This week there’s another guest post on Write with Phil. Tony R Cox (you may remember him from this interview) asked me if he could put together a piece on getting the details right when you’re writing – especially when talking about honorifics and titles for the police. I must admit, it’s something that I’ve given far too little thought to over the years – I wonder how many readers I’ve alienated in my time! Tony writes for Fahrenheit press, you check out his books on Amazon here. If you have a topic that you’d like to discuss on the blog, get in touch here, or send me an email: email@example.com.
A bit thanks to Tony for putting this together.
Get the details right
For fiction writers, getting the facts right is paramount. Readers are unforgiving; they have a depth of knowledge that we can only scratch the surface of; and they demand accuracy. This is especially true for crime fiction where credibility can be stretched, but never broken.
Factual writing is easier when the author uses their own detailed experiences such as in David Nolan’s Black Moss, where he draws on firsthand experience of Strangeways Prison riots. My Simon Jardine series is set in the 70s, an era I remember well. Agatha Christie, the benchmark for many, had a forensic knowledge of poisons. Consistency and fluency must be upheld at risk of alienating the reader.
Using police honorifics
Honorifics and initials, such as DC for Detective Constable, can be a nightmare. There is a chasm of difference between Detective Sergeant and Detective Superintendent, but they are both DS. It is easy to confuse the reader with a plethora of DC, DS, DI, DCI etc. There are several solutions. A lowly constable would usually call his superiors Sir or Sarge, or even Sergeant; then Sir for Chief Inspector, Superintendent. Talking down, the hierarchy is even simpler. One step below and Christian names are always used in direct speech by police officers, if they know them; two steps and it is either Christian name or title, e.g. Sergeant or Constable. We cannot expect senior officers to know the names of all their officers. If a DC in Chapter 2 becomes a DS three chapters later, you can guarantee that the reader will spot it.
The aim is to identify the subject or speaker, therefore simplicity is the key. Most police procedural writers will introduce the character with a title, e.g. Detective Inspector John Smith; after that, as long as the reader knows the character, it is acceptable to use surnames, Christian names, descriptive nouns or even abbreviations.
In Stephen Booth’s Cooper & Fry Series, both protagonists start as detective constables and, over the course of two decades (a book a year without losing the one-off excitement of a new novel) they are promoted. It is a career path that is shared by the reader; a personal relationship with Detective Inspector Ben Cooper and Detective Sergeant Diane Fry. Sarah Ward, writer of the Peak District series In Bitter Chill, A Deadly Thaw, A Patient Fury, and A Shrouded Path, DC Connie Childs calls superior, DI Francis Sadler, boss and sir, but the reader is never in any doubt that there is a respectful friendship between the two.
How I use it in my books
In my own Simon Jardine series I tread a finer line. The police are, in no particular order, incompetent, bullies, saviours, thinkers and strategists. This allows me to use bald surnames, respectful full titles and initials, and even the occasional Mr, Mrs or Ms. Clarity and simplicity are the key. The reader rules.
Among the best writers handling police titles and names are ex-coppers themselves, like Ian Patrick in his Rubicon and Stoned Love books. For the rest of us I’d recommend: 1. Getting the beta-reader or copy-reader to check; and/or, 2. For police procedural accuracy, reading The Crime Writer’s Casebook by Stephen Wade and Stuart Gibbon. There’s also good old Google.
What about weapons?
Weapons are another minefield. (Was that a pun, Tony? – Phil)
If a shooting is carried out with a Parabellum 9×19 (a Luger) or a Smith & Wesson or Colt, does it really matter? Does the calibre of the bullet matter? In some cases, probably not, but with historical fiction the choice of firearm can be vital. Ian Fleming used several and James Bond had a Colt and, surprisingly, a Beretta, which to those in the know can be described as driving a Matchbox car!
Bullets are a different matter. It rather depends on the damage the writer wishes to cause. In most cases there are, it seems, three kinds: high velocity, which travel through the body unless they touch something fairly immovable; dum-dum, which leave a small entrance wound, but blast out the rest of the body as they exit; and ‘standard’ calibre bullets that can do as much or as little damage as the writer wishes.
Is there a need to describe a firearm? That totally depends on the story. Like every other element of description, it has to play a role in the plot.
Tony R Cox