Writing Excuses 12.29: “Oh Crap, The Cops Are Here!” With Joe McKinney
Key points: How can you write a believable police officer? Try going on a ride along. If you’re adding police procedure to your horror story, don’t just ditch the cops because they are about to solve things and end your story — make them the ones who are isolated and have to handle it. Don’t get carried away with police terminology and procedures — use a little bit exactly right, and get the reader involved. A few details, used correctly, is engaging, while a lot of details makes it more likely you’ll get it wrong.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 29.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, “Oh Crap, The Cops Are Here!” With Joe McKinney.
[Dan] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Steve] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Steve] I’m Steve.
[Joe] And I’m Joe.
[Howard] And we have Joe McKinney with us. Steve Diamond has joined us too, to cohost in the absence of both Brandon and Mary.
[Steve] I am both, today.
[Howard] Good luck with that.
[Steve] I don’t [garbled]
[Dan] We are at the World Horror Convention right now, and we are delighted to have Joe McKinney with us.
[Howard] I introduced Steve because, Steve, you’ve got a little bit of law enforcement background. I want you to grill our friend Joe.
[Steve] Okay, where’s the cliché…
[Howard] The swinging lightbulb?
[Steve] Like desk lamps… The swinging lightbulb and stuff for…
[Joe] You need a phonebook and an intense light.
[Steve] I know.
[Howard] But, Joe, your background… Sorry, we jumped… We’ve jumped a rail here. Joe, what’s your law enforcement background? Tell us about that?
[Joe] Well, let’s see. I’ve been a San Antonio police officer for 17 years. I’ve done a little bit of everything as a cop. I’ve been a regular patrol officer, I’ve been a DWI enforcement officer, I’ve worked as a disaster mitigation specialist, which sounds really impressive but really wasn’t…
[Dan] Because under your watch, there were never any disasters.
[Joe] Exactly. Exactly. Let’s see. I worked as a homicide detective for a while, specializing in vehicular homicide so if it happened with a moving car, it was me.
[Howard] That’s probably not the way you wanted to say that, but I know what you meant.
[Joe] Yeah. Yeah. It was my baby if it happened in a car. Or with a car. Let’s see, I also ran the city’s 911 center for a while. I’m currently a patrol supervisor for the west side of San Antonio.
[Dan] In addition to all of that, a best-selling author. And a fantastic one, at that. We were talking this morning, Steve comes also from a police background, and he said, “It’d be great if I could just ask my dad all these questions, and I do…” But having you, police experience from someone who’s also a writer, and who knows what writers need to know… I’m so excited about this because I suck at writing cops. I suck at writing law enforcement of any kind.
[Joe] Well, some people say I do too. But…
[Steve] No, I’ve always… So the reason why I’m here, and the reason why I’m asking questions. It isn’t because I’m filling in for Brandon and Mary. I don’t know how I would even begin to do that. I don’t even know. But my dad’s a police officer. He’s a career cop, I grew up with it in the family. So I have like a really strong spot in my heart for police officers and for law enforcement and for what they do. I read… I’ve read so many books, and I’ve done writing… I always feel like unless the person has some sort of police background, they just come up short. A little bit. They just don’t seem to understand the mentality of what it is. So what is it about… So you started as a police officer. Where was it in there that you said, “I want to take this knowledge that I have and apply to fiction?”
[Joe] Well, I’ve been writing since I was 11 or 12. I started out… You know those moments when you’re in school and something happens, and you spend the rest of the day going, “Man, that’s what I should have done,” or “This is how I should have responded.” Well, when I got home, I would write out what it was I had imagined I should have done. So my early stories were all that. Then, in 2004, I became a parent for the first time. My oldest daughter was born. I remember, my four head on the glass looking in on the nursery and there’s all these little cradles in there, I’m wondering which one is mine. I had this moment of crisis where I realized, “Oh, my God, the world just got so much more complex.” For the first time in my life, I have to start thinking about life insurance and college plans and this, that, and the other. I used to be a carefree cop with no concern in the world other than where I was going to eat dinner. Suddenly, all of this crisis of responsibility. So I figured, “Well, I’m a young cop with all these new responsibilities rushing at him. Why don’t I write a story about a young cop with zombies rushing in at him from every direction?” So my first book really was a metaphor for my fear of parenting.
[Howard] That’s the first time I’ve heard zombies described that way.
[Howard] Zombie and baby both and with B, so…
[Joe] Yeah, there you go. So that’s kind of where that came from, but even at that time, I had never thought of myself as a writer. I was a cop, and that’s what I did. So I had scribbled out this book, all longhand on the yellow legal tablets. So I wrote it, stapled it together, threw it up on the side of the desk, and forgot all about it. My wife came along and read it, and she was like, “You know, this doesn’t suck.” I was like, “Well, thanks.”
[Joe] She was like, “You should try to do something with it.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” I had no idea about publishing at all, knew absolutely nothing about the publishing world. I said, “Well, okay. Let me send it off to publishers.” So I bought a copy of the Writers’ Market Guide, and I was like, “Okay, these people publish horror, so I’ll send it to them.” I sent it off to probably six or eight different publishers, and I got polite rejections from everybody. So I was like, “Okay. That wasn’t meant to be. So let’s just go on with life.” My wife was like, “Well, no, what about an agent? Writers have agents, so try to get an agent.” Neither one of us had any idea how hard a thing that is to do. But… So I again got the Writers’ Market Guide to agents, and I sent it off to four or five different agents. One of them just happened to be looking for a zombie book, because he knew an editor in New York that was looking for one. So he… I sent him the book, and he became my agent and has been my agent ever since. So he sent it off to apparently some of the same places that I had sent the book to. I ended up getting the book published through one of the publishing houses that had rejected me just a couple of months earlier.
[Howard] Because being agented helps.
[Joe] Yes. Exactly. So I learned at that point, it’s not who you know… Or it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Even at that point though, the book came out, and at that time, there weren’t any other zombie books out there other than Brian Keene’s The Rising which had just come out the year before. Robert Kirkman had just started The Walking Dead. So it was only a couple of volumes.
[Steve] So this was like 04?
[Howard] Got in on the ground floor.
[Joe] This was early 05. So there was really nothing else out there. I had written the book and… You know that story of Harper Lee, when she goes to acceptor Pulitzer Prize for To Kill a Mockingbird, and they asked her afterwards, “Well, what’s next? What’s next for you?” And she was like, “What do you mean, what’s next? That’s the story. That was it. That was all I gotta say.” I was the same way, except I didn’t when a Pulitzer, but…
[Joe] So a year went by. The zombie craze had just started. So everybody wanted zombie stuff, apparently. So the book sold really, really well, and kept selling really, really well, and has just broken the half-million mark on books… On total copies sold.
[Howard] Wow, that’s just…
[Steve] Just the first book?
[Joe] Just the first book, yeah.
[Howard] What’s the title of the book?
[Joe] Dead City.
[Howard] Dead City. Okay. I want to bring this back around, because we’ve got an episode on persistence coming right up, and I love this story you’re telling. The question I want to ask you is how do I write that young police officer so he sounds believable? Because every time I try to write law enforcement, it comes off sounding like an episode of Bones or an episode of Castle or an episode of CSI, because that’s where I’m getting my education, and I’m pretty sure I’m wrong.
[Joe] Well. Yeah. A lot of those TV shows… Obviously, it’s drama. That’s all well and good. There’s a TV show called Southtown, which if you’ve seen that, that deals mainly with beat cops. So that’s a little better. There are several books out there that are pretty good to help, like Blue Blood by… I’m trying to remember the author’s first name, but his last name is Conlon.
[Steve] Is it Nick?
[Joe] His last name’s Conlon. I don’t remember his first name. But, it’s the… He’s fourth-generation NYPD, and a Harvard grad. So he’s… He got a hold of his dad, grandfather, and great-grandfather’s old patrol books. He wrote the history of New York as seen through the beat cop. Which is just a fantastic way of looking at history. So that’s another excellent source. But really, the best thing that you can do is to go to your local police department and ask for a ride along. Just spend a night riding along with a patrolman. You’ll very quickly see these are real guys, they’re not hard asses, they’re not… They don’t do everything right, they don’t… A lot of times it’s like…
[Howard] I’ve been offered that a couple of times, and I haven’t made the time for it. Now I’m feeling incredibly stupid.
[Joe] Ride alongs are fun because if you… Every once in a while, of course, some cops, you get… You very quickly realize there’s a weather system to every police station or whatever. You have guys who are real jerks, and you have guys who just love to have civilians do ride alongs with them, and you have guys who are like, “I could care less, I’m just here for a paycheck.” And you have guys that just feed on this stuff. So it’s… You really get a weather system. There’s a complex group of people. Like a high school or like a whatever. Any… Like any group…
[Steve] Any community.
[Joe] Any community. Exactly. Going on a ride along, if you get somebody who’s willing to talk, and I would recommend taking an approach like, “Hey, I’m a writer. I’m looking to do cops realistically.” You’re going to get a favorable… “Okay. Well, let me tell you all about it.” If you go in there and say, “Hey, look, I’m writing the exposé on why you guys are all racist bastards…”
[Joe] Chances are you’re not going to get a very friendly ride along. I would just go in there with a positive attitude of “Hey, I’m just looking to soak in what goes on.” You’ll get… I would imagine you’ll get… Anywhere you go, you’ll get a favorable ride along experience.
[Dan] All right. We need to pause right here for our book of the week. Joe, I’d like you to tell us about The Savage Dead.
[Dan] As quickly as you can.
[Joe] Okay. Great. Zombies on a cruise ship. So, that pretty much covers it.
[Howard] I’m in.
[Joe] But it was a book I wrote back in 2013. It’s sort of a… It was a bookend for me between my first zombie series and the one that I was about to start. So it’s a standalone book. It has nothing to do with any of my other titles. But it deals… I’m from San Antonio, and immigration issues are very, very real for us there. It’s not an academic issue, it’s not something we see on the news, it’s something we live side-by-side with every day. I have some very complex… It’s a very complex topic, and I have a variety of views on it. I wanted to bring out as many angles on that issue as I could. So, The Savage Dead was my way of trying to bring a rational, calm, humane approach to the issue. That’s…
[Howard] With the zombies on a cruise ship…
[Dan] With running and screaming…
[Joe] Yeah, while running and screaming from zombies. Exactly.
[Joe] But it has my… As far as books go, it has my favorite bad guy I’ve ever written… Bad girl, actually. She’s an assassin working for one of the cartels. She was so much fun to write.
[Dan] That’s fantastic. Now, one thing you don’t know, our podcast runs its own miniature writing conference every year…
[Dan] Set on a cruise ship.
[Dan] So I think we might have to make that one required reading.
[Howard] When you say set on a cruise ship, we are on a cruise ship.
[Dan] We are on a cruise ship. I think of us as characters in a sitcom. Do you not hear the…
[Steve] The laugh track in the background?
[Dan] Theme song in your head and the laugh track? Okay. So where can we find The Savage Dead? Our listeners… Just everywhere? I imagine?
[Joe] Anywhere. Any Barnes & Noble. Anywhere books are sold.
[Dan] Online, e-book, audiobook? It’s everywhere.
[Joe] Yeah, it’s everywhere.
[Joe] The guy who did the audiobook has since become one of my… Who did the narration for the audiobook has since become one of my really good friends.
[Dan] Well, that’s great. So go look up The Savage Dead by Joe McKinney.
[Joe] Please do.
[Steve] Okay, so one of the things that you aim to do in a lot of your fiction is you aim to add this police procedural element to it…
[Steve] Now, how is it different when you’re adding a police procedural element into a horror zombie novel versus other types of like crime fiction?
[Joe] Did you ever see that TV show Frazier? People are familiar with that? Okay. Well, there’s a great episode of that show where Frazier and his brother Niles are coming out of a restaurant. They’re like, “That was the perfect meal. Not because it was the perfect meal, but because it had that one little flaw that we can pick out the rest of the night.” I have, for that very same reason, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is my favorite horror novel of all time. Because he’s developed this beautifully dense narrative about these four guys, and he has a sheriff who’s working the angle on the mystery behind their relationship. About two thirds of the way through the book, he’s very close to solving it. I think Mr. Straub must have had that moment where “I have to get rid of this cop, because once he fixes…”
[Howard] He’ll end the story.
[Steve] The story’s had it.
[Joe] Once he solves it… It’s like if the two kids have run into the police station and said, “There’s a giant gelatinous blob running down the street killing everyone.” And the cops had said, “Okay. It’s cool. We got it.” The Blob would be over, right? There’d be no more movie, right? Well, it’s the same thing in Ghost Story where, “Oh, crap, how do I get rid of this guy?” So he turns him into a drunk and has him wander offstage on a bender. I remember that was the one little flaw of that book that I just keep coming at… I’ve read that book a million times, and I keep coming at it wanting to pick at it. I haven’t worked up the courage to tell him that in person, though.
[Joe] But, anyway. So for that reason, horror authors have always had this thing where “Okay. I’ve got a barn full of dead people. The cops are going to show up. How do I get rid of them?” Because you can’t let…
[Howard] Oh, crap, the cops are here and I don’t want them to be.
[Joe] Right. Exactly. You can’t have them step on the stage and go, “We got it. It’s cool. You’re no longer alone. You’re no longer insulated… Not insulated, but you’re no longer insular…”
[Joe] Isolated and alone and whatever. We’re here, we’re helping. If the cops show up and go, “You’re on your own.” You know you’re really truly screwed. So a lot of horror writers, I think, get to that point and they feel like they have to get rid of the cops. I always start from that point, and make the cops the ones that are isolated. So for me, that’s the approach that I take. I like the idea of being part of an army and suddenly, you’re on your own. Being stripped of that… This is what protects…
[Howard] Well, for writing horror, one of the rules that we’ve talked about in the past on the podcast is that it’s good to have an exceptionally competent protagonist whose abilities are not actually going to help in these circumstances. So, yeah, having the police officers there, but the police officers’ skill set… The bullets don’t hurt ghosts or whatever. Something undercuts that.
[Dan] I have a question for you. So one of the kind of dramatic police clichés that I have picked up over the years and that I always kept putting in my books and Steve always said, “This is stupid. Take it out.” Was this kind of jurisdictional jealousy. The cops are always mad when the FBI shows up. The cops are always mad when the cops from another city show up or whatever. They don’t like to play well together. That’s obviously not true. I have realized that now, once I considered it. What are some of the things that you see that people do just glaringly wrong when they write police?
[Joe] Wow. Well, there’s a great example in Dean Koontz’s novel Midnight where people are turning into all sorts of different strange creatures because of nanobytes or nannites or whatever. So in that book, he has an FBI agent that climbs into a police car and does the secret Joshua backdoor let’s play thermonuclear war on the MDT and gets into the secret subsystems of the…
[Joe] He takes like four pages to describe what an MDT is and how an in-car police computer system works. Stands for Mobile Data Terminal. So he takes just a huge amount of time. It sounds like he got a hold of somebody’s… The Reader’s Digest Guide to police procedure and just copied it… Changed the words enough so it wasn’t plagiarized, but just copied out “This is what an MDT does and how it works.” Now my character’s going to access the secret backdoor to it. It’s using… Or trying to use police procedures and terminologies and things like that in a clunky, nonorganic way. One of the best examples I’ve ever seen is Michael Connelly’s Echo Park. Nobody writes police procedure better than Michael Connelly.
[Joe] But he has this wonderful scene in Echo Park where the main detective has… He realizes that there’s something has been changed in one of his 51 sheets. That’s the only real piece of terminology or police language that you learn in that book is the 51 sheets. It becomes not only did I get this little bit of terminology about police, but it actually became a major plot point. Now you feel like I’m part of this culture. I get it now. I know what’s going on here. So I thought that was a brilliant… Keep the lingo to a minimum, and when you do use it, make sure that you… Make sure that the reader really feels like they’ve absorbed it, they understand it.
[Howard] I think it was Season One where Dan was explaining to us, I don’t remember where you got it but I’ve used it a lot. Take a small thing and get it absolutely right. Don’t overuse it, but get it absolutely right. Then you will have convinced us that you’re honest enough that we will believe you when you tell the big lie. There are zombies, there are werewolves, whatever. So, the advice that I’m hearing from you is you don’t need to give us lots of details on the police procedure, just give us a few and use them absolutely correctly.
[Dan] Awesome. So let’s wrap this episode up. Thank you very much for coming along. I think… Actually, we used… We stole your writing prompt for the title of our episode. The writing prompt you want us to use is “Oh, crap, the cops are here.” So, dear listeners, that’s what we want you to write about. Oh, crap, the cops are here. And go from there.
[Howard] You’re out of excuses. Now go write.