The Writing Life and Research

I wager that the majority of people left research behind in college. You know, spending hours in the library (yes, kiddies, libraries – there was no Internet when I was in college), taking notes, writing facts, noting citations. For most of us, that’s a memory unless we went into a career such as science or law.

Or writing.

Writing you say? What does research have to do with writing fiction?

Quite a bit, actually.

If you are writing historical fiction of any type, you need to research the time period. It won’t do to have your protagonist jump into his Bentley limousine if the Bentley won’t be produced for another 15 years. The dialog from your mid-19th century American farm family can’t sound like inner-city London.

Even contemporary crime fiction requires research. If you write police procedure, like I do, you’d find out just how police officers conduct their business – or you run the risk of being That Writer, the one whose prose evokes eye-rolls up and down the Blue Line.

I’ve done research in a few ways. I took a 13-week Citizen’s Police Academy, where I got to talk with and tour facilities for all kinds of units within the police, including the K-9 and SWAT units. I’ve read books. I’ve done online classes. I’ve emailed/called police officers.

But my favorite research came at the end of the CPA. I got to do a ride-along with an on-duty police officer in the city.

A ride-along is, it’s mostly what it sounds like. I spent four hours in a patrol car with a uniformed officer, cruising the streets of Pittsburgh, his shadow while the business of law enforcement went on it’s way. What you get on a ride-along is really variable; it depends on where you are and at what time. While I did choose one of the neighborhoods in Pittsburgh that has a reputation for being a little, uh, rough around the edges I did not do my ride-along at midnight. One, I didn’t need to be in the middle of the action. Two, I like my sleep.

I showed up at the start of shift (3pm) and observed roll call. The officers on duty for the next eight hours assembled at the zone headquarters and got an overview from the shift commander. I met the officer I’d be riding with, a nice guy who might have been a couple years younger than me. The officers were duly impressed with the fact that I was a writer. “So you’ll write what it’s really like?” they asked.

I’d try. That was, after all, why I was there.

The first order of the shift was, of course, a stop at Starbucks. Some stereotypes hold true, and cops and coffee is one of them.

Back in the car, we started driving. I asked if officers had set patrol routes. No. Predictability only helps criminals. If they know a car is going to drive by on a regular schedule, they can keep their shady dealings out of sight. Logical. The route we drove was rather haphazard and I saw parts of Pittsburgh I’d never seen before – and I’m not sure I’d want to see without my companion.

I rode in the front seat. The car had an onboard laptop. My companion showed me how he could pull up registration information for any car in traffic. By the way, no, this wasn’t illegal – vehicle registrations are public. I asked.

A few people looked at me funny, especially at stops. Since the neighborhood does have a reputation, I asked about community relations. My companion told me the news hypes it a little. Sure, there are some people who don’t trust the police, but most are civil and respectful. He did confirm that another zone, which has the worst reputation in the city, probably deserves it.

While we drove, the radio went nonstop – calls here, there and everywhere. I knew from a class that the entire county uses the same 9-1-1 call center, meaning no matter where you are in Allegheny County, the call goes to the same building (they are routed based on a number trace). So we were hearing reports not just from our zone, but surrounding suburbs. How do you keep it straight? I asked. My companion told me it was practice. You become so familiar with your zone, you learn to filter out the stuff that doesn’t impact you.

Our first call was a report of stolen luggage at a downtown hotel. When we arrived, I held back a bit and observed while the officer took the woman’s report. She did notice me, eventually. “Who the hell is she?” the victim demanded, pointing at me.

Before I could answer, the officer said, “She’s with me. Just tell me what happened and don’t worry about her.” After the woman had given her statement, the officer and hotel manager went back to view the CCTV footage. I was going to stay behind, but my companion said there was no need. “You’re not going to see anything sensitive.”

The next call was a suspicious package next to the Sixth Street Bridge. If you’ve never been to Pittsburgh, we have a lot of bridges. If someone wanted to cause trouble, he’d mess with a bridge – especially one like Sixth Street which has vehicle and pedestrian traffic. I waited in the car while my companion checked what turned out to be empty cardboard box. “Do calls like that make you irritated because it’s a waste of time?”

“No,” he said. “I’d rather have someone call and me take thirty seconds to find out it’s a box than no one calls and there’s trouble.”

One thing that surprised me as we drove was the fact that my companion carried a personal cell phone and used it with a fair amount of frequency. When I asked he said, “Oh, we use them all the time. It’s very helpful for non-official communication between officers on duty. Like when we’re trying to decide what to do for dinner.” Hey, I guess even on-duty cops need to eat, right?

The last call of the day was an after-hours alarm at the YMCA. A member of the cleaning staff had accidentally tripped the alarm and didn’t know how to shut it off. It amused me that the woman, who was African American and not complaining about the loss of her overpriced makeup kit, didn’t view me with nearly as much suspicion as the white woman who reported the stolen luggage.

After four hours, my companion returned me to the zone station. He apologized for the shift being a little quite and boring. “Would have been more exciting if there’d been a report of shots fired or something,” he said.

I demurred. “I appreciate you taking the time. An exciting shift for you is probably a dangerous one, and you have a family to get home to.

It wasn’t the most exciting four hours of my life. Maybe if I’d gone at midnight in another zone it would have been different. But after talking to my new friend for four hours and listening to the 9-1-1 call center reports, I got a new appreciation for what those men and women do every day.

And it confirmed that I’d rather write about police officers than be one.


Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She survived growing up through reading, cutting her mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark and, of course, Nancy Drew. As an adult, she finds escape from the world of software documentation through creating her own fictional murder and mayhem. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two teenage children, and fantasizes about owning a dog again - one of these days.

13 thoughts on “The Writing Life and Research”

  1. Even when you’re writing non-crime novels, research is important. Writing The German Money, I research aspects of Michigan and New York geography, pieces of Holocaust history, and more. The very first novel I published back in the early 1990s had Polish speakers, but I only knew the sound of Polish, nothing about how it was spelled or used, so of course, that was research, too. Research is woven into our lives as writers, in the same way as revision is.


  2. Good post, Mary! Everyone should attend a Citizen’s Police Academy at some point, even if they’re not writing mysteries. It’s the only way to see what police officers really do. Too many people think it’s like they see on TV.

    After working in a police department for ten years, I get so annoyed when I read something that would have taken the writer one phone call or email to get right. Two that really get on my nerves: using “perps” and “vics.” Grrr.


  3. Loved this Mary! I always think cops drive the worst because they are always looking at their computer screens. Ride alongs can be fun. Although once i was on one and we got in a pursuit on the freeway in the Bay Area. During the pursuit, I decided that that wasn’t the way I wanted to die. Luckily, they finally stopped the guy, another car doing a maneuver that spun his car out.


  4. Thanks for sharing your experience on this ride-along. Enjoyed your post. My favorite research trip was to Prague. No Egypt. Wait, maybe Glastonbury. I’m saving money now.


  5. This is great! As an art history major, I developed a love of research early. These days my research comes from a combination of experiences, libraries, and the Internet. I love how you detail your ride along. What a fun thing to do! (Fun? Am I nuts?)


  6. Hi Joyce! Yes, no “perps” or “vics.” Just victims and actors (if I remember correctly). Or “suspect.” Taking that CPA and studying procedure has totally ruined TV cop shows for me. Saw an episode of “Blue Bloods” a couple weeks ago that really made me roll my eyes.

    Kristi, the officer I rode with did not look at the computer all the time. He even snapped it shut on occasion, although mostly he let it go to sleep. High speed chase on the freeway sounds cool on paper, but I don’t know that I’d want to be in the middle of one!

    Theresa, that’s some expensive research. 🙂


  7. Mary, I can’t watch cop shows anymore. Except NCIS. I don’t care how unrealistic that one is. I watch it for the characters.

    Oh, and you remembered correctly–victims and actors (or suspects).


  8. How great! Thanks so much for sharing this, Mary. I felt like I was there with you!

    Love this: “She’s with me. Just tell me what happened and don’t worry about her.”


  9. Cynthia, he was really great. She and her friend were so aggressively unfriendly. He even apologized when we got back in the car. Like it was his fault some snobby lady was rude to me!


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