I found two emails in my spam box last week, both telling me I’d won a lottery. The first said I’d won a million Euros based on my email address so I deleted that immediately, but the other one was just what I’d been looking for. I’d won a place on a patrol ride-a-long as part of the Writers’ Police Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina that I was due to attend later in the week. Riches come in all forms; for a writer this was just as exciting as winning hard cash.
True, nowadays you can research almost anything online, but nothing beats first-hand experience to fuel the imagination for future novels. I had to sign waivers confirming that I was riding at my own risk and that I wouldn’t talk about any of the actual incidents I witnessed (unless required to do so in court,) but what I can say is that my respect for the police and the work they do has now grown immensely. I certainly could not do the job.
The ride-a-long was just one of many highlights in what turned out to be an intense, fun-packed four days of activities including workshops on topics including forensics, interview and interrogation, cold cases and chain-of-custody, all led by experienced officers and delivered with just enough humor to detract from the sometimes gruesome nature of what was being discussed. There were demonstrations of equipment and tactics, ranging from the police dealing with a high speed car chase involving potentially armed and dangerous occupants (totally unexpected and amazing to observe, but I’m sure terrifying in real life) to firemen extracting victims from wrecked cars and the EMS responding to realistic accident and crime scenarios. In addition, hands-on sessions provided the opportunity for firearms training, driving simulations and building searches to name just a few.
As you can imagine, the most difficult part of the conference was choosing what sessions to go to as each time period offered four or five enticing options. (Okay, maybe only mystery writers would think of something like Bloodstain Interpretations as enticing, but as one law enforcement officer noted, writers have a tendency to come up with some very weird and scary questions in their quest for the perfect plot!) There were over 150 writers attending and I think every one of them wished they could be in more than one place at once.
Fortunately some decisions were made for us in the form of afternoon presentations by Dr. Elizabeth Murray on Forensic Identification and ex-deputy DA Marcia Clark on the stages involved in the prosecution of a criminal case, both fascinating and entertaining subjects, while the evening offerings were slightly more light-hearted talks by Dr. Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist, and author Lee Child.
Basically it was a mystery/crime writer’s dream. Even during those disheartening occasions when you learned how unrealistic a particular plot point might be – including ones you believed to be true because you had seen them repeatedly in other books and movies - there would usually be one or two alternative scenarios discussed that you hadn’t even considered. Everyone, from participants to speakers to those helping with the administration, was genuinely friendly and helpful, making this one of the best writing events I’ve ever attended. I’m already looking forward to next year.