How crime writers can research police procedure

This is a guest post from crime author and former police officer, Clare Mackintosh. Clare’s I Let You Go is published in paperback by Sphere today.

ILetYouGo_ClareMWhether you’re a published crime writer or an aspiring one, you’ll need to know how to research police procedure, and the prospect can be a daunting one. Perhaps you have police officers in the family, or within your circle of friends, or maybe – just maybe – you’ve been arrested enough times to add a ring of authenticity to your writing…

If, like most crime writers, your only brush with the law has been a speeding ticket, this post on how to research police procedure is for you.

Watch television
It might seem counter intuitive for an author to suggest you watch television, but there is a wealth of police procedural information on the small screen right now, and most of it is meticulously researched. It’s five years since The Bill slammed its cell doors for the final time, but dramas such as The Missing and The Fall give a great insight into forensic possibilities, and can be a good starting point for researching police procedure. Television shouldn’t be your only source of information, but that’s true of any research medium.

Read fiction
In my experience police-based novels tend to be less reliably accurate than television, and I’d advise a hefty pinch of salt when using these to research police procedure. I’m assuming that, as an aspiring crime author, you already read widely within the genre (and outside it), so use what you learn to inspire, rather than inform your own writing. Authors like Peter James and Val McDermid are known for their accuracy with regard to procedure, and with more than fifty books between them, they should keep you busy for a while.

Read non fiction
Michael O’Byrne’s fully updated 2015 version of The Crime Writer’s Guide to Police Practice and Procedure hasn’t yet been reviewed, but his 2009 version has 19 five star reviews, so for the serious crime writer it might be worth the investment. The cramming tools of the serving police officer are the Blackstones Police Manuals. As these are updated every year (making failing one’s Sergeant’s exams an expensive process) you can often pick up previous years’ editions on eBay for not much money.

Use the web
There’s no excuse for inaccuracies when referring to legislation and criminal offences: it’s all right there on the web for you. The Crown Prosecution Service Legal Guidance pages list every piece of legislation – from Abuse of Process to Youth Offenders and everything in between – along with the elements required in order to proof that particular offence. Bookmark it now, and use it as a checklist to make sure your case is watertight.

Phone a friend
So you don’t have a police officer you can phone and ask questions? Are you sure? They say you’re never more than seven feet from a rat, and with more than 100,000 cops in the UK, the same is probably true of the Old Bill. Ask everyone you know. Put out a call on Facebook, speak to the neighbours, hassle Aunt Maud… the chances are someone you know knows a police officer. For a crime writer, nothing beats having your own tame police officer to call on.

Clare Mackintosh

Clare Mackintosh

Ask a policeman…
…or woman. If you really can’t find someone, it’s time to be brave. March into your local station – or visit the force where your books are set, if this is different – and ask if someone can spare the time to speak to an author. If you’re not yet published don’t feel you need to apologise for that: everyone starts somewhere, and most police officers are keen to encourage an accurate representation of their work. If you get a knock-back, don’t be deterred: maybe they’re just having a bad day. Try a different officer; a different station. If no one has time to sit down and chat over a cuppa – they’re busy people, after all – apply for a ridealong, where you get to shadow an officer for a few hours. It’s an amazing experience, and the best way of absorbing police culture as well as picking up investigative tips.

Hire a professional
Advising writers of crime books and television dramas is a lucrative sideline for many retired police officers, but most authors don’t have a BBC-sized budget, and I’d be wary of leaping into a cash relationship with someone. In my experience most police officers are happy to lend their expertise for free, but if you feel you’re going to need more help than just the occasional chat, make sure you do your research (yes, you need to research the police officer helping you research police procedure…) That grizzled ex detective superintendent with 30 years’ experience of Major Crime will undoubtedly know his stuff, but he’s been retired for 20 years: is he likely to be bang up to date? And the traffic sergeant charging by the minute for his expertise might well know his dangerous driving from his undue care, but how is he on witness protection issues? Ask for credentials and testimonials from authors he or she has helped in the past before getting out your cheque book.

Follow the police
Not literally. At least, not unless you want to see the inside of a custody block, which might be taking ‘method writing’ a little too far. There are hundreds of cops on Twitter nowadays, and almost as many blogging (both legitimately and anonymously). This increase in transparency from Britain’s police force is a gift to crime writers. Spend some time browsing social media (yes, this is your invitation to procrastinate…) and bookmark the ones you like the look of. Dip in regularly to stay up to date with how today’s cops are feeling; the cases they’re working on; and the pressures they encounter.

Done all that? Congratulations: you’re a master in how to research police procedure, and your crime novel should now be ringing with authenticity. As with all types of research, moderation is the key. Not everything you discover should find its way into your book, otherwise you may as well write a police manual, but your findings will add realism to your characters and settings, as well as ensuring no one can pick holes in your plot.

Although this post is about how to research police procedure, I firmly believe that story should come first; accuracy afterwards. Many a good yarn would be spoiled by the intrusion of too much real life, but consider carefully which elements can be stretched. Ask your helpful police advisor not ‘does it happen this way?’ but ‘could it happen?’ Like grammar, you need to understand the rules before you can decide which ones to break.

I Let You Go, by Clare Mackintosh, is published by Sphere.
Clare is an author, feature writer and columnist. She has written for the Guardian, the Daily Mail, Sainsbury’s Magazine, Good Housekeeping and many other national publications, and is a columnist for Cotswold Life. She provides a monthly advice column in Writing Magazine on matters of police procedure. Clare is the founder of Chipping Norton Literary Festival and lives in the Cotswolds with her husband and their three children. Clare spent twelve years in the police force, working on CID, in custody and as a public order commander. Follow Clare on Twitter or subscribe to her website for updates.

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  • Margaret Morton Kirk

    Just a caveat – please be aware if setting your novel in Scotland that you will have to disregard ninety percent of what is available on t’internet and search out Scots-specific sites. Scotland has its own legal system (procurators-fiscal, for example, who investigate all sudden and suspicious deaths in Scotland) and terminology and functions are not interchangeable with those south of the border.

  • David

    I’ve started my own Crime Novel and have gone down the Police Procedural my inspiration was watching the likes of Scott & Bailey and The Fall which my Main Character is Female so I’ve used that as my starting block. Not got the courage i don’t think to go to the local Police station and say I’m writing a Crime Novel can you tell me about the police and how they deal with crime. After many re writes i’ve started again setting mine in my area

  • Geoff Wilson

    I am that retired Police Officer with vast experience in the area of intelligence, investigation and counter terrorism. Can anyone advise me on how to contact relevant writers/screen writers with a view to providing up to date advice or indeed to share my experiences. Any advice would be great.

  • Harry

    Most pro crime writers (those that care about accuracy, which isn’t everyone) will have made their own contacts already. But do you have a public contact point (eg, website or Twitter address) where people can reach you if need be? And were you thinking of charging for your services or offering them for free? I’m sorry to say that, outside of a film/TV consultancy deal, these things are generally unpaid . . .

  • Jules

    If there’s a writers’ circle or a writers’ club, you could make contact with them. There will be a range of people there, from aspiring writers to old lags (so to speak), and even if they don’t need your services right away, they will be plugged into networks of people that do.