Last year, I was invited to speak at a writers conference held at a police academy in Greensboro, North Carolina. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew the conference director, Lee Lofland, well enough to believe he had vision. He’s a former major crimes detective who’s written one of the most informative books for writers on police procedure. With this Writers Police Academy, he’s taken it several (large) steps further. For me, it was more than just another opportunity to address an audience of writers; it was also an eye-opening lesson in how to design a useful and stimulating conference agenda.
As Lofland states on the website, “The Writers’ Police Academy offers the most hands-on, interactive and educational experience writers can find to enhance their understanding of all aspects of law enforcement and forensics.” He’s not exaggerating.
I found it to be a unique event for writers, because they not only get to sit in on two days of lectures by experienced professionals, but they also get to go on ride-alongs with officers, visit a jail and fire station, see an interrogation room, learn self-defense, and watch hours of demonstrations of the latest equipment. They might see a K-9 team at work, watch a SWAT demo, listen to a bomb squad, learn how to lift fingerprints or operate alternative light sources, hear the full details of DNA and blood spatter analysis, explore a mobile command post, and even see a dive team for underwater crime scene investigations.
When I was there, I watched a SWAT demonstration, observed an outdoor crime scene demo (a buried manikin), and listened to talks on different aspects of death investigations. I’ve been to coroner’s offices, autopsy suites, crime scenes, exhumations, and even the Body Farm in Tennessee, and I thought that this collection of experts offered topnotch information.
It’s difficult to sit by your computer and try to think through the details of a crime scene investigation. Even looking through books with photos won’t offer writers the nitty-gritty. This conference goes a long way to supplement imagination, whether one is writing fiction or nonfiction. There aren’t any actual bodies, but they seem to supply everything else.
My most memorable moment at last year’s gathering was the Firearms Training Simulator (FATS). What fun! As you watch animations of people unexpectedly come at you from behind walls and around corners (maybe just to point you in the direction of the primary scene), you must make snap judgments as to whether or not they’re an imminent threat, justifying the use of your firearm. Of course, there’s no accountability if you shoot the wrong person (thankfully for me), but you definitely acquire an appreciation for the pressure that police are under whenever they approach a potentially volatile situation.
For the writing aspect, agents offer private one-on-one sessions while bestselling writers describe their climb to success. A writing organization, Sisters in Crime, sponsors a reception, so attendees can mingle with conference personnel. There’s no better way to get some questions answered about your plot point or character equipment than to cozy up to one of the speakers and ask. You can’t beat having Sirchie instructors there, because this company has been supplying products to law enforcement for over 75 years.
Attendees range from “newbies” who hope to sell a novel one day, to experienced writers boning up on the latest research in the fast-paced forensic world. This year (Sept 20-23), the keynote speakers are author Lee Childs and former OJ Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark. (I’ll also be there again, talking about cognitive processes in crime reconstruction, i.e., “How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.”) The speakers donate their time, and all proceeds benefit the criminal justice foundation to supplement officer training, equipment, and supplies.
I speak at a lot of conferences and I’d have to say that, for writers of crime, mystery, and suspense involving any aspect of law enforcement, this is the conference to attend. Because it takes place at an actual police academy at Guilford Technical Community College, and because many speakers are longtime investigators of one sort or another, it’s both fun and practical. Writers come away with solid professional information for their tales, as well as exposure to colleagues in the business of writing who can expertly guide them in craft and pitch preparation.