Knowledge Bite

Writing a police procedural or crime novel

Crime is one of my favourite genres to edit, and as a former journalist and police press officer, I know a fair bit about police procedure. On quite a few occasions, I’ve been able to use my specialist knowledge to correct or query information or behaviour in novels I’m editing. Here are some of my top tips to bear in mind when writing a police procedural or crime fiction in general (or, indeed, any book where the police are involved). They’re aimed mainly at writers based in the UK as that’s my own area of expertise, but if you’re elsewhere in the world, you will still get some value from the points discussed.

Understand the rank hierarchy.  

I’m sometimes pulled out of novels when officers address superiors or colleagues in ways that are aren’t authentic for a British police force. For example, when a police constable addresses a detective constable as ‘sir’. These two officers are the same rank; the distinction is that one is a uniformed officer and the other is plain clothes and working in CID. The same holds for sergeants and detective sergeants, inspectors and detective inspectors, and right up the chain to chief superintendents and detective chief superintendents. Make sure that if you have officers of equal rank, whether they are plain clothes, uniformed, or a mix of both, they address each other more informally, either by first name, if they know each other, or just as ‘Constable XXX’ or ‘DC XXXX’ if they don’t.

When you do have officers of different ranks, unless your officer is a maverick or likes to cause a riot, lower-ranked officers generally address higher ranked officers by a title such as ‘sir’, or ‘guv’. Which is used depends on the relationship between the officer and his superior – officers who work closely with their superior and have a good relationship, such as a detective sergeant and a detective inspector, might be more informal and use ‘guv’. But if you have a detective constable addressing a detective chief inspector who they don’t know particularly well, ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ is often a better choice.

Authenticity v artistic licence

Novels require an element of suspension of disbelief. But readers of police procedural novels are reading that genre specifically to follow the workings of a police operation. That doesn’t mean you can’t take some decisions that are contrary to the way an operation might be run, but if you are going massively off-piste, it’s usually a good idea for the police officer(s) involved to be aware that’s what they are doing – and for there to be consequences as a result.

Police officers are human beings, and as such, might break the rules, but if you want to write an authentic police procedural or crime novel, your officers can’t be total loose cannons and break all sorts of laws and fail to follow protocol without serious consequences. Of course, that might form part of your plot: an officer breaking with protocol and having to deal with the consequences that follow, which could be anything from suspension to being sacked or even going to prison. But when you do heavily deviate from standard procedure or have your officers going off the rails, then you as the author need to recognise that and ensure it’s handled in a way that retains authenticity for the reader.

If you aren’t a police officer, then you might be struggling to find out just exactly how certain police incidents, such as murders, are handled. You have a few options.

Every police department in the country has a media relations department. When I worked in the media office for my local police force, we sometimes got enquiries from authors who were looking for information about police procedure and protocol, and we would endeavour to help them find someone who could answer. Take some time to collate your questions and think about what you need to know before you approach the press office. Bear in mind that police officers are incredibly busy. If you want information, prepare to be patient and make sure you ask in plenty of time. Don’t ask about specific cases or ask for sensitive information. Make it as easy as possible for them to help you. And if they do help, remember to acknowledge them in your book if they are happy to be named or if not, make your gratitude known some other way.

If the press office is unable to help you, then don’t despair. There are other options. There is a fantastic book, The Crime Writer’s Guide to Police Practice and Procedure by Michael O’Byrne, which has a wealth of information about modern police procedure in the UK and the chronology of a criminal investigation. Another good resource is Val McDermid’s book Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime. This looks at the history of forensics and is particularly useful if you are writing a police procedural set in years past and want to get an idea of what type of forensic techniques were around at particular times, as well as what forensics can do now. If you’re in the US, The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide has a lot of information about the American legal system, including the prison system.

I’ve added some links at the end to these and more excellent resources where you can find up-to-date information and articles about police procedure, specifically aimed at authors.

Watch TV

I know, I know. How many times have you watched something on TV and tutted at its inaccuracy? But modern crime dramas actually tend to be very well researched. Shows like Line of Duty and The Fall are great resources for getting a sense of how the various departments of the police knit together, and they also tend to have good interactions between characters of different ranks and responsibilities. There are also a lot of period crime shows, such as Endeavour, that can help you get a flavour of police procedure in certain time periods.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Don’t get too hung up on making every single little detail absolutely correct. If your story is exciting, well researched, and well written, readers will easily be able to suspend their disbelief for trifling matters. As long as you put the effort in to make it as authentic as feasibly possible without ruining your story or making it too dull and convoluted, then your readers will be happy.

Resources

The Crime Writer’s Guide to Police Practice and Procedure by Michael O’Byrne

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime by Val McDermid

The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide by Martin Roth

http://www.rebeccabradleycrime.com/

The Writer’s Guide to Firearms and Ammunition by the NSSF