Losing (and Winning) at WPA

Earlier this month, I had the fabulous privilege of attending the legendary Writers’ Police Academy. I say “legendary” because if you talk to people in the crime fiction community, this conference has quite the reputation. It’s not a writing/craft conference, per se. But if you are writing any kind of crime fiction, especially using police characters (as I do), well, the value in terms of learning how to “write it right” cannot be overstated.

It would be hard for me to recap everything here. I blogged, with pictures, at my author blog last week about my experience. My challenge here was to tie the experience back to our theme for the month: losing. Did I “lose” anything at WPA? Or was it all gain?

Well, there were lots of gains. First, and probably most important, I met great people. Other writers. The instructors were, hands down, fantastic people. From the opening session on disarming bad guys with MMA black-belt Eli Jackson, to the breaching demonstration with SWAT/sniper Randy Shepherd, to sessions with former Secret Service, ATF, SWAT, undercover, and (perhaps my personal favorite) Chief Scott Silverii (who has experience in undercover and SWAT, in addition to his current position as chief of the Thibodaux, LA police department) seeing how it all really goes down was invaluable. My heart was racing waiting for the explosion outside that door – even though I knew what was coming. And then hearing the shots as the officers “cleared” the room behind? Wow. And if my nerves were ratcheted up, imagine how officers feel when stuff gets real and you’re not doing a demonstration for 200-plus writers, you’re actually crashing into a structure where guys are waiting to shoot you?

But what struck me most was how generous these men and women were. These were real law enforcement officials. Our K-9 instructor was late because he had a call first. The folks who did the underwater evidence recovery were THE dive team for Guilford County (and the diver had to leave early because he had another duty to fulfill). The women who did the evidence recovery and fingerprint sessions were honest-to-God crime scene investigators with hundreds of hours of experience.

And they all gave of their time to help us learn to “write it right.”

So that’s all winning, gaining right? How does this relate to losing?

Well, I definitely lost some ignorance. Since I write police-procedural, I learned that some of the stuff I’d written about cop culture was exactly right – and in some cases I hadn’t gone far enough.

I lost a sense of generality. Again, when you write procedural, it’s the little details that make your writing stand apart. Knowing exactly how the SWAT team lays that explosive, listening to the commander yell “I’ve got control” to let everyone know he’s in charge, listening to the count-down with held breath, anticipating the blast, the ringing of your eardrums, the concussion in the air, and the smell of burnt ozone after the door “disappears” from its frame.

Listening to Alafair Burke break down the 4th amendment and search/seizure, and learning how to manipulate it to the advantage of your story, I lost a lot of fear. “You have an advantage,” she said. “You get to manipulate the facts to fit your need. Need a roadblock? Make your protagonist get a warrant – and make it hard. Want to speed up the pace? Use one of the exceptions to bypass the warrant.” (By the way, did you know that 90% of searches performed by law enforcement are warrantless, and of that 90%, the vast majority of searches are consented to by the subject? I didn’t.)

But perhaps the thing that stuck with me most was listening to Lisa Gardner. She was talking about her trip to the FBI’s infamous Body Farm, how she had to call up every time to explain who she was and what she wanted to do (emphasizing the “I’m writing fiction” part). An audience member put up her hand and asked, “But what if you’re unpublished? What if you don’t have the credentials to make that call. Then what?”

Lisa’s response: Do you write? Then you’re a writer. Publishing creds don’t matter. You’re writing a story. That’s your credentials. Stop thinking that publication is what makes you a writer, that publication is what means you’re “for real” instead of playacting. Stop standing on the sidelines and pick up the phone.

And that was the biggest moment of loss – and gain. We were all writers. We were all there to learn to “write it right.” Some of us were published, some of us weren’t. It didn’t matter. I didn’t meet one person, in law enforcement or attendee, who said, “You’re not a writer unless you’re published.” I do have the right to stand up and say, “I’m a writer,” to pick up the phone and call a police department’s public information office and say, “I’m a writer, I’m writing a story about <fill in the blank>. Can you answer a question for me?” I lose my self-consciousness.

Thank you, WPA.


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.

10 thoughts on “Losing (and Winning) at WPA”

  1. Sounds exciting. What an opportunity. And how generous of law enforcement people to come and share their expertise. Where’s the link to your blog and pictures? I missed that last week for some reason.


  2. Mary, you brought me right back to Greensboro, and you reminded me of so many things I forgot. Thank you! I too was struck by Lisa Gardner’s answer. I think my chin dropped and I know little light bulbs went off over my head. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Kait, wasn’t it a fabulous answer? I will never refer to myself as an “aspiring” writer again. My only regret is that you and I weren’t able to connect.

    Theresa, where’d you go to college?


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