YOU to write it.”
Similarly, law enforcement officers are often faced with the same dilemma. When people find out what they do, they’ll immediately launch into a diatribe about how poorly they were treated when they were last pulled over for speeding, they’ll ask advice on how to get their uncle Harold out of prison (who is obviously innocent, by the way…), or they’ll ask for juicy cop stories.
5. People won’t make eye contact with you.
In law enforcement, this is common. “If I don’t look at the cop in the car over there, maybe he won’t pull me over.” “If I don’t look at the officer, maybe she’ll believe this obvious bald-faced lie I’m about to tell.”
In writing, this is also common. If you’ve ever done a signing event at a bookstore, you’ll have observed the ingenious ways people find to avoid making eye contact with you. “Oh god, there’s a writer over there trying to sell his book. Look away, look away!” or “Grab the children and let’s get out of here before he approaches us!” It’s both painful and hilarious. And soul crushing.
6. People lie to you, often.
This is certainly more the case for law enforcement officers than it is for writers. In the enforcement world, officers look for the ‘tells,” those subtle signals that a person is lying. Lying happens often, sometimes because the person is simply nervous, but more often because they aren’t willing to admit their guilt and are worried about the consequences. In these situations, telling the difference between the truth and a lie comes from training, developing keen observation skills, and years of experience. In some situations, making the right call between the two can be a matter of life and death.
In the writing world, people lie to us too. But the consequences are far from comparable. In our case, lies lead to disappointments and dashed hopes rather than charges of obstruction of justice. The most common lie we hear: “I haven’t read your book yet, but I want to.” If I’d sold all those books, I could afford to take a year away from my day-job to write the next one.
7. The hourly wage sucks.
This one needs no explanation. Kids: don’t choose novel writing or law enforcement as a career if your goal is to become a millionaire.
8. Your life consists of long hours of quiet, punctuated with bursts of adrenaline.
Perhaps this final comparison is unfair or inaccurate, but I’ll make it anyway. Emergency responders of all kinds know that life consists of many hours of boredom, days filled with waiting, practicing, checking gear, filling out paperwork. But when the phone rings, or when the PA system roars, or when the siren sounds, it’s “go time.” The adrenaline pumps, the training kicks in, and all the senses go on full alert.
The life of a novelist is, I would argue, comparable. But again, the consequences are very different. Most writers spend hours, days, weeks and months huddled over laptops, researching, writing, rewriting, sending endless queries to publishers and agents and booksellers. Blood, sweat and tears flow from our foreheads simultaneously. But occasionally, when the muse is at it peak and words fly onto the page, or when a multi-book publishing contract arrives in the mail, or when a reader tells you they love your book, the adrenaline pumps, the training kicks in, and all senses go on full alert.
So, are two professions the same? Are they of the same level of importance to society? No. But are there enough similarities between them that you often find crime writers and law enforcement officers sharing tables and anecdotes at the local watering hole? You bet. In many ways, they look at the world in very similar ways.